Samia Khoury: YWCA of Palestine International Youth Conference

Posted on Oct 13, 2018

by Samia Khoury

The Young Women’s Christian Association of Palestine (YWCA), a member of the World YWCA, is holding its international conference on Youth this weekend based on UN Security Council Resolution 2250. The resolution which was adopted on Dec. 9, 2015, emphasizes the importance of youth as agents of change in the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. So the slogan of the conference is  “Youth participate, and Youth decide; Toward Freedom and Justice.” Youth from Gaza were also able to attend through video conference linked with the YMCA of Gaza. I was at the opening session yesterday, and felt so proud of this organization which has been so close to my heart and where I had spent many years of my volunteer work. I wish I could have stayed throughout the conference sessions, but physically I cannot cope anymore. I could not even attend the special reception in the evening marking 125 years on the establishment of the YWCA of Palestine. Quite a long and rich history.

Speaking at the opening session held at the Red Crescent Hall in Bireh-Ramallah, were the President and National General Secretary of the YWCA of Palestine, the World YWCA General Secretary, the Palestinian Minister for Women’s Affairs, the general secretary of the YM/YWCA of Norway, the Representative of the United Nations Population Fund and Head of the United Nations Youth Group in Palestine. The representative of Sweden was not allowed in at the airport, but another member of the delegation spoke on her behalf. When you live under occupation, no matter how well you plan a conference, there is always a surprise waiting for you at the end of the day. Fortunately it was just one member out of all those guests.

All the presentations were very good and most pertinent. The local Palestinian organizations were well represented and it was a pleasure having so many internationals in the conference representing Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Macedonia, India, Ukraine, Romania, Switzerland, and the USA.

One of the first lessons I learned from the World General Secretary, the late Elizabeth Palmer, is that the YWCA must have antennas to sense the needs of its community and be able to adapt its work and comply with those needs. Indeed the history of the YWCA of Palestine has been closely knitted to the history of Palestine. I still recall the programs we used to have at the YWCA of Jerusalem before 1948, and which also served as the premises for the YWCA of Palestine at the time. It included leadership training through a variety of programs like drama, sports, debates, and handicrafts. We were also privileged to be able to make use of the YMCA gym, swimming pool and library. Things changed completely after 1948. But the spirit of the YWCA did not change. There were capable leaders to restart the organization in East Jerusalem, Amman, and Jericho. Since the time when the West Bank was annexed to Jordan, the YWCA became part of the National movement of the YWCA of Jordan, and working with the Palestinian refugees became a priority. In fact, the World YWCA was one of the first international organizations that came to the rescue of refugees at Aqbat Jaber in Jericho, one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps after 1948.

Another landmark in the history of Palestine was the June 1967 war when overnnight we found ourselves under a new reality: Israeli occupation. In fact on Monday, June 5, the morning of the war, we were supposed to go to Amman for a National Council meeting. Well that was not possible for some time, but when eventually we resumed our trips for the National Council meetings, they were quite an ordeal because of the strenuous procedures of the bridge crossing. One can actually write a whole book about those experiences.

Once again there was a new reality that the YWCA had to face and adapt programs to, in order to meet the needs of the whole community which was quite at a loss. With a committed General Secretary and her team of staff and board, the YWCA of Jerusalem became a centre for the various sectors of the community. Over and above its vocational school, clubs for all ages, men and women, were established to provide leadership training, and to fulfill the needs of the community. Summer camps, art, music and folk dancing helped uplift the spirit of the young people, and a mothers’ club helped to identify the needs of the children, and played a role in the establishment of parent-teachers associations. The YWCA seemed like a centre of information for many groups and especially the church groups that were guests at the new hotel in the Jerusalem YWCA building. Speaking to those groups to make them aware of the grave injustice committed against the Palestinians was part of our purpose. . The first human rights committee started at the YWCA long before any of the official Palestinian NGOs on the subject started, and the World YWCA helped us circulate Action Alerts. In fact the YWCA has been avant garde on all levels, and never hesitated to get involved in any forum that would help the community and the Palestinian cause.

The youth have always been a major focus of the YWCA, so it is not surprising that the YWCA was avant garde once again in planning this conference. The World YWCA has set a model to its affiliated organization by its involvement ahead of anybody else in so many world issues. I still remember that the first time I heard of divestment was at one of the World YWCA council meetings when a resolution was taken to divest from banks that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. Global warming and disarmament were always some of the issues brought up at the various world council meetings. The World YWCA was the first international organization which recognized the YWCA of Palestine as an independent organization. It affiliated as such to the World YWCA Association in its Council meeting in Stavanger, Norway, in 1991, although the state of Palestine was not yet recognized . It did much better than the Oslo agreements which took place two years later, and are still marking time. However, we will continue to hope that with the energy and commitment of the Youth we shall overcome someday. Yes indeed we cannot lose hope because we have a just cause, and three cheers for the YWCA, its leadership, and its members.