The Women of Artas: Solidarity in the Face of Coronavirus
Toine van Teeffelen. Arab Educational Institute
Catholic Universe, 10 July, 2020
“The Covid-19 crisis is one of the most important things I’ve experienced in life. I felt a responsibility to support the people in my village,” says Faten from, Artas in the occupied Palestinian territory. Faten is 29 and a mother of one. She works as a kindergarten teacher and also volunteers at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem, a CAFOD partner.
Artas is Faten’s home. It is a village just to the south of Bethlehem. Sometimes visited by tourists venturing beyond the Church of the Nativity, ‘Artas’ refers to the ‘enclosed garden’ or ‘paradise’ of that famous Biblical love poem, the Song of Songs. A church and convent on one side of the valley overlook the Muslim village on the other side. Despite its special heritage, Artas faces similar challenges to other Palestinian communities in the West Bank: the farmers’ lands are sometimes made inaccessible by restrictions imposed by the Israeli army; the neighbouring Israeli settlement, Efrata, encroaches upon village land; the separation barrier rises up in the surrounding hills.
From 2018, with funding from the EU Peacekeeping initiative, CAFOD and AEI have been working together on a vision for peace for local communities in the West Bank in a project called ‘Engaging, Empowering and Equipping Diverse and Marginalised Youth for Peace’1). The project supports the EU’s ambition to promote a negotiated settlement of the conflict and seeks to equip young people to be changemakers through non-violent action for peace.
Faten is a strong supporter of AEI’s sumud advocacy approach in this project. Sumud is Arabic for steadfastness or resilience. Faten feels that sumud has revolutionised her life and that of other young women in the village. Sumud is a shorthand for keeping the community on the land, bringing people together for the common good, caring for the vulnerable, and upholding the value of respect for each other as well as for the environment. Sumud is not only about service and sacrifice but also the joy of experiencing beauty, as well as a sense of belonging to a common home.
Young women in Artas receive training that enables them to identify challenges to community peace, develop solutions, and communicate them to decision-makers. Faten was involved in the campaign. “Artas deserves to be the most beautiful,” she said. “At the time I was at university my only ambition was to graduate and get a job. However, after participating in the project, I started to see things with a new perspective. A sense of responsibility started to grow in me and I increasingly felt a sense of belonging.”
The women lobbied their local council and went door-to-door to ask inhabitants to pay their waste collection taxes. As a result, new bins were put along the streets. Refuse collections were made daily. The young women and their families painted old car tyres and filled them with flowers and placed them on the roadsides. They raised awareness about the problem of waste in schools and in the wider community. “We faced many challenges, whether from patriarchal traditions which would prefer women stayed at home, or from society more broadly. This campaign didn’t only change the village, but also changed perceptions of what can be achieved by young women. Above all, it changed me. I have become a woman with ambitions seeking a better future.”
This has been further evidenced over the last few months. Although many of the women face additional burdens during the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a surge in mutual solidarity. A group of almost 30 young women started undertaking initiatives to support vulnerable people in their community by raising awareness, cooking for families under quarantine, and providing practical, medical and psychological support. “During the crisis we rediscovered ourselves, we were one community,” they said. Across all the local initiatives implemented by young women’s groups over the past two years, the idea of ‘cleaning up’ society – and making the community more beautiful and peaceful as a common home – stands central.
The young women also emphasise the need to increase the beauty of the village as a way of gaining the attention of the outside world in support of their rights. This is a primary concern of Faten, too. “I feel sad and frightened at times. I am afraid because of the expansion of the Israeli settlement on our farmlands. What will happen to us and our children? We are also fearful about Israeli plans to annex parts of the Palestinian territory 2). In the end, I hope that this pandemic ends and that everyone will enjoy health and safety. My dream is to live in peace, in this land of peace, without fear.”
1) This article has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of CAFOD and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.
2) Artas village lands are potentially threatened under current Israeli government annexation plans.
Sumud – Keeping the Community Alive
By Rania Murra and Toine van Teeffelen
This Week in Palestine, May 2019
In late October, a group of 30 local young women launched the “Artas Deserves to Be Beautiful” advocacy campaign in Artas, a village to the south of Bethlehem. They wanted to solve the waste problem in the village. One participant relates, “I used to read slogans such as ‘After failure comes success!’ or ‘When there is determination, we can reach our goals.’ I did not understand the meaning of those words until I saw some powerful models of women showing determination, passion, and strength.”
The women in the village entered the field of tax collection. As volunteers, some went from house to house to encourage inhabitants to pay waste-collection taxes and to raise awareness about the problem of waste; others went to schools to give training sessions to students. They explained the tools of advocacy and campaigning, how to involve stakeholders and address those in authority.
The cleaning campaign featured additional activities such as removing garbage from the street, putting flowers in tires along the road, asking the police to take care of parking issues, and celebrating the campaign with a photo exhibit and hanging slogan posters on walls in public areas. As a result, the participants won over students and teachers as supporters and volunteers. The mayor and village council as well as a local heritage NGO supported the actions. The women made an arrangement with the solid-waste department in the Bethlehem district. Authorities agreed to make Artas a “model waste-collecting village.”
The campaign did not proceed unhindered, though, as our participant mentions: “We faced many difficulties and challenges from cultural traditions as well as from society in general, which sometimes seemed determined to punish us for implementing the campaign. In spite of these challenges, there were some beautiful moments when people, especially the young in our society – some of whom used to be our opponents or neutral bystanders – came to help us and join the campaign as their attitudes began to change.” And: “This campaign changed the outlook of the villagers towards waste management. Above all, it changed me. I have become an ambitious young woman who seeks a better future.”
The Artas campaign has been part of an ongoing broader effort of sumud advocacy among young women’s groups and high school groups in the Bethlehem and Hebron districts of the occupied West Bank. Sumud is Arabic for steadfastness or resilience.
Sumud indispensible for a just peace
Sumud advocacy confronts the slow uprooting of Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank, such as in Israeli-controlled Area C. The many reasons for this process of uprooting include people’s lack of control over resources as a result of the Israeli occupation and a concomitant sense of powerlessness; the pervasive violence and destruction due to measures imposed by the occupation; the fragmentation and isolation as a result of movement restrictions; and, finally, migration.
In a manner similar to the grassroots community mobilization in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1980s, sumud advocacy challenges the idea that uprooting is inevitable. It promotes awareness that efforts to keep people on the land and preserve communities are possible, against the odds, and that the local population can actually contribute significantly to these changes. In the long run, sumud advocacy is indispensable for a just peace.
Context-sensitive sumud advocacy fosters the experience of local belonging and rootedness. A sense of belonging to a valued community, as in Artas, is needed to be able to face any challenges and obstacles that might emerge in advocacy work. Cherishing values is essential to peace advocacy. Community peace-related values include a sense of citizenship despite the ongoing curtailment of rights as a result of the occupation and sometimes as a result of cultural traditions; the human value of caring; respect for each other’s opinions and beliefs; the implementation of basic tenets of international law, including the right to safety and security; and last but not least, respect for the land and the soil of Palestine.
Belonging is not just an emotional state nor is sumud just staying on the land. Both are about actively working to make the required changes possible. (Sumud is sometimes translated as a verb: standing fast). Fortunately, there is a long tradition of community volunteer work in Palestinian society that is essential for this type of advocacy.
A typical task during the sumud advocacy training sessions has been the search for “energy sites” within a community, places where there is a match between what should be done, what can be done, and the people who are willing and able to help do it. Our experience working in schools and clubs shows that there is actually a lot of unspent energy. As is the case everywhere in the world, teachers in Palestine are key persons in getting people energized and activated for peaceful community-based changes. In its efforts to diminish rote learning at schools, the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education has identified schools that are willing to begin new extracurricular advocacy activities.
We have learned that the most important aspect of advocacy training sessions is an attitude of deep listening to individual and community stories. During a session in downtown Hebron, a young woman narrated what happened to her family at checkpoints. In no time at all, participants were in tears, and the trainer was moved to hug the speaker. In fact, the most difficult part of the training is, according to one trainer, listening to the women’s stories. Telling and listening to such stories is needed to establish rapport and to channel grief, frustration, and anger into energetic, joint work.
Topics chosen for advocacy by the school students and young women were typically related to solving practical issues of access and participation while improving the community’s appearance and strengthening its identity. In addition to the garbage collection in Artas, the young people chose to create a peaceful garden for young children, protected by school authorities, in downtown Hebron (in order to keep the children safe during times of tension caused by settlers); promote Palestinian products at a school in Beit Sahour to create employment and help avoid emigration; safeguard frequent and regular school transport along a possibly dangerous settlement road near the village of Walajeh; ensure access to health clinics, given the many checkpoints and other movement restrictions in Hebron; and call for measures to prevent school dropouts, selected as a topic by yet another school in Beit Sahour.
Mapping the problem
When mapping the problem – understanding causes, seeing linkages, asking questions – the youths almost always confront the broader question: but what about the occupation? Oftentimes local community conflicts are directly or indirectly related to the broader political situation, such as when frustration because of occupation is channeled toward one another inside a group or community.
A school community and a young women’s group chose the social environment of the Separation Wall as an advocacy topic. They engage in advocacy in north Bethlehem by requesting that local authorities lower taxes for local shops so as to keep them viable. They plant flowers in a neighborhood that has become desolate as a result of the Wall, remove garbage, and create parking arrangements for visitors, in cooperation with the police. One NGO in Aida Refugee Camp along the Wall around Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem took up the issue of awareness raising about drugs, a problem which is an increasing source of worry for local parents and teachers. Drug-dealing often takes place in the streets along the Wall – in Area C, under direct Israeli control.
Keeping communities near the Wall alive is clearly a task of sumud advocacy. However, does such advocacy not risk normalizing the Wall, treating it as if it were a natural given? Obviously, any advocacy efforts near the Wall must inform international communities and visitors about the requirements of a real peace. The participating youth therefore also opted to support human rights through a Wall information center, informing international visitors about the impact of the Wall on Palestinian life. They are asking themselves: Can the Wall around Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem become a second “center” in Bethlehem for visitors who not only visit the Church of Nativity but also want to witness the impact of the occupation and the Wall on Palestinian communities?
The groups of youth constantly face the same question: How can the work be sustainable? In Artas, the women have been invited to present themselves as candidates in local elections. They have the opportunity to make use of a hall in the municipality and use facilities of the heritage center. Their campaign is still going on. In various communities, the issue of income-generation comes up, such as selling products to local visitors and creating services for international tourists. A village such as Artas is known for its religious and cultural heritage.
Inevitably, there will be more campaigns to follow!
*This article covers a project funded by the European Union and CAFOD: Engaging, empowering and equipping diverse and marginalized youth and amplifying their voices for peace. The contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.
Rania Murra is director of the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem and a member of the international board of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi.
Anthropologist Dr. Toine van Teeffelen is an adviser at the Arab Educational Institute and manager of the advocacy project.
Sumud Advocacy: What is it?
Sumud advocacy is the effort of a Palestinian community to preserve its roots, foster a sense of belonging, and work on development by volunteering, raising awareness, making connections among different groups in the community, and demanding the right of security and protection. Any just peace is built on sumud advocacy.
Young Palestinians staying strong
CAFOD websiite, 12 November 2020
in Bethlehem, looking out over the separation barrier.
Bethlehem, like other Palestinian communities in the West Bank, faces many challenges.
The neighbouring Israeli settlements – illegal under international humanitarian law – encroach upon Palestinian land, the separation barrier restricts freedom of movement and the farmers’ lands are sometimes made inaccessible by restrictions imposed by the Israeli army.
Formal Israeli annexation of the West Bank may be on hold but uncertainty about the future, especially for young people, is causing deep anxiety and creeping, de facto annexation through expansion of settlements and confiscation of Palestinian land continues apace.
Samira, now a young student, lives in Bethlehem. Like many young Palestinians, Samira is eager to pursue her education – but this has not always been easy.
“A problem which caused me fear and delays and absences from class was that when going to school early morning I had to pass a military checkpoint”, says Samira.
Everyday, Samira would go through this checkpoint on her way to school. She would often be late for school or never make it in. Thankfully, Samira knew where to go for help.
The Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem
She joined a project at her school supported by CAFOD and the European Union, which is helping encourage and empower young people to approach issues they face effectively through communication and advocacy.
“I joined our school project about non-violent communication, advocacy and sumud,” says Samira. “My teachers gave me advice about how to talk about the problem with the school counselor so as to help me in my psychological situation.”
‘Sumud’ is the Palestinian word for steadfastness and resilience. It’s an important concept to many young people living in the area – many of the stories they share embrace this sense of never giving up and of striving to create a brighter and more peaceful future for themselves and their families.
Sumud is also very much about values of respect, rights and dignity, and is an integral part of the project Samira joined. This innovative project, implemented by CAFOD’s partner the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem, engages with young Palestinians in Bethlehem and Hebron in the south of the occupied West Bank and trains and equips them to be leaders in their communities. Young people build their skills in advocacy, communications and gain new knowledge about international law – especially on those UN Security Council resolutions which focus on the role of women and young people in building a secure and just peace.
What did Samira and other young Palestinians learn?
Their newly learned skills help them to argue their case articulately in front of local and international audiences and demand change from local leaders. To date, these young people have successfully lobbied for rehabilitation work to be carried out at their schools, more effective waste management in their communities, for support to local Palestinian producers and even contributed towards making a case for the provision of a new health clinic in their village.
Sumud’s stress on social and political justice also implies that women should have equal rights in Palestinian society. Some of the stories told by the young women are powerful testimonies of how they have successfully challenged traditional views in their families which had limited their potential to flourish.
As well as learning about how young Palestinians can contribute in practical ways to strengthening their society, they also learn about how they can foster a sense of inner peace, not just for themselves but for all. They learn that they can make a valuable contribution, that change is possible and, in this way, counter the prevailing despair in Palestinian communities.
The stories coming out of this project are being developed into a series to be shared on Instagram as a way of inspiring even more young people to take action in support of their communities.
Samira says the project helped her learn how to talk about the challenges she faces, and even gave her the opportunity to discuss the issues with the police stationed at the Palestinian side of the checkpoint.
“Most importantly, the police participated in our workshops and training sessions,” Samira said. “They helped me and other classmates to cross the checkpoints and other barriers. My school delays and absences stopped. My fears and feelings of shock have decreased”.
“With trust, credibility and determination we can reach the goal”.
This project is funded by the European Union. The project supports the European Union’s ambition to promote a negotiated settlement of the conflict and seeks to equip young people to be changemakers through non-violent action for peace. Its contents are the sole responsibility of CAFOD and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.