Thursday, 30 July 2015

Advancement Project - July Update

It’s been three eventful, exciting, bewildering, and, above all, rewarding, weeks here in Palestine. The amount to do has even outnumbered the quantity of adjectives in that last sentence!
Though not wanting to be repetitive, I have to echo Emily’s report from the last blog: the people we’ve met have, for the most part, been overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming – providing a stark change to British sensibilities. As a pampered Starbucks loyalty card holder from London this warmth is made all the more striking when considering that the majority of Palestinians are marking the month of Ramadan, and are therefore fasting during daylight hours.  More intriguing still is the fact that when the sun goes down and us volunteers start thinking about heading to bed the locals find an incredible energy reserve and a lively atmosphere erupts:  fireworks and fanfares (alongside an orchestra of car horns!) reverberate deep into the night.  

Admittedly, few of the ICS team have been doing much abstaining to reward with such partying. Instead we’ve been making a concerted daily endeavour into the local falafel and Knafeh supplies. Still, deserving or not, it’s safe to say that we’re all very much looking forward to the spectacle -and food- that will be at the upcoming Eid al-Fitr celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan!
Of course this important religious period has had its flipsides, as myself and my fellow team members at Birzeit University Advancement project have discovered. Low energy levels, combined with the less populous summer term have made fruitful activity challenging at times. Indeed the holy month has also ruled out use of the most successful tactic for attracting students: the promise of free food and drink!

Nevertheless, we’re hopeful of getting students involved in upcoming English conversation classes, now rebranded with an ingenious name: ‘IngLeasy’.  We are also looking forward to cracking on with the CV building workshops, a cornerstone of the work of previous cohorts.  Furthermore, aside from the small matter of Independence Day, July 4th also marked the occasion of the first ‘Empoword’ here in Palestine: a monthly event that gives young people a safe, welcoming space to come together and share their original poetry, rap or creative writing. The maiden event was a real success with an impressive number participants getting stuck in and sharing their work with an entertained audience.

Local rappers lay down some of their verses at ‘Empoword’

The ICS team has been fortunate enough to travel outside of working hours. Thus far expeditions have included Bethlehem, Jericho and the Dead Sea. With the trip to the latter resulting in a ‘beautifying’ team mud bath!

Nonetheless, though these ‘touristy’ trips have been a lot of fun, certainly the most important expeditions have been those which have given us first-hand experience of the deep and often upsetting political realities facing Palestinians. Passing through the imposing grey walls and heavily armed security guards at Kalandia checkpoint – a precursor to almost every excursion- has offered a bleak illustration of the injustices faced by locals on a daily basis, and a poignant reminder of the importance of the rest of our time here on placement.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Right to Education - Field Work and Advocacy - mid placement

Right to Education

Field work and Advocacy

Kul Aaam wa Antum Bikhiir and Ramadan Kareem from the team at Right to Education! 

Right2edu and Advancement at Tomorrows Youth Organisation
     As I am not a Muslim so I asked Ravina to describe Ramadan in a sentence for this blog she said; “dehydratingly amazing.” I would agree with her, I would also like to add that I am impressed she didn't pass out. As I think it is only appropriate if someone celebrating the holiday provides an account therefore Ravina will write about Ramadan exclusively in a following post.

     As a result of our earlier work planning Right to Education was set for a busy few weeks visiting education organisations in order to document violations of Palestinian education. The first on the list was a visit to Addmeer, luckily not very far away from our base. Addmeer provides legal aid and support for Palestinian political prisoners. Child political prisoners are of particular interest to us. Indeed political activity that would normally be accepted and encouraged in the U.K is punished harshly in the occupied territory. A majority of the occupied territory is administered under Israeli military law, therefore children are arrested, detained and charged without any special child provisions made such as; presence of a guardian. Addmeer also reports of prisoners experiencing ill-treatment such as physical and psychological abuse. This and the denial of legal counsel often results in forced confessions. Prison sentences can be as much as 20 years for throwing stones; a popular activity of Palestinian children who use stone throwing as a means of protest, these small rocks carry very little threat compared to the might of one of the greatest armies in the world. A stay in custody or prison does not simply affect a child for a few years like it might in the U.K but in fact renders them incapacitated for a lifetime. When prison sentences are as long as these, children miss out on education, social development and normal psychological development. When they are released they return as adults who have been deprived of their right to education and thus their right to childhood. In fact this theme rings true for most of the research we conducted. A United Nations employee of the education cluster in Gaza told us over Skype that it was not the resources that stunted child development but the psychological impact, as did Suhad al-Jabi from the Tomorrows Youth Organisation in Nablus. In any part of the world providing support whilst not taking the victim away from the abuser would make strange bedfellows, but, this is what happens in the occupied territories, Suhad tells us. Palestinian is equipped with counsellors, teachers even psychiatrists if necessary but the military occupation; the abuser, is still engaged with it's victim. 

      In Nablus we also visited Najah University which is itself a very impressive university with a huge library and a beautiful campus. There we met and talked with Alaa' Abu Dhair head of the Right to Education wing at Najah University. Alaa' talked us through the recent Intifada period and the grave violations to education. We agreed however that this has been documented extensively. Something new was needed to interest an audience and stand out in an internet already saturated with Israeli violations. I proposed that a point of interest might be that Palestinians were highly educated despite the occupation. Palestinians have some of the highest education rates in the region. Imagine what they would achieve without the occupation?! With this in mind we are have arranged a few activities which we hope will provide material for an audience and deliver something new. Firstly we are searching for Right to Education success stories; individuals who have succeeded despite the occupation. Secondly we are planning to visit a refugee camp in Nablus where we will emulate the U.N's 'message in a bottle campaign' in Gaza. Instead we are going to ask each child 'what they want to be when they grow up' and send the message off in a helium balloon. I am optimistic about these two activities and believe they will generate lots of publicity and interest in the campaign!

Najah University Library. Busy even in Summer!

Home Life

      Outside of work I think the main thing for me has been travelling on weekends, meeting people and practicing Arabic. I studied some Fusha Arabic at university and it has taken me a while to comprehend Palestinian arabic but thanks to Wafa' and Ous I have been slowly getting to grips with the different pronunciations and new vocabulary. My sister is actually in Ghana with International Service (she copied me) and on their blog they introduced everyone, I think this a great idea so here goes...
One of Ravina's "how random!" moments. Chocolate factory visit.

Wafa'- Wafa' is from Nablus. Like vegetarians, vegans and medical students it will be one of the first things she will tell you. She has graduated in engineering (mabrok!). Wafa' is always laughing and one of our laughing highlights include Ravina flying from one end of the Berzeit bus to the other. Wafa' grew up in a refugee camp and has told Ravina and I many stories about her life during the Intifada.

Ous – As well as a volunteer and student Ous is also a businessman. Ous also seems to know everyone in Ramallah and Birzeit so I expect to be seeing him on the Forbes rich list soon. Ous also introduced us to Snobar, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Ravina – Ravina is very enthusiastic slightly late volunteer. I think she was late at birth. Her favourite phrase is ”how random”. Other highlights include grandpa kid and countless giggling in taxis for God knows what reason. She also loves taking pictures on her phone and don't worry she has a portable phone charger for when it gets low.

Sara – Sara is our team leader. Sara has been endlessly determined to get us into places so we have her to thank for all our fieldwork and interviews!

Rachael (me)- Whilst avoiding sunburn and Ravina's camera I can usually be found interrogating Wafa' about her life and general arabic things.

yalla bye.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Right to Education - Week one and two

Perhaps one way to describe Palestine is a beautiful nightmare. 
The Occupation of Palestine is one of the most talked about and protested issues in the world. Arriving almost two weeks ago, we expected to find a Palestine that would befit our perceptions. We expected to find a war-torn perhaps naively we had underestimated Palestine. The resilience and hope, which we found in Palestine, cannot be put into words. Palestinians “love to live” as one local told us. They want to create the best world for themselves and their people and they will never give up. In Palestinian controlled area’s, one can be forgiven for forgetting that there is any occupation at all. The bustling streets and youthful population bring life to Palestinian cities. The friendly faces, which greet us with “welcome”, are just a small taste of the heart-warming hospitality of Palestinians. The month of Ramadan started within few days of us arriving in Palestine and the transformation was incredible.
The Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University focuses on the documentation and awareness of the affects on education caused by the occupation. The campaign highlights cases of restrictions and difficulties of Palestinian students through social media and awareness events. Within the first two weeks, we brainstormed ideas and discussed what we want to achieve from the campaign. We looked over what the previous cohort did and agreed that we would continue with some aspects of their campaign such as completing a student survey and updating social media through the hashtag #didyouknow which provides statistics and facts about education in Palestine. In addition to this, we decided that moving forward we were going to set out a clear structure and direction for the campaign. The first week was spent settling in and learning about the different aspects and struggles that the campaign faces. Upon brainstorming, we agreed to create a booklet, which would not only show what we have done but also act as a guide to the campaign. It would be continuous throughout the placement and a final booklet would be produced which would then be distributed. The booklet would be supported by a short film of our work and allow others to understand the work which Right to Education does. We believed that this would be beneficial for sustainability of the campaign and would ensure future cohorts and volunteers would be able to get to grips with what they are aiming for. Another aspect of the campaign we decided to focus on was establishing links with not only UK universities but also establishing a similar scheme in Gaza with connections to the Islamic University in Gaza. Although initial contact has been made, this is something we will work on in the coming weeks. We hope to gain an in-depth understanding of the restrictions on education dn the conflict as a whole. To develop our understanding of the human rights violations suffered by the Palestinians we visited an organisation called Addameer who provide free legal advice and representation for Palestinian prisoners. Addameer is a lifeline to the hundreds of Palestinians arrested each year including children who have never been charged with a acrime but are detained and had their basic human rights denied. Following on from this we visited Al-Haq, a well known organisation which works tirelessly to document and report human rights violations and produce submissions of violations to international bodies. Both organisations are NGO’s and work to highlight cases, which would otherwise go unnoticed.
We visited Tulkarm on the edge of the West Bank, Tulkarm was a stark reminder of the struggle many students have to go through. The wall surrounds the city and Kadoorie University located west of Tulkarm is often seen as the most affected by the Occupation. There is a shooting range within the university grounds and Israeli soldiers regularly carry out shooting practices metres from university buildings and students. Buildings decorated with bullet holes act as a reminder of the violations of students right to education and also the psychological scars many are left with.
We look forward to the challenges ahead and exploring more of Palestine.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Right to Education - Week 10: Wrapping up

With all its ups and downs, our journey with ICS has come to an end. It has had its peaks and downfalls, but we are sad this is over. This is our last week of placement with the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University. We cannot believe we will be apart after all these beautiful days we spent with wonderful people. It has been a journey of joy, excitement, and lots of love.

This blog was our chance as the in-country volunteers of the Right to Education Campaign to reflect on our ICS placement, especially the last two weeks. It was one exciting ride and we are more than happy to share it with you.

Last week we planned an awareness-raising event on campus. We had many difficulties but we made it eventually. It was very successful! We had a Garden Party on a hot day and we gave away free homemade lemonade to students while chatting with them about the Right to Education Campaign and inviting them to follow us on social media. We got positive feedback from students on campus and they seemed enthusiastic to join the campaign and be of help. They also had the chance to take photos with our Right to Education Instagram frame, and all these photos were uploaded to the Right to Education Facebook page so they would be motivated to follow us on our social media accounts.

Last Friday we went on a guided learning trip to Nazareth. Unfortunately, ICVs from the West Bank could not join because they could not get permits. We met Jonathan Cook, an accomplished journalist who has written a lot about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He was our guide in Nazareth and gave us a tour there. We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, the old city of the Nazareth, the demolished village of Sepphoris (Saffuriya) where there is a shrine for the great Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali and we visited Nazareth Illit, an Israeli city overlooking the Arab city of Nazareth. We discussed the issue of Palestinians living in Israel, Muslims and Christians in Nazareth, methods of occupation and many other interesting issues that we, Palestinians, did not know about our country.

As for work in the office, we have our hand-in notes ready for the next cohort so that they can benefit from our experience so that they do not have to start from scratch. We prepared and suggested some improvements for the Right to Education Campaign to be more efficient and deliver its message in the best possible way.

We are very thankful we had this exceptional experience over the past 10 weeks. We made new friends, got to know another culture and even know ours more. It was one life-changing experience. As for you, our UK volunteers, Ellen the philosopher, Lotty the diva, Corrine the most mature and of course, the best team leaders, Cath and Tala, we are going to miss you loads. We are very sad you have to leave and we wish you all the best back in the UK! We love you, habibatii!

Till the next cohort, 

The Right to Education Campaign Volunteers.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Advancement - Week 9: Coming to a Close

Time is flying by and we are jumping into week 9 of our placement at Birzeit University in Palestine.
We have had our last sessions in Advancement and are now making preparations for our leaving party for which we are all excited, however sad to see everyone off. These last couple of weeks have been interesting for the team; we have accomplished a lot in the last sessions, with a high turnout in numbers and some of the most interesting discussions so far. It is a real shame to have to leave it all behind and for all of us to have to return to our daily lives.  

The Advancement team have been keeping themselves busy outside of the office as well as inside. Last week we visited Wadi Qelt to do some fantastic hiking through a valley edged out in the mountains of the Jordan Valley. Even in the intense heat of the midday sun the hike was well worth it, the valley offered canvases of shade and the scenery was some of the best that we have seen in Palestine. It was a good experience since we all got to see yet another face of this place. A mixture of nature and wildlife provided us with a well-needed break from the often-exhausting nature of the occupation. The combination of the serious situations and the more light-hearted ones gave us a trip to remember with a touch of comedy - a fellow volunteer whose name won’t be mentioned fell in a river of untreated sewage whilst trying to help another volunteer; and so the hero became our laughing stock. 

Some of the team travelled to the British Consulate in Jerusalem to listen to speakers from DFID (Department for International Development) and the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office). Unfortunately some of the in-country volunteers were not granted the necessary permits to travel to Jerusalem and as such they were not present for the day. The discussion was none the less interesting – focussing largely on the British government’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the necessary conditions for which the British government would recognise a Palestinian state. Seeing the inside of the Consulate was an interesting experience, and painted a clearer picture of what life is like working for the Foreign Office and furthermore the UK volunteers were given a lot of useful advice regarding how to follow such a career.

There is no easy way to sum up the experience that we have all shared on our placement at Birzeit University. We have had a great time working together and although there were some hardships along the way we have always managed to pull together as a team and see them through. It will be a sad day for all of us to have to leave behind the friendships that we have made as we go our separate ways, and for the UK volunteers who have only recently started to get a grasp on Arabic and having to leave behind their favourite spots. It has been an excellent and educational last couple of months and whilst we are all sad that it is coming to an end, we are now focussing on making the most of what time we have left together in Palestine and enjoying ourselves for the remainder of the placement.


By Billy & Hasan

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Visit to the Tent of Nations

Until visiting the Tent of Nations on the 14th May, my thoughts and feelings on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict felt very disjointed and jumbled up. The conflict is so multi-faceted and layered that when you experience the different moral complexities of the situation, it is very hard to know how to organise your thoughts on everything. However, Daher Nasser whose family own the educational and environmental farm perfectly articulated my fragmented feelings on the occupation and how to peacefully fight back. In 1991 the land the Tent of Nations is located on was declared to be Israeli ‘state land’, and so the family were expected to leave. However, the Nasser family have the required papers proving that they have owned the land before and throughout the Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli governance of the area. However, as a result of this the family have been involved in on-going court cases since the 1990’s, costing them thousands. Furthermore, with the declaration of the land to be Israeli, there are many restrictions and issues the family now suffers from in addition to the cost of their court cases. These include frequent threats of harassment from settlers, the prospect of land confiscation by the Israeli authorities, and not having permission to build upon their land. Last year about 1,500 trees were bulldozed by the authorities, without legal permission for demolition being obtained. The Israelis prevent the farm from accessing clean water, whilst surrounding settlements have plentiful water supplies and some houses even have swimming pools. The list of violations the Nasser family suffer from goes on.

Image taken by volunteer inside renovated cave

Whilst many would resort to anger, resentment and even violence, the Tent of Nation embodies something completely different to that. The Tent of Nation represents the belief in humanity to work together to build a better and brighter future. They endeavour to understand different cultures and build upon respect for each other. In response to their trees being bulldozed (just before harvest), the farm and international volunteers have planted over 4,000 trees this year. To deal with the water situation, the farm has introduced a rain water collection system so that they are entirely self-sufficient. They also now have solar panel on the farm, which means all their energy is clean and has saved them $45,000 in gas bills. As they are unable to build on the land due to the Area C restrictions, they have begun renovating underground in existing caves. All of these are examples of how they have applied frustrated feelings to peaceful and constructive activity. Daher explained to us the importance of international presence; since there have been regular international visits, the settler harassment has significantly reduced, as have visits from the Israeli military. He also told us that they aspire to build a school on the farm to educate young people about recycling, self-sufficiency, biodiversity etc. “We are able to do something”: this statement from Daher really resonated with the volunteers. He argued that Palestine needs a new generation of educated young people who respect and value the land they live on, in order to protect it from the Israeli state. According to Daher, there is a danger of Palestinians surrendering to a ‘victim-mentality’, where they accept occupation conditions, and don’t try to tackle them. Palestinians need to learn about the history of their land in order to feel connected with it, and value it. This was the first time I had heard someone address this issue, which had been playing on my mind since I arrived. Driving around the West Bank it is inevitable that you will go through areas spoiled by rubbish strewn around. Daher raised an issue I very much agreed with: in order to argue that you want to protect and save your land from an occupying power, you should respect it by keeping it as clean as possible, despite the circumstances.

He referred to the failure of the international community to help Palestinians in the face of Israel violating international human rights law, and said that it was down to Palestinians themselves to be innovative and creative in their protest and challenging of the Israeli state. I thought this was very positive and inspiring, but it also made me feel even more determined to lobby the British government and organisations to support Palestine when I return to the UK. Daher summarised that despite the lengthy occupation, Palestinians have to be held accountable to the things they do have control over, and by doing this they are resisting the occupation of the mind and victim mentality. Furthermore, Palestinians need the support of the international community, without being dependent on their intervention. Finally, education is of paramount importance to tackling the impacts of the Israeli occupation.

Sign at entrance of Tent of Nations farm

Daher offered proactive solutions to his unfortunate circumstances, and refuses to concede any part of his positive attitude to anger and defeat. This was the most poignant message I took away from our meeting. When hearing about Palestine in the Western media it is often in the context of some Palestinians/Hamas responding to the Israeli occupation with violence. Not only Daher, but many Palestinians I’ve met have emphasised the importance of fighting hatred with peace and education. His argument that education, peaceful protest and understanding are the most effective mechanisms to challenge the occupation reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my Palestinian friends. The scariest thing about the conflict is the breeding of hatred in children on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. This reinforces fighting hatred with hatred as both sides see the other as non-human: a faceless enemy. The future generations need to challenge this mentality through education and communication, otherwise this vicious cycle will continue. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Week 7: The Jordan Valley and International Day

We have come to Week 7 of our placement here at Birzeit University and it definitely feels like the end is coming too soon!

The last few weeks have been very up and down for our group. Our project went through a quiet patch for a week or so, where the attendance at our workshops dropped. There were many reasons for this, the main being that the election week preceded these workshops. During election week we had no workshops due to the importance of the elections to the students and their desire to attend election-related events. Previous to this we had good attendance, but the loss of momentum in our classes left people with less awareness of our project! This led to a small crisis moment and doubts that we were not doing a good job. However, this made us decide to focus on advertising and raising awareness of the existence of our workshops. At one point we even went out onto campus with food and tried to bribe people to join us! All of this worked and I'm happy to say we have had great attendance since.
On Saturday we went to the Jordan valley and it was definitely very informative, although it was a little bit disappointing that we were not able to speak to any of the families. The tour guides told us about the different illegal settlements that are built there and how Palestinians are not allowed to access water or electricity. We were also informed that the boycott of the settlements products has decreased the exploitation of land by 14% and it definitely gave us something to think about. Some of the UK volunteers have been discussing the idea of writing to shop owners back in the UK to raise awareness.

This Monday we had International Day at the university. This involved the students setting up stalls celebrating the cultures and customs of different countries. This was a very big deal for the students due to the difficulty Palestinians have leaving the country. So the students re-created cultures from across the world and celebrated them for themselves!

There were many different stalls, all set up inside a fake castle wall. The variety and fun that the students had, and the amount of work that went into it, really makes you think about how so many people lack the right to movement and the ability to go abroad to actually see the places they were representing.

Later on in the day people began to pack up the stalls and move to the stage, where there were many cultural performances and dances for people to see. The best by far was the dabkah dance (which our fabulous in country volunteer Jumanna was involved in!). The ability to remember the entire dance and the energy to keep it going for so long in the intense heat was very impressive!

It was such a pleasure to be a part of such a fun day and was definitely one of the best days we’ve had at Birzeit University. Even though we faced a lot of difficulties in the last two weeks, we managed to keep it going and we didn’t lose our enthusiasm. We hope the upcoming two weeks will be filled with much more positive energy and adventures!