Communicating Palestine – why exchange programs don’t work

The culture on jumping on the wagon of whatever the West is doing is not alien to the Arab world, yet it must be done with a purpose

Yara al-Wazir
Yara al-Wazir
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With the 66th commemoration of the Nakba around the corner, young Palestinians are struggling to hold on to their national identities. With an estimated 8.3 million Palestinians living abroad, many of whom do not have the right of return, it is becoming harder and harder to identify as a Palestinian without knowing the beauty of the land.

An open community and space for self-expression that is accepted, tolerated, and not vilified is what young Palestinians need, and what young people all over the world need. Palestinians, specifically, want to share the beauty of their land and the potential of their country with everyone, even if they cannot get in themselves. The wave of youth-exchange programs has reached the country and erupted rather quickly.

The culture on jumping on the wagon of whatever the West is doing is not alien to the Arab world, yet it must be done with a purpose. A lot of investment goes into exchange programs. Many of these programs are organized by students at universities, who very often risk their grades by spending hours organizing them in order to give foreigners the Palestinian experience. Not to mention the money: from visa costs, to travel and accommodation costs at the risk of being denied entry once the visitor reaches Palestine, hundreds of people are taking the risk every year.

The culture on jumping on the wagon of whatever the West is doing is not alien to the Arab world, yet it must be done with a purpose.

Yara al-Wazir

Zajel is just one of these programs that run in the country. Organized by the largest university in Palestine, Al-Najah University, it’s essentially a summer camp for young internationals that are curious about Palestine. It challenges the misconceptions, dealing with everything from stereotypes, the history of the country and the region, and even the water scarcity issue that affects Palestinians daily.

To some, it is a holiday in an exotic location with bombs dropping in the background. In reality, it’s an attempt to showcase the true plights and struggles of Palestinians, and to give visitors a front-row seat to reality of the situation, which foreign media ignores.

The wagon of youth exchange programs may not be driving directly down the roadmap to peace, but it is driving down the roadmap to reality, and has built a culture of foreign activists for Palestine.

Rachel Corrie is a prime example of the product of these visit programs. The American activist had visited Rafah as a senior in university. Her passion for the cause lead to joining a non-violent activist movement, for which she ultimately paid for with her life, after she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.

A story worth telling

What these exchange programs are about is telling a story that resonates. The goal is to capture people’s attention on the Palestinian cause, from the Palestinian side, which has a habit of being ignored.

What these programs miss, however, is the point. The stories of young Palestinians are not limited to life in refugee camps, or sleeping with the echoes of bombs in the background. They aren’t all about the diaspora, the Nakba, and struggling through apartheid checkpoints. The real struggles of Palestinians are personal. In order to move forward, the programs must address the bigger picture, and look towards the future. Although it is important that people all over the world know that there are 74 checkpoints in Ramallah alone, it is also important for them to relate.

Music and film see the bigger picture

The new wave of activism is flying through new-media. Films like Speed Sisters tell the story of the first all-women racing team in Palestine. While it’s an almost classic story of young girls chasing their dreams and breaking gender stereotypes, it also tells the underlying story of the struggles of growing up in a refugee camp.

The rap group DAM recently used music to give a 5-minute light-hearted history of the Palestinian peace process, even featuring Norman Finkelstein.

In order to communicate the Palestinian cause effectively all over the world, the methods must adapt. While there is no doubt that the country is beautiful, and that experience is a powerful tool to engage people, it engages a niche of people who are already interested in the cause – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have applied for these programs. In a sense, they preach to the choir. In order to move forward, the cause must preach to the people, through mediums that they understand, and ones that cannot be held against them, or that risk their rights. There is an abundance of young artists in Palestine who can easily double as activists and communicate the message. Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish’s work lives on. Art always lives on. Exchange programs are ultimately a function of public funding and support.


Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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