Hope for Tomorrow – The 7th Annual International Voluntary Workcamp

Volunteers from around the world came to Nablus to participate in the 7th Annual International Voluntary Workcamp "Hope for Tomorrow", organised as part of An-Najah National University's Zajel Youth Exchange Program. Zajel, carrier pigeon in Arabic, resents both communication and peace, symbolizing the objectives of the program. The 60th Anniversary of the 'Nakba', or the Catastrophe of 1948 which saw the devastation of the land, culture, and people of Palestine, added significance to this year's Workcamp. The sixteen-day summer program was attended by volunteers representing over fourteen different nationalities, including young people from Canada, Spain, Britain, Norway, America, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Estonia, and South Africa. These individuals came together with local Palestinians in order to gain a better understanding and firsthand experience of life under occupation, as well as to contribute to the livelihoods of the children living in the New Askar Refugee Camp located in the city of Nablus. They stayed in a remodelled palace called Qaser al-Qasem belonging to the University, located near the new campus of An-Najah National University in the village of Beit Wazan. The palace was built in 1820 by Sheikh Qasim Al-Ahmad in a traditional Palestinian style.

 

 

 

The Workcamp provided an opportunity for internationals to hear about the difficulties faced by the locals, whose narratives are rarely heard in Western media, while simultaneously learning firsthand about the beauty of the culture, language and people of Palestine. Zajel also offered the local volunteers an opportunity to exchange fascinating stories with other young people from very different backgrounds. Each day the volunteers provided educational and recreational services such as counselling, sports, art and drama activities for the children of the New Askar Refugee Camp, including some disabled children. During the evenings, many activities and events were organized for the volunteers. These included trips to a Turkish bathhouse and the homes of local families, as well as an 'international night' which offered the international volunteers the opportunity to describe the history, culture, and traditions of their own countries.

 

 

 

The volunteers were divided into groups based on their personal experiences and interests to work at the Social Development Centre at Askar Refugee Camp near Nablus. The Centre was established in 2000 in cooperation with multiple Palestinian youth groups that provide services to the local refugee communities. The counselling team focused on promoting self-confidence and releasing tension that has built up in the children from living in stressful conditions through both group and individual sessions. Those working on art projects provided a number of workshops encouraging the children to express themselves by creating art out of common items such as bottles, plastic, plants, and rocks. The sports team supervised and participated in athletic activities with the children. Drama and play productions provided yet another means of self expression that also strengthened the children’s social skills. A mural committee encouraged teamwork between the volunteers and children while creating a long-lasting end product that brightens the city.

 

The Zajel Summer Youth Workcamp “Hope for Tomorrow” offered a memorable experience for the 34 internationals who took part in the program, which ran from 14th to 30th June 2008. In addition to their valuable work at Askar camp, the group of international students and professionals had the opportunity to meet and discuss the Middle East conflict, share ideas, enhance their practical skills, foster relationships, give assistance to members of the Palestinian community and benefit from attending lectures and cultural events hosted by leading academics.

 Prof Rami Hamdallah, The University President, met with the international students and said that student exchange programs are an important bridge for enhancing mutual understanding and friendship between peoples and cultures as well as a major force in working towards world peace. He added that An-Najah National University has a long history of exchange projects with foreign universities and has built strong links with many universities in Europe and Arab countries. President Hamdallah called on international universities to have more exchanges and cooperation with An-Najah, and welcomed more international students to study at An-Najah.  

The Director of the Public Relations Department, Dr. Nabil Alawi, reinforced the importance of the internationals as ambassadors of the country after having experienced living alongside the Palestinians under occupation. He also valued the attendance of the internationals as a symbol of their solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Mr Ala' Abu Dheer, Coordinator of An-Najah's Zajel Youth Exchange Program, said that An-Najah will continue to expand communication and cooperation with international universities and promote mutual understanding and friendship between young people in Palestine and other countries.

 Mr Amjad Refai`, Director of the Askar Development Centre said that the international volunteers learnt a lot from their work in New Askar Refugee Camp. He commented that the arrival of the Zajel volunteers every year is an event eagerly awaited by the children of the camp.

 Cultural activities and evening entertainment

The busy program of cultural activities enabled the internationals to learn about the unique culture of Palestine. A series of lectures and talks by academics and other prominent figures was arranged to give the internationals a better understanding of the historical context to the conflict as well as up-to-date information about the situation in Palestine today. Mr Sae’d Abu Hijleh gave a concise presentation on the history of Palestine, using maps and other images. Nameer Al-Khayat from the Chamber of Commerce talked about economics in Palestine, unemployment, poverty and trade. The international volunteers also heard from Prof Curtis Doebler, An American lawyer teaching in the Faculty of Law at the University, who spoke about the Palestinian Question in relation to United Nations resolutions. Meanwhile, Ala Badarneh, a Palestinian journalist, spoke about the experiences of local journalists who cover the news in Palestine and the dangers that they constantly face. Lucy Royal, Coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign at the University, gave an informative talk about the importance of education in Palestine. Ala' Abu Daher, who has published a book of witnesses’ accounts of the Nakba, spoke about some of the refugees’ terrible experiences and the broader significance of the Nakba sixty years on.

 One of the highlights of the Workcamp was the visit to the Samaritans, where Priest Husni Al-Samri spoke about the history of the community in Nablus. The volunteers learnt about how the Samaritans have dealt with the occupation and that they enjoy good relations with the other sects in the Nablus area. During a visit to Balata refugee camp, Fayez Arafat from the Jaffa Culture Centre spoke about the establishment of the camp and an interview took place with an eyewitness of the Nakba. This was an incredibly moving experience for everyone who attended as they were left in tears after listening to an elderly refugee recount his dreams of one day being able to return to his home in what is now Israel. The cultural program also included visits to local NGOs, historical sites, the Old City and an industrial area, as well as trips to Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. Thus, even though the program is based in Nablus, it is designed to give international participants a wider insight into the current situation throughout the West Bank.

 In addition to the cultural events, regular visits to local coffee shops, and fun trips to places like Al-Badan springs near Nablus, the participants attended a traditional Palestinian Dabka show, and visited the Turkish baths in the Old City. During the Workcamp there was even a hip-hop party, a performance by a French band, and a football match held in the stadium of the University between the local and international volunteers.

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