The university was closed due to Easter on what was scheduled to be our first day of workshops, so the group instead prepared for the two days of workshops we would have that week. Through the use of the widely-followed 'Birzeit Advancement Project' facebook page (established by the previous cohort of volunteers), we drummed up interest for our Social Media and Culture workshops.
Each session was led by two volunteers (one UKV and one ICV), with other volunteers facilitating the group activities as required. Social Media was a great place to start as it is something that almost everyone in Palestine (and, indeed, in the UK) is involved in somehow. Culture was another great icebreaker as it gave us a chance to laugh about the stereotypes the UKVs and ICVs might have had about each other. Once we determined that smaller group discussions feeding back to the group as a whole was the best method of gaining the participation of all the students, we had some great, flowing discussions and interesting ideas. The turnout was just over 70 students over the two days with the workshop structure incorporating powerpoint/video and printed/written question cards, but with verbal discussion clearly being the main theme throughout. A highlight of these sessions was an activity asking the Palestinian students to try to workout the meanings of some English idioms - which led to some inevitably inventive answers!
Our second scheduled week of workshops had to give way to the student elections, which seemed to have taken hold of all of Ramallah, let alone the university. Although the efficacy of the elections seems to divide opinion among the students, the turnout and spectacle at the election debates were evidence of the increased importance of the student elections in the absence of actual state elections. Despite worries that the timing of the elections may affect the momentum we had been building for the Advancement project, it has made the team even more eager for the next batch of workshops.
The Birzeit Advancement also had their first Guided Learning trip at the end of our first month in action. A packed schedule for the day began with a trip to a new city under development - Rawabi, a short drive out of Ramallah. An official from the showroom team in the Rawabi project was kind enough to show us around the new town, with it's impressive 15,000 accommodating amphitheatre and all-Palestinian sourced materials and labourers. This was followed by a trip to Bil'in. Here we met Iyad at the Friends of Freedom and Justice Centre, who took us through the ongoing daily struggle faced by the villagers. He took us through the ordeals of the villagers during their non-violent demonstration against the seizure of their land and also how the movement has grown and spread to other villages, especially following the making of the film '5 Broken Cameras' - directed by his brother. A tour of the village and the annexation wall ended at his house, where we were greeted with the delicious Palestinian rice meal of mujaddara and a brief yet touching history of Bil'in.
We said our goodbyes to Iyad and his wonderful family and set off to our next stop in Mas'hah. Here we met a man and his wife whose house had been completely annexed and isolated by the wall, fence and settlements. He told us of his inspirational and continual battle with the occupying and Palestinian officials alike, its impact on his livelihood and employment and his eventual (semi) victory.
I started this post by saying that a hectic first two weeks were followed by the team settling into its surroundings - but upon reflection I can see that this has hardly been the case! May the weeks ahead bring just as many challenges and adventures, insha'Allah.