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'Fighting for free speech on Palestine': CADFA 15 years on Open in fullscreen

Diana Alghoul

'Fighting for free speech on Palestine': CADFA 15 years on

Students taking part in CADFA's exchange programme [Facebook]

Date of publication: 10 December, 2018

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The New Arab Meets: Nandita Dowson, founder of Camden-Abu Dis Friendship Association, to talk more about her organisation which has helped foster a wider empathy for Palestine in the UK.
Palestine is one of the largest causes hailed by western activists today. With the outrage at injustice, along with a worldwide diaspora of millions of Palestinians, the global solidarity movement for Palestine is at its largest it has ever been.

In the UK, thousands flock to the streets in solidarity with Palestine when a protest is organised. But this wasn't always the case.

Nandita Dowson is the founder of Camden-Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA), and says the lack of understanding on Palestine in the UK was one of the reasons she set up her organisation.

"When it comes down to it, Palestine is a very simple issue. One of the first things we hear when we discuss Palestine is people thinking it's a complicated issue when it's really one of human rights," Nandita told The New Arab.

With CADFA marking its 15th anniversary this week, Nandita looks back at her journey in Palestine advocacy.

"Growing up, I was very active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It was easy for me to be outraged because information was everywhere," Nandita recalls.

"For Palestine, though, I didn't really know much about it. All we really knew was that it's where Jesus was born and the region is overridden with what was often described as 'complex politics'."

Even at school, the subject of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was barely touched upon: "We were taught that Israel was viewed as through left-wing movement and a rosy kibbutz culture. The truth was very hidden to us."

Upon researching the conflict herself and meeting various Palestinians, Nandita realised there was more to Palestine than she was originally taught.

Let there be CADFA

"When I was at university, a huge priority of mine was challenging misconceptions about Palestine," Nandita explained.

"I started to do this in different forms before CADFA but I was a part of a larger movement in Palestine advocacy. One trigger point was after returning from Palestine in August 2000, just before the Second Intifada. Things were just so bad that I couldn't not do something."

By then, Nandita was juggling her own life, family life and activism as she got together with a group of others, mainly mothers like herself who set out to change UK public opinion on Palestine.

"We did monthly pickets outside of supermarkets and wrote lots of letters to organisations; but to us, we wanted to speak to young people so we reached out to schools," Nandita said.

"The only problem was that we were often turned down by schools because people kept saying Palestine was too 'political'."

By 2003, the idea of partnering with a school in Palestine emerged, connecting students from a Palestinian city with students in London's Camden district. After trying to pick a city, the group chose to partner with students in Abu Dis, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem - paving the way for the birth of CADFA on 9 December.

Rising above the challenges

"It was overwhelming at first because in Abu Dis, they were taking the matter very seriously. They thought we would have the capacity to donate a lot of money to them, but at the time our capacity was very limited," Nandita explained.

"We were just a group of activists who were trying to do their bit in increasing solidarity. We managed to keep good relations with those in Abu Dis but we did have to go through a process of levelling out expectations and abilities," she added.

There was also the matter of those in Palestine trying to figure out the Palestinian political affiliation of CADFA, when in reality, it had none.

"When we set CADFA up, we had no expectations for the future. We've always just dealt with everything in its presence and managed to sustain our organisation and grow. I had no idea we would become what we are within 15 years."

Since being set up, CADFA has managed to bring Palestinian students on trips to the UK for them to meet with their counterparts, sponsored trips for British citizens, including British Palestinians, to Palestine, funded schools and civic structures, published a number of books and learning resources, all while staying true to its aim of upholding pro-Palestine advocacy in the UK.

British Palestinians reconnecting with their roots

"I can't really talk about the way in which CADFA has impacted British Palestinians as a whole, because everyone's experience has been so different," Nandita said.

But for those who have been in contact with CADFA, they were given access to life-changing experiences. Some went to Palestine for the first time in their lives, whereas others were able to help with funding.

Some diaspora Palestinians were helped to cement their Palestinian identity after coming into contact with CADFA at school. 

In spite of the many ways in which CADFA imprinted itself on British Palestinians, Nandita urges that the main aim of CADFA is to raise awareness for Palestine in the UK.

"What needs to be understood is that what we've done for Palestinians, be they in the UK or in Palestine, is a symbol of friendship rather than something that lies within the aims of our organisation."

Cafe Palestina

Last year, Nandita brought a dream to life and opened a small homely cafe in London's Kentish Town, serving Palestinian food.

"It's amazing because I've been talking about this for so long, so when people who know me come in, their first reaction to it is 'oh wow, you actually did it!'" Nandita explained.

The idea is to enhance the cultural experience of Palestinian solidarity, so people are able to taste the culture behind the cause for which they are fighting.

The cafe itself is filled with ornaments and products from Palestine, along with a Palestinian library with a cosy sofa at the back of the restaurant. They also host weekly supper clubs, yoga classes, Arabic lessons and other events for London's pro-Palestine community to organise, socialise and even exercise.

"I want people to enter the cafe, feel welcome and feel like they're at home. I want them to see the beauty of Palestinian culture and taste Palestinian food whilst reading Palestinian books," she said.

With the many controversies and challenges that come with working on changing UK public opinion on Palestine, Nandita insists her journey has been worth it.

"We know that we aren't doing anything wrong. All we're doing is connecting people. Students in the UK to students in Palestine, doctors in the UK to doctors in Palestine; we are working with people from two different parts of the world to show that we're all the same," she said.

"Regardless of how hard it can get, it's a known fact that we're based purely on human rights and any forms of vilification just means that we're still working on our mission for fighting for free speech on Palestine."

Follow Diana Alghoul on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh

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