Resilience in the Palestinian Occupied Territories (2)
Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 26.06.2006:
RESILIENCE IN THE PALESTINIAN OCCUPIED TERRITORIES (2)
Toine van Teeffelen, Hania Bitar and Saleem Habash
THE STORY OF PYALARA
Pyalara was established in 1999, initially with the aim to serve a Palestinian youth audience as a youth media and communications–oriented non-governmental organization. It was an initiative by a group of youth journalists who were determined to give Palestinian youths a voice through the establishment of a youth paper. This paper became The Youth Times, a 24-page monthly bilingual newspaper produced by and for youth. Before the establishment of The Youth Times only a few young people could publish their writings in the daily newspapers in the OPT. During several brainstorming sessions with young people from different Palestinian locations, it became clear that young people simply needed to have a voice. They had so many things to say yet did not know to whom they should direct their voice and in what way. A hindering factor was that media, in the Palestinian context, lacked cultural identity, professionalism and a comprehensive vision about its role as a tool of change. Moreover, the print media were politically one-sided, boring, semi-official and did not meet the social, political, educational and entertainment needs of the reader. In this context, The Youth Times was a fruit hard to harvest. People were not accustomed to a youth paper by and for youth. While at the time the Palestinian media did not feature any youth papers, pages or magazines, those that were available in the shops – youth magazines from the Arab world – were all made by adults and directed themselves towards young people in a usually rather patronizing manner.
However, soon the circumstances obliged the group around The Youth Times to adopt a much broader view of the need of Palestinian youths to bring out their voice. A few months after Pyalara’s establishment as an official NGO in October 2000, the second Intifada erupted. A sense of paralysis, uncertainty, fear and helplessness prevailed throughout the society. The group of energized, active and enthusiast youths around Pyalara suddenly felt powerless and lost a sense of direction. A series of brainstorming meetings took place. A youth conference organized by Pyalara took place in Jerusalem where more than 200 young Palestinians participated under the title “The role of young people in times of conflict.” The young participants tried to map out their role for the stressing times ahead. The ideas and recommendations agreed upon constituted the action plans upon which Pyalara started to strategize its role during the Intifada.
In the presence of Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s Program Officer in November 2000, Pyalara’s members shared their deep feelings of anxiety, frustration and despair. “I am really scared,” said Lana, a 14-year old from Jerusalem. “When I was going to Pyalara’s office, the Israeli soldiers body-searched me, my school bag… They humiliated me to the extent that I wished I had anything with me to defend myself.” She started crying and continued: “I was ready to do a real crazy thing at that moment.” Nisreen, a 15-year old, interfered gently, “What would you gain if you do something stupid… You should control yourself and think of better ways to express your anger.”
During this brainstorming, the term “resilience” was never on the mind or among the terminologies used by the Pyalara team. Whenever we were discussing our mission as a youth organization in such violent and frustrating circumstances, we were always replying to the principle of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel. At those meetings, we resorted to our main source of strength, the young people themselves, to come up with ideas that corresponded to their needs and the way they viewed things.
Yet the level of frustration and helplessness was great, and the young people participating in the sessions repeated to say that they felt terrible being unable to do anything about the escalation of violence and the worsening political situation. The young people – those who could make it through checkpoints, invasions and curfews – were also coming to our offices on a daily basis; some of them expressing their frustration in writings, others talking about these frustrations, while some of them could not speak or write at all. Obviously, silence was a threat to their well-being.
From Pyalara’s meeting venues, the young people who were feeling helpless and frustrated decided that the way to try and get out of this situation was to help others far more affected by the invasions and curfews to express themselves. Saleem Habash, managing editor of Pyalara’s The Youth Times: “At the start of the Intifada when Mohammed al-Dura was killed [a small Gaza boy killed in the hands of his father, an event accidentally filmed and repeatedly shown on all Palestinian and Arab TV stations], we realized that most young people were unable to express themselves and that this would lead to an explosion. I wanted to spread the word that youths could do something.” The initiative of what later became the We Care project evolved from these brainstorming sessions.
The young people and Pyalara subsequently advocated and lobbied with the Jerusalem office of UNICEF.UNICEF gave the green light for launching a project that aimed to alleviate the pressures of crisis on Palestinian adolescents and youth. A cadre of Palestinian university students (mainly specialized in sociology, psychology and social work) were trained to become mentors and psycho-social relievers for their peers. The training included psychosocial intervention methods, conflict resolution techniques, communication and leadership skills.
After the training, the mentors of We Care headed to the field to meet with school pupils in a selected number of underprivileged areas in the West Bank and Gaza. In pairs, they conducted series of workshops aimed at alleviating the pressures of the crisis affecting their peers. Through a series of 8-10 youth-to-youth sessions, the youth mentors helped adolescents by listening to their problems, giving them advice, providing them with information, and making them sense the fact that there were people who cared about them. In the beginning, the young people and mentors had to deal with the psychological barriers between them. They had to break these barriers, and create trust and a sense of mutual solidarity. The fact that the mentors were only a few years olders than the pupils greatly facilitated the interaction.
After the ice was broken between the mentors and school pupils, the mentors started encouraging the pupils to relieve their inner feelings about the problems they were suffering from.Those that the young people told the mentors about were mainly, in the beginning, related to the political situation; about how the situation affected them, how some of them faced nightmares, nervousness, the loss of a relative or a friend, concern about the inability to socialize due to the inability to travel, and the general feelings of fear, insecurity, despair and anger.
After the young people expressed their problems and feelings, they discussed with the mentors the ways how to cope with these problems. Several youths talked about how they reacted violently to their feelings. Wael, a 13-year old from Qalandia refugee camp near Ramallah only felt relieved when he could throw stones at the jeep of soldiers patrolling the street adjacent to the camp. When asked why he threw stones at a fully protected jeep, Wael said: “Those Israelis have to know that we will not allow them to steal more Palestinian land.” In another of the We Care sessions, a girl of 16 years from the Nablus area revealed that she envied the boys who could throw stones at Israeli jeeps and soldiers. “I wish to have the courage to go to the streets and also throw stones at the occupiers.” Despite the fact that less than one percent of the Palestinian youth resorted to stone throwing, face-to-face interviews conducted at the time by Pyalara revealed that those youngsters who expressed their anger and frustration against the occupation by throwing stones, by demonstrating, burning tyres or writing slogans in the streets were in fact less prone to think of suicidal acts or bombings. Our interviews also showed that the more silent and less expressive the youths were, the more inclined they were to carrying out suicidal attempts.
Interestingly, after a number of sessions, a great many of the young people showed indifference in the political problems they were facing, at least as they had first perceived and understood them. Once they were given the platform to express themselves, they started to uncover different layers behind the problems resulting from the political situation. In fact, they expressed normal teen problems, such as the relationship between boys and girls, sexual problems, social problems (like domestic violence and violence in school, early marriage, and the use of drugs), problems related to their local communities, varying from social, inter-political to family problems, or study- and work related problems. It has to be emphasized here that there is still very little attention in the Palestinian media, schools and everyday life for the health and lifestyle questions Palestinian youths face and which occupy and often trouble them especially during their teenager years.
After the changes in the young people’s definitions of their problems, another stage of understanding was underway: it was discovered that even the “normal” problems they were facing, were in some ways related to the political situation resulting from the Israeli occupation and military actions. This was a new level of awareness. Up to this day it is uncommon to find a specific teenager angle in the political discussions conducted in the media or in public places even though youths have been the main street actors in the Intifada, and are the main victims of the mobility restrictions prevalent in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
The meetings with the mentors were crucial in the process of awareness-raising. The closeness of age created openness and trust; it made it possible to bring up the specific adolescent problems because the mentors themselves were teenagers or just a little older. The mentors were asked not to give any prescriptions for action. Many of the school kids described them as “having become our friends.” Mohammed (15 year) from Ar-Ram, an area near Jerusalem well-known for drug abuse, violence and prostitution, an area that became even more affected by the Intifada: “The mentors were like my friends. I could tell them anything. They did not solve any of my problems, but helped me in solving them.” Hana from Ramallah (16 year) said that working with Pyalara and being involved in its activities had given her the self-confidence and self-esteem to become active in the society. “When I started to attend the We Care sessions with Pyalara, I started to feel that there were people who cared about me and my problems.” She saw everything black in life, but that blackness started to decrease the more she became involved with Pyalara. Crucial to the success of the sessions was the fact that afterwards the teens felt less overwhelmed by the overall situation, could discern separate problems, see connections between them and the overall situation, and then – in a final stage – could find roles and activities in specific fields like journalism or community work, which made them perceive themselves as pro-active and which boosted their self-confidence.
We Care thus carried young Palestinians from a status of isolation and frustration into a more nourishing environment that not only catered for their needs but also used their energies and potentials in a creative and a sustainable manner. Through a caring system led by young, dedicated and well-trained role-models, Palestinian adolescents became afterwards engaged in activities that released their anxieties, fears and problems.
In sum, the project addressed a need to make available a trusted communicative refuge for youth where they could always find people who listened to them, gave them advice and tried to assist them. But beyond helping individual kids, the project also had a broader social dimension. The project provided exemplary models of border-crossing cooperation between various sectors of the society. It followed the long-valued tradition of voluntary work in the society, encouraged hand-in-hand cooperation between universities and schools, between NGOs and ministries, between the older and the younger, and between the empowered youth and the less advantages adolescents of the society. In this way a spirit of social solidarity was seeded, important for strengthening the vulnerable and exposed web of the society and its communities, which also would serve a future state that would really take care of its citizens.
Nonetheless, the approach was criticized by several specialists in Palestine. The critique was focused on a single issue, reflecting the widespread acceptance of the traditional mental health model based on the centrality of experts. How could young people talk with their peers effectively about their problems, especially during such a severe situation, without any real professional help? The youths’ enthusiastic endorsement of the project was an effective answer to those criticisms, which never reached a level that they provided an open challenge to the viability of the project. To the contrary, their rather dogmatic nature hardened the determination of the Pyalara staff and youth to continue, while we also were encouraged by journalists and development workers to stay on course.
Even though the level of interaction between the mentors and adolescents was high, nonetheless, some of the youth demanded more sessions as well as a private environment more conducive to talk about personal problems. In 2002, a youth-to-youth hotline was established after an intensive training of the mentors, some of whom became operators of the hotline. Many calls were received from young people seriously affected by the situation. The callers felt that it was easier for them to speak to an ‘invisible friend’, whom they could tell anything without being shy or discouraged. Nancy Tamimi (22 years old), an hotline operator, said that “at first it was very hard for me to know how to respond to a problem through the phone, but after the training and actual practice, I can now try and help any caller.” The hotline was established as a tool to listen to young people. Again, it did not provide prescriptions for the callers. The operators tried their best to release the anger and diagnose the problem. In case of serious problems the callers were guided to a referral system, where they were transferred to more specialized institutions.
The frustrations felt in general by young Palestinians were multiplied in the case of those who must also cope with physical disability in a society where so few specialized resources were available to them. Eighteen-year old Hamdan was born with a condition which has left him unable to walk without support. His early childhood was a profoundly unhappy time when his family lacked an understanding of his particular needs. According to him “I was always alone, always crying, I didn’t feel human.” A chance encounter in 2000 led to an invitation from Pyalara to attend a journalism course in Jordan which Hamdan felt “was the first time people treated me with respect.” Since then he endeavored to participate in all activities at Pyalara’s office north of Jerusalem, traveling from his home in Bethlehem along a route made tortuous by IDF roadblocks. In early 2002 Hamdan negotiated with Pyalara to take responsibility for the production of a four-page special feature in The Youth Times focusing on disability issues. He explained his motivation for this as follows: “I don’t want others to live a hard life like me. I have a message in my life which I must offer. Even if I die I must paint a smile on handicapped people’s faces.” With the confidence and skills acquired through activities with Pyalara, Hamdan took a lead role in local initiatives to support disabled young people in his area and he spoke on television about his voluntary work. Summing up the effect of participation in Pyalara activities on his overall life, he explained that “it has helped to make me part of society.”
The energy of young people, and the worsening of the political situation, encouraged Pyalara to resume not only the We Care project, but further to tailor other projects on the same intervention approach. The We Care project was re-implemented with an aim to better reach a wider variety of young people, especially those in underserved areas.
After the initial phase of trust building, caring, listening, exchanging information and acting upon the main issues that concerned young people in each locale, the groups were provided with an opportunity to share their ideas in The Youth Times and to make use of Pyalara’s weekly TV program Alli Sotak [Speak Up]to voice their issues and concerns.
Pyalara’s youth media had helped to provide scope to the awareness raising efforts. As Pyalara was established in 1999, it was selected by UNICEF to celebrate, for the first time in Palestine, the International Broadcasting Day for Children. A series of espisodes were designed where young Palestinians produced their own show. This built up the base for launching a TV programme in 2002, where young people would not only present but also produce the televised episodes. Alli Sotak became a weekly two-hour TV programme broadcast by Palestine TV, produced by and for young Palestinians, which tackled light and serious issues of concern for youth. According to estimates based on polls and data collected by the Palestine Bureau of Statistics, over the period of its five year existence 90.000-100,000 readers are estimated to have been reached by The Youth Times (TYT) and 300.000 viewers by the TV episodes of Alli Sootak. The relatively high number of viewers and readers of the youth media is related to the way how media are received in the Palestinian family and community. Palestinian society is, as we noticed in our discussion of the psychological consequences of the stressors, group- and community-oriented. Given the nature of our society, the youth media reach out towards individual youths but also to the communities and large families in which they live. Usually, the episodes are watched and the newspapers read and transmitted in a community-kind of situation (in the family and visitors circle for instance, or among peer students at school or at the university).
Both Pyalara media have grown to become more than mere instruments; they now provide a sense of ownership to youths, as the youths themselves are making the newspaper issues and the TV episodes. Especially the TV program is able to reach out to almost every household in the West Bank and Gaza. It is also able to address and involve youths who because of a handicap or because of family restrictions or social conventions are unable to leave home.
The targeted groups in the different locales were prepared through some basic training in media in producing and participating in special TV episodes that tackled a main issue they selected. Essential to the work was not to set the agenda for those young Palestinians, and never to oppose a topic or subject chosen by them.
The reactions were enthusiastic. Ahmed Hasna, 17-year old from Jerusalem, considered Pyalara’s media as a door to the future. This door let him to express himself and his worries, and to address the needs, worries and problems of himself and his peers. Lana Kamleh, 18 years old, said that her experience in the TV programme helped her a lot in dealing with the bitter outcomes of the conflict. “Through Alli Sotak, I can express myself, I can communicate with my peers from all over Palestine, I can share their pains and touch their souls.”
In a research adminstered by Birzeit Univeristy, Faculty of Arts, Department of Mass Communication, 77.3% of young people who read The Youth Times said that they thought that it activated and empowered the role of youth in the society. About 80% believed that it raised their awareness on their rights and responsibilities, and approximately 30% of young people believed that the newspaper changed their views and attitudes towards a variety of issues. These numbers reflect the effect The Youth Times is having on the lives of young people. When 30% of a selected sample of young people between the ages of 14 and 25 take the decision to say that the newspaper has changed their views and attitudes, then The Youth Times s definitely exerting a change in their lives.
Based on Pyalara’s previous experiences in its different projects, even the most modest or shy individuals can become heroes and heroines in their underprivileged communities. When a group of young girls from Biddo near Ramallah tackled the issue of early marriage on TV the whole village was watching the special TV episode produced and presented by their girls. The act of discussing the problems you or your community suffer from, made of the adolescent who were part of the programmes role-models for their peers watching the TV episodes or reading the youth newspaper.
Once a young person feels to be a role model, then he/she becomes more responsible towards their peers, and gains a more vibrant thrust for work and activation. In addition, being a role model attracts other young people in the different locales and communities to become more involved in media-oriented projects, since the credit and sense of ownership the young people feel towards the media outlets, play a major role in reinforcing hope in the lives of young people.
FRAME: My Personal Experience with Pyalara
By: Saleem Habash
In 1997 I got to know about a new idea of a newspaper for young people; all made by young people. Since I loved writing, and I could not find a place to publish my writings but my notebooks and computer, I was excited to get involved. At that time, during the years after the Oslo agreement was signed, it was a duty to help developing Palestinian society. A whole new bunch of creative and fruitful ideas were evolving, and the process of development was being remolded into a more vibrant momentum.
At that time I was in high school, a 15-year-old who had lots of energy, but no where to express, neither a forum to speak through. I started getting involved with the preparatory meetings held in the Jerusalem Times Office in Jerusalem, where I found a place where I could express my opinion. I found a place which triggered me to formulate new opinions and insights of things.
Afterwards, I became a correspondent for The Youth Times, as I remember the first time I had an article published in the newspaper, with my personal photo beside it, I was returning back from school, and people were pointing at me saying that they had seen my picture in the newspaper.
I became very active with The Youth Times and after Pyalara was established, I became one of the most active volunteers; participating in all the activities, creating things, being here and there and nearly everywhere.
In 2001 I was not a volunteer anymore; I became a Pyalara staff, and then a Managing Editor for The Youth Times.
My experience with Pyalara has changed a lot of who I am without changing my principles and beliefs. Pyalara has given me the space and tools to grow, yet without being framed into a certain shape, having the tool for change, you end up in a cycle of creating change, not only do you create change amongst other, but further, they exert change within your life as well; there you go it is a cycle of change.
Being involved with Pyalara has given me the strength of becoming an activist in my society, and an advocate for the rights of children and young people. There is not just one experience that makes all the difference, which teaches the person fully and makes him/her to become more resilient. Rather, the experiences between the ups and downs are the ones that really educate the individual and makes of him/her a new person. I remember, once, I was excited to cover a musical festival in Ramallah. We contacted the organizers and convinced them to give us a press pass to enter and view all the musical shows. Apparently, mine was torn because I was, then, too young a person. I became almost furious about this unjust treatment. It did not stop right there, but I was urged to write about what happened, and I did, I wrote about it in the paper from all my heart and soul. Everyone read it, and I felt that although I missed the treatment of other journalists, I was the gatekeeper for the freedom of the press, I spoke out my mind freely and got the message across.
Now, in 2004, everything is different. My role has developed greatly, since I became semi-in-charge of the newspaper. I am responsible for urging other young people to write and express themselves. The uniqueness of Pyalara stems from the fact that we do it differently. Everything is developmental; we develop ourselves to help developing other young people.
But how did all this help me in becoming more resilient towards my own life? Before getting involved with Pyalara, I had lots of energy, but all of it was knelt down, because of the lack of a place or a forum where I could be myself without any deception, without putting on an act. Pyalara opened my eyes towards the society and my peers. It surely was an eye-opener for me to see things differently. I have met hundreds of people, of whom I would never even think of meeting, if it wasn’t for Pyalara.
Pyalara has played a major role in my life. Having worked with Pyalara has urged me to become a journalist, and has unleashed various sides of my personality that have not been touched before.
Even in the darkest days, I found my shelter in Pyalara. I cannot forget how being involved with Pyalara helped me through the time that my father was deadly sick, and died. This determination and great love for work have always reminded me of the need to move on and accomplish what has not yet been achieved.
Pyalara is not only a place that is there for you all the time, it surely has helped to become who I am now, and the person I, myself, am proud of, in relation to my parents, my friends, and surely my fellow Pyalara staff.
Pyalara’s experiences show that in promoting resilience it is necessary to leave an overly medical and individualistic model and to opt for a holistic model which puts emphasis upon resilience in the context of social relationships in daily life, including peers and friends, and family, community and national networks.
Another primary lesson is the need for disadvantaged youth to become fully involved in participating in society. Youths should find a voice, roles, and a meaningful cause, especially in such a bewildering context as the Intifada provides. Only such participation and involvement helps them to develop psychological protection, self-esteem and confidence, and, in the act of doing activities together with others, to develop a sense of competence and efficacy. What the Pyalara experience also shows is that in order for youths to develop a sense of ownership towards the projects, participation should not be a form of tokenism but should involve youths at the very first steps in the ladder of participation; that is, they should be involved in designing, implementing and monitoring the projects in which they are engaged. In fact, We Care, as well as the youth media projects, have all been youth initiatives in which adults only played a distant role, such as in formal board meetings (although even therea significant number of the members were youths).
Another aspect of Pyalara’s key to success has been the fact that its trauma projects did not suffice themselves with skill-training or discussion sessions. In a study prepared by Jason Hart for the Canadian International Development Agency in 2002, Pyalara explained its modus operandi as comprehensive. Any training Pyalara gives is always linked to action and field implementation. Any investment put in training and empowering young persons helped them to go through phases of development until a point where they themselves could become leaders, providers of services, and role-models for their peers. In this way, we guaranteed a sustained engagement with, participation of and impact on the targeted groups of young people as well a contribution to the institution’s capacity building objectives.
Our participatory, comprehensive and action-oriented emphases helped the youths better to become equipped in facing mental health problems of themselves or of others. Helping to express the youths’ inner feelings is hereby certainly of great importance. But both the discussion meetings, peer-to-peer sessions, and follow-up activities tried to go further by helping the youths to understand and formulate the problems they were facing, and to give tentative suggestions for actions. All Pyalara activities have been designed to create a natural learning environment which stimulates youths to not only express feelings but also to critically think through the problems they are facing, to make decisions, to initiate roles for actions, and to equip the students with relevant skills and knowledge.
A major set of factors affecting resilience is how support, resources and opportunities are organized. The development of peer-to-peer relationships as part of projects promoting resilience is helpful especially when older competent youth like university students are supporting younger youth at school. Youths can sometimes be better supporters than family members (Newman and Fellow 2004: 24), especially in a traditionally hierarchical society like the Arab one. We fully endorse Gilligan’s (1999) plea for making use of non-professional mentors who, against a modest allowance, can offer quality time, enthusiasm and commitment to their peers. Being mentored for some time by an older and more mature student, who also wants to show his or her contribution to society at a time when it is collectively under pressure, may provide younger youth with the mental support they need, and with that spark of inspiration needed to feel once again hope and trust in others and oneself (Cyrulnik 2002). Note that a somewhat older youth finds easier access to the life world and cultural wavelengths of a younger teenager than a much older adult. Moreover, because the university students by and large do not come from the community where the school students live, while they are familiar with the general problematic situation of Palestinian youths, they can be trusted with more intimate information than in the case of those who are part of the local community. In a sense they are both indigenous and external mentors (Gilligan 1999: 192), combining the advantages of both. This is even more true for those students who operate the Hotline at Pyalara’s office and who are entrusted with especially sensitive information.
Importantly, in the Palestinian context the development of such informal mentoring or counseling relationships is practically and financially viable since university students in the fields of psychology or social work often have the opportunity to become involved in projects as part of their university study (thesis, apprenticeship, community work hours) or because they are likely to be for some times unemployed after their study and may use the involvement in the project as an additional training period that can be helpful in later on finding a job.
In Pyalara’s experience, youth media constitute a strategic social resource for the development of resilience, for several reasons. Firstly, youth media help youth to express themselves, and to relay in various creative or descriptive ways the issues they face. Resilience is greatly helped when traumatized people have the opportunity to express themselves according to genres in which youths feel comfortable and in which they can develop skill proficiency and a sense of flow. Pyalara’s media projects give room to various genres, including music, popular song texts, poems as well as the more regular types of journalistic reporting. Secondly, making and watching media reports about situations or events which leave traumatic scars and possibly diminish resilience levels (such as long curfews, witnessing violent incidents including violence at schools), especially when such programs go into the causes and backgrounds, help youths to understand better their problems. Youth media may help to put youth issues in a larger comparative context, so that it becomes possible to look at and understand those issues with more perspective and depth. Yet understanding forms of trauma and stress is not sufficient in order to build resilience. In making media reports, the program makers can pay detailed attention to exemplary cases of coping, resilient or transformative behavior in response to adverse or challenging situations or events. Such behavior may inspire viewers or readers; and it also may help to develop a discourse of hope and determination rather than despair. Thirdly, making media products gives participating youths active roles that are often – certainly in a context where many international journalists and news workers are present and visible – interesting, challenging, prestigious and skill-based, like those of a journalist, camera- or soundman, interviewer, program maker, editor and writer. By fulfilling such roles, youths can test out interests and abilities, and develop their skills, and a sense of competence and self-esteem. During recent years, especially local journalists of the satellite station Al-Jazeera, several of them female, became a role model for Palestinian youths after such journalists frequently reported, not without danger, about daily events from the major West Bank and Gaza towns. Enacting media-related roles is a source of self-worth and prestige for youth and provides opportunities to participate in a modern and adventurous-looking field of society. It also makes it possible to approach central decision-makers and experts for their opinions and actions on issues that affect youth. The action journalism which Pyalara promotes is designed to raise the sense of self-efficacy of youths with regard to the problems they are facing. It tries to give them a sense that they should persist in achieving the goals, even though limited, by following up on the journalistic mission. Again, building resilience is supported by enacting meaningful and effective roles. Fourthly, media projects help to raise wider publicity to particular youth issues and thus allows local community projects to find a much larger hearing nationwide. Such projects have more dissemination and multiplication potential because they can include and involve decision makers, experts and other stakeholders outside the community by way of interviewing, recording or filming them as part of the action project. Fifthly, developing media products about youth helps Palestinian youth to think through their own images in relation to what audiences locally and abroad think about them. Since Palestinian youth are well aware of the images others have of them – as mentioned, often bipolar images of violent activism vs helpless suffering – and such images in various complex and contradictory ways also help to shape their own thinking about themselves, critical reflection on those images as brought about by focused media reports and discussions may open up mental space for other, more nuanced images of themselves that may encourage them into initiating resilient actions.
The combination of peer-to-peer activities with media projects is characteristic for Pyalara and in our opinion particularly felicitous because the first type of activities helps to work in-depth on the inter-personal, face-to-face level, while the second type makes it possible to disseminate the questions and findings towards a much broader public. In other words, both the quality of the interventions and the quantity of the audiences are taken care of.
Pyalara builds on traditional sources of cultural resilience in Palestinian society such as sumud but tries also to further a discussion climate which makes it possible to negotiate cultural notions of steadfastness so as to make them relevant and applicable for present-day youths. In doing so, we fully endorse the plea of many mental health theoreticians and practitioners to appreciate context, to apply cultural notions of ecology and groundedness (Newman and Fellow 2004: 28) and to study the detailed social and cultural identity of the youths subjected to violence.
As for cultural atmosphere, we already noticed the importance of bolstering resilience by giving space to easy-flowing daily life conversations in a trusted environment. Like many other Palestinian NGOs, Pyalara tries to develop at its office and group work a warm, nurturing “family” of youths who like to share projects not just for their instrumental values but also for the sake of being together and enjoying social relations. Such belonging to and participating in a supportive group is conducive to personal growth. Trusting relationships provide a basic joy and energy to life that is essential for developing resilience.
Another element of Pyalara’s social strategy is to network with the larger community at local, district and national levels. Pyalara’s projects in fact provide an incentive and opportunity for relating to decision-makers, schools, educational and health services, churches, mosques, professionals, businesses, music groups, and community clubs. They all have potential roles and stakes in the media projects as contributor, advisor, interviewee, performers, and participants in life shows. In this way, media projects open up avenues for youths who want to relate to various community services and activities, and reversely, open up such community institutions for the needs and contributions of youths. This ‘community capacity building”, whereby capacities of communities are identified and mobilized to support common goals, is increasingly seen as facilitating resilience among children (Kretzman and McKnight 1993).
While much of the discussions generated by Pyalara projects center around youth rights, Pyalara does not deal with them in an abstract, decontextualized or rhetorical way. In all projects Pyalara focuses on local concrete community issues faced by youth and brings in issues of general rights and international law only to support and elaborate on the youth’s sense of (in)justice as experienced in their own daily life and discourses. It is our experience that such a bottom-up approach towards issues of justice – so important for raising morale and a sense of dignity and self-worth – has a much greater psychological effect on the youth than just teaching principles and rules of justice and law.
In the context of moral values and their relevance for daily life, it should be noted that, certainly in the Palestinian context, resilience is not the same as adaptation to an unjust system like an occupation, nor does an emphasis upon resilience means that we should forget about the need to change the larger context (see the critical remarks about resilience as an approach in Small and Memmo 2004: 5-6). Rather, we encourage youths to think through their overall conditions, and potentially contribute toward their transformation, from a perspective of equity, justice and human rights. Such a perspective cannot be guaranteed under conditions of occupation and ongoing Israeli non-compliance with principles of international law. Involvement of Palestinian youths in non-violent actions of whatever nature and focus, is a priority for Pyalara as long as the occupation determines the Palestinian youths’ life to such a detrimental effect. Non-violent actions help both to express the feelings of frustration of youths and at the same time provide a broad variety of active roles to youths in terms of coordination, technical implementation, technical expertise, artistic expression, and advocacy efforts. This is not to say that all issues Palestinian youths face, should be politicized. In fact, Pyalara encourages youths not to subsume all problems under the umbrella of occupation because such an approach would limit the self-understanding of the youths, and would also limit the potential array of roles they may play in coping effectively with their social problems. However, any mental health or resilience approach should take the political context fully into account, and should also incorporate moments of self-reflection with regard to the political implications of a particular academic, quasi-technical and quasi-neutral language use such as “adaptation” or “coping.” To provide another example of the need to be sensitive to political context: In this article we have followed the academic use, shared by development organizations, of the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” However, Palestinians themselves refer to their country as “Palestine.” Using a different terminology than the people themselves opt for, is obviously not unproblematic.
All in all, Pyalara’s projects are innovative, strategically designed and close to the youth’s life worlds and problems. They employ local resources, are sensitive to traditional sources of values and inspiration, and propagate full participation, group work and community involvement. As such they are more effective – as well as less costly – than large sectorial top-down programs which do not pay attention to the variety, geographically and otherwise, of the problems youths face, and of the youth’s own responses to such problems.
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This paper appeared in a slightly different form as
“Resilience in the Palestinian Occupied Territories,” in Michael Ungar (ed.) Handbook for Working with Children and Youth: Pathways to Resilience Across Cultures and Contexts, Sage 2005.