Reflections of the International Volunteers

 Anna, Portugal

Since the first day, when all the unfamiliar faces started getting connected with names, up to the last day, when saying goodbye to all of the volunteers was like saying goodbye to the close family members back home, I definitely learnt and shared a lot with everyone. 

The activities with the children, the laughter we shared and all the handshakes we got and gave, were definitely the best moments I had during the work camp. I gained a lot from the children and they made me feel so welcome and good about what I was doing that I even forgot I was a volunteer and just felt more like one of them.

 The two weeks spent in Nablus were very intense. We saw a lot, we experienced a lot and some of the things we did or experienced were harsh on all of us. Still, it was all worth it and I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all learnt a lot during these two weeks. From the stories of the eyewitnesses, to the trips to Bethlehem and Hebron and the presentations the invited lecturers prepared for us, the camp made us feel and understand the Palestine they wish for and the one they live in. And this is something I will never forget and I will always carry with me.

 Overall, I think it was an amazing experience, which I recommend to everyone. And the only thing that made me sad was to have to say goodbye to everyone after the wonderful time we had together.  

Claire Waterhouse, South Africa

 

To be honest, absolutely nothing written in the info paper or from previous volunteers could have fully prepared me for the amazing time I have had with the Hope for Tomorrow Workcamp. Each and every moment, ranging from the amazing to the frustrating to the ridiculous, has taught me so much and has made this trip a life changing experience. The children at Askar amazed me with their cheerful smiles and unfailing generosity. The Askar volunteers taught me so much with their tenderness and compassion towards the children. The local volunteers from An-Najah showed us what it was to be gracious and welcoming hosts at all times. The Nablusi locals welcomed us with open arms and never-ending smiles that made each and every one of us feel special. And last but not least, the organizers did their very best (no matter how difficult it was) to teach us, entertain us and keep us (a pretty rowdy bunch) busy: no easy feat by any means! Thank you!

For future volunteers, all you need to enjoy this camp is an open mind and a willingness to work hard. If you can do these things, you will have the most amazing, life-changing experience of your life.

Evie, Norwege

I only have good things to say about it all. The intention was to come here to see how the occupation affects people, and contribute with our presence in Askar. The program has been great, focused on learning and seeing as much as possible in a short time.

What I really like about the program in general is the balance of the good and the bad experiences. Iím from a part of the world where I donít face problems like here, and the things I have seen and heard during this camp have touched me so much. We all came here to learn, and since the schedule has been compact, Iím thankful for the cultural events that have brought a balance to it all. It has been so good to laugh and have fun besides all the serious experiences. I like the way you have been introducing the local culture for us; music, Dabka, foods and the Turkish bath; it brought the energy back.

I just canít figure out anything negative to say about the camp. It has all been great, as the intention is to show what is going on here. Iím sure this is the way to go, introducing Palestine in this way, to make people do what Iím intending to do: write about it, speak about it, discuss and keep on following the conflict. Iím so thankful for the opportunity you have given me to get to know Palestine, and the last two weeks have been one of the best experiences Iíve ever had. Thank you, you are all amazing. Keep up the good work, I will!

Hilda, USA

I just want to say that this experience has been amazing. I have had the opportunity to see much more in these two weeks than most of the times I have visited Palestine. As a Palestinian, this experience has been very personal to me and it was beautiful to be able to share it with both Palestinians as well as the internationals. I definitely have gained what I hope to be lifelong friendships with the people I have met working in the summer camp, as well as with people living in Askar. I will definitely go visit them each time I come back. And the children were so much fun to work with; they actually offered me more hope for the future.

There were many emotional moments that touched and hurt me. I still remember the pleas from most of the individuals including the old man at Balata refugee camp, and the kids at the camp when they all told us not to forget them or this experience, and to make sure to let the world know what is really going on in Palestine. I am happy to have had the opportunity to do this, but also sad that it is over. And I definitely will not forget all the moments we had; all the people and their stories. There arenít really any words that could really convey how I feel at this moment, but I would like to say thank you.

Matthew, USA

Being in Nablus has taught me many things. As my ode to Nablus begins: "I came to Nablus an American / you were famous for your soap. I left Nablus a Palestinian / full of dreams and hope." After being a part of the Zajel family I know that my life will not be the same when I return home. It is one thing to care about the Palestinian cause, but another thing entirely when you leave your friends and your heart in Palestine. Everyday was full of adversity, but smiles, fun, and love always won out. I will never forget the sweet sound of the children singing their warm up song as we arrived at the camp or the smiles on their faces. Their generosity was astounding. At recess you could eat a full meal for free because each of the 200 children would offer you some of what they had. This program has left me wanting more. More time with the children, more time with friends, another night of the rooster keeping us awake, I'm sad to leave Nablus. But as I mentioned earlier, I am full of hope because I know I will be back soon.

Nassim Rousset, Canada

Working in the Zajel work camp for two weeks is one of the most enriching experiences of a lifetime. Every day we faced the situation the Palestinians are obligated to live in; be it: lack of water due to forced rationing, lack of freedom of movement due to the siege or a hectic routine dotted with fun and sad moments.

When you come to Zajel, you come prepared to face the unknown and are welcomed by what will soon be close friends.

The work at the Askar refugee camp with the children is like the work in a day camp with more freedom. Making the children smile, laugh, run around and just participate in activities is so rewarding and starts a day off with a blast.

The siesta time might have been the smartest move by the Zajel organizers. I highly recommend taking these two hours as a mandatory sleep. After a well deserved rest, the local volunteers grace us with a wonderful lecture every time. Even though we are in an Arabic speaking country, the talent of the local translators is astonishing. The information gathered during the two hours of the lecture (1.5 hours of presentation and a half hour of questions) is always useful for getting to know more; both to the well informed and to the clueless international volunteers.

The last part of the day, and probably the most amusing, is the cultural activity. During these 3 hours, we get some time to think about our day, converse with the local and international volunteers and get to experience some amazing local activities (smoking the shisha, enduring a nice Turkish bath, hanging out, watching concerts and visiting Nablus).

Every night, before going to bed, I reflected upon my day and felt a sense of accomplishment, a certain pride that I will be able to teach my friends what I have learnt in Palestine.

I recommend anyone that comes to bring a notebook with them to be able to jot down some of the more important parts of the massive load of information that is thrown at us. Even though that load is gigantic, it makes it possible in two weeks to grasp the Palestiniansí way of life.

Going to Palestine with Zajel was the best experience I have had in my short life (me being the youngest of the whole group with my 17 years of life). I am very grateful for the wonderful time and I will come again as soon as I can!

Ralph, Netherlands

2008 was my first (and hopefully not last) year to come to Palestine. Zajel was a great introduction to Palestine. On the one hand people are able to mutually influence each other directly. I think we were able to make an impact on the children there and show the Palestinian people that there are still people out there who care about their situation. On the other hand, meeting and living with Palestinians creates an emotional bond which makes you more passionate about their cause, their situation becomes a lot more Ďrealí to you. Also I believe it breaks a lot more stereotypes we, unfortunately, have in the West about Palestinians. Even I had to admit that I had a bit of a prejudiced view of Palestinians before I came and found that our ideas and the things we liked were not so different as I thought they might be.

The camp was wonderfully organized, taking into consideration all the problems the local volunteers have had to face trying to organize such a camp in an occupied country. I guess as long as youíre not too fussy about creature comforts then youíre grand. We had a pretty tight schedule to follow which consisted of getting up early to head for the refugee camp where we worked with children aged from about 5 to 15. There were a number of events to choose from including sports, working with special needs children, music, arts and painting murals. In the afternoon we had lunch and after that a much needed siesta. When siesta time was over there was usually a presentation by a representative of certain organizations, a member of the press or an academic. If there wasnít a presentation there was usually an activity organized. At nights there was usually time for a bit of relaxation, which included going to a coffee shop for a bit of argila, a concert at An-Najah National University and we even got invited to a local wedding. In the weekends there was time to travel either on your own or with some of the local volunteers. The first weekend we went to Jericho and the Dead Sea and the second weekend most of us, including most of the local volunteers, went to Bethlehem and Hebron.

Working with the children at Askar refugee camp was a great experience. There is something about children that is universal in the sense that children the world over are essentially all the same. The children seemed virtually unaffected by the occupation and were playing, smiling and laughing as any child would do. However, the more time spent in Askar the more you realise that the situation must have a terrible effect on these children. Also looking at some of the drawings after an art class was very unsettling as images of the occupation were the central theme of most of them. On the other hand they all seemed extremely excited and happy about our presence there and, even though it was hard to sometimes communicate, we got along great.

The cultural activities were very educational. Even though it was a great experience working with the refugee children, to me the afternoons were central to my experience in Palestine. If we can have the slightest of impact on the Palestinians thatís great, but what is crucial is being able to influence as many people back home. I havenít been home for more than 36 hours at the time of writing and I have already had at least five people, who didnít know a whole lot about the situation, agree with me how unjustly the Palestinians are being treated. I canít begin to explain how valuable an experience it was to hear first hand accounts; Speakers included human rights activists, a member of the media and even an American lawyer. We also had to do a bit of presenting ourselves in the form of representing our own country. It is surprising how much you can still find out about each otherís countries. Even though I knew quite a bit about the conflict, I leave a lot better informed. What might be even more important is that one becomes able to speak on the subject with the confidence and authority that only comes from actually having experienced life in the country.

The entertainment nights were a good way to unwind from a full day of working and concentrating. It was also a great way of getting to know your fellow volunteers, both local and international. Coming from different backgrounds often led to interesting conversations and although I love talking politics, there were plenty of times when the subject required less of your intellect. Meeting so many different people and experiencing so many new things together was great. Though it is nice being back home, I already miss all of the volunteers, both Palestinian and international. You can expect me back soon!

Marte, Norway

This experience has been one of the best in my entire life. During these two weeks, I've experienced some major ups and downs (but definitely more ups), but the two things that has made the strongest impression were the kids at the Askar Refugee Camp and our meeting with the local community, especially the one eyewitness who told us about his life as a refugee from Jaffa - a breathtaking story which moved us all.

The staff members of Zajel are some of the best people I've ever met. They work hard day and night to give you the best experience, and they've succeeded without a doubt.

The stay at the castle has also been very good, an amazing site and a lovely bunch of people to share it with. When it comes to the downside of this camp, I'm honestly lost for words because there almost aren't any. As I said, this stay has been very intense and the schedule has been tight every day. So thank you guys, every single one of you, for making this the experience of a lifetime. I will forever treasure all of you in my heart.

Tanzil, UK

The question is not whether you will enjoy Zajel; rather it will be 'what was your favourite part of a pick of many memories'. Through Zajel, I felt firsthand the effects of the occupation and how it determines the quality of life for each Palestinian. In addition to learning so much through the in-depth and thorough lectures and cultural events from top academics which no text book could ever intellectually satisfy, I also became part of a bigger family, all of whom shared the same goal. The hospitality of the locals, both at the program and the refugee camp, facilitated the groups' cohesion and our enjoyment of the 2 weeks. The entertainment activities were another unique insight into Palestinian and Arab culture. From the musical concerts against an idyllic backdrop of the Nablusi Mountains, to the intricate steps of the Dabka dance, we became absorbed in the vibrant hobbies of the locals and their warmth and welcome. Zajel provides an opportunity like no other; to wear the shoes of a Palestinian and become a part of its social fabric; to enjoy the trials and tribulations of the brutal occupation but see the enduring spirit of an amazing group of people.

Anna/Czech Republic

I love travelling, because I love the feeling you get when a whole new world with all its details unfolds in front of your eyes and mixes with the images in your mind. Out of all the places I have visited, Palestine is certainly a special case due to the ever present conflict in this land. Its everyday reality is soaked with reminders of its history, politics, and complicated social structures, and stands in stark contrast to the simplistic and biased picture drawn by the media. This was the first time I came to Israel and Palestine, and I'm glad I did so in the framework of the Zajel program. To be honest, I think I would not have dared to come alone, as a tourist, and I'm sure it wouldn't have been as rewarding for me either. Although I had problems coping with the strict rules and organization of the camp, I'm convinced that they were a vital part of my experience, and they allowed me to move around in this new territory with the comfort of knowing that I'm well taken care of. The camp provided a chance to spend time with children who live in a refugee camp, organized presentations with well-informed speakers, offered guided tours to various interesting places, and brought together a group of great people, both local and international.

The voluntary work with the children consisted of playing with them, and thus getting to know a little bit of what it must mean to grow up in their conditions. What looked like a noisy, colourful chaos in the beginning slowly turned into a more refined picture, revealing parts of unique personalities and their stories. This challenges you to think beyond simplistic generalizations, and to get emotionally involved with Palestine, which might have been completely unconnected to you only few weeks earlier. Two weeks are not enough to make any deep changes in the community, but our presence gave the children the opportunity to literally touch strangers, and thus to see something from the world outside their constricted space. This is already enough to make me believe that this work, which I enjoyed so much, was not only rewarding for me but also valuable for the children.

In order to provide us with background information about our host country, the camp leaders organized many cultural activities. People from different fields elaborated on their views on the situation of Palestine, and it was inspiring to see their devotion to the struggle for justice and freedom. We strolled through the old city of Nablus, visited other cities such as Hebron Ė the list could go on, but it is enough to say that the days in the camp seemed endless to me due to the multitude of activities and new impressions. At the same time, time flew by and the two weeks ended much too soon.

I was happy most of the time because I could share all those experiences with a group of great people. I think that a camp like this is prone to attract a good crowd, both from the local and the international side, because it appeals to those who care about people, who are willing to start a dialogue with and learn from 'the other', and who are courageous in many different ways. For two weeks, we ate, discussed, cleaned, sang and slept side by side in 'our' castle, the beautiful location of this yearís camp, and this short but intense living together brought about many friendships and helped with finding an emotional balance in the midst of this infamous conflict zone.

Zajel gave me the chance to move beyond the second hand accounts about Palestine and to see with my own eyes. Now I can challenge biased accounts in the public perception by drawing on direct experience. My stay in Palestine nourished my critical thinking and my appreciation for freedom and social justice. It also showed me how much work still has to be done until Palestinians and Israelis can live together in peace and dignity. Nevertheless, I leave with 'hope for tomorrow'. Life goes on in Palestine, this much is for sure. All in all I think that Zajel is a very good program, and I'm deeply grateful to everyone who made it happen.

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