This is a trip report of the first delegation to Nablus sponsored by the Boulder Nablus Sister City Project. It was the first official connection between the Boulder-based group and its counterpart in Nablus. Manal and I thank the Boulder group for entrusting us in representing them and tasking us with initiating the bridges with the people of Nablus. We visited Nablus for two days on December 27th and 28th, 2011. The agenda was packed and included the following activities:
- General tour of the city
- Visit to the city municipality and meeting with the mayor and staff in the Public Relations Department
- Visit to Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) center and meeting with the director
- Dinner with the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Social affairs
- Visit to An-Najah University and meetings with the faculty, administration and students
- Visit the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata Refugee Camp and meeting with the center’s director and staff
- We were planning to visit the Samaritan community but unfortunately ran out of time and couldn’t make it.
Highlights of the trip:
We’re lucky to have Mr. Saed Abu Hijleh as our guide and trip coordinator. Saed took care of all trip logistics and made us feel so comfortable. He joined us in all activities and meetings; his coordination skills, punctuality and knowledge of the city and its people are remarkable.
He drove us around part of the city on a gorgeous day and we had great conversations while driving. The tour was short but was enough to appreciate the beauty of the city. We stopped at a sufi shrine on top of a hill facing west. The views of the city were stunning and in the horizon we could see the Mediterranean. We could also see the ring of imposing settlements
Nablus is very rich in historic, cultural, and religious sites in addition to its natural beauty. We suggest that future delegations would dedicate at least a full day for a city tour.
We met in the mayor’s office with the mayor Al-haj Adly R. Yaish (‘Al-haj’ is a respect title or designation for a Muslim who made the pilgrimage to Mecca); Ms. Raja Fahmi Taher, Director, International and Public Relations Dept; Mr. Abdelafo S Aker, International Relations Officer; and Ms. Ruba, photographer.
The mayor described the life of the city under occupation and complete siege for more than 8 years from the end of 2000 till 2008, with a curfew imposed since the middle of 2002. The accomplishments of the city under these conditions attest to the resiliency of the people of Nablus and the leadership of Al-haj Adly and his administration. There were repeated incursions by the Israeli army that left massive destruction. The mayor made sure that the city’s staff would conduct cleaning operations over night removing road blocks and remains of destruction so that the people of Nablus would wake up and conduct their lives as normal as possible. The mayor described how the people of Nablus joined forces to avoid social disintegration, prevent poverty, and conduct home-schooling to compensate for the repeated school closures. It was a remarkable achievement that the new campus of An-Najah University was constructed during that period. The mayor also recognized the traumatic effects of occupation on kids and invested in the construction of several public gardens and centers to allow the kids of Nablus live and enjoy their childhood to the extent possible.
The mayor pointed to the cover page of a local independent weekly newspaper that was lying on the table. The title said “Engineer Adly Yaish: we rid the city of the inheritance of debt and the old city is a touristic treasure”. Since he took office, he instituted a very responsible fiscal policy, restructured debts and renegotiated contracts. The result is a city of Nablus who is free of debt and ready to invest for the future and revive its rich old city. Obviously the mayor was very proud of this accomplishment in particular and he deserves a lot of praise. I picked up a copy of the newspaper and he graciously autographed it for me.
The mayor expressed his full commitment and support for the sister city project. The Public Relations department with the leadership of Raja has extensive experience and is ready and eager to collaborate and work with us on making Boulder the 9th sister city for Nablus.
Following the visit with the mayor we stopped by the Public Relations office; the walls were decorated with beautiful photos of Nablus. What we couldn’t see in person we saw in pictures. Raja and her staff were so welcoming and showered us with the city of Nablus literature and gifts. I asked for digital photos of the city that we can use for the web site and I was impressed with Ruba handing me a CD with great pictures of Nablus and also included the photos that she’s just taken in the mayor’s office. Needless to say the meeting with the mayor, Raja and her staff was very warm with genuine Palestinian hospitality.
Tomorrows Youth Organization
Please refer to the web site to learn about the organization mission, activities and opportunities for volunteering.
We were greeted by Ms. Humaira Wakili, the director of the center. Humaira is an American citizen who has been running the center for about a year and half and very quickly you sense her passion and dedication for helping the under-privileged kids. She stated that “Palestinian kids are the most under served kids in the world”. Obviously I’m aware of the difficult situation of Palestinian kids under occupation, but it was still shocking to hear this from a woman with Afghan heritage who’s aware of the situation of kids in other parts of the world including her war-torn country Afghanistan. Probably most if not all of these kids have never seen the world beyond Nablus.
Humaira gave us a tour of the center which is a multi-story, spacious and very impressive facility. Unfortunately we visited while the facility was vacant but it was still impressive to visit the class rooms and learn about the different activities available for the kids.
The center relies on volunteers and hosts foreign student interns. The living quarters for interns are located in the top floor. It seemed like very decent and comfortable accommodations including a huge balcony with a great views of the city.
As we were leaving we interacted with a group of kids who were playing soccer in the court in front of the building. I quizzed them to see if they can guess where I’m from and one of the kids guessed Akka and we all got excited and started cheering. Unfortunately none of the kids have ever visited Akka. It was a short interaction but left a great impression on me. These kids are deprived and eager to communicate with the world beyond Nablus. It’s a cliche but kids are the future and I think the Boulder group should invest in these kids.
This is a great avenue for our Boulder group to get actively involved in the lives of the kids of Nablus. The areas of contributions are numerous including teaching art, music, English, computer skills, athletics, women empowerment, dealing with traumas and offering psychological treatment. There are opportunities for student internships as well as for professionals. What is needed here is not money but people with skills who are willing to donate their time and talent to help these needy but high-potential kids.
The fact that it’s run by American staff simplifies communications and minimizes difficulties related to language and cultural barriers. My recommendation is that this organization should be the first organization to collaborate with. As we work with them and contribute to the center we will establish familiarity with Nablus and its needs and use the center as a jump board to reach out to other organizations. I recommend that future delegation will include people with needed skills who can spend time at the center and help the kids. We also need to identify and encourage CU students who are interested in foreign internships to consider this center.
The city hosted a social dinner for us at Almawardi restaurant. It was attended by Raja, Abed, Saed and the minister of Social Affairs in the Palestinian National Authority Ms. Majida Al Masri. The setting was beautiful as the restaurant was decorated for Christmas and the new year, the food was great, and the company and conversations were wonderful. The minister is not expected to play a role in her official position but as a native and citizen of Nablus she expressed her full support for the project.
We also discussed forming a citizen group in Nablus similar to our group in Boulder. For all previous sister-ships with other cities, the Nablus municipality and the public affairs department in particular was responsible for the project and the relationships. This will also be the case for our project but there is definitely interest in forming a citizen group. Actually Saed is already the seed (I truly believe we couldn’t have had a better seed) of that future group and other people will join as a result of involvement in our joint activities.
Visit to An-Najah University http://www.najah.edu/
We visited both the old and new campuses. The new campus is situated on a hill with magnificent views of the city and surroundings, great facilities, and inspiring academic atmosphere. The buildings are modern but the outside is decorated with the traditional white stone. We visited several buildings and met with faculty, administration and students. Here is a summary:
Meeting with the President of the university Prof. Rami Hamdallah – the president provided a brief history of the university but emphasized with pride the construction of the new campus despite the occupation and during the difficult years of the the Israeli siege on the city. The university has grown significantly in space, academics, departments, and number of students under his leadership and he deserves a lot of credit. He expressed his full commitment and support to the project and looking forward for collaboration with the University of Boulder (CU).
Visit to the Korean Technology Center and meeting with the director of Korean-Palestinian IT Institute of Excellence Eng. Khalid Barham and the dean of the Information Technology (IT) department Dr. Raed Al-Qadi – Mr. Barham gave us a tour of the center which was donated by the Korean government. The center is very well equipped including a Lab that offer Cisco CCNA certifications. The center is part of the university but is open to the general public and offers certification in multiple areas in IT. Furthermore, the center foster entrepreneurship and has a dedicated facility for business incubation. The facility provides office space, computer and networking resources for young entrepreneurs to start up their businesses. While visiting, we met two senior students who were working on their ideas and we agreed to be in contact to collaborate on the Boulder-Nablus web site development. We also talked about establishing a contact with TechStars – a startup accelerator company that has office in Boulder.
Suggestions: invite the two senior engineers to our web development sessions. Meet virtually using Skype. I need to contact TechStars and see if they are willing to support entrepreneurs in the center. Since IT is my domain, I hope in a future visit to volunteer and offer advanced class in network communications.
Visit to the Media center – we took a tour of the center and talked to administrators, technicians and students. This is a state of the art facility equipped with theaters, film production studios for students, music rooms, and radio broadcasting studios for the university radio station. During the visit we met and had an interesting conversation with a visiting pathologist who was preparing to go on the air to discuss his specialty.
Suggestions – hopefully we will be able to use the radio station to spread the word about the project. I recommend that future delegation allocate a time slot and coordinate a program/interview on the radio station. I suggest to establish connections between the center and CU students in Arts/Journalism/Political science departments and identify areas of collaboration.
Meeting with Mr. Ala Abu Dheer, the Coordinator of the Zajel Youth Exchange program in the Public Relations Department. The program hosts international youth who used to volunteer and help in different activities in the neighboring refugee camps, but later the program was expanded to leverage volunteers’ skills in helping An-Najah students in different areas. Volunteers may teach languages, communication and presentations skills, music, dance, arts, etc. In the evenings, volunteers receive lectures and education in different topics related to Palestinian history and culture.
Suggestions: Ala is very passionate and dedicated to his program, so he would be a great first contact for any youth and student exchange activities that we might want to purse. I suggest that our first activity is to connect CU students in the Asian Studies departments who are studying Arabic with An-Najah students with English majors. The video conferences facilities at both universities are excellent and can be leveraged for this purpose. The exchange will provide opportunities for both student groups to practice the other’s language and initiate future exchanges. Hopefully, some CU students would become interested and participate in the Zajel program.
Visit to Yafa Cultural Center http://www.yafacult.ps
We were greeted by Mr. Fayez Arafat the director of the center and other staff at the center. The center is located in the Balata Refugee Camp and is intended to serve children of all ages, young adults, and women at the camp. Mr. Arafat described the history of the camp and the center. The camp was planned initially to host about 7,000 refugees, but its population grew to about 30,000 people on the same piece of land. The center was established in 1996 and its mission is to educate and promote conciseness about Palestinians right of return and their human rights.
The center offers a variety of cultural and educational activities including Palestinian folk dance, music, arts, and embroidery, and athletic activities. The center has a theater room where art performances are held. Many International volunteers visit the center and assist in activities. Following the visit to the center we took a short visit of the camp itself and walked along its narrow streets.
On the personal level the visit to the center and the camp involved mixed emotions. It was depressing to see first hand the living conditions in the camp, the suffering of people for such a long time, and the limited resources and opportunities available to them. The repeated violent Israeli incursions left a long toll of death and injuries. Out of six people in Fayez’s office, four showed the scars of bullets and shrapnel. On the other hand, I was so impressed by the people resiliency, determination to achieve their rights, and their hope for a better future.
Suggestions: I think future delegations should visit the center and witness the conditions of the refugees. While the need is very great, we cannot focus on helping the center initially. As I mentioned above the TYO is more appropriate avenue to start. Once we’ve established familiarity with the landscape, we can consider this center and others.
The trip ended on a personal visit to the ex mayor of Nablus Mr. Bassam Al-Shakaa at his house. Mr. Al-Shakaa and other Palestinian mayors were the victim of an assassination attempt by the Israelis in 1980 for no crime but being elected democratically for office by the Palestinian people. Fortunately he survived the attempt but unfortunately he lost both legs. While he was in Britain for medical treatment, he met and forged friendships with different public officials including George Gallaway, and subsequently they established the first twin ship between Nablus and Dundee, Scotland. Unfortunately recently he suffered from a stroke, but he was recovering well and was very alert and coherent. To me Bassam symbolizes the human spirit of determination and overcoming obstacles no matter how great they are. His advise to us is to lead and be persistent to achieve our goal. It was so fitting to end the trip by visiting him.
- Nablus is a lively and vibrant city with wonderful people aspiring to further advance and connect with the outside world
- The city municipality and the public affairs department are experienced in establishing sister-ship agreements and eager to work with our group
- Nablus has plenty to offer to Boulder; as we establish the relationship and collaborate we can plan for cultural and other exchanges
- We should promote tourism to Nablus; the city is rich in cultural, historical, and religious sites besides its natural beauty and its people hospitality
- The University is a great avenue for collaboration and offers numerous opportunities
- The TYO center is a great avenue to help the youth and can be used as a jumping board to reach to other organizations in the future
Manal and I are appreciative for all the people we met and made our visit such an enriching experience. We are especially grateful to Saed without whom this visit wouldn’t have materialized. Guy, I congratulate you again for the sense of recognizing Nablus as a natural match for Boulder and initiating the project. Let’s make it happen.
Saib & Manal