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London to Ramallah: Brexit puts Palestine exchange group's future in doubt

Will Brexit stop a London charity’s project that aims to raise awareness of Palestinian human rights?
In a week full of cultural exchanges, Palestinian volunteers share traditional Palestinian food with their UK counterparts (CADFA)

RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank - For newcomers to the Palestinian West Bank there is often a pervasive sense of compunction, a self-admonishing feeling of regret, of having been gulled by the false perceptions of what awaited them.

This was certainly true for Abdel Rebika, a second-year student at the University of Westminster in London, who is visiting for the first time. “Before I came I thought it would be sort of like Gaza,” he says. “I had the impression that everything would be run down. You search for ‘Palestine’ on Google Images and you’re bombarded with pictures of destruction and protests,” he says.

'You never hear about the checkpoints and the different zones, the different ID cards. I didn’t know about that until I came here'

After spending a week in Palestine on a twinning project with the English charity, Camden-Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA), the trepidation Rebika wrestled with has been exorcised. “It’s probably the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to in my life,” he says, a broad smile breaking across his face. “I was not expecting it to be like this.”

But despite the majestic beauty of the land and the unconstrained kindness of the people that has so enthralled Rebika, he has been appalled and surprised by the realities of life under Israeli occupation. “You never hear about the checkpoints and the different zones, the different ID cards. I didn’t know about that until I came here,” he says with tangible frustration.

A UK CADFA volunteer interviews one of the young people from CADFA outside Al-Quds TV Station (Credit: Ben Clarke)
“I was in absolute shock when I heard that families were split up because half of the kids would have a green card and half of them would have a blue card, so they can’t even visit each other. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Palestinians with green ID cards can only access towns and villages that are on the “wrong side” of Israel’s Separation Wall, that is in the Palestinian territories. As the wall has been built directly through the middle of some towns, those people that hold green IDs are unable to visit their neighbours and families who carry blue IDs on the other side of the wall.

How exchange trips began - and why they matter

CADFA has been organising exchange trips for the last 10 years, exposing groups of young people from England to the day-to-day realities of life for Palestinians living in the West Bank, as well as affording Palestinians the chance to visit England.

The project started in 2003, just as the wall was being constructed through the heart of Abu Dis, separating families and whimsically providing half the community with enhanced, albeit inadequate, civil rights. A group from the north London borough of Camden were visiting the West Bank during this time and were so affected by the things they saw that they resolved to forge a permanent partnership of solidarity.

'We’re not very big but we’re incredibly determined'

By 2006 CADFA had become a registered charity. “We’re not very big but we’re incredibly determined,” asserts Nandita Dowson, the director who is based in London. She explains that the organisation’s guiding principles have been to promote human rights and respect for humanitarian law, and to give oppressed Palestinian voices a platform in the UK with which to engage policymakers and the population at large.

The most fruitful way they have found to do this, she says, is by creating links between different peoples – by twinning young people, teachers, community leaders and women’s groups.

With a palpable sense of exhaustion, she confesses that this is the fourth CADFA visit to Palestine that she has organised since January. “I’ve got the short straw this year,” she laughs.

'I think people really need to be exposed to the Palestinian people, to the Palestinian culture and to the Palestinian cause'

“What about me?” intercedes Abdulwahab Sabbah, known as Abed, her Palestinian counterpart from Abu Dis, before he reels off the bloated list of commitments that are consuming his energy. Together they have been running the charity, with the help of a small group of committed volunteers, for more than 10 years.

They say the twinning projects are all about sustainability, about continuing engagement. “There weren't supposed to be so many visits but we discovered that once they go they become very active,” explains Dowson.

Dowson's strategy appears to be working, as the group of young people on this latest visit congregate outside the Al-Quds TV station in Ramallah and discuss the media project to which they have been contributing during the past week.

It’s all about raising awareness, voices Rebika, “because what you get in the mainstream media isn’t what you see when you’re here, and I think people really need to be exposed to the Palestinian people, to the Palestinian culture and to the Palestinian cause”.

Young CADFA members from UK join their Palestinian partners to listen to a speaker in Ramallah (Credit: Ben Clarke)
 “I think education is probably the most powerful tool in resolving this conflict,” he continues. These sentiments are echoed by one of his fellow volunteers from the UK, 18-year-old Ursula Shaw, who says that despite an interest in Palestine and the conflict before joining CADFA, she “didn’t really know anything about the Palestinian situation. I didn’t know how the Israeli government… were affecting the Palestinians in every sense.”

Shaw says her short time in Palestine has opened her eyes and that she is intent on continuing to learn about the precarious state of affairs in this land. “I don’t want to be ignorant of anything,” she states, betraying a maturity beyond her years. “I’m sure when I was talking about the Palestinian situation a month ago I was carelessly saying a lot of things, [but] I want to be accurate in what I say because of how sensitive the situation is.”

Facing the threat from Brexit

Back in the UK, the country faces a sensitive situation of its own: Brexit. The resumption of parliament has proved to be tumultuous for new Prime Minister Theresa May, as President Barack Obama has reiterated that the US will not prioritise the UK when it comes to negotiating new trade deals. Meanwhile the Japanese government has issued an extraordinary 15-page warning about the likely consequences of Brexit.

The repercussions of Britain’s EU vote are reverberating further than expected - and the situation has left Abed and Dowson feeling apprehensive.

'Now we are trying to find an alternative so we can keep having volunteers coming here'

“Unfortunately now, after Brexit, we will face problems,” explains Abed, adding that many of the twinning projects that CADFA currently organise rely on access to EU funding. “In the beginning we used self-funded volunteers,” he says. “Teachers came to Abu Dis to work with people, on their English language mainly… to report back to our website and our blogs… and also to give people the confidence to speak out.”

As the links between Camden and Abu Dis strengthened and the number of campaign activities and exchange visits grew, he explains, so too did the financial burden and time commitments necessary to sustain the projects.

“In 2010 we managed to reach access to funds through the European Voluntary Services. It has allowed us to bring four volunteers at a time, mainly from Britain and some other European countries… to come and spend three months in Abu Dis to work with the university, with the schools, with our communities,” Abed continues.

Erasmus funding

CADFA has also benefited from the Erasmus scheme which has funded an exchange project called ‘Teachers in Action’, Abed explains. 

The Erasmus Programme is an EU funded exchange programme that has been in existence since the late 1980s, and has traditionally provided foreign exchange options for students from within the European Union. The new Erasmus Plus programme which CADFA is currently benefiting from started in January 2014 and combines all the EU’s current schemes for education, training, youth and sport.

In January the scheme managed to allow 14 teachers from Palestine to visit London; in October 14 teachers from the UK will make the return trip to teach to Palestinian schools.

“Now we are trying to find an alternative so we can keep having volunteers coming here,” Abed says hopefully.

“Yes it’s true that Brexit currently looks like a huge problem for us,” agrees Nandita. “Most of our exchanges have been funded by the EU via Youth in Action [previously] and now by Erasmus Plus.”

“We don’t know any UK funds that have quite the same emphasis on people exchanging experiences with people from different cultures,” she concedes. Just this year the team have already coordinated four exchange visits for student groups, the women’s link group, a leaders cohort, and the latest youth exchange. 

With a teacher’s visit and another international youth camp still to come before 2017, Nandita and Abed are trying to exploit the opportunities available to them whilst they still can. “It’s not usually this crazy but we had a bit of a struggle to be allowed to have Erasmus Plus visits to Palestine, and when we won we had limited time to finish our projects,” explains Nandita.

“We are very worried about the future and are calling for help from people who think this work is valuable. If they can do one useful thing it would be to join us, wherever they live. Building up our membership base helps us keep going.”

Working towards a sustainable future

Despite the immense pressure being placed upon the organisation, Dowson remains resilient and determined to continue promoting human rights and bringing different communities together.

In the same week that she has reluctantly accepted CADFA will need to find an alternative, less expensive office premises – another trying issue compounded by the financial uncertainty of Brexit. She has also committed to a new partnership project with the Palestinian Higher Council of Youth and Sport.

'Now we are trying to find an alternative so we can keep having volunteers coming here'

Clearly, Dowson and Abed are not going to let the uncertainties of Brexit curtail the important work they have been committed to for so long. The belief in sustainability is now as vital as ever, as they pursue funding avenues unrestricted by the uncertainty of Britain’s EU membership.

Indeed, CADFA’s women’s links group hosts a stall in London’s Russell Square every Saturday, says Dowson, where they sell Palestinian oils and pottery to raise money for the Palestinian link groups to visit Britain.

They have also spent the summer launching crowdfunding schemes to pay for a Palestinian girls football team to visit London, and to “give a jump-start to the human rights media work with young people and women” in Abu Dis.

Promisingly, in addition to these schemes they have also secured donations from the MSN Trust and Interpal – the British Palestinian Relief and Development Fund – to support this media project.
As the UK starts to negotiate its inevitable exit from the EU, it seems likely that the charity will have to continue to attract a wider pool of donors and funding bodies to maintain its viability.
“Brexit means Brexit” is perhaps the most ambiguous political slogan of modern times. But one thing is clear: whatever the new relationship between Britain and the EU, the Camden Abu-Dis Friendship Association is determined to continue its work.

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