When asked to explain what the women's empowerment program, operated by SHATIL's Mixed Cities project had done for her and other women residents of Barbur, Jernass Ashkar answered simply and unhesitatingly, "It opened the door for us. We entered a new world."
Barbur is an unrecognized Arab neighborhood on the southern periphery of the ancient port town of Acco. It is also home to a largely traditional community, in which the woman's voice is barely heard outside the home, and her independent movement beyond the neighborhood is generally limited. This invisibility and isolation is compounded by the absence of state recognition of the neighborhood, which means that not only does it lack basic infrastructure – a sewage system and surfaced roads, it also lacks community services where women would otherwise have the opportunity to enrich their lives.
Mixed Cities has worked intensively and successfully on a two-track program to empower the residents of Barbur in their struggle for official recognition of their neighborhood, and to empower women residents to play a greater role in their community in general. Thus the women were encouraged to participate and offer their opinions in the many meetings held in 2007 with the urban planner commissioned by SHATIL to draw up alternative plans, in consultation with the residents, for submission to the planning authorities.
In conjunction with this process, the women met regularly in each other's homes, and with the help of a highly experienced facilitator, discussed wide-ranging subjects relating to their social roles and well-being. These meetings were also a forum for creative expression in art and handicrafts. Another small group of younger women from Barbur participated in a personal empowerment program held at the premises of the Acco Arab Women's Association.
An extension program recently brought the women of both groups together to work on the serious environmental issues facing the neighborhood, such as the mosquitoes which plague the residents each summer because of the poor drainage and sewage conditions.
As a finale to the Barbur women's program, the graduates held an exhibition of their handicraft work at the Acco Arab Women's Association and a workshop in which they created artifacts which expressed their feelings and thoughts on the meaningfulness of their empowerment experience. One graduate described her composition as "seeds the program has helped to plant which will yield beautiful flowers."
Mr. Eric Galvin, Project Officer of the European Commission's Delegation to Israel which has generously supported Mixed Cities since its inception, was on hand to talk to the women and award their graduation certificates.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Galvin visited Barbur, where he met with residents and looked at the alternative plans which they developed with the urban planner, and which have been accepted by Acco Municipality's Planning Department and the Ministry of Housing as a starting point in the recognition process. In one significant moment, illustrating the effectiveness of the empowerment program and its contribution to the community's activism around the issue of recognition, graduate Jernass Ashkar described how she had spent a whole night poring over the plans and had found a mistake which the urban planner subsequently corrected.
SHATIL congratulates the women graduates and is grateful to Mixed Cities Project Director, Buthayna Dabit, to the project's Acco Field Coordinator Sami Hawary ,and especially to Barbur community worker Rasha Fodi for their dedication to this project. Perhaps their best reward was to hear the women's moving statements, such as "what we have learned, we will teach our children."