For a long time, I had this energy inside me to help poor families, orphans, oppressed women and children who from a young age work on the streets selling napkins or drinks yet make very little money. I want to reduce corruption in my society and make it a safer place and to promote equality. I want to participate in decision making as a youth and to promote advocacy of women's rights and social accountability. Until I joined the Social Developmental Forum, being an active member of my Gazan community and finding ways to improve life here was only a hope. Then it became real, and I realized that I could genuinely make a difference.
An opportunity to do something with my energy
“YOU are the change! YOU can influence!” came up in my feed while I was scrolling through Instagram. It announced the application opening for the program Yalla Change, which called for ambitious youth with the potential to be leaders and changemakers in Palestine. I immediately applied, recording a video explaining why I wanted to participate. Eventually I was interviewed. Because I showed a passion for change, amongst almost 1,000 applicants I was chosen to be part of this incredible program.
Yalla Change is a seven-day intensive training offered by the Social Developmental Forum that develops leadership skills, builds youth abilities and prepares them for community initiatives like making entertainment parks for kids in camps, planting trees in the yards of psychiatric hospitals and painting the walls of elementary schools. On the first day, we gathered in a big hall located beside the Mediterranean Sea and worked as a team mapping our future plans to help make our Gazan society a place where kids attend schools instead of working, females play sports just like males and citizens participate in elections.
During the training, I took an exciting journey full of working and planning in a high-energy competitive environment. We were divided into teams and given time to share creative and applicable project ideas; the best three projects would get the funds to be implemented. As one team, Hala, Nouran, Mohammed, Alaa and I worked on analyzing societal problems regarding the oppression of women’s, children’s and disabled people’s rights. We set goals to reduce injustice for these people, then developed initiatives that included providing sports courts for females, something we lack in Gaza. We also planned for constructing paths for people with wheelchairs to reach the sea coast.
An amazing week of training
On my first day, I was thrilled to meet many unique young people. Tala was singing for us with her beautiful voice, Mohammed was throwing jokes and making everybody laugh and Dalia was talking about her feelings about being a bachelor’s graduate. Our trainer addressed gender equality and asked us to debate it. Our mentor put on the table the issue of enabling women to have equal managerial positions as men. Although members had conflicting opinions about this, they all were respectful and in favor of females’ rights.
All twenty members inside the room argued strongly, with different perspectives for each of them. Being among them fueled my enthusiasm even more. I felt like I was in the right place, with the right people. From that moment, I knew I belonged. It wasn’t just training; it was HOME! This place made me feel like a bird flying and singing all my ideas without fear.
Each day of those seven days, we started our morning by writing a motivational note to each member and putting the notes in envelopes attached on the wall, identified by each member’s name and age. Our lovely mentors, Hatem and Hadeel, also wrote us the notes attached to pieces of chocolate. I loved knowing that people saw me as a cheerful and positive person and that they thought my character is brave. They showed me aspects about myself that I could not see, like that I’m a good debater. Even the criticisms that I got from some members were important to me because they showed me negative sides that I have to work on, like being short-tempered.
The note that was most special to me was written in Braille by our blind friend Mohammed. He wrote for everyone in his language and showed us how to read it by using our fingers. Mohammed was the strongest member of the team. Although he couldn’t see and faced difficulties performing the activities with us, he was the most cheerful and kindhearted among us. He used to come in the morning with a big smile on his face. He told us stories of his struggles in university to get an excellent degree in law and how he triumphed over them. We all learned from his strength.
We spent each whole day training from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., with food breaks that reflected Palestinian culture. At breakfast, we chatted together while eating the famous Palestinian Z’aatar manakish, an Arabic snack of bread topped with a special herbal mix. It was very entertaining to chat with each other while eating. Then we would take the usual morning selfie after breakfast where everyone gathered in one picture. You could see Fatma holding her book and wearing a warm smile,, Ahmed holding his guitar as he looked happily at the camera, Dalia taking her glasses off, to reveal sparkling eyes and Tala tidying her hair to get ready for the selfie. For lunch, we ate some of the well-known Gazan dishes like Shawarma and Kebab with appetizers like Hummus, which is always on any Palestinian dining table.
I will always remember the words of Mr. Hatem, our trainer: “Be who you are and say what you feel.” Yalla Change gave us a big space to share all of our opinions, thoughts, feelings and goals. It gave us the space to think, discuss and exchange ideas knowing that our peers were mindful and open, accepting and respecting our thoughts even if they contradicted theirs.
One of my arguments was stressing youth’s political contribution. I said, “I am a young adult who wants her right to participate in decision making in my country. I believe that young people have the expertise and capacity to make decisions. Youth are great and active representatives of their communities and should therefore have the right to participate in political positions.”
An Elections Day exercise
One of my favorite experiences through this program was Elections Day that was a simulation of real Palestinian elections. We planned a campaign named “We Want Elections” that aimed to put pressure on decision makers to conduct national elections on all levels and promoting youth participation in elections. We got the opportunity to elect the Social Development Forum youth committee. We went through all the stages of an actual election: signing up to participate seven days in advance; candidates posting campaign videos on Facebook; and the election itself held in a conference hall in Gaza, where we used ink fingerprinting to vote. The winning team was “We Are One,” which deserved to win because they considered youth’s needs and demands for change in the community by planning and executing projects to incorporate youth in the elections process.
Being involved in Yalla Change gave me a new Dina who has expanded her relations with like-minded people and enriched her knowledge of social accountability and integrity. It was truly a changing point for me and the beginning of many other successful experiences with people, projects and community activities. I felt the real change in both my personal and practical life. I walked from Yalla Change feeling fierce and proudly saying, “I can make a change!”