Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Friends of the Earth Middle East: Giving New Meaning to the Purpose of Challenge 6

The more I travel the more I realize two things.  First, the world is full of opportunities, but most of the time we miss them because we're so preoocupied with other things, and second, people who think they can't make a difference when it comes to intractable problems need to travel a little more to find the people out there who are making that difference. Our experience with Friends of the Earth Middle East has been an amazing proof of both these points.

First, a brief recap is in order. Kate, Alexsis and I constitute Team Palestinian Territories and we've been travelling in Jordan and the West Bank learning about how people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are doing in the quest of reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  One of my major challenges for the year (Challenge 6, in fact), is to write a book on the MDGs with a group of about 25 Saint Michael's College students and alumni.  We have teams working on all eight chapters (for the eight goals) and we also have teams focusing on four cases studies.  (The other three are Ecuador, Bangladesh and Rwanda, andI'm hoping they'll guest-blog at some point on their experiences as well.)
One of the things we learned early on in our exploration is that water is the key to many aspects of development.  In case you've ever wondered, here's how much water there is in a cubic meter.
We've met with a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Amman and the West Bank, and are grateful to them all, both for their excellent work, and for making time to meet with our little group and patiently answer our questions, many of which probably seem self-evident or elementary to them. But we owe a particular note of gratitude to Friends of the Earth.  The organization has not only inspired us all on a personal level, its staff has gone out of its way to facilitate both our understanding and our travel experience in ways that can only be classified as phenomenal.

The story actually began in Washington, DC over a year ago, when Kate was studying there and attending a panel on water issues at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  One of the speakers was Gidon Bromberg, the director of the Tel Aviv office of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), and his talk left a deep impression on Kate. This spring when we were brainstorming ideas of groups to contact regarding our trip, on Kate's suggestion we contacted the Amman office of FoEME, and it was, in fact the first meeting we conducted on the trip.  At the office several staff members as well as the Jordan Director, Munqeth Mehyar, made time to walk us through the in's and out's of both water policy and the challenges of doing regional work in this part of the world. They introduced to a number of different projects that FoEME are working on, including the Good Water Neighbor Project, which pairs neighboring communities in Jordan, the Palestinian West Bank and Israel to work on shared issues of concern regarding water and sanitation.  And they told us a particularly inspirational story about two local communities, one Palestinian (Wadi Fukin) and one Israeli (Tsur Haddassah), that went beyond even the original goals of shared water work to jointly successfully oppose the section of Seperation Wall that was scheduled to be built between their two communities.

Much of the success of the collaboration of Wadi Fukin and Tsur Hadassah is due to the tireless work of community activists for peace in both villages.  Here is Kate with FoEME Field Organizer Fida, and local Wadi Fukin activist Abu Mazen.

When they learned that we were travelling to the West Bank, they put us in touch with the Bethlehem office of FoEME, and from there things just kept accelerating.  The Palestinian office is the home base of any number of fabulous staff and interns, but most deserving of acclaim from our point of view is our new friend, Samiramis (Shamo), the energetic officer of government and public relations.  Introduced to use by Chelsea, an American intern from UC - Santa Cruz who befriended us our first night in town, Shamo not only facilitated our visits to the Auja EcoCenter, Wadi Fukin (the Palestinian village from the story above) AND the Tel Aviv office, where our work in a sense came full circle, when Kate was able to personally meet Gidon, who spoke in Washington, DC and our group was able to see all three coutry directors working together.  Along the way, Shamo also moved us out of our hotel and into her own home, where she served as an amazing personal host for the rest of our time in the West Bank.
Shamo not only opened up huge opportunities for us in our search for information about the MDGs, she also opened her own home to us.  Here she is answering Kate's questions at the Church of the Nativity, which is down the street from her home...

and here I am in her kitchen learning to prepare fresh grape leaves for stuffing from her mother.

A simple blog post can't really do justice to the work that Friends of the Earth Middle East is doing, but it's worth it just to scratch the surface.  The organization is unique in its 3-part horizontal structure that creates equal partnerships across the Jordan, Palestinian, and Israeli offices.  Pretty much everything they undertake is an incredibly heavy lift, from trying to rehabilitate the Jordan River (water source for all three areas) that has virtually dried up, to creating brand-new models for everything from eco-tourism (which we got to see first hand at the Auja EcoCenter in the West Bank) to water neighbor pairings.
Fadi and Mohammed show Alexsis and Kate the map they use to explain water issues to children who visit the EcoCenter.

The main building of the Auja EcoCenter.  Like the rest of the facility, it was constructed with an attempt to reuse materials and with a gray water system plumbing system.

The work can take a heavy toll on the personal lives of the staff of all three offices, who are sometimes viewed as disloyal to their respective countries for working across deep political, ideological and cultural boundaries. But what comes through loud and clear in all three offices is the strong commitment of those who staff them, and the successes they have already had in a place where they odds are usually stacked against them.
Alexsis and Kate, together with all three of the country directors, Gidon (Israel), Munqeth (Jordan) and Nader (Palestine)

Research is often all about trying to understand problems and then searching for solutions.  Friends of the Earth Middle East is helping all of us, and especially the people most affected, understand some critical problems, and facilitating solutions from those communities.  Their work gives meaning to both research and development, and we are grateful for their guidance, friendship and example.

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