SWU trip to Palestine

PAL-UK Social Work Trip: 7th -15th October 2019.

Unlike the wise men of old, who purposefully and deliberately journeyed Westwards in search of a saviour bringing a message of liberation, in 1948 the people of Palestine were forced to travel East where, rather than finding deliverance, they were instead delivered into captivity and oppression. Consequently, every year on 15 th May, Palestinians around the world mark the ‘Nakba’ ( النَكْبة ) or ‘catastrophe,’ referring to the date on which Zionist aspirations for a Jewish-majority state were fulfilled, and by means of a violent process the State of Israel came into being. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes, whilst villages and cities were destroyed. Thousands more were killed or subjected to mass atrocities as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and the near-total destruction of Palestinian society, commenced.

The terrible tragedy is that the Naqba was not, in reality, a single historical event. It continues as an ongoing process of displacement, deprivation, dehumanisation, destruction, demolition, death, disability, and despair for the people of Palestine who have been subjected to existence under military Occupation since 1967. The impact of the ideologically-shaped laws, policies and practices espoused by the governing regime is widely acknowledged as meeting the criteria for classification as genocide and apartheid in the present day.

So, what inspired a small group of social workers from across the UK, with a range of practice experiences and specialisms, to travel to Palestine with the Pal-UK Social Work Network? Especially since ‘Palestine’ is a , loaded word, one that immediately conjures a range of responses, both bidden and hidden. ‘Palestine’ makes it impossible to affect neutrality, to sit on the fence, or to embody the cartoonish, politically correct social worker who, in striving to minimise offence, fails to acknowledge the elephant in the room. In choosing to travel to Palestine, this group expressed their willingness to be exposed to some of the challenges faced by those living in the West Bank, as well as to share their individual knowledge, skills and experiences with the social workers and psychologists they were scheduled to meet, who address much more explicitly in their everyday practices issues of human rights and social justice.

This trip operated on several levels. It provided an opportunity to learn about the work of the ‘Palestine Union of Social Workers and Psychologists,’ and to make links with affiliated practitioners. It offered insights into the complex and far-reaching range and type of organisations which have become necessary to challenge both overt injustices and a daily reality characterised by the drip-feed of trauma. The solitary and inexorable truth of the setting was that agents of control would act predictably to harm the Palestinians and their livelihoods, but by unpredictable degrees and timescales.

In Ramallah, organisations such as ‘Addameer’ and ‘Defence for Children International’ work tirelessly with child and adult prisoners. They shared with us, as did an ex-minister of prisons, the difficulties of negotiating the complexity of civil and military legal systems. They specifically commented upon the negligible concessions extended to minors in the military court system.

A renowned academic, courtesy of the ‘Alternative Information Centre’ provided structural, political, economic and critical analysis to contextualise our trip, whilst activists, some who had been social workers, helped us to (re)discover the radical, generic and community nature of social work on the ground in the West Bank.

We visited three refugee camps which have evolved different community and political responses to the Occupation over the past 50 years. ‘The Freedom Theatre’ in Jenin, ‘Alrowwad Cultural and Arts Society’ in Aida camps, and IBDAA Cultural Centre in Dheisheh all focus on ‘cultural’ and ‘beautiful’ resistance, and privilege the power of music, art, drama and film to generate dialogue, expose the brutality of the occupation, and develop skills and narratives to support an alternative present for children and young people living in the camps.

Spending time at the site of the atrocity of a firebombed family home in Duma, or at other sites of historical and current active resistance, we witnessed first-hand some of the ways in which life under occupation disrupts and may be disrupted. At arms-length we observed soldiers threaten to cause physical harm to and destroy the property of our Palestinian friends. We stood close to the dead-eyed expressions of other soldiers as they prevented our Palestinian colleagues from passing through checkpoints with us. A few of us walked, slack-jawed with curiosity, to the burned-out shell of a car that during a night of rioting in a refugee camp had spewed flames and smoke into the night sky.

We noted the insouciance with which settlers accessorised with rifles. These experiences spoke to the reality of an all-pervading sense of violence as a negotiating tool. The Occupying Forces are technologically advanced and favour high firepower forces to subjugate the people of Palestine, yet in juxtaposition with the calm, steely strength of the ‘Non-Violent Resistance’ movement it becomes necessary to believe that peaceful protest and resistance will bring about social and political change. We saw how, even in extreme and polarising situations multiple perspectives are present.

Three days of hiking along the Abraham Path between Jenin, Nablus and Jericho with our practitioner colleagues offered us personal insights into how finely tuned that reality can be, and the costs of desperately holding on to hope despite the daily heartbreak and ever-present risks and uncertainties. Our conversations spoke of hope for change at all levels of society. They spoke of hope for a brighter future for every child born into siege or occupation, whether in a city, a village, or Bedouin community. They proffered hope for every child who, emulating the biblical David, picks up a stone to deliver a message of courage, of faith, and of overcoming what seems impossible in the face of the Goliath of Occupation. Those conversations were punctuated with laughter and tears, and friendships were forged and cemented as we walked and talked.

Together, we came to understand that social workers in Palestine are not the same slave to bureaucracy as their UK counterparts. They comfortably hold (professional) hands with their psychologist colleagues as they toil steadily on the frontline, a term perhaps most apposite for practice in the context of military occupation. We discovered that respectful and purposeful relationships are fundamental to all aspects of social work in Palestine, with service users, peers or organisations, which helped us to acknowledge the re-emerging focus on relational social work in the UK.

In Palestine, practitioners cannot easily refer to a ‘manager’ in a distant, detached office. Instead, they must negotiate the bonds and intricate culture of family, community, neighbourhood and tribe, all of which are inextricably embedded in another ongoing relationship with the land, the soil, the trees, the animals. Successful outcomes are not necessarily those that make the greatest difference to an individual, but those that support change across and within significant relationships. Although many of the issues people struggle with and against appear familiar, they are also somewhat enlarged by the magnifying and intensifying effect of the Occupation.

As UK social workers visiting Palestine, it was important that we did not romanticise or idealise the people whose suffering occurs within a unique context. In Palestine, we were powerfully reminded that we are all connected because of and through our humanity. We were reminded that in ‘doing’ social work, which has at its core the values of human rights, social justice, and equality, we cannot be impartial concerning the suffering of others, whatever the context. We accepted the challenge to find a way to reclaim our radical activist hearts and seek to reduce inequality and injustice by bringing about structural change.

In these times of austerity and political uncertainty in the UK, there are many lessons we can learn from our colleagues in Palestine, who are now also our friends. We should understand the value of hope, for without hope, change is unlikely to occur. Not ‘hope’ as an intangible promise of something different, but instead hope acting as a beacon and shining a light on other possibilities and pathways.

We were reminded to take into account the importance of individual stories in the construction of wider and deeper narratives which hold the necessary knowledge, skills and expertise to maintain or develop helpful ways of living. We should remember the importance of relating to people and their experiences ‘where they are at,’ and not where we think they are or want them to be. We should remain humble because our voices are but whispers across the void of time, but retain the capacity to echo and resonate.

On this trip I learned that one of the most powerful things we can do is to make more noise. That we must speak up and speak out for those who are marginalised, oppressed, victimised, tortured, abused, neglected and uncared for. That we should make noise when people are treated differently because they appear to be different but that, in reality, we are all just one glorious mess of humanity. I found a way to reframe my need to find understanding, but never excuses, for those who perpetrate and perpetuate acts of inhumanity, however small or immense.

But most of all, I rediscovered my desire to find ways to connect and dialogue, since it is in the dialogical dance that we make mistakes but learn the steps, that we lose our timing but find our way back to the beat, that we fall clumsily but are held safely by those around us, as we move to the rhythm of life. And in Palestine, that rhythm is gloriously celebrated in the Dabke, a wonderful dance which a kind fellow traveller attempted to teach to some of us on a balmy night near Taybeh. The stamping of our feet may have been awkward, but it was joyous, and summed up the human spirit which strives to find a way to be joyful in the presence of ‘another,’ even in the face of immense hardship.

Ultimately, I hope that there will be opportunities to share much more than the intense and amazing friendships that were formed over the course of this trip, and which will continue to contribute to personal and professional growth. I hope that I will find a way to experience and express the grace that was offered to me by so many people in Palestine. By this, I mean valuing life as a gift, aiming to live in harmony with the power that creates the cosmos, and becoming all that they are intended to be.

This freedom is the also the Palestinian freedom of ‘Sumud,’ or steadfastness, which embraces resilience and the concept that ‘to exist is to resist.’ To exist as social workers, we must work diligently to resist whatever challenges human rights and social justice for everybody. Finding our capacity for compassion is a good starting point, from which we can begin to form alliances and stand in solidarity with people everywhere whose well-being is not promoted or safe-guarded. We may have our hearts broken in the process, but they will be rebuilt by and with those we serve.

Author: Ann Marie Hayes