Street in Palestinian refugee camp named after Twitter account

By George Webster, CNN – 5 Oct 2009

"@arjanelfassed tweetstreet" - Askar refugee camp

"@arjanelfassed tweetstreet" - Askar refugee camp

LONDON, England (CNN) — Initially derided for its promotion of inane chatter, Twitter has become a valuable news syndication platform, a campaign tool, and was even used by London’s Royal Opera House to commission an opera libretto made up of tweets sent in from around the world.

Now the increasingly popular micro-blogging service — which claims 50 million followers –has received one of life’s most prestigious accolades: a street named after it.

And, of course, money is involved — though not that much. The street, which is now named “@arjanelfassed tweetstreet,” is located in Askar, a Palestinian refugee camp in the north of the West Bank.

The street name was bought for $140 by the Dutch-Palestinian owner of a twitter account called “Arjan El Fassed,” through a Web site set up to support cultural after-school activities for children in the camp.

Speaking to CNN from Utrecht in The Netherlands, 36-year-old Arjan explained his motive for the unusual homage to social media: “Twitter is a great place to connect people with issues. But it’s also good at bridging cultural gaps. For most people, it’s difficult to identify with life in a refugee camp, but by linking it to a global network that resonates with millions, I was aiming to promote a sense of connectedness.”

However Arjan, who works for a humanitarian development agency in Holland, was also well aware of the PR possibilities: “I definitely thought I’d get a bit of attention for owning the first Twitter account to have a street named after it!”

Basthios Vloemans, co-founder of the site that sells the names, says the initiative was conceived after a visit to Askar earlier this year: “The camp is overcrowded and lacks many basic facilities; it’s a particularly traumatic existence for young children,” he told CNN.

“There’s a center run by the Palestinian Child Care Society (PCCS), where they provide activities like dancing and group play to help ease the anxiety of daily life. It’s an absolutely vital service for protecting the psychological well-being of these kids.”

However, Basthios says the center is critically short of money and housed in a “crumbling shell” of a building.

As art director for a Dutch advertising agency, Basthios and his colleagues decided to channel their commercial expertise into raising the $20,000 needed to rebuild the facility.

“Walking around the camp, we noticed that the streets were nameless. We discovered that if you want to post a letter to someone, it had to read something like ‘The Ahmed family, two down from the butcher’s on the left.’ And this, of course, is where the idea to sell the names came from.”

Basthios contrasts this fundraising method to more conventional strategies that focus on depictions of suffering: “We wanted to take a constructive approach and avoid simply presenting the people of Askar as victims.”

By offering a colorful incentive, Basthios says, the Web site cultivates a positive association with giving.

“We provide the opportunity for anyone to have a street named after them or one of their loved-ones — normally you’re required to have done something incredibly heroic and be dead before you get that sort of privilege.”

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