The Women of Artas: Solidarity in the Face of Coronavirus
Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 10.07.2020:
“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.
Toine van Teeffelen. Arab Educational Institute
Catholic Universe, 10 July, 2020