The Sumud Story House: Resistance through Existence

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by AEI volunteer Maighdlin Ury

On February 4th and 5th, I shared about the work of the Sumud Story House at the United Nations Conference for Social Development in New York City. The theme of this year’s conference was rethinking and strengthening social development in the contemporary world.[1] I was a contributor of one of the invited parties, the World Congress of Families, and my role was to discuss what I learned at the Sumud Story House about the primacy of relationships, family and other, in an emerging civil society.

Here is my presentation:

 Resistance is defined as the refusal to accept or comply. This is a term that has defined the Palestinian people within the Israeli occupied territory for decades. The struggle of the Palestinians, their refusal and incompliance, has often taken violent form, causing widespread stereotypes of the Palestinians to sweep global media. However, other approaches have emerged over the years, rejecting the use of violence but focused rather on a simple principle: the refusal to not exist. This has manifested in many ways, one of which is the establishment of local NGO’s, which strive to help Palestinians exist independently by meeting various needs within society. [2] Fuad Giacaman, co-president of a registered grassroots NGO in Bethlehem, would argue that NGO activity is the most effective type of resistance in the emerging civil society of Palestine today.

 This past semester I had the privilege of working as an assistant to Mr. Giacaman at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI), the NGO that he oversees. Here I was exposed to the interworking of an organization that focuses on providing an inclusive education to the community as a means of effective resistance. Most of my work contributed to the women’s branch of AEI known as the Sumud Story House, which gets its name from the Palestinian concept of sumud, literally translated, “steadfastness”. This paper will serve as a report of the group’s activity, namely as it relates to the powerful notion of sumud in Palestinian life. I will reflect on my specific contributions within the Sumud Story House and the insights I gained regarding the strength and fragility of the organization and the NGO movement in Palestine.

 The Concept of Sumud

 Sumud is a term relating to a collective Palestinian consciousness. The concept has taken on different meanings and expressions throughout the decades, but has ultimately emphasized a single focus: resisting the Israeli occupation. Toine van Teeffelen, educational consultant at AEI, has studied the role of sumud its evolution in Palestinian society. Teefelen notes that, “Over the years of shifting fortunes and shapes of the Palestinian national movement, we notice different complexes of meanings attributed to sumud, dependent on the communicative situations in which sumud discourses circulated as well as the larger needs and contexts of the time.”[3] Sumud continues to take on various forms for different people, but throughout Palestinian history three shifts in mainstream interpretation can be observed.

 Dating back to the British Mandate, sumud began as a concept of the rising Palestinian national movement, carrying the meaning of a strong determination to stay in the country and on the land. The popularity of this term increased in the 1960’s, not only in Palestine but throughout the diaspora, specifically when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged as the leading resistance organization in the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon. Refugees were named “samadin”, those who embody sumud and remain steadfast, and often violence was the default reaction.  In this context that sumud strengthened militant messages dominated by the discourse of the national movement at the time, and Palestinian heroes included martyrs and prisoners associated with the armed struggle.

 After the 1967 war, the concept morphed from an individual struggle to stay on the land into a more refined and articulated ideology. Leaders and scholars broadened the scope of the term with a profound realization: staying on the land must be more than an individual action of perseverance, for basic conditions had to be fulfilled in order for sumud to be effective. Thus, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, numerous NGO’s were established, focusing on an active provision of services and self-sufficient structures independent of Israeli funding.[4] This new strategy of sumud re-appropriated the concept, giving it a more holistic and activist approach.[5]

 In recent years, the word has been increasingly adopted by peacemakers, the interpretation evolving into what Mr. Giacaman labels a “lifestyle of personal resistance”.[6] This transformation emerged following the Second Intifada in 2001 and the destructive erection of the Separation Barrier. Now, someone who exemplifies sumud is not solely focused on remaining in the homeland, but also on maintaining joy, motivation and hope in everyday life within its current state. Sumud is the effort exerted to keep heads high in spite of the humiliating, stagnating and deteriorating circumstances of the Israeli occupation. This is a “third way”, a reaction that lies between submission and violence, and one that AEI claims to be the only effective resistance.[7]  In the book, Sumud: Soul of the Palestinian People, Toine van Teeffelen and Vicky Biggs describe sumud this way:

 “Given the length of time for which they have endured this oppression, there is a certain mentality that binds Palestinians together. It is often left unseen and it is certainly not shared by all, but it is still perceived as something typically Palestinian. It relates to a shared sense of identity, the maintenance of inner strength in the face of all odds – wholeness in the face of fragmentation, life in the face of death. This is what Palestinians mean when they talk about sumud.”[8]

 Another interpretation of this modern sumud was expressed at the Sumud and The Wall Conference at Bethlehem University in 2010. Professor of Humanities, Waleed Mustafa, stated that, “Sumud is a kind of peaceful resistance that aims to keep the historical, cultural and psychological connection of the Palestinian people with their homeland. This resistance will not give the Israeli occupation the opportunity to take advantage of their military superiority.”[9] For leaders like Mustafa and Gaucaman, education is what gives Palestinian people the tools they need to survive and peacefully resist oppression they experience in their daily life. Next, I will discuss these specific educational approaches to resistance that I observed taking place at AEI’s Sumud Story House.

 The Activity of the Sumud Story House

 All of AEI’s activities are educational in nature. According to the institute, education is the ultimate tool to instill lasting sumud. AEI’s strategic planning guide for 2011-2014 indicates that each educational activity should attempt to encourage sumud in the following ways: 1) the aspect of being rooted and grounded to one’s home, 2) dynamic protectiveness of one’s homeland, 3) resistance under pressures, 4) keeping integrity and dignity, 5) maintaining positive attitudes and choosing to care for one’s land rather than being forced to 6) the capacity and will to take on a long struggle as required in a situation in which liberation is not around the corner, 7) to maintain joy that is not only instant, but that is the deeply grounded joy that comes from taking part in, social rhythms, customs and celebrations that are held in difficult circumstances, and finally, 8) choosing to use the power of your voice rather than violent action.[10]

 When AEI was founded in 1986 in Bethlehem, its activities were solely targeted at peacebuilding education among Palestinian youth. In the year 2000, the institute became an affiliated branch of the Catholic peace movement, PAX Christi International, of which it is still a member today. With this support it gained momentum, and in addition to the youth programs on which it was founded, AEI began providing opportunities to Palestinian educators and women in the region. Today, the three groups comprise a total of 150 committed members from the regions of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron, who gather on a weekly basis at their respective locations in Bethlehem.[11] For the purpose of this report, I will highlight the activities of the women’s branch specifically, where I spent the majority of my time.

 For the women of AEI, resistance is learned and strengthened within the walls of the Sumud Story House. Founded in 2007, the gathering center rests just past the Gilo checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb. The group includes 40 Christian and 20 Muslim members and represents a number of villages, towns and camps: the Bethlehem urban conglomeration (Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour), Al-Wallajeh village, Dheisheh refugee camp, Al-Khader village, and Artas village. At the Sumud Story House, women find deep relationships, a safe haven for free expression, a home away from home, and educational resources for personal growth. The Sumud Story House focuses on training the women to build and express lasting sumud among themselves, their families and their community. This happens through four main activities that I will explain here.

 Weekly Gatherings

 Weekly training gatherings are the primary focus of the Sumud Story House. Over the course of every month, the center hosts educational sessions for six different women’s groups, several of which meet each week. The groups vary in ages and program type, but each are representative of both the Muslim and Christian faiths. The format of most of these sessions is a group discussion which takes place in the main gathering room at the center. During these meetings, members sit side-by-side as they sip their tea and learn from one another. Discussions and debates ensue over important social and political issues such as: gender equality, peace and justice, human rights and interfaith relationships. There are also specific trainings that take place including leadership, communication competence, storytelling and parenting skills.

 AEI leaders facilitate these discussions by practicing the Read, Reflect, Communicate and Act (RRCA) approach created by Mr. Faud Giacaman. This process utilizes brief passages from holy books and other literary sources as starting points for reflection and discussion. During specialized sessions, usually taking place once every two weeks, expert lecturers assist in educating women in focus areas. Both types of gatherings are intentionally designed to guide the women in processing and discovering important realities about themselves, one another and Palestinian society as a whole. Most importantly, these values learned in an inclusive setting, where both Muslim and Christians are learning together and building relationships.

 One unique feature of the NGO is that it does not subscribe to any Palestinian political tendency, but simply advocates a non-violent stance against the occupation and in favor of Palestinian rights.  It strives to reflect and represent Palestinian society as a whole, and while its public anti-occupation activities are based on principles of international law and the peacemaking practices of Pax Christi, it does not exclude members who do align with specific approaches to the occupation.

 During my time at the Sumud Story House, the resurgence of Palestinian/Israel violence in October-December of 2015 became the dominating theme of conversations.  I was able to observe as the women verbally processed the horrific events taking place. During heated discussions about the violence engulfing their communities, Sumud Story House leaders facilitated and helped the women come to rational conclusions based on the institute’s core values of peace, justice and non-violent resistance. Because AEI does not support violence, alternative options to resistance, primarily education, became central to discussion and the woman began to engage with these options together. The woman at the Sumud Story House are always encouraged to resist through continuing to educate themselves and their households. These messages of alternative resistance are received by the women and taken back to their homes.

 Interreligious Activity

 In addition to these weekly gatherings, the members participate in educational field trips, during which they visit community mosques, churches and historical sites to learn about one another’s faith and ideologies. The purpose of each event is to build bridges through commonalities: their love for their families and their nation, their devotion to God, their desire for rights and peace, and their quest for sumud. Once these commonalities are uncovered, lasting friendships are formed. As central figures in the family, the women of the Sumud Story House play an important role in spreading the lessons they learn through these relationships to those in their households. Each month, the entire families of the women unite to celebrate their friendships together over a meal. During these gatherings, the husbands and children of the women break bread together and are exposed to their commonalities as well. Through these interactions relationships are formed and unity is established. The Sumud Story House believes that this kind of unity strengthens society and makes true sumud more attainable and sustainable.

 In September, I was invited to attend a fieldtrip with the women to Hebron, during which we visited the Ibrahim Mosque and a Russian Orthodox church. There were over 50 members on this trip who were exposed to the other’s world through this first-hand experience. They watched the prayer rituals, saw the beautiful interiors of the facilities and listened to spiritual leaders lecture about the history of the structures. At each location the woman took pictures and asked questions eagerly to demonstrate their deep interest in the faith and practice of their friends. Afterwards, a group lunch and relaxing took place at a local park, where members shared laughs and reflections on the day.


 Mr. Giacaman and his team believe that Palestinian sumud is best propagated through one’s personal narrative. Stories are avenues through which individuals, often voiceless in society, gain the courage to speak; they are is a creative and beautiful form of resistance. Because the story is an integral aspect of Palestinian identity, expressing it helps to maintain Palestinian connection to culture, history and nation. The effects of the story go beyond Palestinian soil, but also reach the wider diaspora and international audiences who desire to fight for the Palestinian causes. Sumud expressed through the story is a window for Palestinians to communicate their humanity, both to one another and to the wider public. Teefelen says that the story allows the women to “symbolically share each other’s burdens and created a narrative community based on solidarity and caring. Their stories are happy as well as sad and illustrate the potentiality and fragility of human life. By sharing the stories, the women in a way reclaim their place within society and within history.”[12]

 The center provides the training needed to help women express their stories more effectively to specific audiences, both locally and internationally. Through these trainings, the women gain confidence as strong communicators and leaders in society. I was asked on occasion to help the women develop their stories for Western audiences. I focused specifically on assisting a group of seven women from the Sumud Story House prepare for their advocacy trip to Germany, where they were to meet with a number of Pax Christi affiliates. “What things do you care to hear?” “What touches your heart most?” These were some of the questions they asked me as they perfected their stories.

 The center also provides two main outlets for the women to tell their stories throughout the town of Bethlehem. The first is the Wall Museum that is exhibited along a large portion of the Palestinian side of the Separation Barrier. Over 200 stories are displayed on 4x6 feet metal posters, each with a story that has been chosen and written by women at the Sumud Story House. The Wall Museum is designed to communicate the real-life stories of Palestinian women.[13] These include stories of suffering and oppression as well as sumud. Inner strength and cultural identity are highlighted and bring out the truth of Palestinian life, which the Wall could potentially hide and destroy. All stories are written in English and aim at catching the attention of Western passers-by who otherwise might not ever have a chance to hear the truth of the Palestinians. The project is made possible through sponsorship of the individual posters, and will continue expanding as the ability to drive this sponsorship continues.

 The second channel for storytelling is through educational tourism. Groups from around the world can request a tour from AEI, during which they explore the region with a local guide and are exposed to further realities of society that cannot be seen at typical tourist sites. They walk through refugee camps and near the wall’s interior where powerful artwork and stories are displayed. Usually, these tours end up at the Sumud Story House, where the women are able to express their personal and national narratives to these international audiences. Through both the Wall Museum and Educational Tourism, the women gain confidence and a sense of purpose as they reveal the reality of the Palestinian plight and their sumud to the broader public.  

Community Involvement

 Members of the Sumud Story House also have the options of participating in local efforts of non-violent resistance. The leaders broadcast these efforts, encourage member participation and ensure methods of transportation. These events include peaceful protests against the wall, settlements, land confiscations, and house demolitions as well as vigils and prayer ceremonies.

 Members are also involved in creative activities sponsored by AEI. The Sumud women’s choir, dramas, and artwork are some of the ways that the women can creatively express their sumud in the community and simultaneously uphold the richness and uniqueness of Palestinian heritage and culture. Often times, these activities are linked with the other efforts at the Sumud Story House, such as the time when the choir performed during an educational tour or the theatre group presented at local vigil.

 My Contributions at the Sumud Story House

 I initially joined the team as a “Communications Intern” vis a vis the request listed on the website. As I soon discovered, my contributions would stretch to all areas of need: running errands, training team members on PowerPoint, event planning, cleaning the kitchen, etc.  I worked for the group on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and other days on an as-needed basis. Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, my work was divided into two main categories.

 I was asked to edit the verbiage for AEI’s new website which is to launch in 2016. Because I was the only native English speaker on the team this past semester, I became the default editor for many other writing projects specifically catering to international/Western audiences. This included anything from grant proposals and newsletters, to emails and PowerPoints.

 One of my main efforts was to evaluate the existing AEI website and find ways to simplify and clarify the online message, specifically for the sake of Western donors and contributors. To do this, I held a set of brainstorming sessions with five of the institute’s leaders as we worked to narrow down the many different focuses of the organization to its most foundational elements. My goal was to uncover AEI’s most unique components and decide, as a group, what AEI should “own” and emphasize, so as to set it apart from the other countless NGO’s in Palestine. By simplifying their online messages, outsiders can briefly skim the website’s homepage and gain an understanding of what AEI does and why it stands apart. Over time, I helped them to understand how the best websites are the ones with the simplest format and messaging. I used six NGO websites that received national recognition for their web presence and effectiveness to support my argument. I was able to write up a plan for them to work off of in my absence, including what we discussed in our brainstorming sessions: AEI’s most unique features, its most important values and its most foundational activities.

 I was also heavily involved for a brief period with researching external groups that could potential provide funding for the Sumud Story House. They have done this work in the past but asked for my assistance in looking at American organizations specifically. I was able to track down some of the most likely candidates for this relationship and offer advice on ways that we could present ourselves them. My first suggestion was to create more specific and well-designed “projects” within the Sumud Story House that could be considered by organizations for one-time donations. My second suggestion was to create a clearer and simpler message on the homepage of the website, so that donors could easily discover what takes place at AEI and the Sumud Story House.

 Finally, I was also able to provide minimal assistance to the social media projects of the organization, but this activity was limited due to my lack of Arabic skills. However, I did supplement the Facebook pages and monthly newsletters with my personal photographs from events and short excerpts including my perspective and reflections.

 Sharing and Training

 I was privileged to be asked to share at several different trainings at the Sumud Story House. Occasionally, this would happen at random when the group would be interested in my perspective as a Western woman. Other times these were planned in advance and I would spend time preparing.  Topics included: the methods my parents use to discipline me as a child, my reactions to the violence in October-December, my opinion about what a woman’s role should be in society, and my Christian understanding of Israel’s presence in Palestine. Another time I was asked to prepare a complete training for the women on human rights. To do so, I selected a well-known quote and used the RRCA method to prompt discussion and teach the women important values regarding this issue in Palestine.

 Another opportunity will be taking place next month. On February 4th and 5th, I will be sharing about the work of the Sumud Story House at the United Nations Conference for Social Development in New York City. The theme of this year’s conference is rethinking and strengthening social development in the contemporary world.[14] I will be a contributor of one of the invited parties, the World Congress of Families, and my role will be to discuss what I learned at the Sumud Story House about the primacy of relationships, family and other, in an emerging civil society. The conference will serve to remind world leaders that, in addressing change, policy matters. My discussion will expose the current work that is being done internally in Palestine to promote a peaceful and strong community. I will also encourage best practices among the lobbyist and other attenders who directly impact policy formation in developing countries. I am currently working with the team at the Sumud Story House on how to best tell their story to this audience, in hopes of potentially forming new and beneficial international relationships for them.

 Concluding Remarks: Strength and Fragility

 The Sumud Story House embodies a uniqueness in the region of Bethlehem that enables it to carry on. Amid a plethora of NGO’s, this center is the only place for Muslims and Christian in the region to come together intentionally on a weekly basis. This strong focus on relationships is central to the success of the organization. The group follows the Kairos Palestine document in which it is emphasized that all human beings are made in the image of God. There is an equal level of care for the life and heart of each member at the Sumud Story House. The members at the Sumud Story House look forward to their times together and have undoubtedly been impacted by this source of friendship and human solidarity that is essential for sumud.

 Another strength lies in the group’s creative work in the realm of public, non-violent action. The organization is recognized throughout the West Bank’s Christian NGO network and the Palestinian Ministry of Education for providing meaningful, engaging and effective outlets of expressing peaceful sumud. The Sumud Story House has recently begun to seek new and more modern outlets of creative expression, such as blogging and social media platforms. The group constantly looks ahead and sees progress and change in order to be more effective.

 However, the group is fragile and faces enormous and undeniable challenges. One of the main challenges is the violence that takes place within the wall of Israeli occupied territory. Even against peaceful resistance movements the Israeli forces react violently, spraying chemicals and tear gas and shooting rubber bullets. These actions, though sometimes necessary, ultimately instill a deep fear throughout the community, which reaches those who are striving to bring about good changes. During my time at The Sumud Story House, we had to cancel several events because too many women were afraid to use the roads. Furthermore, for a three-week stretch in October, the group’s two main directors, Mr. Guacaman and his daughter Rania Murra who is the director of the women’s programs, suffered physically from a tear gas incident that occurred during a peaceful protest near Rachel’s tomb. They were nearly debilitated and had to cancel certain events to make it to doctor’s appointments. While working at the Sumud Story House, I witnessed how these trials, among many other dark realities of the occupation, perpetuate severe depression, fatigue and despondency among the leaders and members. This is a disturbing threat to the stability of the organization and the good work that is taking place.

 The other primary challenge I observed is one that relates to all NGO’s in the West Bank, and that is the movement’s paralyzing dependency on foreign aid. In a conversation with Mr. Giacaman, he explained to me that NGO’s within the West Bank, although working toward similar goals within the community, are in a constant competition for international recognition and foreign funding. While the Palestinian cause falls on the ears of many aid groups worldwide, the call comes from an oversaturated market, inundated with countless and varying messages, advocacies, efforts and needs. My Giacaman remarks that sometimes receiving aid from abroad is a matter of luck, simply the right person reading your grant proposal at the right time. It is impossible to deny that the group would cease to function without the help of a small number of aid groups. With what it does manage to acquire, it still struggles to make ends meet. And so, the organization’s intrinsic strength, independent existence, is also its most demanding weakness.

 In spite of these challenges and in light of the aforementioned strengths, this small organization resting on the road to center city Bethlehem continues its work, both at its physical center each week and within the hearts of its members each passing moment. The impulse to resist is a powerful element of Palestinian society, but as seen through the work at the Sumud Story House, even more powerful is the impulse to exist. Sumud is simple and natural, it is universally applied and understood. It is the bloodstream of daily life. Most importantly, when fostered under the right conditions, it brings people together and holds them together in the midst of chaos and in the hopes for the future.

 Work Cited

  AEI's Official Website. Arab Educational Institute, 2016. Web.

-. Commission for Social Development, 54th Session, 3 - 12 February 2016 (n.d.): n. pag. United Nations. Web.

Giacaman, Fuad. "Educational Tour Presentation." The Sumud Story House, Bethlehem. Nov. 2015.

Jarrar, Allam. "The Palestinian NGO Sector: Development Perspectives." The Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 58th ser. 12.1 (2005): n. pag. Print.

Rijke, Alexandra and van Teeffelen, Toine. "To Exist Is to Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday." Jerusalem Quarterly 59 (n.d.): n. pag. Print.Arab Educational Institute Strategic Planning Guide 2011-2014. Strategic Planning Guide. Bethlehem: n.p., n.d. Print.

Sullivan, Denis J. "NGOs in Palestine: Agents of Development and Foundation of Civil Society." Journal of Palestine Studies 25.3 (1996): 93-100. Web.

"Sumud Is Lifestyle." Bethlehem University in the Holy Land. Bethlehem University News, 24 May 2010. Web.

Teeffelen, Toine Van and Victoria C. Biggs in cooperation with the Sumud Story House. Sumud: Soul of the Palestinian People. N.p.: Arab Education Institute, 2008. Print.

[1] The United Nations Website, program for the 54th Commission for Social Development and Civil Society Forum in February 2016.

[2] Denis Sullivan, NGO’s in Palestine: Agents of Development and Foundations of Society, Journal of Palestinian Studies XXV, No. 3 (Spring 1996), pg 93. Despite the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 2011, Palestinian NGO’s, which are run by various churches, women’s organization, Islamic charitable institutes, political groups, voluntary committee and individuals, still provide the majority of services in the West Bank

[3] Alexandra Rijke and Toine van Teeffelen, “To Exist is to Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday”, Jerusalem Quarterly (59), 90

[4] Allam Jarrar, The Palestinian NGO Sector: Development Perspectives, The Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, No 58. With the Israeli occupation in 1967 of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the demand by the Palestinian population for the provision of services increased; charities assumed the very important role of providing these services in social, educational and medical fields.

[5] Rijke and van Teeffelen, “To Exist is to Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday”, 88. This strategy reached its apex during the first intifada from 1987.

[6] Presentation at the Sumud Story House, Fuad Guacaman, November 21st, 2015.

[7] Rijke and van Teeffelen, “To Exist is to Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday”, 90

[8] Toine van Teeffelen and Vicky Biggs in cooperation with the Sumud Story House, Sumud: Soul of the Palestinian People, page 9

[9] Bethlehem University Website, “Sumud is Lifestyle”,

[10] AEI’s strategic planning guide for 2011-2014 - AEI-Open Windows: The Story of Sumud: Palestinian steadfastness: reflections and experiences, Bethlehem, 2011

[11] AEI’s official website:

[12] Rijke and van Teeffelen, “To Exist is to Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday”, 88.

[13] AEI’s official website:

[14] The United Nations Website, program for the 54th Commission for Social Development and Civil Society Forum in February 2016.

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