Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf says he wants to give back to his home, Gaza, with arts center

Associated Press

Last year's feel-good winner of the TV singing contest Arab Idol said Wednesday he wants to give back to Gaza, where he grew up, by setting up an arts center nurturing young musicians, writers and actors.

The center would be funded by Palestinian Americans who have pledged support, Mohammed Assaf, 24, said in an interview in the Gaza City office of The Associated Press.

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He said he is waiting for a new Palestinian unity government to establish a foothold in Gaza before moving ahead. Until recently, the territory was ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas which has ceded some control.

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, residents of the crowded territory have endured an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade and three wars between Israel and Hamas.

Assaf, who grew up in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp, catapulted to regional fame after his Arab Idol win and also performed in the U.S.

He has visited Gaza twice this year.

"Both times, I found Gazans to be very sad, but this time I see much more sadness," he said, referring to the period since the summer's war between Israel and Hamas.

"My generation is frustrated," he said. "Everyone I met asked me to help them leave the country. They want to leave because they have no hope. Problems here are so big and complicated. Blockade, division, wars."

Assaf said he felt equally hopeless before last year's competition in Beirut. He couldn't find a job after college and dreamed of getting a civil service job for $300 a month, he said. "Thank God, I had this rare opportunity," he said.