“Many clubs are chartered during my year of presidency, but this is the very first club that I have come to charter. That is how important I take it, and I think that is how important Rotary International looks upon it,” said John Kerry, Rotary International President.
Although not officially a state, the Palestinians were allowed to join 33,000 clubs worldwide under the status of being in one of 200 “geographic areas.” The ubiquitous Rotarians work to provide humanitarian service, build goodwill and avow to high ethical standards to improve their communities.
Rotary clubs were first established in Palestine under British rule some 80 years ago. They continued in east Jerusalem and Ramallah under Jordanian rule until the 1960s, but they dissolved after Israel acquired control of the West Bank in the 1967 war.
The road to reviving the Palestinian rotary club was not easy. In the post-Oslo peace accords economic boom in the mid-1990s Palestinian businessmen tried to charter a group but gave up after Rotary International declined to recognize Palestine.
“We went on and went on, and tried and tried again and again, but we gave up after five years,” recalled Nadar Dajani, the newly installed President of Ramallah Rotary.
It was only after the Amman-Petra Rotary club, from the capital city of Amman, Jordan and the Colorado Springs Rotary club in the United States agreed to sponsor Ramallah, that the Rotary International Board of Directors agreed to charter the Palestinian club.
“So many attempts had been tried before and had failed and people were disheartened,” said Jeff Behr, a Rotarian from Colorado Springs who has business dealings in Ramallah and was a crucial player in winning a Rotary charter for the Palestinians.
“I made a personal commitment to the men I met here that I would work tirelessly to try to see this through and that helped, I think, overcome some of the personal disbelief and early hurdles. And so once the gentlemen and the women here knew that they had the support of our club in Colorado and that we would take this to the board ourselves we overcame the local club hurdles.”
“Being a service club and realizing that there was not a rotary club here [in Ramallah] I felt that there was a great need and there could be youth here in Palestine who could benefit from the same opportunities that I received through rotary. So I was inspired by the service aspects of rotary,” Behr added.
This new club will become a part of far-ranging District 2450, which includes over 130 clubs in Armenia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
“We as Palestinians have our heritage and our language and our life within the Arab community and so we wanted to be part of the district within the Arab countries,” said Dajani.
Kerry told the enthusiastic crowd that at the 2010 Rotary International convention opening in late June in Montreal, Canada the Palestinian flag would be introduced in a special ceremony as the newest chartered member.
Greeted by young women wearing traditional dresses with Palestinian embroidery, local businessmen and woman said they were drawn to the Rotary club to help foster a new culture of benevolence.
“I joined the new Rotary club here in Ramallah because I firmly believe that the local community here in Palestine is in dire need of a lot of community work,” said Tareq Maayah, CEO of Exalt Technologies. “And also to instill a new spirit of becoming involved and making sure that we develop our communities beyond what we do at our businesses and during our normal daily life.”
Food exporter Ali Ana Btawi, said he was familiar with Rotary’s work from his days at university in the United States.
“When I was in the United States I attended many Rotary club meetings as a speaker representing the international students of the universities that I attended,” Btawi said. “I want to be part of this very important organization, which works globally, but at the same time locally, to help people.”
Israel has 61 clubs, but belongs to their own district. Leaders of the Israeli Rotary club of Jerusalem a few miles away were on-hand for the historic night, but the new Rotarians were hesitant about cooperating with the Israeli Rotary any time soon.
“As you saw, they were our guest here and they wanted to participate and we said ahalan w’sahalan [welcome]. But of course with any relation with any club in the Israeli district I have to add one point; as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues it will be quite difficult for us as Rotarians because, anyway, we are part to the Palestinian population and we cannot hide our feelings and aspiration.”
“We hope that through the Rotary clubs in Israel we can expedite and solve this political problem,” he added.
The first project the Ramallah Rotarians plan to implement is building 100 playgrounds for low-income youth. And they are looking for help from Rotarians around the world.
“We are looking for all Rotary clubs around the world to participate in this project and we intend to call each playground in the name of the club which sponsors that playground,” Dajani said.
Palestinian businesswoman Waijean al-Sharif said she was particularly drawn by the idea of helping youth.
“I think the first project will be making a few parks for kids to play [in]. We will try to serve the community by reducing the level of stress from the kid, especially in the villages,” al-Sharif said.
According to Rotary International, before receiving its charter several Rotary documents needed to be translated into Arabic and coordination had to be made to mentor the new club through teaching commitment to Rotary standards and values. The Amman-Petra club provided key training sessions and even donated the club bell.
Colorado Springs Rotarian Ted Becket was a crucial aide to the newest Rotary club. One of his firms, the non-profit Center for Environmental Diplomacy, is headquartered in Ramallah. He was on hand this historic night to pass on Rotary principles.
“We ran into the bureaucracy that was involved in Rotary and there were people who just did not want Rotary in the Palestinian area,” Becket said. “But we knew that this was it. This was the time and it’s very exciting. Our gift from the Colorado Springs club is a banner with The Four Way Test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? These are the kind of values that Rotary stands for and they are now part of Ramallah.”
Written by Felice Friedson & Arieh O’Sullivan. Copyright © 2010 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.