In 2012 I was sitting in a café in southern China working with my friend and colleague Love Hedman during a research trip. Suddenly the phone rang and on the other end was David Arvidsson Shukur. I didn´t know David that well at the time. He asked if I would like to go to Gaza. I said yes, of course. That was the beginning of what would become the project Novell Gaza.
Today, Novell Gaza is one project within the organization Connecting Stories which is completely run by young volunteers in Sweden, working to give young people in Gaza a voice through cultural expressions and to create cultural exchanges between young people. In 2013 we published our first collection of short stories after our first short story writing contest in Gaza, which we organised in co-operation with the Palestinian organization Tamer Institute (2009 ALMA Laureate). The contest was supposed to result in a couple of digitally published stories, but as it received such a great response in both Sweden and Gaza, we suddenly had the opportunity to publish a book. The stories by young people in Gaza were widely spread in Sweden, England, the West Bank and Gaza. Among others, the Palestinian Minister for Culture expressed his exaltation over the amazing ability of the stories to describe a side of Gaza which is rarely told – the young people’s Gaza. Many Palestinians got new perspectives on their own society and young people in Sweden got new insights into one of the world’s most isolated places, from a perspective they could relate to.
In addition to short story writing contests in Gaza, we also work with photography, workshops on intercultural communications and a storytelling competition in Sweden. Among the jury members are famous volunteering journalists, writers, artists and politicians. Numerous organizations are also helping us in our work, for example the UNRWA, Save the Children, Swedish Institute and the international development organization Diakonia.
When we set Novell Gaza in motion and planned for our first short story writing competition in Gaza we did not have much to go on. No potential local partner, no contacts, nothing. David heard about the local organization Tamer Institute who apparently was concerned with providing literature for young people in Gaza. We sent an email and all of a sudden we had a partner. When we finally, after many ifs and buts, managed to travel to Gaza to meet the Tamer staff, we realized how fortunate we were to work with them. We had rarely seen such passion and devotion for young people’s right to culture and belief in culture as a tool for societal improvement. Almost all the Tamer staff was our own age, which made our co-operation easygoing, equal and creative. We were happy to not have to care about empty symbolic ceremonies and formalities and Tamers staff was happy that we actually wanted to just hang out during the evenings, as friends.
Our co-operation, unlike many organizations involved in humanitarian aid, was never built on one party supporting the other. We support each other. We have jointly developed our activities and they have been growing organically ever since. Tamer’s close deep relationship with the young people they work with has allowed this target group to be a major part in the projects.
An example of this is how our short story competitions don´t have any themes according to the participant’s decisions and their desire to not have someone else define what they should think is important or interesting and worth writing about. We too have come to understand the importance for young people to be free to define what they think is important and significant when it comes to choosing a subject for short story writing. This freedom is particularly important in Gaza, where especially young people often are stigmatized as victims of a conflict which is out of their hands. We want Gaza’s young people to have the opportunity to define themselves as more than victims and to become humans living a life beyond being affected by a conflict. Being able to tell the stories they themselves find important is one way.
It is exactly in this aspect we think we can accomplish something, allowing people to be people. If by sharing each other’s stories we learn from each other, that´s even better. We have much to learn from each other; about the universal experience of being young, regardless of where you come from and the differences in our various situations and how they affect our lives.
None of us, currently working with Novell Gaza, were particularly familiar with the situation in Gaza when we started. Today we know more than most people in Sweden. We are not doing this for altruistic reasons alone, but also because we also feel we also have a lot to learn from the great people we work with in Gaza. We hope that they feel the same.
When we started Novell Gaza, one of the goals was to prove that you can accomplish something without a huge amount of money. We have done this. All we needed was collaboration and a willingness to change. Today I would like to say that we have made a difference with the help of these stories and the forums we create where these stories can freely be produced. If nothing else, these stories have changed me for the better.
Photojournalist and one of the founders of Novell Gaza
Novell Gaza is a project run by the non-political NGO Connecting Stories.