On Sunday 16th August, An-Najah’s ‘Zajel’ Youth Exchange Programme held a farewell ceremony for the end of its second International Work Camp of 2015. The camp welcomed International Volunteers from countries across the globe such as Turkey, France, the UK, Japan and Portugal, as well as many others. The international volunteers gave daily training courses at the university to several hundred local students develop a varied set of skills. This year the camp consisted of training workshops on English conversational skills and public speaking, as well as offering information in Turkish and French language and Japanese culture. The local students attended these courses with an enthusiasm for attaining new skills and receiving insights into new cultures.
In Nablus they visited the Old City where they explored the Turkish Baths, soap factories and renowned sweets shops that form part of Nablus’ rich heritage. Through the tour the volunteers were able to appreciate the changes that the city went through as a result of being under Roman, Ottoman and British rule. Excursions to Joseph’s Tomb and Jacob’s Well also displayed the ways in which Nablus is a city of importance to members of all religions in the region.
During a visit to the unique Samaritan’s minority neighbourhood, Mr. Husni Samiri described through a set of presentations the traditions, history and religious customs of this small ethnoreligious group. Volunteers were able to appreciate the religious significance of Mount Gerzim to the Samaritans, as well as the contemporary challenges to their population and identity. The visit came to reinforce the values of diversity that the Zajel camp seeks to promote by accommodating the voices and opinions of all groups living in Palestine.
At Balata Refugee Camp the volunteers met many Palestinians who had grown up within the camp as well as some who had witnessed the Nakba of 1948, and various people spoke to them about the services that are offered to the people living at the camp as well as the challenges that they are facing.
The volunteers were also involved in introductory sessions about different Middle Eastern topics such as the history of Palestine, refugees, Palestinian women and Palestinian literature. The programme’s coordinator, Mr. Alaa Yousef, gave numerous presentations throughout the excursions, focussing on the social and political changes facing Palestinian youth as well as how the Israeli occupation violates the right to education in Palestine.
A series of visits were also organized to villages around Nablus including Beita, Yanoun and Sabastia where they met the representatives of village councils who talked about the social conditions and the Palestinian heritage. The international volunteers were also given the chance to meet human rights observers from organisations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), who form delegations to protect vulnerable Palestinian villages from Israeli settlers.
Field trips were arranged on both weekends of the camp, allowing volunteers to travel the West Bank and Israel and experience the conditions in areas heavily affected by the occupation such as Hebron, Bethlehem and the Golan Heights. Each tour included workshops and seminars on human rights, Palestinian heritage and the effects of the Israeli occupation on education in Palestine and as a result of these trips the international participants were immersed into the political, economic, cultural and social situation in Palestine.
In the town of Majdal Shams volunteers were introduced to representatives of the Druze minority before hiking through parts of the Golan to see Syria in the distance. This was followed by a return to Nablus via the Sea of Galilee. The theme of this trip was to familiarise the international volunteers with Palestinians who live within Israel and who possess Israeli citizenship, and the efforts they are making to preserve their heritage.
During the excursion to Hebron they were able to witness the impact of the settlements on the local economy and individual livelihoods of Palestinian residents, as well as the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) – a site of great religious importance.
At every opportunity during the camp, local students were helping to educate the international volunteers on aspects and phrases of Palestinian colloquial Arabic, aiding their immersion further and giving them confidence when interacting with new people as part of their daily routine.
The farewell ceremony included several performances from the international and local student volunteers. French volunteer Güler spoke about her experience of the programme, where she expressed her delight for participating and exchanging experiences with her Palestinian counterparts. She added: “the field trips were than enough to inform me on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”.
At the end of the camp, the internationals expressed their delight with the knowledge and friendships they had gained through the Zajel programme. Volunteer Maria from Portugal mentioned that she enjoyed being in direct contact with the Palestinians’ life and culture. She remarked that training students at An-Najah in public speaking had revealed things about Palestine that she previously had not known.
Similarly this exchange provided a unique opportunity for the personal development of the students at An-Najah. Local Zajel volunteer Mahmoud said that the programme improved his leadership skills and helped develop his cross-cultural communication and problem-solving abilities. He noted: “it was great to see many different cultures work together in harmony at An-Najah”.