Lehrveranstaltungen von Urmila Goel an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder
Wintersemester 2004/05: Virtual Ethnicity - Ethnic Identity Construction in the Internet
reports by Miruna Covaci
I think I hadn’t realized it that there actually is a clear distinction between the members of the group of discussions and those who are just visiting the website with no intention, at least apparently, to get in touch with the first-mentioned. Yet, they do express their feelings, needs, requests in the messages posted in the so-called “guest book” of the site.
Indeed, there are only 18 messages posted, coming, if I were to credit the information given, from Romanian visitors (10 messages), Canadian (3), German (2), Swiss (1), American (1) and Portuguese (1). One from Canada and one from Romania are help requests for people suffering of different diseases, those from Germany come from a German organization in Koln and are invitations for different events, some of the messages are purely informative, asking for information on visa or traveling and the rest are just signs of support, appreciation and friendliness.
Since the case of Cristian Costras, the man in need of a proteases that Luana Martin has talked about in her report, is the first thing one can see on the home page this week, I wonder why this two messages posted in the guest book, asking desperately for help, haven’t drawn so much attention. And I wonder if the members of the site visit this section of the visitors, since I have not seen on my site, as in Luana’s, a conversation based either on Cristian’s message, or on these two. I wonder if these messages have been differently dealt with according to where or to whom they have been sent. In fact, I think that Cristian didn’t actually send the message to my website, but someone decided to post it on the front page, probably the webmaster, which shows a connection between different Romanian communities abroad. They seem to share a kind of similar appreciation of what is important. The messages in the guest book are still there, but this one, which is on the front page of Luana’s site, is also the main piece of news on mine.
The messages from Germany are invitations for events. Since my impression is that the members of the site don’t actually go on this guest book chapter, I believe that these messages should have been posted in the group of discussion or in the “Events” section of the site, through a deal with, again, the webmaster.
There are those messages, too, which ask for information on visas, how to travel and study in Switzerland, information that one can find on the site without asking anywhere else. Maybe this tells that people tend to believe people more that just information and they wanted to be sure of the information they get through some other Romanian’s experience.
And last, but not least, there are those messages showing appreciation, friendliness and impressions. Adina from Romania considers the site to be more “fresh” than others. Daniel expresses his wish of having Swiss friends, giving no reason for that. Catalin (who wants to go to Switzerland to make a better life) and Ovidiu say that the site is very good and the initiative of the webmaster of persuading people to go to vote was very well organized. Andreea states that the site changed her mood as she was traveling in Switzerland alone and felt very much warmth finding out that there are Romanian churches and organizations. Simona from Canada visited the site with no reason, liked it a lot and says that she would keep coming to it. Vasile from Portugal says “hi” to every Romanian heart living abroad and is proud of anything that is Romanian. “We have to prove them we’ve been in Europe for more than 2000 years”. Constantin from Canada express his opinion that anything that is ROMANIAN is everlasting and that there are many of “us” and “we” have to prove them that we know how to do things right, since people are expecting a lot from us.
The Questionnaire of the Romanian in Switzerland
I have decided to tackle this subject thinking that the questions that are asked in this questionnaire might tell me something about how Romanians in Switzerland are, what they expect from this web-site, how willing they are to interact with each other and get involved in organizing the site. I think that the results of a questionnaire represent a good description and a first step before creating a site. Since a site is meant to cater for people’s needs and desires, it’s almost obligatory to know whom you are creating the site for.
1. Do you wish a “Romanians’ home” existed in every Swiss region?
One can choose from the three possibilities of answering: I wish there were a juridical Romanian organization; I’m not interested in the organization itself, but in the Romanian events it can organize; I’m interested in getting close to the other Romanians here.
So, I believe that according to the answers received, the web-master had a clue about what the Romanians in Switzerland want. Some wish to get in touch with the others (so there is a group of discussions), some want to know the organizations that can protect them (Useful Information section), others are interested in taking part in events (there are regional organizations that create events, the users themselves organize meetings and there is also a list with all the Romanian events in Switzerland).
2. What would “Romanians’ Home in Switzerland” mean to you?
Again the possibilities of answer vary from: such an organization would represent Romania in a truthful way, would represent in juridical matters, keep us informed and protect our rights to “it would mean new friends, new acquaintances, support, new bonds and relationships”.
So, one can see that there are two different types of answers, one more pragmatic and purpose oriented and one more friendly. And I think this site tries to fulfill both these orientations.
3. In what kind of activities organized by “Romanians’ Home in Switzerland” would you get involved?
To this question one can answer in multiple ways, from: organizing events, meetings, debates and religious activities, humanitarian projects to cultural and artistic activities, cooking classes, hobbies and business.
4. What can you personally do in order to fond and support the “Romanians’ Home in Switzerland”?
Here, there are answers either based on organizing different events or supporting this organization financially.
5. Romanian Parties
This chapter deals with the Romanian parties and in which way people would like to take part in such an event (singing, cooking, dancing…), how often they would like to have it (monthly, every six month, once a year or on holidays) and what typical Romanian elements they would like to encounter there (Romanian food and drinks, different kind of contests, Romanian music).
6. What would you like to find on www.casa-romanilor.ch?
Perhaps this question is the most relevant, since one can find every element that is given as a possible answer on the website: English, German and French versions (at least the site is presented as having these versions, but perhaps they are still working on it or they realized that the site is dedicated mainly to the Romanians and therefore the language needed is basically Romanian language); forum (there is a group of discussions); useful information; advertising (there is a section in which the users can offer help or information for the others); churches; Romanian and Swiss news; Romanian events in Switzerland.
So, according to this questionnaire, the website deals with all the parts that the Romanians in Switzerland might wish. Moreover, from what I understand, I can say that this site is just a part of a bigger organization, an organization that I do not know if it exists or not. The site is just a tool, somehow, a tool meant to help people fulfill their desires
FACES OF ROMANIA
I know that in my previous reports I expressed my disappointment given the fact that, to my mind, the Romanians in Switzerland do not create a true community in the way I perceive the word. Moreover, in my first reports I remember being surprised that the Romanians in Switzerland are not so much concerned, if at all, with traditional aspects of one might call Romanianity. They do not seem to try to create in any way special the Romanian traditions, they do not seem to miss something in particular except maybe their relatives… I might be wrong, but I sometimes believe that their way of perceiving Romania is somehow limited just to the modern, political, economic and social aspects. As I have mentioned before, most of the discussions on the group of discussion basically debate on the Romanian news or focus on pragmatic things.
This week, though, I found something special. In the “Useful information” section, just at the bottom of the page, I found a special chapter dedicated to the way foreigners see Romania. There are two links: one is from a website of two teachers of traditional dances from England, Liz and Nick (www.eliznik.co.uk) and the other one is the site created by a Swiss man in love with Romania (www.alois-burkard.ch). The first site focuses on highly traditional aspects on Romania, including costumes, music, dances, people and places (it is in English) and the other one (in German) describes in words and pictures the travels that Alois Burkard had through Romania and sometimes the Republic of Moldavia. I would like to focus on the pictures of these sites in order to show the different ways in which foreign people, unlike Romanians, see my country. Moreover, I believe that the pictures taken show what these people have chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to see about Romania. Seeing these incredibly beautiful and picturesque images of Romania made me realize that they see it in a very special and poetic way. Many of the members of my website have left from Romania in order to live a better life. Many of them associate just poverty and corruption with Romania. They forget about the more… pure and archaic elements of our culture that are illustrated in these images http://www.eliznik.org.uk/RomaniaViews/romania_pictures.htm .
The pictures that Alois Burkard took (www.alois-burkard.ch – Reiseberichte section), on the other hand, focus on both traditional aspects and on more modern, up-to-date, social ones. He has taken pictures of landscapes, pictures illustrating the occupations of the old people living in small, isolated, traditional villages, of modern cities and tourist objectives. He has also shot social aspects of Romania, such as neighbourhoods of Rroma people and children begging on the streets.
Maybe what I have said is not quite relevant. I don’t know. But I believe that it is interesting to compare how Romanians living abroad tend to see their country and how foreigners do the same thing. I know that there are many negative stereotypes about Romania and negative things that people know about Romania. This is why I was so happy to see these two examples, exceptions that confirm the rule. And the pictures I have been talking about are some of the most beautiful ones I have seen and I am really glad that some foreign people see my country through this kind of lenses. They show a beautiful Romania, a Romania that most of my co-nationals from Switzerland might have forgotten.
When I started observing this website, www.casa-romanilor.ch, which is to be translated as “the home of Romanians”, I was expecting to find something more like a real home. I thought this kind of websites give people those familiar feelings they do not encounter that easily in a new society, I thought they are much more eager to meet and truly know each other, to share past and present experiences, to feel more connected to their home countries through each other. I thought this was the whole purpose of this site. I do not mean to sound past-oriented, event though, to some extent, I might actually be so. It’s just that what I have found on this site does not meet my expectations (I’m not saying that this is good or bad). I really believed that the distinct sections of this website would deal a lot more with themes and subjects that would reflect the Romanians’ nationality, culture, even history. I expected to find a small and picturesque corner of my country here, more pictures of Romania (and Switzerland, for that matter) (unfortunately, no new pictures whatsoever). And I certainly expected the member of the discussion group to be more open and friendly to each other. I have found no friendship on this web-site, which surprised me a lot. I suppose I had the impression that nationhood can bring people together if these people don’t live in their countries anymore, but in new social, economic, political and cultural environments.
I cannot help myself from drawing these conclusions. And I do that because of what I see. I basically see now, after a few months of observing and after some weeks of not reporting on what I observe, pretty much the same things I saw at the beginning. And I will try to describe that focusing on the two elements of the site, the passive and the active one.
The passive part of the site, meaning the sections and departments it has, has suffered no change. With the exception, of course, of the home-page and of the news-section, which are meant to change almost every single day given their mobile, informative nature and purpose. These two elements, the home page and the news, are deeply interconnected, since the most important news, usually from Romania, also appear on the front page. Since a week now, the main headline that appears on the home page is about an evening of public reading organized by the Romanian writer who lives in Switzerland -Catalin Dorian Florescu (whom I have talked about)- that is due to take place at the end of January. The logo and the Swiss map with the weather forecast applied on have not changed. What surprised me the most was that during the holyday, on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, no special wishes have been written on the home page for the Romanians in Switzerland, no logos have been applied to the site to suggest the festive atmosphere that I am sure one could find in each Romanian home, no matter where he lives.
As far as the other passive parts (About Us, Cultural, Churches, Organizations, Regional Initiatives, Useful Information and Diaspora) are concerned, everything is the same. So, one finds out that this web-site has been active since February 2003 and that it is meant to represent the Romanians in Switzerland. It is also mentioned in this short description that it’s high time people gave up categorizations such as “us” and “them” and tried to create a real multicultural community. The Cultural, Organizations and Regional Initiatives sections basically deal with bi-cultural themes, as I have described in my other reports. Nothing changed, either, when it comes to the Useful Information and Diaspora sections. The only thing that has been added to the site in the last few weeks is the pastoral letter of the priest from “Saint Nicolas” Romanian orthodox church in Zurich who wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a joyful and blessed year to come. All in all, I think that nothing could have actually changed in the structure of the site. So maybe this is not so unusual. What I found a little sad and what I didn’t expect to find has to do with the group of discussions.
I would have expected the active part of the site to be much more active during the holydays than it proved to be. I have counted the messages posted on the site since after the elections until now: 32. Given the fact that there are 140 active members in the discussion group, people who have met on several occasions and therefore know each other, and also given the special period of the year which I am talking about (Christmas is one of the most important, if not the most important holyday for Romanians), I find that 32 messages posted is… not enough. Not enough according to what?, one might ask. Not enough according to my expectations. I thought, as I have said before, that Romanians in Switzerland are much more eager to create a real community, to meet, to know each other in the true meaning of the word, to celebrate together in a traditional way that only they know. Or at least to wish each other Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year. Unless this happened through private e-mails or some other means of communication, it has not happened at all. This leads me to the next point I want to talk about: the topics of discussion of these 32 messages. There was only one message to wish everyone the best in the new year and it came, ironically, from a new member of the group. There was another one with a link for a site in which one could find some Romanian carols translated in English and, eventually, there were two messages coming from the moderator of the group: one was meant to announce everyone that there would be a special program on a Swiss radio channel on Christmas Eve (between 11 and 12 p.m.) with Romanian carols and one to let everyone know the programs of the Romanian orthodox churches in Switzerland in this period of time. The other messages till 32 deal with… political issues, one invitation to ski, some problems with scholarship and that’s about it. So, this is how the virtual community of this website spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
I might sound disappointed and less objective than I should probably be. That’s because I am both disappointed and perhaps subjective. I realized, once again, that this web-site means less than I had thought. I thought or I wanted to believe it is the site of the Romanian… friends?… in Switzerland. But it is just the site of the Romanians in Switzerland. I realized that being a Romanian abroad does not necessarily mean that you have to stick close to the other Romanians abroad. Yes, it is nice to debate on the hot subjects from your country with someone who is equally interested in them. It is nice to eat some traditional food and listen to traditional music with your co-nationals from time to time. But that is not necessarily the basis for friendship. The fact that one goes through similar situations of adapting and integrating in a new society with someone else (of the same nationality) does not mean that one has to open up to the other person. It does not mean that they have to share this situation in terms of feelings, frustrations, fears or hopes. Apparently, it neither involves them to wish each other something nice for holidays.
I suppose these kind of websites are somehow comforting. It’s here that one can meet people with similar backgrounds and past experiences and with perhaps similar present situations. But that does not mean so much after all, does it? I have discovered once again the pragmatic side of this virtual space and I am anxious to know if mine is a singular case or if one can apply this to other sites as well.
ROMANIA THROUGH CULTURAL AND FOREIGN EYES
Since this is a website meant to bring people together, to create bonds and links among them, I decided, for this week, to focus more on those people whose creative activities give birth to feelings that connect souls.
There is a distinct section on my site, called the cultural section, that talks about Romanian artists and cultural figures that now live and work in Switzerland: the painters Carmen Indregand-Bira, Livia Balu and Lucian Popescu, the soprana Elena Mosuc, the mezzosoprana Liliana Nichiteanu, the writer Catalin Dorian Florescu, the esseyst Adrain Rachieru. Together with paintings, essays and fragments from novels there also is an interview given by the writer Catalin Dorian Florescu. I found it interesting due to the way this young writer of 37 years old, who lives in Switzerland for 20 years and writes in German, still feels deeply connected, in his most intimate thoughts, to Romania. First of all, although he has become famous as a writer in a language different from his mother tongue, he still feels German as being foreign and strange to him. His inner way of being, his thoughts are Latin, Romanian. Moreover, in his books he talks about the experiences that some Swiss teenagers go through on their way to discovering the new democratic Romania. He states that everything that has to do with his home country actually alters his senses, his perceptions: when he gets closer to Romania, his emotional state changes. And even though he consideres him to be a Western capitalist spirit, he cannot but admit that his inspiration, his beauty in writing is due to Romania. Catalin Dorian Florescu says he has no home. His home is fragmentated, he finds small pieces of home in all the places that are familiar to him, in his creations, in all his friends, in his parents. Switzerland is not his home, but neither is Romania. Or Switzerland is his home, and so is Romania. Maybe this is what the future has in store for us: multicultural people with several identities, several homes, several languages. And still, there is something that connects us more deeply to one single culture, one single home, one single language.
In a way, this was the theme tackled this week in the discussion group. As I have realized it myself living in a foreign country, one of the first things that the Romanians in Switzerland have been confronted to were the negative stereotypes about their home country. Romania is frequently talked about in terms such as Dracula’s land, an ex-socialist regime, a country of poordom, gypsies, corruption. And even though there is some truth in what is being said, this is definetly not all one can say about Romania. This is not the reality that the Romanians living in Switzerland have lived back home and that is why most of them felt the need to defend their country. Some of the members of the discussion group did it in more agressive terms, saying that the Western countries should find out more about their European neighbour before cathegorizing it like that, that they should know Romania has an older history than most of their own countries‘ and that it doesn’t have so many things to be ashamed of as the Western mass-media tries to imply. On the other hand, there also have been more realistic, so to say, reactions. Some of the people have said that it’s only natural that foreigners don’t know many things about Romania, since the country is un-important to them. In addition, this obssesion of Romanians of referring to their history doesn’t mean anything in the pragmatic world we live in, but it’s just some kind of moral support. And last, but not least, we should admit our faults and try to do something about it instaed of blindly defending things that obviously go wrong.
But coming back to media and ethnicity and to the way the website caters for the special needs of the migrants I will talk a little about another section of the site, meaning the useful information one. One can find here information about how to travel in Switzerland or in Romania, about visas and documents one needs, links to Romanian newspapers and magazines, links to different other communities of Romanians in the world, information about Romanian events in Switzerland and about the Swiss reality. Moreover, there is a section in which everyone can asks questions or advertise something.
In terms of preserving Romanians‘ cultural traditions and ethnicity, the site also presents some organisations whose main roles are to teach Romanian language, customs and art to those interested in it, to organise contests about Romanian literature, to organise courses of Romanian cooking and also events with Romanian specificity.
And then one could also speak about the discussion group which connects all the members of the community through subjects of common interest. And, to go back in the real world, the website is the easiest means for the migrants to establish meetings, to exchange information about themselves.
So, anyone who wants to feel one step closer to Romania, either through speaking his/her mother tongue, either through talking about political issues (like the elections that took place this Sunday), either through defending Romania of the negative stereotypes or just for the sake of making friends can visit this website.
The more I surf on this website, www.casa-romanilor.ch, the more I feel it has two distinct sections: an active and a passive one. The active, of course more vivid, more alive, and the passive, pretty much the same every week, except for the news.
Therefore, I will try to deal with them separately, hoping to cover, by the end of the semester, as much as possible of the static elements of the website and to describe the dialogues of the discussion group.
The home page of this week is dedicated to the elections‘ campaign. Every Romanian in Switzerland is invited to vote in Berne or Zurich. Beside from voting, there will also be meetings on the 28th of November, the elections‘ day. So, one could say this event offered the opportunity for another „national“ meeting.
I explored more the „regional organizations“ section of the site: there are a lot of bi-lateral projects, villages in Romania are in connection with villages in Switzerland, there are projects initiated by Swiss that have visited Romania to help certain regions of the country. Moreover, this week, the Romanian Orthodox church in Switzerland celebrated three years of existence. There is also a trimestrial magazine called „The Romanian Home“ in which there are written opinion articles about the events in Romania, a magazine meant to create a connection between the Romanians in Switzerland.
The site also has a section of useful information: how people can get a visa, how they can get a job, the best way to trevel in Switzerland or, on the contrary, the best way to travel to Romania, advertisments, ompressions of Swiss people about Romania.
The active part of the site has different characteristics, if I may say so. People don’t seem so much interested in cultural projects, Romanian church. They are much more concerned with the political situation back home and, as a result, they debate a lot on articles that appear in the Romanian publications.
I tried to undersatnd whether this community is made up of butterflies or ants. It seemed obvious to me that it had to be made up of ants. After all, it is a community, people have a website which is like a bridge between them, they meet, they have common interests. But one discussion on the forum made me think twice. Someone suggested that ther should be some rules on the forum and the most important ine should be a presentation: each member should write some things about him/herself, things that all the others could see. The reactions to this suggestion proved that people are not so eager to really get to know the others. Some of them said that they don’t want to write anything about themselves, that this should’t be a must, that everyone should decide what he/she wants to reveal. They felt as if their privacy would have something to lose because of this, as if they were controlled. Someone also said that they are not a real community, that two meetings per year doesn’t make them a community.
I also posted a message in which I was talking about the things that interest me, but the reactions I got were more like pieces of advice than answers. So I said to myself that I have to find challenges for them, because it seemed obvious that they are not eager to talk about how the feel about Romania now, how they recreate their „Romanianity“, what this website means for them. The next message I posted was dealing with some of my experience here, with the reactions I got when I was telling people that I was from Romania. I got more reactions now. They are sharing with me some of their initial experiences there. This would have to do more with the transactional ethnicity. Again, the reactions are different. Some of them say that it is normal for the Western people not to know decent things about Romania, since this country is of no interest to them. Others believe the Swiss should know more about us, since we are in Europe.
Yet, people talk more about general things than their own feelings. They are more concerned, as I have said, with more pragmatic, empirical things than with more abstract ideas. Maybe they have meen living in Switzerland for a long time now. They don’t talk in terms of here and there anymore, for them it is normal. Maybe this website has no deeper meaning for them, maybe it is just a place where they can talk about Romanian politics, practice the language. But, in the same time, they seem really anxious to meet each other, to recreate Romanian traditional parties. So, there still are things that puzzle me. Maybe I am mistaken, but, to a certain extent, I believe that they avoid getting into these more personal things so as not to set up this bomb made up of memories, friends that they cannot see, food that they cannot eat, environment that they miss. Or maybe they are just pragmatic. Maybe they talk to each other and meet because it’s nice, not because it gives them the illusion they have a smaller Romania in Switzerland. I don’t know.
THE ROMANIANS IN SWITZERLAND
Having said good bye to the Palestinians, I now come back to my initian choice of a Romanian virtual space: www.casa-romanilor.ch , the website of the Romanian community in Switzerland.
The reason I first thought to observe this virtual space is very much linked to my perceptions of Switzerland. Since I believe that this country is extremely tolerant to diversity, open to foreigners and cultural differences, I thought it would be interesting to see how the Romanians living there adapt and integrate themselves in such a society.
First of all, I liked the name of the website which, if translated, would mean the HOME of the Romanians in Switzerland. Its several divisions cover a wide range of aspects: about us, culture, churches, organizations, regional initiatives, news, useful information and diaspora. All these departments are meant to help the Romanians living in Switzerland by informing them of every cultural event related to Romania that takes place in Switzerland, by offering them useful information for the more pragmatic-orientated needs, by letting them know about different organizations and projects in which they could get involved. There also is a group of disscutions. From what I have seen so far, I could draw a first conclusion that the website focuses a lot on cultural and inter-cultural aspects. Most of the organisations and projects have a cultural core and to better illustrate this idea I chose the example of the RO-CHance organisation: its goal is to promote Romanian culture, language, traditions among the Romanian community in Switzerland, especially the second-generation Romanians there. There also are some magazines meant to strengthen the connections between the Romanians in Switzerland.
I was really surprised, when reading the hundreads of messages posted on the group of disscutions, to realise that the dialogue is usually focused on articles that are published in Romanian newspapaers, on political issues, useful information. I haven’t had the feeling at all that they perceive themselves different from the members of the new society they live in. On the contrary, the seem to have smoothly integrated themselves. I haven’t found one single message to deal with the fact that they miss their country or at least certain parts of their life in Romania. They do not talk about it. On the other hand, they do meet quite frequent and these meetings might be opportunities for them to talk about what they miss about Romania, how they feel here, how the others perceive them, if they have had a hard time adapting. But these are just suppositions.
As far as the transactional ethnicity is concerned, I believe that this is not something they are interested in. Maybe when they first came to Switzerland they felt like strangers, but from what I could see this is no loger so. I think they are satisfied with the conditions they have found here. Still, there was one article on the forum that they debated on, an article about the way Swiss society perceives strangers and how it cathegorises certain nations in terms of stereotypes. Some of the people were somehow insulted about the conclusions of this article, but most of them had very pacifistic reactions. They are very much aware that they cannot generalise the personal traits of some people to all the others. Moreover, they are also aware of the fact that they live in a very democratic country, a country in which if one is well-prepared in what he/she is doing, it does not matter what nationality he/she has. So, I again had the feeling that they avoid tackling this subject of ethnicity. It doesn’t have such a great importance for them.
As I have said, the website has a section called Diaspora. I was surprised to see that it does not refer to the Romanian Diaspora in Switzerland, but it has links to websites of other Romanian diasporas in the world. I have also found out that on the forum there also are people from Canada, France that take part in the discussions. So, the websites promotes the relations between the Romanians in the whole world, not just between those in Switzerland.
All in all, I think that the Romanian community in Switzerland tries to level the differences between them and the host society. It’s clearly mentioned on the site that it is time they left their pride aside and tried not to see people in terms of „us“ and „them“ anymore, but to integrate. I have posted a message on the forum, raising issues that they do not usually talk about. I hope they will also be interested in this aspects and will reply.
Every time I surf on the www.psgateway.org website I try to extract the feeling of the people behind the screen and to focus on it as an element of ethnicity. I do not know whether my approach is correct or whether I should focus more on the departments of the site and the things that actually appear in every article.
Even though I try as much as possible to leave aside the political aspect of the Palestinian issue I realise this is impossible: all the articles, no matter how „cultural“, „ethnic“ or „national“, are somehow impregnated with politics. Yet, I do not find this a problem. On the contrary, I believe, as I have said it in my previous reports, that people feel more ethnic and national about themselves once this feeling is denied to them.
What else have I found out about the Palestinian refugees and Diaspora? It surprised me again to see how much they focus on the youth population. „A youth initiative for Palestine“ is a project I have read about in the Youth section of the site. Its goal is to encourage young people to learn more about their country, ist people, places and organizations. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) also tackles with this problem. I have found a report on this on the Refugee and Diaspora section. UNRWA built up schools for the refugee children (for three generations now) in the countries where these refugee camps are. They adopt the manuals and curricula of that country, but also use other materials dedicated to the Palestinian issue. They teach the children the human rights during summer camps and translate for them in Arab important texts about the Palestinian history and present situation. Moreover, special schools for the Palestinian children belonging to the Diaspora have also appeared, like the Adam Primary School in London.
I have also found a link on www.psgateway.org to another page dedicated to the Palestinians, www.salaam.co.uk. It’s here that I found out how the Palestinian culture is preserved in refugee camps. There are several embroidery projects and organizations for the women in these camps, for example Al Badia. These women preserve this custom of the Palestinians and also trade their hand-made products. The Palestinian Diaspora also helps the economy by investing a lot in it. Moreover, the food is also preserved, like the traditional Musakhan. Last, but not least, culture and poetry focus on the Palestinian problem, the fact that it is a nation without a sovereign state: „No one can take away from me/ My identity/ For it is mine/ Palestinian am I.... I am the David child wielding a single stone/ Against the Israeli Goliath./ I am not afraid/ For truth is with me and God is on my side.... No one can take my identity/ Away from me/ Not tanks or guns or bombs/ My country lives in me... I am the cry of liberty/ No matter what they take from me/ They can’t take away my identity/ Or my dignity/ Palestinian am I“.
Moreover, the site has a lot of articles that deal with the Palestinian history, stressing in different articles that the Palestinian refugee problem arose as a result of ethnic cleansing. People were taken away from their houses, deprived of their land and property and the present situation is the same due to the Law of Return of the Israeli government that forbids them to return on their territories. Therefore, they are meant to stay refugees forever. And refugees try as much as possible to maintain their identity. „Despite their irregular and harsh situation, they still identify themselves to the same goals and same political agenda as we do“, stated Khatib, the Palestinian Labor Minister.
I also wanted to say that I have sent an e-mail to those responsible with the website and I am still waiting for their answer, hoping they could give me some information and guidance.
CAN WE SPEAK ABOUT A PALESTINIAN ETHNICITY?
After the first week of observation of this website (www.psgateway.org) dealing with all kind of Palestinian issues, including the Palestinian Diaspora, I thought of making a comparison of this virtual space to, for instance, a virtual space of a Romanian group living in a foreign country. My goal was to see wether the aspects that my chosen website deals with are similar to those a let’s say „normal“ site about ethnic groups tackles. I say „normal“ because I am very much aware of the fact that the Palestinian issue also involves a political and national aspect and that, beside the Palestinian Diaspora, one could also talk about the Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps.
I think that these virtual spaces dedicated to the small communities of foreigners living in a different country than their own are meant to remind people of their identity and to offer them a virtual space as much similar to their native country as possible. The difference in my case is that the Palestinians don’t actually have a country that they can freely rule. They only have two main regions from Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which they can autonomously govern. Yet, before the Israel state appeared on the world map in 1948 Palestina existed as a sovereign country. Therefore all Palestinians have a common root and a distinct identity that they are very much aware of. Moreover, I believe that people are much more united with each other at an ethnical and national level if their country is conquered by another one. So I think that one could talk about a Palestinian ethnicity.
To my mind what I have found on this website is very much similar to the site of the Romanians living in Switzerland. The homepage is divided into four main cathegories: Ideas and Knowledge, Development Projects, Business Opportunities, Country Gateways. There is also a part dedicated to news and one for announcements. I decided to focus on three main issues that deal with ethnicity to a greater extent than others. I have chosen them from the Ideas and Knowledge section and they are: Refugees and Diaspora, Youth, Civil Society and Human Rights. Each of them is basically a different virtual space, but they all have news sections, events, online dialogue, member directory, services and bulletin board sections. On the Refugees and Diaspora page I have also found a Refugee diary.
I think the ethnic feeling is best created by the projects that have been and are still going on. I have discovered that there is an organisation that deals with the Palestinian refugees and Diaspora: SHAML. One of ist projects is called „Crisis Intervention Project: Constructing the Memory of the Youth. Summer School Training in Art and in Oral History Collecting Jenin Refugee Camp“. The goal of this project is to build the strenghts and skills of camp residents, creating links between them and civil society volunteers from elsewhere in the world and also to raise international awareness of the ongoing problems and difficulties the refugees living in refugee camps face by means of a predominantly arts-based approach.
Another project is called „Palestinian Oral History Project“, meant to rebuild the collective memory of people. Therefore, the Palestinians cling to their history as an ethnicity and identity factor. They wish to create a social history of their people on cultural and identity basis.
A third project is called „Cine-Club: Identity and Refugees“. This event was meant to raise questions on the Palestinian identity and refugeeness (I believe this is the perfect word discribing the Palestinian problem, because they have been refugees for almost 50 years and therefore the refugee camps are like small countries). This is how they present this project:“By choosing the theme of identity we hope to bring to the discussion the idea of multiplicity of identity“.
Therefore I believe that one could talk about a strong Palestinian identity because this is how they perceive themselves: as being a different nation from all the others in each and every aspect possible. Through this virtual space they are trying to strengthen their distinctiveness.
As far as the news from this week are concerned, the most important ones talk about the frustration they feel due to the fact they that cannot vote as democratic people and about all the Palestinian children that are arrested under conditions that threaten their lives. They also refer to the Declaration of Human Rights that states that the rights of the humans have to be respected irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, social origin. So they are aware of their different status among the others.
The site is an active one: I receive daily reports on my e-mail address from it.
Since I did not have the opportunity to observe, at least for a few days, a certain ethnic virtual space and I had to choose just one I found myself in the impossibility to decide between two such sites: www.psgateway.org and www.casa-romanilor.ch .
The first one is of great interest to me because it deals with a somehow political aspect of ethnicity, meaning the problem of the Palestinian refugees and Diaspora. The web site has a wide range of fields, from culture, ideas, knowledge and cultural programmes that are now being developed up to the political aspect of this problem: an ethny in search of ist own territory and the obstacles it has encountered living a refugee-life. I am interested in this virtual space because back home I study International Relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely debated on. Moreover, I find it very interesting that the Palestinians have such a strong identity without having a clear political strucure of their own and actually having to fight for it.
The other web site deals with the Romanian Diaspora in Switzerland in all aspects. I think it is one of the most well organised and complete sites about the Romanian Diaspora and the way it preserves ist traditions in another environment. I am interested in this site because I am a Romanian myself, a Romanian living abroad. This is the reason I think I now perceive „Romanianity“ in a different way as back home.