Reflections of the International Volunteers- workcamp April 2016

Margaret Cond - Spain
  Coming to Palestine has been such an eye-opening experience. One of the reasons for coming to Palestine was to see for myself what I have heard about the Palestine - Israeli conflict on the ground. I saw the great inequalities between Palestinians and Israelis. It was hard to witness how Israeli soldiers humiliate Palestinians. But it opened my eyes to what actually happens when the world is not looking.

  Visiting the refugee camps, Hebron, Bethlehem and nearby villages; seeing the Israeli apartheid Wall; passing through the checkpoints, etc. really made me realize how important it is to tell the world about the many human right abuses people in Palestine suffer from on a daily basis, and give a voice to the experiences of Palestinians suffering human rights violations.

  Despite all the injustice I witnessed, I enjoyed every minute of my time in Palestine. The workshops I gave at An-Najah University were a fascinating experience. It has been a privilege to get to know more about the Palestinian culture, the different religions of the Palestinian people and the students themselves, which are unique and truly amazing. For me one of the highlights of the camp is the hospitality and kindness of the Palestine people. They have showed me how it is possible to maintain hope and a kind spirit, even when things get really difficult. It has been an enriching experience which has definitely inspired me to keep striving for peace and justice worldwide. I totally recommend the exchange programs of An-Najah National University. They are the kind of people I will always remember and admire thinking that these are the people that never gave up their right to be free.

Güler Koca - French and Turkish
  Leadership and Public Speaking was the name of my workshop. I love helping people around me to achieve their goals so I thought that was a good way to do it. Everyday I organized activities to encourage my fellows to improve their public speaking skills. The atmosphere in the class was very good and they were always helping each other during the various exercises. As last time, all of them decided to stay in touch with me so that is the best recompense.

  This was my second camp with Zajel Youth Exchange Program. I wanted to repeat it because it is a unique way to meet Palestinians and to share their daily life, at the university and at home. Each time, the tours prepared by Zajel coordinators was very insightful and the atmosphere in my training workshops was friendly.

  For the first day till the last day of the camp, we visited lots of villages and places teaching us various us aspects of the conflict. In El Aqaba and Tana villages, as well as in Hebron city, we witnessed ethnic cleansing first hand; In Sabastia village we had a good overview of the Roman remains of Palestine; without forgetting all the important sites of the region such as Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, El Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem; And finally we saw with our own eyes and touched with our hands the Apartheid Wall both in Bethlehem and in Qalqylia.

  During the whole program, there was only one canceled activity: We could not have access to Yanoun village because on the day we wanted to explore it all the entrances were closed by the Israeli army. Otherwise we could for sure witness a strong military presence in the occupied Palestinian territories and there are many checkpoints to go through but it did not negatively affect the quality of the program.

  We visited the Jerzim mountain, where the Samaritans live. We were invited to observe their Pass Over ceremony. Samaritans follow Moses rules and live in Jerzim mountain where they believe Abraham sacrificed his son. Palestinians and Israelis attended this ceremony together with international representatives. Not many people know that Samaritans still exist.

  During the camp, we got a clear picture of the current situation in Palestine. Many inhabitants exposed us the details of their daily life and the struggles they are facing because of the occupation. Each day was a new opportunity to hear from different people, organisations, activists for peace and professors sharing their experience and their knowledge with us.

Chris Cly - Scotland
  I’ve never travelled to the Middle East prior to this visit and have always been fascinated with the culture and the region. My feelings just before coming to Palestine were nervous & tense, and I very nearly cancelled at the last minute. However I didn’t and gritted my teeth. Coming to this project has been a fantastic experience and one I fully enjoyed and I can honestly admit probably the best decision I have made.

  The experience over the past two weeks has given me the best insight into the culture and society of Palestine, far more than five years of university ever could. I have now a better understanding of the people of Palestine – what they experience and suffer through colonization & “confiscation” of their lands, the sight of the apartheid wall and the incursions of an occupying army. Though I can never empathize as I have never experienced it and will be going back to Scotland soon, I certainly have a better understanding and insight.

  The project has been a fantastic experience, the best $450 I have ever spent, and was unbelievably fantastic value for money. The visits to Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem, Kirbut Tana, Al Aquaba village and Qalqilya city opened my eyes to what is really happening in Palestine. We received lectures on the Apartheid Wall and what it represents and how the Israeli’s have colonized parts of Palestine, the national dialogue and Arab culture.

  The workshop I led was English Conversation, it was not a teaching workshop in the traditional sense just speaking and playing games that allowed people to practice speaking English in an informal setting in the sun. Though there were varying level of abilities everyone took part and made an effort. Over the course of the two week the group got larger and larger and larger. I can honestly say I have enjoyed doing the workshops and would happily do them again.

  The Israeli Army had a large and imposing presence in the area at this time, however we still travelled to Hebron and other towns and villages in Palestine relatively unhindered. We were stopped a couple of times and asked where we are from and after a few minutes were allowed to carry on. On only one occasion we were not allowed to carry on and told to go in another direction, and this was in Hebron which is a particularly odd place. Despite the unwelcome presence of an occupying army and their actions against the Palestinians, they did not harass myself or the group beyond checking passports and id’s. The presence of the Israeli army is clear and visible throughout the country but they rarely interfered with the group.

  The volunteers who escorted us around Palestine and between buildings were a fantastic group of people, who despite the issues they face every day keep smiling and made us feel very welcome and comfortable. We had about a dozen volunteers and they were all fantastic friendly people. Wondering around town I was always told welcome to Palestine. People would come up in the street and ask where I’m from and ask to take photos. Kids would come up to me in the street and ask for a photo. The people in the shops and stalls were helpful and everyone seems to know everyone else. I can honestly say it is the friendliest place I have ever visited. I never received the slightest bit of bother from anyone.

  All in all I have met some fantastic new friends and my Facebook friends list has just got a lot bigger. If anyone has any reservation about coming to Palestine, please put them to the side and come to the country, it will be worth it and it’s not as scary as the western media makes it out to be. It is a fantastic project, a great experience and one you will value for the rest of your life, I know I will. I have every intention of coming back to Palestine in the near future and maybe will bump into some of you in the future. Good luck and enjoy Palestine.

Luke Hodgkin
  I’ve been visiting An-Najah Nationa University in Nablus in the occupied West Bank for a fortnight. Coincidentally (since I have been working with refugees in Britain and France), the volunteers in the student youth exchange program where I was expected to contribute were expected to take part in discussions on ‘the refugee crisis’, although it was nothing to do with my supposed work at the university.

  Who can ignore the situation of refugees in Palestine? I was told that good percentage of the students at An-Najah University, where I am myself a rather aged volunteer, were themselves refugees from 1948 or 1967 - and of course knew it. Nablus has four sizeable camps, and if your parents or grandparents came from Haifa or Akka you don’t ‘belong’ in the same way. And yet you live there (a student). You experience the mountains and sky of Nablus. you may never see the sea.

  However for Palestinians the other ever present reality is the Israeli occupation. Syrian or Afghan refugees – (I’ve met them) – see their country’s present state as a nightmare; but they don’t doubt that their aim is to return. Palestinians know that – while they can enjoy things about their life and work – the problem is about much more than returning. Until freedom is won, they can never escape the brutal facts of occupation. It may manifest itself in direct settler violence (crop destructions, violence addressed against women and children) or in the army’s stranglehold on transport which slows the shortest journeys to three hours or more; and may hold everything up for hours. Life is near impossible for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; and heavily restricted for those who live as an oppressed minority in the state of Israel. (Another thing I learned is the extent to which the occupation creates a fragmented national identity – dividing access to privileges e.g. passports even within a single family. These diverse identities show up among the students I’ve been seeing daily. And paradoxically, the extent to which, conversely, the claim to a Palestinian national identity, even if one is a citizen of Jordan or Kuwait, or lives in a camp in Lebanon, is a means of resistance)

  Palestinians know all this. How could they not? But (if they are students) they have to live, work, make the daily journey to class. They have to make plans; and they do. I’m constantly amazed at their patience and inventiveness. Every day I meet people and try to find out how they negotiate a way of living within these – you’d think impossible – constraints.

  At an informal meeting, I was asked four questions (social/political) by the volunteers’ group. The most challenging, I thought, was: ‘What’s special about Palestine?’ Of course, many Palestinians think their history has been particularly unfortunate. cursed by villains from Balfour to Sharon to Netanyahu who deny their existence. But they also think their county is particularly beautiful, and so on. Nothing, I tried to answer, is special about Palestine that isn’t also special about the townships of South Africa, the favelas of Brazil, any place where dispossessed people are trying to work out their own future under unjust and repressive conditions. I have particular links to Palestine which make it special for me; and for the student of ‘the refugee problem’ it has a special interest. But, like all countries from which refugees come – in the end, it’s about people and how they live from day to day.

  I’ve spent a wonderful two weeks among the students of An-Najah University; they gave me the task - testing the students’ ‘level’ in English before they go on a volunteering course. the students I was testing were often an eye-opening introduction to life here: intelligent, lively, well aware both of their own political grief and of those of the wider world but wanting also to focus on their personal interests, on Eminem or Indian films. Of course I steered conversations on to ‘the refugee problem’. Did they know about it? Whose fault was it and what should/could be done? Almost always. I learned a great deal from those conversations, as (in France) I’d already learned from talking to refugees; they ranged over all kinds of subjects. A really hard question I had from a student was: ‘What has been your most challenging experience?’ (one which changed you). That took some thought. My (perhaps too obvious) answer was: discovering the refugee situation in Calais last September; and that I could do something about it; and the friendships that I formed. So my time here has been a extraordinary education, as my time in the Calais ‘jungle’ has been.

  So can we help the people of Palestine? Surely, but not, as usual, if we arrive with any preconceptions about what that help will be. I always advise my friends to visit, to learn, to see the country and meet the people. That’s where it starts. It was moving, for me, to visit a factory which produced beautiful shoes but had been closed by a combination of Israeli regulation and Chinese competition. I tried to buy a pair, but of course I was given them.

  Best, if possible (and I know it won’t be possible for everyone) we can go and see, and experience life as it’s lived, from bread and humus to teenage soldiers and checkpoints; to see the land and meet the people. (Of course some of them are in the UK, e.g. at SOAS.)

Marcy Smith
  In April 2016, I had the chance to be an international volunteer with the Zajel Youth Exchange Program of the An-Najah University of Nablus, Palestine. The program took part from the 12th-26th April 2016 at the University and in different villages, cities and surrounding areas in Westbank, Palestine.

  The main idea of volunteering in this program is to lead workshops for the local students, and to therefore enable them to develop specific skills (e.g. English conversation skills, public speaking, debating skills). Furthermore, the program aims to create a mutual understanding between the internationals and the local students. Both sides are able to highly benefit of these workshops, as they create a base of communication between different cultures, religions, political views and ways of life.

  A typical day in the program started at 8:30 in the morning with a breakfast. How could a day start better than with Falafel, Hummus, Vegetables, bread and tea? After finishing the breakfast, we usually had presentations or discussions about an issue regarding the Palestinian situation or the Arab world in general (e.g. Freedom of thought in the light of the Arab spring), which would enable us to gain a clearer understanding of one aspect of the current situation in Palestine. After lunch, the volunteering part of the program took part, and so we gathered with our students and lead our workshops. Each workshop lasted for about one and half an hours and it definitely was a part of the day everyone looked forward to, as the students demonstrated an incredibly active participation. In the end, the workshops have not only been an enriching experience for the students, but especially for us as mentors an opportunity to learn.

  On the weekends and at specific days during the week we used to travel around West Bank. The trips to different villages, cities and areas within Palestine were certainly one of the most intense aspects of the program and enabled us, the internationals, to encounter the Palestinian reality far away from the influencing media. We were given the opportunity to see the conflict with our own eyes and to talk to witnesses and people affected by and living with the consequences of the conflict day by day.

  During our trips to Hebron, Bethlehem and Qalqilya, Balata refugee camp and villages such as Aqaba, Khirbet Tana and Sabastia, we experienced Palestine in a variety of diverse aspects - politically, culturally, as well as historically and environmentally.

  We went to some of the most conflicted areas, went through checkpoints, along the separation wall, were targeted by Israeli soldiers at some points and experienced the occupation on our very own. Nevertheless, I never felt unsecure or in danger, as the locals did a great job in keeping us safe and making sure that we would never get into troubles.

  Now, the two weeks of the program lay behind us. Two weeks that couldn't have been more intense, more challenging, more enriching and more eye-opening in any other way. As the second youngest participant in the history of the Zajel Youth Exchange Program, with only 17 years, I did have some concerns if coming to Palestine on my own would be a good idea - concerns which later on turned out to be completely unreasonable. I might have to add, it was not only a good idea, it certainly was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had.

  Even though two weeks are an incredibly short period of time to get to know as diverse and culturally rich country as Palestine, the intensity and value of this time are irreplaceable.

Yasmina Mehdaoui
  The 17 days I spent in Palestine were the most rewarding I ever experienced. Forget about the media, about the politician speeches…etc. If you really want to learn about the reality of the occupation, you have to go there and see all of it with your own eyes. We had the chance to visit Bethlehem, Hebron, and many other cities and villages around Nablus, which is where we were staying during the whole volunteering program.

  The training workshops we were offering to students were very interesting and rewarding. They were an excellent way to exchange with the students and train them on debating skills in English. We debated over political and social issues such as the Palestinians/Israelis conflict, the Arab Spring, secularism system, the banning of the Hijab in France, Islam phobia in the world, immigration…etc. It was interesting to have the students’ point of view and opinions on these matters, and also exercise them to find arguments both sides, even if they were against or for something in particular. Finding opposite arguments was a way to force them to understand the opposite view, something important in the world, and something which was also the point of the title of the Zajel camp: “Understanding is a two way effort”. I enjoyed every moment I spent inside the old and new campuses in this great university where I could clearly feel that “they challenge the present to shape the future”.

  My purpose in Palestine was to understand more the impact of the occupation on people, try to see the conflict through their eyes, exchange with them and hear what could be the solutions of a predicament that has been going on for almost seventy years now since the 1948 disaster.

  I was able to witness the Israeli occupation, the settlements, the way Palestinians are treated, the privation of their rights and properties, the moral harassment, humiliation, the total absence of humanity through the Apartheid Wall and the ethnical discrimination, particularly in Hebron city. There are no words to describe or express what you feel as you witness such things, the frustration of feeling powerless and not being able to make a huge difference, the anger towards some powerful countries that support and even finance the Israeli military forces.

  You think the apartheid system ended after American and South African segregation history with the fight of Nelson Mandela, Malcom X or Martin Luther King, but Palestine is one of the places that prove that wrong, and people around the world need to know that this racist and degrading system still exists around the world.

  I am happy and grateful for the whole Palestinians I was able to meet and learn from along the way at An-Najah University and in the other places we had the great chance to go. I was truly pleased to see their mental strength, the hope in their eyes despite the situation. The Palestinian is not a trouble maker like they want us to believe in some of the media, the Palestinians are smart persons, who dreams and just want to have a normal life. They do not only struggle to survive; they simply want to live like everybody else, they want to be free. But seeing the Israeli authority behavior and actions, it seems like it is just too much to ask.

  I often heard this proverb “they used to say Palestinians fight like heroes, now they say heroes fight like Palestinians”, and after this experience, I realized first hand that this proverb could not be more accurate, they truly represent an example of strength and patience.

  I wish to thank Zajel Youth program and the An-Najah University students, the volunteers and all the people I met, for reminding me what truly matters in life, and what it is like to be a real and strong fighter on a daily basis.

  Thank you for your generosity, kindness and hospitality. I will always remember you and will definitely come back.