Cycle for peace Palestine’s Follow the Women
By Yiota Kamaratos
In 2003, a handful of female youth workers from the United Kingdom, Jordan, Sweden and Cyprus formed Follow the Women to cycle through the Middle East to support Palestinians who were restricted from taking part in Euro-Med activities due to the Israeli occupation. Thus, the Palestinian chapter of Follow the Women (FTW) was formed, with the encouragement of the late-President Yasser Arafat.
Led by coordinator Lina Yasser Arafat, the women were driven by one common aim - to raise awareness about the occupation. Approximately 80 women of all ages, political affiliations and religious backgrounds have joined FTW Palestine since 2004.
Throughout the year, members of FTW Palestine go into refugee camps to meet with the local authorities and women’s organisations. They pre-arrange visits and activities so when the time comes for the peace project, the international participants are given the chance to experience the plight of Palestinians during their brief stay in Palestine.
This year, the fourth annual peace ride took place between 3 and 15 May 2008, when approximately 300 women from 28 countries from around the world cycled through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. In Lebanon, the most solemn moment was the visit to the Shatilla mass grave. The women laid a wreath at the memorial, paying respect to the nearly 3,000 victims lost, as well as saluting the survivors among the FTW Palestine group.
Visiting Syria’s UNRWA Al-Husainia Camp allowed refugees to give testimonies of fleeing their homes in Palestine and of life in camps for the past 60 years. An emotional learning process took place, which led to a greater understanding of the on-going Palestinian struggle. The impact of the 1948-displaced Palestinians meeting the younger West Bank Palestinians was moving. The Palestinian FTW team was overwhelmed by stories of hardship from their fellow Palestinians living in exile. Each side was unaware, yet eager, to learn of the realities of the other’s situation.
For the second year, Her Majesty Queen Rania offered her patronage for FTW. Among the events planned by the Jordanian FTW team was a marketplace of handicrafts from Palestinian and Iraqi refugee women's NGOs, Palestinian children’s painting exhibitions, as well as traditional Dabkeh performances.
The ride in Palestine was purposely arranged to coincide with activities commemorating the 60 years since the Nakba. FTW Palestine co-organised events with the Siraj Centre for Holy Land Studies with sponsorship from Arwa. Ramallah’s mayor, Ms. Janet Michael welcomed FTW, which was reduced to half its size, as its Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Moroccan and Iranian members were not allowed to enter through the Allenby Bridge.
The governor of Jericho, Mr. Saleh, visited FTW on two different occasions, ensuring that their stay in Jericho was going smoothly. The peace advocates cycled into the refugee camps of Jericho and Jenin, where they were received by women’s associations. The Right to Play prepared activities for the cyclists and the children of Jenin. Palestinians lined the streets to welcome the cyclists. They were showered with flowers and gifts. Locals applauded and called out “Ahlan wa sahlan,” offering traditional Arabic sweets and coffee as tokens of appreciation for supporting justice in their land. Among the countless unforgettable experiences was an overnight stay with the welcoming, humble and generous families in the remote village of Rummaneh.
To the surprise of all, FTW was allowed to easily ride through Houwara, one of Israel’s strictest checkpoints for locals, without any questions asked, any IDs checked, or delays. The Messengers of Peace cycled to Al-Najah University, where they were guests of its president, Dr. Hamdalah. The students gave FTW a tour of Old Nablus, walking through mazes of narrow streets, tracing its rich history.
Upon arrival at Al-Faraa Centre, the former Israeli interrogation prison for Palestinian youth, a minute of silence and a candle vigil were held for the people of Gaza. Spending the night at the Centre, and having a guided tour by a former detainee was very stirring. Seeing the torture areas and closed quarters of each cell and the names of prisoners and calendars deeply engraved into the walls, had an impact on all present. In the narrow space of one of the cells, eight of the women stood in two lines, imagining how life could possibly have been as young detainees. There was silence. The rows of eyes were in tears.
The initiatives of FTW Palestine have given hope to ordinary Palestinians, while the truth of their daily realities has been carried back to each woman’s country to mobilise awareness-raising campaigns for justice in Palestine. Follow-up activities include youth exchanges, visits to orphanages, mural paintings at playgrounds and nature clean-ups with the youth.
Follow the Women has become an important event where empowered Palestinian women are at the forefront of promoting peace both domestically and internationally. Rich intercultural and inter-religious dialogues have resulted in mutual understanding among women from various countries. Stereotypes about Palestinian women are replaced by the certainty that regardless of ethnic origin, religious doctrine, head scarf or no head scarf, all have the same dreams and aspirations. Each Palestinian participant can be proud of contributing to peace for Palestine.
Yiota Kamaratos is the Cyprus Coordinator of Follow the Women. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Article photos by Yiota Kamaratos