New York, November 6, 2011—When he thinks back to that first town hall meeting, the laughter disappears from his voice. “It was very difficult. They accused me of not caring about them, of abandoning them and undermining their rights,” recalls William Salameh, now 28, of his first town hall meeting in Jenin three years ago.
Standing in front of an audience of Palestinian refugees discussing the right of return and advocating creative solutions is undoubtedly a difficult thing to do, no matter what the touted political benefits may be. For William, though, the issue hits much closer to home than for most. “I am a refugee like you,” he tells the room full of doubting men.
Some of those doubting men begin to listen.
“When I speak with refugees,” William admits, “I think of my grandfather.” William’s family was expelled from Jaffa in 1948 and has since resided in the West Bank city of Ramallah. When he broaches the topic of refugees – of what that word means to an individual, of what the land means to an identity and what the memories mean to a people – it is tinged with self-awareness.
“My father, my uncles, my aunts, they love Jaffa, they have Jaffa in their hearts,” he says. “But they left it when they were very young and their memories are collective memories that Palestinians all share.” A just solution, William continues, is not only about “refugees’ physical status, it is also about recognition, an apology and compensation for the emotional harm that has been imposed.”
And so, when William addresses a room of refugees discussing the ways to achieve a just solution with them, he does so as an equal, aware that whatever comes from the difficult but necessary process of negotiations does not apply only in some abstract way to an unfamiliar people. It applies to his family and himself.
“We pose a question, and we let people speak,” William says of the process of town hall meetings. “We don’t tell people the solution. We open the door for people and ask them to think about these issues in different ways then they normally do.”
Although he never lived there, he admits, the birthplace of his father and grandfather will always carry a special meaning for him, regardless of the final outcome. “The history and the stories will stay in our hearts,” he told that first gathering in Jenin, “but we cannot hold onto that alone. There is a reality and we need to work with that to break the status quo and move forward in accordance with international resolutions.”
One of the benefits of breaking that status quo of political lethargy, fatalism or extremism that resonates with William and the people he has talked to at town hall meetings in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Salfeet and Jenin is freedom of movement.
When the second intifada (uprising) began in 2000, William was studying at al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a town in the West Bank just east of Jerusalem. A commute that would have normally taken 15 minutes from his family’s home in Ramallah would take hours as the bus navigated increased road closures and scrutiny at checkpoints. Often William would arrive at university to find it closed for the day, in mourning for a student who had been killed. Eventually, William was forced to abandon his studies in Abu Dis, close to his family in Ramallah, and transfer to the Arab American University in Jenin.
Experiences like these led William to join OneVoice Palestine three years ago. Frustrated with the occupation and wary of succumbing to the hopelessness that seemed to paralyze so many Palestinians around him, the OneVoice Youth Leadership Program and town hall meetings provided a mechanism to channel his anger into a positive force for change. He has since spoken with hundreds of Palestinians advocating pragmatism and creative solutions within Palestinian national interests at town hall meetings across the West Bank and has come to the United States on a OneVoice International Education Program tour in early 2010.
But as much as William has used the platform of OneVoice to advocate a vision of the future, the programs he has been involved in have simultaneously shaped how he approaches the conflict.
William participated in a joint town hall meeting hosted by youth leaders from both OneVoice Palestine and Israel in Tel Aviv in late August. “We were able to support each other,” William says of the Israeli youth leaders. “Ultimately, a framework that is good for us is good for them too.”
And while the questions have not become any easier – Palestinians living within Israel remained wary at the Tel Aviv meeting that their struggle was being overlooked and when they found out that he was a refugee they gave him a poster outlining the right of return after the meeting – William maintains that the two-state solution remains in everyone's self interest, refugees included.
“When we achieve our statehood,” he told the Palestinians in attendance, “we will have a stronger tool enabling us to help you. With an internationally recognized Palestinian state, we will have a better chance of fighting for a just solution.”
William will join his Israeli counterpart, Abigail Gottlieb, in leading an International Education Program tour of Northern California from November 11 - 18.