Civitas: Foundations for the Participation of Palestinian Refugees and Exile Communities

Civitas: Foundations for the Participation of Palestinian Refugees and Exile Communities

The aim of the Civitas collective research project, based at the University of Oxford, is to assess how Palestinian refugee communities living in exile in the Middle East, Europe and further afieldcanstrengthencivic mechanisms to enable better communication with their national representative the PLO and its institutions, the host country, the humanitarian agencies that serve them, and other refugee communities, both inside and outside of Palestine.

 Civitas is almost entirely a volunteer project run by the communities themselves, and has been facilitated by a small team who are co-ordinating the activities in order to carry forward the voices of the refugees to the relevant bodies, and bring the urgent needs of the Palestinian refugees to the attention of the international community. During a series of publicly convened debates, each community has run their own needs-assessment exercise where they determine for themselves which mechanisms they might need – for example, by strengthening existing structures such as unions and associations, by regular newsletters, delegations, monthly meetings, twinning, committees, and other means of communication. They have also discussed the issues concern them, and that they want raised with these bodies.

The series of publicly convened debates and workshops began in March 2005 and continue until November 2005, and are taking place in dozens of cities in over 25 countries across the Middle East, Europe, North and Latin America. The series of debates that have taken place or are set to take place in the coming weeks follow different models according to the local geographic, social, and political constraints. Active members of Palestinian refugee communities have taken it upon themselves to findthemostefficientways, according to their capacities and local circumstances, to reach out to the different sectors of their community in the hopes of being as inclusive as possible. Additionally, during the debates great care is taken to ensure that the ideas and suggestions of the participants are noted down in detail by two note-takers, and are also recorded on audio and/or video cassettes so as to guarantee that their voices and views are accurately recorded.

Between March and July 2005, several public and syndicate meetings took place within Palestinian refugee and exile communities across the Middle East, Europe and North America. By the end of the month of August, meetings had taken place in the following countries: Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, UAE, Oman, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Greece, Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, the United States, and Palestine. Throughout the autumn months, a finalseriesofmeetingsaretakingplaceinSaudiArabia,Italy,Egypt,JordanandChile.

During the meetings that have taken place thus far, participation has been impressive and diverse, varying in attendance from 20 up to 400 people, depending on the form of the meeting, the size of the community in the region in question, and the capacity of the local organizers to reach out to the community at large, all of which are integral components and factors that have been taken into account during preparations. Many of the new generation have participated in the debates and are expressing their concerns, and in many refugee areas these meetings are the firsttimetheyhadcometogetherformanyyears,ifatall. The first issue that refugees raised was the primacy of the right of return, as well as the centrality of strengthening the institutions of their sole legitimate representative, the PLO, which they affirmedthrough recommending broadening channels, as well as reactivating unions and other institutional and associational mechanisms. Suggestions and ideas brought forth during the meetings so far have been creative and rich, both in their content and their quantity. Other ideas range from enhancing existing civic structures; practical issues such as obtaining Palestinian I.D. papers for local refugee communities in Europe as a way to both prove and protect Palestinian identity; twinning programs and network-building with Palestinian refugee communities around the world; radio stations and web-sites; maintaining and updating their registration with UNRWA if they are currently residing outside UNRWA mandate areas; organizing delegations and committees to voice concerns with all relevant bodies: the PLO, international humanitarian agencies such as the UNHCR, the host country or other refugee communities. As such, the refugees expressed the view that improving their political, economic, social and legal conditions will empower them, give them better chances to participate effectively in decisions relating to their future, and will help them better argue for, and obtain, their rights. Many more ideas and recommendations are coming in daily as the debates unfold.

Between March and May 2005, an extensive series of 21 meetings were held all over Lebanon. After long and well thought-out preparations, several teams organized many types of meetings in the different key regions in Lebanon. The series of meetings began with public meetings and where followed by syndicate meetings for workers, youth\students, and women in the Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli, Baalbak and Sidon regions. In the Tyre region, around 125 people participated in a public meeting in the El-Rashidiyeh refugee camp, followed by a meeting for students in El-Rashidiyeh, a meeting for workers and the unemployed as well as a meeting for women in El-Bass refugee camp. Additionally, an opening public meeting was held for Tripoli, where more than 250 Palestinians from the refugee camps of Nahr El-Barad and El-Baddawi and the surrounding areas attended, many arriving in buses in order to actively participate in the meeting which lasted for several hours. These were followed by syndicate meetings for students, women, and workers in both El-Baddawi and Nahr El-Bared refugee camps. An open public meeting in Bourj El Barajneh refugee camp initiated the series of meetings that took place in the Beirut area, which included syndicate meetings for students, women and workers in the refugee camps of Beirut. In Baalbak’s Wavell camp, a public meeting attended by around 120 people as well as syndicate meetings for students and women were convened. In Ein El-Helweh, syndicate meetings for women and workers were also held. A special meeting for youth with disabilities and special needs from all of the refugee camps concluded the series of meetings in Lebanon.

A series of seven meetings were also held in Iraq, which included fivemeetingsforactivemembersofthe community covering the various areas of Baghdad, some held in shelters, a meeting for women and a meeting for students at the University of Baghdad. A series of four meetings were also held in Yemen during the last week of April: in addition to the preparatory meeting, there was a public meeting as well as meetings for youth, and professors. Also, the Palestinian community in Sudan held a public meeting in Khartoum. The United Arab Emirates’ Palestinian community held three syndicate meetings for male and female students as well as professors in early June, with more meetings to take place in early September. Several meetings have taken place in various cities in Saudi Arabia which are continuing, and syndicate meetings have begun in Egypt.

In Denmark, members of the Palestinian community have organized, in active coordination with the local organizations and community members, 11 meetings in 8 different cities where there are sizable Palestinian refugee communities. During the month of April, three public meetings took place throughout Sweden in the cities of Malmo, Uppsala and Stockholm, all of which have sizable Palestinian refugee populations; these were followed by syndicate meetings for women and students during the month of May. In Norway, four public meetings were held in the cities of Oslo, Bergen, Christiansen and Salvager during the month of June. In Germany, where one of the largest Palestinian communities in Europe is to be found, public and focus group meetings were held in the cities of Berlin and Frankfurt. In the Netherlands on March 31st, an open public meeting with more than 120 participants was convened on the occasion of Land Day. In Greece, during the months of April and May, a total of seven meetings, including two public meetings and syndicate meetings for women and active members of the community, were held in Athens and Thessalonica. A large public meeting was also held in Vienna, Austria, during the month of January. The Palestinian community in the United Kingdom held a large public meeting in London in early July. A public meeting was held in Barcelona, Spain, and two meetings were held in Italy in the month of October, one in the city of Rome, and the other in the northern town of Padua.

In Ottawa, Canada, a public meeting was held on June 11, 2005. In a workshop model, this was followed on the same day with syndicate meetings for women, men, and children, followed by a closing public meeting, where the different ideas and thoughts from the syndicate meetings were exchanged. Public meetings were also held in the cities of Montreal and Toronto in July. In the United States, public meetings were held in the cities of Detroit and Chicago, and will be held in New York in September. Meetings have been held in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and a public meeting will be held in Santiago, Chile, on November the 3rd.

The transcriptions of these debates are now being gathered together in a large report that will be presented in late January/ early February to the international community, through a series of public events which will be co-hosted with the international and national institutions that serve the Palestinian people in exile, and through popular events organised by the communities themselves. The record and findingsofthese debates will be a resource for the Palestinian refugee and exile communities themselves, wherever they are.

For more information about the Civitas project visit the Civitas website:

Karma Nabulsi is the Project Director of Civitas. Rabie Masri and Mezna Qato are members of the Project Team.