Zajel Closes International Work Camp 2006:

“Meet Palestine – In memory of Asem”




The Zajel Youth Exchange Program of the Department of Public Relations at An-Najah National University, ended its 2006 International Work Camp “Meet Palestine, In the Memory of Asem” with an official closing ceremony at the University auditorium.


The work camp ran from July 12th-30th, 2006, and could count on the participation of 24 international volunteers from 11 different countries in Europe, Africa, North-America and Asia, and on the assistance of over 20 local Palestinian volunteers. The aim of the International Voluntary Work Camp was to provide international volunteers the opportunity to meet and discuss the Middle Eastern conflict, share ideas, enhance their practical skills, foster exchange between Palestinians and the wider world, and give assistance to members of the Palestinian community.


Local and international volunteers worked in the Social Development Center of Askar refugee camp, where they hosted workshops in drama, circus, dancing, arts, sports, games, and music. The workshops were both educational and recreational, and provided some welcome psychological release and all-important fun to the children of the camp. Many of them suffer stress due to the occupation and its effects on daily life. The workshops hosted by the camp participants brought a ray of sun to them in testing times. Due to a prolonged Israeli invasion which prevented access to Askar refugee camp for a number of days, the volunteers also contributed their efforts to the city services of the Municipality of Nablus.


Apart from providing an opportunity to volunteer at Askar refugee camp, the International Work Camp also offered its participants an inside view on cultural, social and political life in Palestine. This educational aspect of the camp took the form of study tours, lectures on diverse subjects, discussions, meetings with prominent local and extra-local figures, and a host of cultural activities.


Zajel means “messenger,” and it is our firm belief that cultural exchange is crucial to change the situation we live in. Our international volunteers will hopefully spread what they have learnt and seen here to their families, their communities, and their media. However, cultural exchange happens on many different levels, and the camp also fostered exchange on a micro scale. This was not only beautiful to see but also just as important – it means Palestine got under everyone’s skin and it’s there to stay.


Our sincerest thanks go out to everyone who made the Zajel International Work Camp 2006 “Meet Palestine; In the memory of Asem” a success. Thanks to An-Najah University, to the Askar Social Development Center, to all local partners without whom this endeavor would not have been possible, and last but not least to all the local and international volunteers who contributed time, hard work, courage and heart.



Closing activities:


The official closing ceremony was held in the Zafer Al-Masri auditorium of An-Najah National University, and was attended by the local and international volunteers, representatives of various partner organizations, representatives of the Ministry of Education, and representatives for An-Najah National University.

The opening speech was given by Saed Abu-Hijleh, Director of the Public Relations Department of An-Najah National University, who thanked the international volunteers for showing their solidarity and support, especially in these times of great instability in the region.

His speech was followed by a short word by Alaa Youssef, Coordinator of Zajel Youth Exchange Program. Mr. Yousef expressed his gratitude for the trouble-free proceeding of the camp, despite all odds. He mentioned, “We were preparing ourselves for an early end of this camp and had an urgent evacuation plan ready. That didn’t happen and we continued the camp despite all the difficulties! Your determination pulled us through.” He also paid tribute to Asem Yousef, a talented young local volunteer who passed away earlier this year. The International Work Camp “Meet Palestine” is dedicated to his memory. 

The next speaker was Mr. Amjad Rifai, Director of the Social Development Center of Askar refugee camp. He expressed his gratitude for the excellent working relationship between the Zajel Program and the Social Development Center, and concluded his speech with a heartfelt word of thanks to the international volunteers for the great work they performed at Askar refugee camp.

The final word was reserved for Holly Kilroy, a work camp volunteer from Ireland who, in her eloquent and touching speech, undoubtedly spoke for all the international participants when she said, “the perception of Palestinians in the west has been distorted and their plight is ignored by media, we will talk to people when we go home. The people of Nablus are ambitious, we saw their life, we have learned in this work camp more than we could have got from many books. We have shared laughs and smiles and the people of Nablus have been incredibly welcoming”.


After the speeches, both international and local volunteers received an official work camp certificate of appreciation from the work camp steering committee. The ceremony was followed by lunch in a nearby restaurant.


In the evening, the volunteers were invited to a Debka performance (Palestinian folkloric dance) at Askar refugee camp. It was the last goodbye to the children they had been working with over the past weeks, and the goodbyes were understandably emotional. The evening was concluded on a happy note with a birthday party for Abulhassan Al-Jaberi, an international volunteer from The Netherlands.


Voluntary work:


The original aim of the work camp was to offer its participants the opportunity to work with the children of Askar refugee camp at the camp’s Social Development Center, and despite the fact that an Israeli road block prevented the volunteers from going to the eastern part of town where Askar is located for four entire days, they still managed to bring a lot of joy to the camp’s children. The road block formed part of a major military campaign by the Israeli army which left six Palestinians dead, more than 50 wounded, and an entire building complex used by the Palestinian Authority and several municipal services destroyed completely.


The volunteers hosted workshops in drama, circus, dancing, arts, sports, games, and music at the Social Development Center of Askar refugee camp to children aged between six and twelve, each workshop brought a mix of educational aspects and plain old fun. Nuno Coelho, a volunteer from Portugal, explains some of the activities of the children in the arts workshop, “I was designated as responsible for the Arts classes and we've been doing drawings, doing some masks, hats, anything that we can possible make out of paper, carton, scissors, glue and coloring pencils.” The workshops not only aimed to teach children new ways of expressing themselves, but also emphasized essential life skills including collaboration, self-analysis, empathy with others and community building.


Next to the workshops, the international volunteers also produced a wonderful mural on one of the walls of the Social Development Center. The mural was a collaborative effort under the direction of Nuno Coelho, and turned out quite nicely.


Due to the above-mentioned roadblock, the organizers were forced to implement a Plan B for voluntary work. During the interval when work at Askar was impossible, both local and international volunteers contributed their efforts to aid the Municipality of Nablus. They devoted many hours of hard labor to cleaning up the Municipal Park.


Lectures & discussions


The educational part of the International Work Camp 2006 took the form of a mixture of lectures, discussions, documentary screenings and study visits. The program was varied and thought-provoking. Mr. Saed Abu-Hijleh, Director of the Department of Public Relations, lectured on the history and political geography of Palestine. Alaa Yousef, coordinator of the Zajel Youth Exchange Program, gave a slide presentation on the history of Palestine in pictures. The presentation focused on images of Palestine before and during the Nakba (The Catastrophe) of 1948, and drew on the extensive picture archive of the Zajel Program.


Ms. Maysara Soboh, introduced the issue of women’s rights in Palestine, and the role of women in the Palestinian liberation movement. She interlaced her broader analysis of the role of women within Palestinian politics, culture and society with a personal account of her own experiences and growing involvement with feminism.


Mr. Daoud Abu Seir, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council associated with Hamas, gave a much awaited talk on the history and program of this party. After the talk, a barrage of questions was fired at Mr. Abu Seir.  


The program of lectures was complemented by documentaries partially or entirely set in Nablus. “Such a normal thing,” made by Rebecca Glotfelty, was screened, as well as “Route 181,” a gripping documentary by Eyal Sivan and Michel Khalifi which was very much appreciated by the work camp participants. Mohammed Ali, a participant from Britain, remarked: “The documentary was a reality check to what we believe about the situation in Palestine, especially for all of us coming from England and Europe. I wish this documentary would be distributed all over the world.”


Another documentary, “Shots that bind” by Kloie Picot, was screened as an introduction to a talk on journalism in Palestine by two local photographers, Ala Badarneh and Abdul Raheim Qusini, who work for Reuters . Kloie Picot produced the film when working as a long term volunteer for the University in 2003. The film shows the triumphs and sorrows of the local press corps during the 2003 invasions of Nablus.


A very successful initiative was a night of discussions moderated by international volunteers Gregory George and Abulhassan Al-Jaberi on a number of controversial topics: the right to return, bombings and a one- or two-state solution.  The moderators managed to steer the discussions away from the clichéd and the night was useful in generating some heated discussion and interesting lines of argument.


The lecture program also fostered cultural exchange by having international participants give talks on the history and politics of their home countries: Holly Kilroy and Rory Myles Byrne presented on the history of Ireland, Misha Ovtchinnikov on Switzerland and its political system, Gregory George on the influence of the Israeli Lobby on US foreign politics, Loes de Kleijn talked about The Netherlands’ culture and political system, Isabel Suárez Garzón and Amaia Bengoetxea Monteys presented the history of Spain, Nuno Coelho talked about Portuguese history, Zubair Hoosen about the history of South Africa, and Moon Kyungyoung about Korean history.



Study visits:


Next to the program of lectures and discussions, numerous study visits gave the work camp participants the chance to get to know the local landscape of political, religious and cultural organizations better, and provided an opportunity to meet key local policy makers.


Work camp participants had the opportunity to visit the city council and talk with Adly Yaish, the current mayor of Nablus, who explained the dire financial situation of the municipality, and measures the municipality is taking to minimize damage due to the occupation. They also visited Bassam Al Shakaa, who was the first elected mayor of Nablus from 1976 to 1981, and survived an Israeli assassination attempt. Mr. Al Shakaa gave a very interesting talk on Palestinian politics in the sixties, seventies and eighties, intermingled with his own autobiography.


Also on the program was a visit to the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata refugee camp, where the volunteers received a talk on the history of Balata and the activities of the center by Head of the Board, Tayseer NasrallahThis was followed by a gripping eye witness account of the Nakba. The evening was concluded by a tour of Balata refugee camp.


Though a predominantly Muslim city, participants got a taste of the cultural diversity of Nablus through a lecture on Christians in contemporary Palestine by Father Yousef Saadeh of the Greek Orthodox Church of St-George in Nablus.  There was also a visit to the Samaritan community on the top of Mount Jerizem where they received an introduction to Samaritan beliefs.


Participants visited a number of local medical and charitable NGO’s: the Arab Women Union Society Orphanage and Hospital, Palestinian Medical Relief Center, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Adam Kershaw, volunteer from Britain remarked about the latter, “a lovely place, colorful and sunny, apart from all the windows which had been broken from the Israeli bombardment of the compound just below.”


A visit to the industrial zone of Nablus clearly showed the economic stranglehold the occupation exerts on the city, but at same time it was also a tribute to how the entrepreneurial spirit of the Palestinians perseveres despite all odds.


Similarly ambiguous feelings were evoked by a tour of the old city of Nablus, which showed the city in all its ancient splendor and contemporary liveliness, but at the same time testified to the immense toll – in buildings and in human lives – the occupation has taken on the city. A visit to Joseph’s tomb and the eerie post-apocalyptic site of the former compound administrative complex further hammered the point home.






Of course, no work camp would be complete without a chance for some down time and fraternizing. The local volunteers prepared a full program of activities that included a traditional Dabka performance (Palestinian folkloric dance) at An-Najah National University, a visit to a Turkish bath (complete with nargila and sweets), visits to coffee shops, local restaurants and rooftop hotel patios, and the sampling of delightful alcohol free cocktails.


The highlight for many was a picnic on the northern mountain of Nablus with singing, dancing, talking and eating delicious food in the mouth of a huge cave overlooking the whole city.


In the spirit of fraternity and exchange, the international volunteers were literally invited into the lives of our local volunteers. There was a lovely birthday party at his family’s house for Nidal Sbeih, a local volunteer who’d just turned twenty. His family prepared a feast for all of the guests, and the party ended with cake and singing “Happy Birthday” in at least ten different languages. Guests were also kindly invited to a wedding, which was a special and unforgettable experience in its own right.


Some first impressions:


Mohammad Ali (Great Britain):

Nablus is truly a city which you can fall in love with, its people are the most welcoming and filled with love for us all! I am honored to have had the opportunity to come here.


Nuno Coelho (Portugal):

Language barrier! Kids don't know such a thing. We all communicate with gestures, smiles, funny faces, some basic Arabic or English words. We get along very well.


Adam Kershaw (Great Britain):

Life here goes on. No matter what happens every night, and how much life is made difficult for the people of Nablus by the Israelis, life goes on, and every moment is an adventure... Sometimes it seems like every conversation here is tinged with politics, religion and news, but then I think we all enjoy the debate, and having so many different types of people means it's always a learning experience but always fun too.


Lu, Holly Kilroy’s mum (Ireland):

You're like mini united nations there; only that you all appear to functioning rather better than the bigger one!


Thanks to all!