Reflections of the International Volunteers- workcamp September 2016

Alexander Mar
I have never seen such warm, friendly and hospitable people before

  Zajel means communication and peace and this is what Zajel taught us. Starting our time in Zajel by showing us around the Balata Refugee Camp, Ramsis, a committed local volunteer, introduced us to the historic conflict in this Holy Land. Balata Refugee camp is the new home to thousands of the Palestinian refugees. Since (Nakba) the catastrophe of the 1948 the Palestinian people from the city of Jaffa are living in Balata refugee camp on the smallest amount of space and privacy, suffering deficits of electricity, water supply, medicine and above all, education.

  On the other hand at An-Najah-University there are more than 20.000 students dedicated to study in order to challenge the present and to shape the future, as the University Motto says.

  During the workshops; The international volunteers were able to give the students a chance to develop their skills, such as English Conversation, Public Speaking and Debating skills. To be honest their knowledge of the English language was way better than I had expected and they sometimes just needed to be heard. The fellow Palestinian students were full of ideas, creativity and dreams and it was a stereotype breaking experience to hear them talking about becoming a civil engineers or an English teachers.

  I have never seen such warm, friendly and hospitable people before. Where ever we were going for two weeks, the people received our group of volunteers with open arms and a hot cup of Arabic coffee. During our visits of families who are suffering of demolished houses by the Israeli army or people who are suffering the lack of water, people never refused to give us a detailed idea about their situation and even the farmer of a smallest land offered us to taste his one of delicious fruits while showing us how he tries to make the most out of his situation.

  These gestures in spite of all the difficulties ,caused by the Israeli occupation the people are facing, were the most impressive impressions.

Anna Vermont
we've been always surrounded by very good people

  I decided to go to Palestine with Zajel Program because I needed a volunteering experience for my studies. I'm studying international law, specialized in reconstruction or States so I chose to go to Palestine as a first step for a future internship in Palestine.

  As soon as we arrived, volunteers from the Zajel Program welcomed us with food, smiles, and very warm attentions. It was just the beginning, all the volunteers and other people we've met along the two weeks fussed over us.

  Me and other volunteers from all around Europe have spent two unforgettable weeks traveling around West Bank, meeting amazing people, giving workshops, listening to conferences about different aspects of the conflict and about the History of Palestine. Each volunteer had a different story, a different reason to be here and each of them were great people who made the experience even better than expected.

  Along the trip, we met an ex-prisoner talking about his experience in prison and about the torture he had been through, it was very moving and impressive to discover a way of living that we couldn't even imagine. We went into the prison he had been to and observed the conditions of life there. At the end of the experience, it was impossible not to feel concerned by their cause so it confirmed my decision to go back and help in any way I could.

  We also had the chance to meet a priest who talked to us about his hope over a one state solution. Along the sad moments we witnessed, seeing someone full of hope and different suggestions felt like a relieve.

  We listened to several interesting conferences about the economic issue in Palestine, the access of water issue, and the history of Palestine. All the people we met were very open minded, happy to answer any of our questions.

  Along the conferences, I also discovered a beautiful country and wonderful landscapes. We went to the Jordan Valley, to several villages, to visit the Samaritans, to meet people living in caves because of the demolished houses policy. Even though the life of the Palestinians is not always easy within the current situation, we've been always surrounded by very sweet people, with a hospitality beyond compare.

  Thanks to the workshops, we've participated in many debates and cultural exchanges. The students were eager to hear more about our lives, our opinion and were always happy to tell us more about their culture and their feelings on the conflict but also on any other question we asked. They all played the game whatever the debate, game, or work we suggested.

  The schedule was busy but just perfectly balanced so we can get the time to make the most of it, as well as getting the time to know each other good enough to become friends. I'll come again soon and meet again with the volunteers and students we met there. Thanks to Zajel program, the idea of organizing such an exchange is amazing.

Bruno Balsa
Palestine has a deeply interesting history

  Anyone: "Hey mate, what are youre plans for the next month?"
Me: "I'm going to go to Palestine."
Anyone: "Palestine? What do you want there? You'll get bombed."

  Yap...this is a common thought in Germany and unfortunately almost the only one. People back there just don't care about Palestine, because in their opinion the whole Middle East is dangerous. But besides the fact that this is not the case in Palestine (at least to a certain degree), Palestine has a deeply interesting history and a sad fate everyone should know about.

  When I came to Zajel Youth Exchange Program in Palestine I had an absolutely no idea what would I expect. I read something about workshops and thought that we would learn together how to speak in public on daily basis. I was wrong. It was more than that. Zajel gave us profound insights in the everyday life of Palestinians, the opportunity to set up and lead our own workshops and explained us the history of the conflict in details. Everyday we would hop on the university bus and be brought to different exciting places where we would either experience the hospitality of Palestinian inhabitants, listen to the stories of ex-prisoners and war crime witnesses or get an impressive view on the Palestinian countryside. But it was the close contact to the local volunteers and internationals that helped me to gather huge perspectives during my stay.

  Speaking to people of different backgrounds of the world and experiencing the relaxed lifestyle and kindness of the locals worth it's weight in gold. It helped me to improve my english skills and to draw conclusions for my own life since I began to realise that if people here can be happy and remain positive everyday...why should I ever complain about my life? My sorrows are nothing compared to the worries of the people here but still I use to overestimate them -unlike people do here. I think that the Workcamp at Zajel had a big impact on my future and provided me with important perspective through the perfect mixture of political seriousness and social convenience.

  It is important for Palestine to get attention of foreign countries because otherwise their isolation will never end. It needs the support from outside to fight together the injustice. Plus: People there need to contact the internationals since it is very hard for them to get abroad so that they barley even see the sea once in their lives. Everyone should have the chance of gather perspective because that is the key for establishing Peace. So come to Palestine, come to Zajel and be -together with the enthusiastic and dedicated Palestinian students- the change!

Franziska Bone
People were very welcoming and took good care of us

  During the two weeks program we made an excursion during the morning and evening while we spent the noon at the university having lunch and holding training workshops for the Palestinian students. It was great opportunity for us to give such training workshops because it gave us the chance to get to know the students and discuss a lot of subjects with them.

  The trips we did included political places and places you couldn´t think of as a tourist. We saw a lot of the things which are debated in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We visited demolished houses and heard the stories from their owners or their families. Houses can get demolished if a person commits a crime and the punishment is sometimes also extended to their families. Also we had lectures about the conflict and the effects of the check points and the settlements. There are water shortages and some people lost their land or can´t access it anymore. We visited Qalqylya city which is surrounded by walls and checkpoints where people have to wait at the checkpoints to reach their lands. We also made a trip to Hebron city where we could see that the Israelis´ settlements are directly inside the city center. Therefore they closed these parts of the town down and they look now like a ghost town.

  We also visited other interesting places like the newly established city of Rawabi which is funded by private investors and will offer luxury apartments. Also made a trip to Bethlehem city where we visited the Church of Nativity. Besides that we made trips to small towns surrounding Nablus where we could also visit people in their homes and were invited for snacks where we saw a traditional Palestinian wedding. We spent time in a restaurant or in a water park with the local volunteers.

  The best thing for me was to get an insight into another culture and into people’s daily lives. The People were very welcoming and took care of us. Besides the coordinators there were local volunteers who also joined on trips and who were very eager to make our stay enjoyable. at the university and during the training workshops there were a lot of students who want to talk to you and get to know you. There were always students eager to show you around or to help you if you need anything. The Palestinian students were very interested in exchange and in learning about foreign countries. For me it was nice to see that the students care about the same things as we do and that we have a lot of similar interests. I was curious about a lot of things and it was great to see how people here spend their time and to see their daily lives. Participating in the camp was a great experience for me and I learned a lot about the Palestinian culture. I can highly recommend travelling to Palestine and participating in the camp because you will learn a lot.

Geraldine Farei
An-Najah is a very impressive site and sight

  I arrived in Palestine on August 28th 2016. It was a warm evening and I immediately felt upon arriving in ‘The Park’ to meet everyone, there was sense of home. I met all the local and international volunteers that evening. It was quite like I had met them all before. We ate together and were brought to our accommodation, which we settled into straight away.

  The following morning we went to the new University Campus. An immense set of ultra-modern buildings, with multiple faculties and associated amenities. A very impressive site and sight! We had lunch back at the old campus followed by our first work shop. My area is Public Speaking and or the fear of it. I was looking forward to this very much. I then had the pleasure of meeting my new students, whom I may add were one of the nicest bunch of people I have ever met. They all exuded a happiness, a contentment and or a lovely peace. I came to be in awe of their beautiful smiling faces, without exception. I have to remark, having travelled the world over many years, I can say, without exception, Palestinians are the best looking race on earth. Life continued and we got into the stride of our workshops and our daily routine.

  I happened to be in the unusual situation of being the eldest by far within my group of International Volunteers, but never the less that never was an issue. I blended in despite being 40 years older than some. We were a very chilled out bunch.

  The days were flying by due to the attention to detail that Zajel Program had put into the planning of each day. Each day was a surprise, an attention grabber, a multitude of fascinating facts, a history lesson, a current affairs lesson, a chance to be within the sanctum of a family, a wedding, a chance to explain our cultures, a chance for openness, a chance for transparency, an exchange of thoughts and ideas and above all, a chance for meeting wonderful people. We all were entranced and enthralled by what we were experiencing. The visual impact of every single visit and the people we had the opportunity to meet when visiting both in social and other settings. Each day, made for a truly memorable experience.

  My stay in Nablus would not be possible without the continued, consistent and unrelenting dedication of the local students of the university. These people are without exception passionate, dedicated and patriotic to mention just a few of their personal qualities. Meeting the local students was a humbling experience. These people made our visit more personable and enjoyable than I could ever have wished. They ironed out any unforeseen problems and were there at all times. I have to say, I was only really settling in, when it was time to say good bye. I really wish it all could have lasted much longer. The time flew bye, I now miss Palestine and its beautiful people, for now!

Shirin Sand
The Zajel Program is a perfect chance to see how people think about the Conflict

  The almost two weeks in Nablus, Palestine were the most touching two weeks in my whole life. You see immediately if you are in Palestine or Israel because of the infrastructures, architectures, destroyed houses etc. It is very hard to accept the gaps between the lifestyles of poor and rich people. Very interesting are the opinions of academics and others about the political future of Palestine and in which way these differ from each other. Getting into contact with the locals and talking about basically everything was very nice and expanded my horizon.

  The Zajel Program is a perfect chance to see how the situation is and how the people think about it. You are getting information directly and just being there is a very valuable experience. I would recommend it for everyone, to participate in this program. To me it was a very wonderful time and I will miss the people and atmosphere very much. I have met very nice volunteers from everywhere and being in the same situation united all of us. I want to thank Zajel Program for giving us this chance and the whole volunteers for being so welcoming and friendly to us. Thank you very much!

  I was in a group of international volunteers from all over Europe, In the first day we saw the new and old campus of the university in Nablus and have met the group of students, who were staying all the travels with us. We visited the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus and have seen how the Palestinian refugees from everywhere are living in worst conditions. In the next days we visited also other cities like Ramallah, Jenin, Aqrabah, Qalqiliyya, Rawabi city, Bethlehem, Hebron. We saw poor people without any possibilities of a home, ethnically cleansed villages, settlers and a lot of checkpoints. At the university we have had the chance to get more into contact with the students in the workshops. In the workshop of “Ice breaking” we have spoken about a lot of things like differences in culture, countries and languages and played games like Chinese whispers or “Guess who I am “. The challenge was to talk to foreign people about everything. We also trained the public speaking skills and the arguing in discussions.

  In the two days without program our group of internationals went to the Dead Sea and to Jerusalem. Seeing the Wall and passing the controls was very strange. At the day of the farewell party we have heard a lot of kind and touching speeches and have taken a lot of pictures. Afterwards we have gone to a very nice restaurant named “1001 nights”. The food was amazing.

  Thank you very much!

Suzan Smith
An-Najah University feels vibrant from the early morning

  My experience at An-Najah University on the Zajel Youth Exchange Programme was diverse, thought-provoking, and other-worldly. The days are long and full of opportunities to learn and meet both students and Palestinians living in different circumstances across Palestine; some with stories of settler and soldier violence, others who have suffered from home demolitions.

  An-Najah University feels vibrant from the early morning, and staff and students are always helpful, curious, and warm. The local volunteers, of whom there are many, are funny, lively and keen to share their passion for their country and culture, while also being open and honest about their experiences as young people living here, and their desires to seek employment opportunities and a safer life.

  Perhaps the most rewarding experience one can have is in getting to know Nablus city, where An-Najah University is located. Nablus is entirely different from one area to the next. The commercial areas such as the one where the girls’ apartment is, are full of yellow taxis, clothes shops, and stands selling iced drinks, shawerma and corn. The markets are full of fruit, spices, perfume, and fish, and are a great place to spend your free time in.

  From the hilltops, where you’ll visit many times with the Zajel programme, Nablus looks incredible. If you’re lucky enough to be there in the evening, you’ll hear the adhan (call to prayer,) coming from Nablus’ 90 mosques at the same time, and echoing through the valleys. It’s an incredible experience. Away from the bustle of the commercial areas, the hills are quiet and dense with healthy olive trees, and occasionally goats and camels.

  The trips organised by the university expose you to the realities of the occupation. We met parents of children who had been killed by settlers, and visited homes regularly under attack by settlers who had built homes next door. We walked through markets full of bullet holes, refugee camps, and in areas in which Palestinians and Israelis have to walk on opposite sides of the street, even areas in which our Palestinian guides were not allowed to enter with us.

  Overall, the experience is a fantastic and thorough introduction to both the history and daily impact of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine. You’ll make friends, and meet people who will open their homes to you forever, and you’ll definitely want to return as soon as you can. If you’re not sure about whether or not to join the Zajel Youth Exchange Programme, I’d recommend that you do it. You will not be disappointed.

Vivien Sole
Every Day There is Something New to See

  Coming to Nablus was exciting even though I became nervous about going to Palestine. But when we were questioned at entry it was not as terrible as I had imagined before. We took the taxi from the airport to Nablus and saw the difference between Israel and Palestine during this trip, it was shocking. After the checkpoint the houses became smaller, the streets were poor, and everything looked quite devastated. But the students from the University were so warm and welcoming that we felt almost at home just a few hours after our arrival. We had a lovely dinner and long chat at the first day and it was really nice meeting all these new people.

  The next few days we had a tight schedule. We were on the bus a lot going from location to another. The Palestinians showed us a lot of different things. Things they were proud of and things that caused them problems and things they enjoyed. We saw the wall that is being built around a lot of cities. We saw demolished homes and settlements. We heard about the water and energy problems. And we also heard the stories of the prisoners who were tortured by Israeli soldiers and prison guards. But the students also showed us the cheerful sides of their lives. We danced Dabke (a traditional very popular dance), we visited several restaurants, one of which was located in a small fountain, and we visited their families who were also very warm and welcoming. Also we participated in a wedding party. We also got to see a few things the Palestinians were proud of, like the planned city of Rawabi and the science house of Nayzak.

  On the weekend we had some free time to do whatever we wanted, so many of the internationals decided to go to the dead sea and Jerusalem. It was an amazing but very tiring weekend. The weather at the dead sea is much hotter than the weather in Nablus. When we were swimming it was over 40°C.

  I heard from the students that it is a lot of trouble going through the checkpoints. But during our stay we were very lucky and we were never stopped at any checkpoint. Being in Nablus and participating in Zajel was an amazing experience. The countryside is beautiful and the cities are very different from each other so everyday there is something new to see. I am glad I took this opportunity to go to Palestine. I made a lot of new friends and I am glad I could share the life and some of the experiences with them.

Ashar Johnston
This was the second time I visit An-Najah University

  This was the second time I visited An-Najah University and I hope to return again. When I arrived I was more prepared to teach classes. I had an expectation of what the programme would contain and was excited to learn from the students, exchange ideas and have new experiences. I highly recommend visiting Nablus and taking part in Zajel, as it is an excellent way of understanding the complex situation and offers a diverse range of activities to take part in.

  I do not have the literary skill to convey my admiration for all of the wonderful people that I have met on this programme. From the incredibly inspirational lecturers, to the supportive and welcoming local volunteers, to the committed and intelligent students, to the patient and intriguing communities that we visited. Everyone we talked to had stories to share and generosity and warmth in abundance, nothing I have experienced has come close to leaving me with a greater sense of perspective and sense of gratitude for people that are compassionate, resilient and kind.

  The International Youth Exchange Programme (Zajel) of the Public Relations Department at An-Najah concluded the activities of its 3rd international voluntary camp that included 13 international volunteers who worked on developing students’ practical and lingual skills and competencies in English through a series of workshops on successful public speaking and effective conversation skills.

  There are many informative visits that framed the historical context of the occupation and we learned about a variety of solutions and challenges. This allowed us to form our own understanding and we were encouraged to ask questions to clarify personal areas of interest. As an international I felt safe and secure, although some trips were quite tense due to the intimidations of the Israeli army. Hearing firsthand accounts of people who have had their houses demolished, been arrested, and who were living in refugee camps was emotionally exhausting at points. But witnessing the resolve and perseverance of the Palestinians was a powerful example of how hope can manifest in extremely difficult situations.

Jake Andeson
Students of An-Najah have great desire for understanding the world

  I am writing this testimony from my room in Bristol, where I live in England. On attending the The An-Najah National University`s youth exchange program, from the moment I arrived in the park in Nablus up until the final day in Bethlehem, I was greeted with warmth, friendliness, sincerity and interest. Throughout people would ask me why I had chosen to come to Palestine of all places, when so few others did. I have always been interested in the politics of the West-Bank, and have become fairly familiar with the situation through various methods of research.

  However, as it is when observing something through the filters of the internet, friends, politicians and the media, away from the existence on the inside, you form a reality that is shaped by subjective ideas, creating a morphed re-presentation of an already manufactured reality.

  It was only after getting to Nablus on a Sunday evening, arriving at a park and being served ice cream floating in some delicious home-made lemonade, with a group of students, all interested in life and education, in humanity and with a desire for understanding the world. We spoke about American Literature, about James Baldwin, about culture and about life in the UK and Palestine. This moment was so far removed from my perception of this region. I had forgotten that Palestine was a real place with real, fantastic people, because in my head it was a cause I was dedicated to. It was a cause that I believed was humanitarian, but on reflection on it now, was really only political in nature. I was viewing it as an expression of global politics, a piece in the games of politicians. I had been a sucker to the mystification perpetuated by the media and by governments; even if my views were counter to the dominant message, I had lost simply by playing the game.

  I was extremely happy to have this busted out of my head, and communicate with people with no preconceptions of who they were and what they were like. The people I met on the first night in the park, with you I shared conversation, laughter and ideas, were not in isolation. Everywhere I went I encountered thoughtful, intelligent and considered discussion on a number of things. During the first lesson I was teaching, in English conversation, I exposed my ignorance distinctly. We were having a discussion about the word 'civilisation', it meanings and uses in the English language over the course of history, and the cultural effects of this concept. I was prepared to try and discuss this with the students claiming a small degree of authority, and found myself getting schooled by the whole class. I learnt more from them than they learnt from me over the course of the two weeks that I was teaching, no doubt.

  The human layers to life in Nablus was something I hadn't even considered, naively, until I was there, but is the only real aspect of the whole thing. When going through life it is each person's experiences that form their being, their sense of humour, their past-times, what they like, their morality, how they can be happy, what everything means, they shape their understanding on why things are as they are. What I didn't understand before I went to Palestine is that generally people don't instinctively have a 'bigger-picture' viewpoint, they do not see their situation as a set of historical events (although these are extremely important in Palestine) that are removed from everyday life. It is everyday life that shapes people.

  As my Palestinian friend told me; it is the restrictions on movement, cultural exchange and resources that are the things that form the psyche of the Palestinian people. It is a place of vast knowledge, and a huge resource of human capability, but it is stuck in a place that looked very similar fifty years ago. I believe he felt that Palestine is kept away from a rapidly developing world by Israel in order to starve it of any possible growth or development itself and, in so doing, reducing it's power in the technologically advanced world we occupy. I don't believe that the Palestinian people I met will let themselves be starved of this, and certainly I saw ambition to discover new things and develop in all the students I spoke with. The yearning for knowledge was by far the greatest I have ever come across. I was put to shame every day by the young people of Palestine, not that they would believe me, in their desire for knowledge, their refusal to be victimised, their ability to treasure joy with such delicate hands, and bring joy out of others, as well as their straight up intelligence, and their sense of humour.

  Throughout my stay there were some extremely difficult times to bear. Every day I met more and more people who had suffered immeasurably, having been torn apart either by death, imprisonment, or the destruction of homes, and i heard more and more stories of torture and abuse at the hands of the Israeli military. They were never told to me as a way of gaining my sympathy or horror though, as I might have expected, but with a cold matter of fact that was never looking for a reaction. There were moments where I felt hopeless and confused, frustrated by the seemingly helplessness of the situation. I could see no solution, no change, in fact only an increase in the abhorrent conditions that the people deal with every day.

  Unfortunately I returned as cynical about the political situation as when I arrived, if not more so, but have been lifted by my human experience in Palestine. I have never come across such interesting and beautiful people, and I will be returning soon to continue my journey with the people and the region, and hopefully being able to do anything I can to help and be a positive force in an extremely difficult situation.