4 April 2012
On 19 and 20 March, UNRWA held an international conference in Brussels called “Engaging Youth: Palestine Refugees in a Changing Middle East”. A key element of the conference was bringing 24 young Palestine refugees to Europe from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territory. They told conference attendees about the challenges they face as youth and as refugees.
After the conference, they visited the European Parliament to meet with elected representatives and a delegation of Belgian youth.
by Aida Al Shahabi
An opportunity not everyone gets. The 24 of us were extremely lucky to get the chance to meet one another and to be able to speak up and send our messages to the public and politicians. This conference gave us much higher expectations than what we had before going to Brussels. It gave us a clear definition of what our identity is, and it managed to give us an overview of what each Palestinian suffered from, and the difficulties they go through. UNRWA worked really hard to give us this opportunity to raise our voices so they can be heard among the stakeholders that attended this conference. We youth usually think such conferences end up with no results; however, this conference gave us the feeling of the exact opposite. Instead, they provided us with ten commitments – not promises.
This conference brought us together to speak in one voice from different situations. Yes, we came from different fields: Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria; but at the end of the day, we felt and knew that we all belong to the same land: “Palestine”. We thought we wouldn’t be able to get along together as we didn’t have much time to know each other. However, we were surprised by the end result. We managed to feel that we all knew each other from awhile ago, not only for six days. This made it very hard saying goodbye, knowing that it was kind of impossible for all of us to meet again. Our wish at the end of the day is to meet again; but this time not in Brussels, but in our land. Is it hard what we are asking for? We think this is the norm.
For the content of the conference, the main four themes that were discussed in it were: youth participation, economically empowering refugee youth, building and investing in human capital, and youth confronting marginalisation. We discussed every theme in a separate panel and these discussions opened avenues of co-operation and partnership between us and UNRWA. In each theme, we had the chance to talk about the obstacles that we face in the five different fields and we gave key messages and suggestions to get rid of these obstacles and to have the rightful life that we deserve.
Meeting with the European Parliament was such a great opportunity. Through two sessions we were able to tell stories of Palestinians in the five UNRWA areas regarding their rights of participation, mobility, identity, and the regular and unjust violations of the Israeli occupation for youth in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We confirmed that our right to enjoy the Palestinian identity is not a stigma, it is a right and an honour also!
In the end, the strong friendship we’ve built together as a group – which in one way or another created a sadness that we’re going to face difficulties meeting again – emphasises our will, our right, and our power to keep fighting to live together in one country called Palestine.
Normally I’m not an open person. I’m anti-social and I don‘t want anyone‘s help. I finally acknowledged why I need others. If we don’t put our hands together, who else will?
This conference and my visit to Brussels have changed me on so many levels that I’m still trying to comprehend. I belong to something, to some people for the first time in my life. I am a Palestinian for the first time in my life.
The conference showed me what new blood can do to organisations like UNRWA. The scale of advocacy we can do; the scale of lobbying we can do. We offer a different point of view, a new flavour. We show the international community something different, something unique. For me, this is just the beginning. It opened my eyes to so many things. It showed me firsthand what I can do, what we all together can do.
Twenty-four young Palestinians visited Brussels last week. Twenty-four young Palestinians had Palestine in mind. They met for the first time, against all odds, and some might never be able to meet again. But all of them ended up visiting Palestine, in Brussels. Now we come back with a different spirit and far stronger inclination to act and change the reality we live. None of us will ever stop. None of us should.
The UNRWA conference was just the first step for us Palestinian refugees to demand our rights for an equal life and equal opportunities. We should have the same rights that other youth around the world have. We deserve a chance to perform our best to help ourselves and to help each other.
I think it‘s clear to everyone now that UNRWA should turn its concerns to economic development approaches, since we cannot ignore Palestinian human resources. What we need is a supportive environment, to do what we are capable of doing and not someone else doing it for us.
We talked at the conference as well as the European Parliament and we made the world realise that we‘re real life stories and not only numbers. We spoke to send our messages to the world. The recommendations were received which gave us hope that the youth‘s voices are being heard and their requests are being accepted and considered.
I found out that these "new" people are becoming my family. I felt like I have known them for years. We met with Mr. Grandi, the man who gave us hope. He promised us changes and we believed. The conference was our panel, our refuge, and our voice.
The European Parliament day was the most outstanding. It was the day we all had a say! We made our points directly and we were spot on. We all knew what we wanted and we knew the paths we needed to take. We showed them that we really care, especially about a place called Palestine. The hardest moment was when we had to leave each other behind, not knowing when we’ll meet again or if we will ever have the chance to. It felt like leaving Palestine behind.
On one side, the conference was an opportunity for Palestinian youth to speak out about their situations, problems, hopes, fears, ambitions, and all their human experiences. This opportunity has also opened up for stakeholders to see in person what Palestinians are really living. The way youth spoke out and the interaction with the guests was unexpected, and the reflection wasn’t typical. The ten commitments were worth the four-hour journey, yet there are still too many steps to be taken towards providing Palestinian youth with a space to blossom.
On the other side, we as Palestinian youth had come from five different fields. Even being originally from the same country and maybe the same village or town, we were way too far from each other. We didn’t know anything about how each one of us lives.
Two days later, each started to defend the others. People coming out of Gaza where bombs are dropped, started to defend the Palestinians in Lebanon who suffer from the deprivation of their rights to work or to own property. This spiritual link that was established within a day or two is really what I considered inspiring.
It was my first time to take part in such a conference. It was a great chance to be there; I hoped we could express what we are suffering from in our camps in a perfect way, because it was the first time to talk about ourselves with our own voices.
About the conference, I think it was the beginning of Palestinian spring, and I am looking forward to seeing our effect on the ground as soon as possible. We came to Brussels to give peace and to take peace, to give hope and to take hope, and I think that’s what happened. Thank you for everything. Thank you for listening to us for the first time.
I couldn‘t believe my ears that I was selected to attend this conference! The meeting in Istanbul airport with youth representatives from Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza was heartwarming. The conference in Brussels provided an opportunity for young people to raise awareness amongst policy makers about what they think could be done to improve the lives of young people. It was awesome! Although we worked very hard preparing for the conference, we did not feel tired.
Our main concern was to convince the participants and donors that the Engaging Youth Project has positively impacted young Palestinian refugees’ lives in Syria, and that it should be replicated in the Agency’s other areas of operation. All the speakers were very encouraging and engaging.
In my intervention at the conference, I said that we may participate in conferences whose recommendations remain unimplemented, but I am enthusiastic because the conference concluded with UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi unveiling ten youth commitments. I warmly thank UNRWA for organising this conference, which inspired me in many ways. Despite the long distance between the homes of the participants, the conference built excellent relationships that will last a lifetime.
The conference has really been an amazing experience that I will cherish all my life. It allowed young people to voice their views. It also provided the opportunity to be listened to, and the fact that our opinions were valued by the high-ranking officials in attendance made it even better. I was absolutely overwhelmed when we were greeted by large young crowds when we returned to Damascus. It was an important and distinguishing leap in our life.
The preparations before the conference enriched our experience. Our expectations about the conference were very high and we felt the Agency’s concern and interest about refugee youth through the Commissioner-General’s speech. We felt from the moment we were selected to participate in the conference that we have to live up to our responsibilities to highlight the concerns and challenges of the refugee youth in Syria. Besides being happy to represent the youth voice in the conference, the event was an opportunity for us to meet our colleagues from Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza to share experiences related to youth issues.
Sometimes we need little things to change our perceptions in life. The conference and our meeting were the reason for this new life we got. I‘ve changed a lot; this conference gave me the sense of belonging: belonging to a great country that I’m apart from. It was all about giving and caring.
We all remember our villages and we all want our right to return. But what really hurts is that we all met in Belgium, not in an Arab country, because simply: we can‘t. UNRWA has to make this a mission and to work on it; the mobility that we discussed at the conference is what we really need at first. The whole world has to know that Palestinian youth from now on are stronger, and we will fight together hand in hand to get our rights fully. We will reject any arguments that go without solving our problems.
We Palestinian refugees now have a mission and a vision, and we will work on making them actions.