“I have discovered that they have a very powerful weapon to fight against all these adversities, and that is education.”
My name is David, I’m originally from Barcelona (Catalonia) and I’ve been living in London for the past 5 years. I’ve been volunteering for 2 weeks in An-Najah University giving a workshop about social media and digital communications. I’m going to talk about the classes I taught, as well as my experiences in the different places we visited.
In the workshops I tried to teach students, firstly, how to use different social media platforms and, secondly, how to use video and image editing software for students to communicate ideas into the digital world we live in. I started by exploring how to create a Facebook page and a YouTube channel. In the following lessons, I shared with the students ways to edit videos with Adobe Premiere. We continued by creating small clips with some sample footage and we finished by merging Adobe Premiere with our previous work using Photoshop in order to create a more complex video.
Students became more engaged following the classes and they asked several questions regarding the lessons. Their digital knowledge differed considerably from one to another, as some had studied more literary degrees whilst others had studied more computer science related ones. Even the most technologically capable students were helping out their less experience classmates field.
Regarding the places we visited in the West Bank and Israel, there were mixed feelings. On one hand, we were emotionally connected with people who were living below the line of poverty in the refugee camp of Askar, where residents sometimes have no access to water for 14 days, or wondering when it is going to be the next time an Israeli soldier will break into their house will be. On the other hand, we had the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea, seeing Jordan on the other side. It is the light of hope that still shines in the heart of most Palestinians nowadays.
We were also moved when we took a trip to the northern part of the Israeli Territory and I found out that some of the students, aged 21, have never been there or they have never seen the sea before, considering that the Mediterranean is less than an hour driving from where they live. That gave me a sad, real impression of the long lasting restriction and oppression that Israel is inflicting towards the Palestinian people.
To sum up, I would like to conclude that Palestine faces many problems every day, from access to a constant supply of water, land occupation by Israeli settlers, highly restricted access of movement (even inside the West Bank, the town of Hebron being an example), restricted access to technology (not even 3G connection for Palestinian mobile phones), But for the past 2 weeks that I’ve been living and interacting with Palestinian people I have discovered that they have a very powerful weapon to fight against all these adversities, and that is EDUCATION. A proper, good education that makes every student willing to discover new realities with new people, a natural curiosity that makes them learn new languages and maybe have the opportunity to continue their studies abroad. All of this is possible thanks to the great work that Zajel and his team are doing in An-Najah University, bringing international volunteers to exchange our culture and experience with them to bring the world a little bit closer together.
“The extent to which Palestinians are subjected to injustice and denial of human rights is hard to believe.”
First of all, it certainly has been an experience. We all need to experience - I mean while fully immersed - what it is like to live under the same conditions as our Palestinian friends. The local volunteers have been amazing and brilliant.
During my stay here I lost my cellphone in a taxi. The local volunteers were amazing. They found the taxi driver - a very honest man. And he taught me a lesson: to be more optimistic- "Life is always good!".
The Hebron visit was the most shocking and I got some sense of what occupation looks like and what it really means - an unconditional subjugation under an occupying army.
The wall in Bethlehem shocked me as well: in the former interstate border between East and West Germany the fence was 5 meters high. Here, it is 8 meters high. Still in Bethlehem, in the museum of the wall, I listened into the standard message of the military "intelligence" prior to bombing Palestinian houses. I could grasp a sense of why people may suffer from PTSD in Palestine.
The Galil trip was, for me, the most interesting. I wouldn't want to have missed seeing the border to Lebanon. The Jenin city visit was also very important and it is great to know these people. The Freedom Theatre project is a great one and gives me lots of hope for the young people.
Before having been here I may not have believed the kind of systematic oppression of a state imposes towards its second-class citizens. I would not have understood what it means to have, not one, but 20 checkpoints within 1 mile. I would not have understood what it means to become branded as a potential criminal or terrorist - not only as an individual but as a whole nation - and having to confront this daily, because I cannot commute freely. My standard reaction to unjustified allegations - outspoken or not - would be lots of anger, especially when I cannot understand any reason for when I feel treated unjustly.
The extent to which Palestinians are subjected to injustice and denial of human rights is hard to believe: being denied access to sufficient water (for daily hygiene), not for a week or two, but for all your life; being subjected to military law; having no security or certainty of justice, inside or outside your home; constantly being subjected to inconsistent and arbitrary behavior of IDF soldiers; the omnipresence of double standards, negating constitutional rights to half of the population of the state of Israel; the public control and scrutiny that should grant that equality of rights is not applied in all circumstances. Palestinian journalists cannot move freely, hence there is also no free press; even though almost every movement you do in the Palestinian or Israeli territory is filmed by video camera. The footage is always available when it could serve to sentence a Palestinian for a crime, but it is never used when it could prove the wrongdoing of settlers against Palestinians.
In short, when you are a Palestinian there are no checks and balances in place, and, in the case of doubt, the law will be used against you, certainly not in your favor.
Friends were made here and there was harmony within the group of internationals. I liked my group very much, I met great people and will stay in further contact with some of them.
“I have grown up a lot in both academic and personal ways.”
After two weeks in the An-Najah University in Palestine I can definitely say that I have grown up a lot in both academic and personal ways.
I taught the workshop of Italian Language and Culture because some local students are going to have a trip to Italy and so they had to learn about greetings, numbers and days of the week; how to present themselves, how to ask for information. So we studied a little bit of vocabulary and after that we talked a bit about the Italian Culture, history, art and food. We also saw different pictures of the cities they will visit. After that we still had time to play some games in order to learn about Italian hand gestures, because they will have to know about it. We also touched on stereotypes about Italians and Italians’ most common characteristics. The main purpose was to prepare them as well as possible for their trip.
It was a wonderful experience for me, actually still a student in Italy. They made me feel really comfortable and appreciated, particularly because I was younger than most of the students and I was worried about that. In fact, all the students and volunteers here were very nice and polite, showing how much they care about us. We always felt comfortable and safe everywhere we went during our trips around Palestine.
We really had the opportunity to see what the real Palestine is - from the University to the Bedouin tent, from the refugee camps to cities such as Nablus and Hebron - and to discover how beautiful it is to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea, to eat the traditional sweets of Nablus, to meet different communities as the Samaritans and to discover many energetic, strong and hopeful people, such as those from the Freedom Theatre.
I really want to thank everyone here for the energy they have and for the wonderful experience they offered us, one that we will never forget.
“This has been a great and eye opening experience!”
After two weeks of the Zajel Youth camp, I am extremely happy, satisfied and tired. We have learned so much through the camp, we have seen so many interesting things and met so many wonderful people. The local volunteers were extremely friendly and always willing to help. They could be a bit over-protective at times, but it all comes from a good place. They just wanted us to feel happy and safe, and I am very grateful to have had the chance to get to know all of them.
We have visited several amazing places that have both been marked by history, politics and the conflict. The trip to Hebron gave a harsh but necessary insight into the hardships of the local Palestinian population and the injustice they face in the hands of the settlers.
Nablus is a great city and the schedule included trips to one of the city’s refugee camps, the Old City and several other nice places here. It would have been nice to spend some more time in the refugee camp and the old city, but the day off allowed us to explore the Old City by ourselves, which was extremely nice.
The workshops for me began as a large worry, but after the stress of the first workshop it became a great joy to meet the students and help them learn English through Western music. It helped that our class only had around 10 people. I am not sure I could have handled many more. I will truly miss my students and I will not be scared to take a similar opportunity in the future.
The general schedule of the trip was very extensive and included many interesting trips and visits. Keep in mind that when it says preliminary this means that it can change dramatically, and that the schedule that is sent out is only a small peek of what might come. The schedule was very busy and to constantly move around in the heat, getting new information and new impressions takes a lot of energy, both physically and mentally. It has therefore been important to take good care of myself - drinking lots of water, eating enough, sleeping enough and keeping my head in the right place. However, it has been great to have a chance to see so many things in such a small time, and the planning and scheduling has been so great. It is also great that the schedule allows for a day off if that is needed to gather energy or visit some things alone. This flexibility has been really nice.
The camp is very centered around the conflict and the occupation, which has helped me become much more aware of everything that goes on here. I could have used some more information on Palestinian culture, traditions and their uniqueness. We did have the chance to attend wedding party, visit a Bedouin camp and eat lots of local food (all of which was amazing), but I feel that there is much more to learn about Palestine. The conflict does occupy much of the life here and it is very understandable and good that they want to show us their hardships, as it can be hard to get accurate information on this from home. I therefore leave the camp much wiser about this than when I came.
All in all, this has been a great and eye opening experience! I would love to come back and revisit the many interesting places and wonderful people here. The locals have made such an effort making us all feel at home, and I am so grateful for everything they have done.
“We feel more human and compelled to give our best to help build a peaceful world where freedom is the key word.”
I will start my reflection on the Youth Exchange Summer Camp with the first two ideas that came to my mind. First of all, the extraordinary work that is being done in this university on behalf of the students. It is an example of hope and determination to be admired and followed. My congratulations to Zajel Program. The second point is about the importance of this summer camp in the rebuilding of my idea of Palestinians. They are enduring very difficult times with the occupation; the apartheid state we witnessed in the checkpoint areas shocked and saddened me mostly. It is hard to believe that such things may happen in our century. But, on the other hand, I could also see the light side of their faces. They shared their smiles and joy with us; they are now much closer to me and I'm really grateful.
In only fourteen days we visited a lot of wonderful places: Bethlehem, Galilea and the sunrise in the desert by the Dead Sea. Sabastia and Hebron were the most impressive experiences, because we could feel centuries of history, and how ancient and rich Palestinian people and culture are. However, there were everywhere the tracks of destruction left by the yet unsolved conflicts that affect this part of the world, always reminding us of the dark side of humanity.
Parallel to these visits, I've spent my time in the An-Najah University (Old Campus) supporting workshops and having informal conversations with the students. I realized how motivated and open minded they are, always asking questions, willing to learn more and more about the world abroad. On the other hand, they let us know how life is in Nablus, one of the cities where some freedom can be breathed, although the present situation in Palestine is always in people's minds and actually affects their daily lives. In one of the lectures we attended we learned about the effects of this situation on people's health.
After this experience in Palestine, we feel more human and compelled to give our best to help build a peaceful world where freedom is the key word.
“An amazing, exhausting and very deep experience.”
I really enjoyed my time at Zajel at An-Najah University. Beside the interesting workshops, I feel happy thinking back to the wonderful trips we took and to the amazing people I met there. For my throwback about my exchange in Nablus, Palestine, I would like to separate my reflections in the following three parts: University, people and the region itself.
First of all, we, the international volunteers, had a teaching function. We had the opportunity to hold lectures in our chosen fields. We gave workshops with topics such as public speaking in English, the Italian language and cultural or social media competencies. It was a pleasure to prepare and hold our workshops to such motivated and demanding students. Furthermore, we had a couple of lectures from local scholars. The topics mostly focused on the life and situation in Palestine. While having a great range of topics discussed here, I learned a lot about the local culture and situation.
Secondly, I met great people. Having a bunch of motivated volunteers from around the world, we quickly became a group of friends and the work became more and more pleasant. Also, because we were living in shared flats, we had the space and time to get to know each other pretty well. Working with the local volunteers turned out to be a pleasure as well. From the very first moments, the local students became friends and guides at the same time. Not only did they provide us with water and translation, they also invited us to their houses or showed us their city. This is how I learned how important hospitality is in Palestinian culture.
Thirdly, I feel like I know a big part of the region. We made trips to Hebron, the desert, the Dead Sea, Jenin District, etc. One can surely say that we have seen lots of different places around here, experienced different tastes and seen different sides of the landscapes, cities and villages, the religious and the political areas. I feel like I know these stunning places now.
But one should not spare out the criticism: the time in Nablus flew really fast, which sometimes lead to a kind of tiredness. This was mostly due to the sometimes chaotic organization, to which Europeans generally are not used to.
Concluding, one has to say that the time at Zajel Program was an amazing, exhausting and very deep experience, from which I learned lots about myself and the world. Therefore, I want to thank all the people who made it possible. Shukran!
“It was a precious experience to spend time with people enthusiastic about making something good for somebody.”
I have a lot of obstacles teaching in Japan. Except for well-motivated students who are double schooling, most of them can find no enthusiasm for what they are encountering every day. During the trip, I wanted to see how people in hard conditions try to learn at school.
First of all, I was enrolled in the icebreaking workshop. Preparing two hours of training each day was not an easy task but it was an ideal opportunity to try activities that I used at my school in Japan and learn how teachers from other countries teach. It was helpful that four internationals including me were in the same room. Because of that, we were able to discuss the materials before hand and take a look at them from many points of view. Students were so enthusiastic about learning English. In our workshop, we played some games and did activities to make students comfortable. It seemed they knew the necessity of practicing English.
When it comes to safety, it was a safe, reliable and secure trip. Local students escorted us everywhere and translate our languages. Even on the weekends, they made enjoyable schedules for us.
Furthermore, when we had a Wi-Fi problem in the flat, they came to fix the issue regardless of the time. Thanks to that, we had a comfortable internet-connected environment throughout the camp. The accommodation was great. Four of us stayed in the same flat and each of us had our own room. The biggest security problems I faced in this trip was my personal mistake of where to keep the luggage on the field trip.
I had heard that Hebron is one of the most disputed places in Palestine. Small amounts of Jewish people live among the Palestinian majority. I saw random restricted areas divided by wires in the middle of the old city. Those are the places where the largest displacement by the Israeli government occurred. There was a moment when the internationals and locals had to take different paths. Then we mistakenly went out from the wrong exit. That brought us a necessity of going back to the restricted area through a checkpoint. Passing the gate was an unforgettable moment. Israeli soldiers took each of us for about five minutes of interrogation. It took one hour in total for all to be completed. I experienced how discouraging it is to face checkpoints in corners of Palestine.
It was a disheartening moment for me to face the fact that the refugee camp, which I visited, was not the biggest and that there are still 18 more in the West Bank. The tenements are hardly insulated and that brings people no sense of privacy. I hope one day they will enjoy the right of having a tidy environment.
It was a precious experience to spend time with people enthusiastic about making something good for somebody. What I learned was, not only the history of Palestine in detail, but also the heartwarming personalities and strong will of its people, to learn and gain every single drop of essence of something new.
“I’ll be back.”
When I first heard about the Zajel Program, I wasn’t too sure about going at all: among the counter arguments I was facing were the high temperatures in Palestine, as well as the political struggles in the region, which we all hear about on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, my curiosity and inquisitiveness outweighed my doubts and I booked a flight to Tel Aviv and applied for the Youth Exchange. Just two days before my departure I bought a guide for Palestine, which I actually never managed to read - it was redundant either way: The Zajel Youth Exchange Program turned out to be so perfectly organized and fully packed with information from locals and experts that I didn’t need any additional information.
Since the moment of arrival, I felt so comfortable and whole heartedly welcomed as I have never experienced in any other country I have visited before. The volunteers and organizers of the program, as well as generally all people I came across during these two weeks, turned out to be the friendliest and most welcoming people you could imagine. Everywhere we went people welcomed us in the loveliest ways, offering us coffee and telling us everything we wanted to know, interesting stories, funny stories, sad stories. The local university students also turned out to be super friendly and really interested in learning about our cultures and countries of origin as well, so that we could all learn from one another and experience what it means to engage in cultural exchange. During my stay, I didn’t organize any workshops myself, but wandered around campus taking photos of the others doing so, or participated wherever I was needed. Regardless of which workshop I visited, the internationals and the local students were all getting along very well, often talking long after the official lesson had finished, exchanging Facebook addresses and taking selfies together. For me personally, I had the chance to meet a fair amount of unbelievably inspiring and lovely people within the group of internationals, as well as among the local students and volunteers. We all did get along very well, spending evenings chatting about everything, sharing our experiences, thoughts, happy and sad moments. I truly hope that some of the friendships I was able to build during my stay will last. Never before have I come across such a diverse and international, while at the same time very interested and reflected, group of people.
The absolute highlights of my Zajel experience were probably the day trips we did: from Hebron to the Mediterranean, from Bethlehem to Jenin - within just two weeks we were lucky to see so many fantastic and interesting places and I can surely say that it would have never been possible for me to experience and travel the West Bank on my own the way we did with the students, volunteers and local experts. I learned a lot about the Palestinian Question, not only by talking to many people, hearing their experiences and stories, but also by visiting important, while apparently saddening, places like the Balata or the Askar Refugee Camps.
Nevertheless and even though I was a little insecure at the beginning, I must say that I never felt seriously threatened or endangered during these two weeks. The volunteers and organizers took good care of us, providing us with enough safety information and only taking us to rather safe places. Now that it is time to leave, I'm feeling more heartbroken than I could ever imagine I would feel leaving a place I've just got to know two weeks earlier. But even though it’s sad to leave Nablus, the University, the volunteers and my international friends behind, at the same time I can’t wait to get home and spread the word, show all the pictures I took to my friends and family, tell and retell all the stories I heard, describe the places I saw, the crime I witnessed. I will talk about the Palestinian question and raise awareness - we all will. We will condemn the Oppression that we can no longer be silent about.
The first email that I received from An-Najah University ends with “welcome home”. That simple phrase summarizes what I feel right now when I think about Palestine. I felt at home, I felt that I was among good people.
Now I understand I didn’t know how it is to live in Palestine. Of course I knew about the existence of the refugee camps and the Israeli occupation, but I didn’t know that it was like an apartheid occupation. I didn’t know that, as foreigner, I have many more privileges in Palestine than the Palestinians in their own country.
To live with dignity but also lead a normal life under Israeli occupation without forgetting the duty and the right of resistance is not easy.
Yes, I enjoyed the great food; yes, I enjoyed the Palestinian landscape; yes, I liked the Palestinian hospitality, but I already have all that in my country, at least in a similar way. The lectures were very interesting, but, also, I could read books or articles about what we were taught. The thing that truly reached my deeper self was the students. They are in my heart. I have been a teacher for the last 30 years and so it isn’t easy to be touched in that way. They are so motivated that it’s worth working with and for them. They deserve a better future in ordinary conditions.
The other thing that touched me deeply was Zajel’s work with the youth. It is a huge and respectable way of improving a better and respectable life for all the students. What he is doing is so worthy that I now feel inspired to do some political or citizenship work at home. I feel that I have a debt towards them and for that reason I have to work, in my country, as an ambassador of the Palestinian situation. I must do projects concerning Palestine with my students and denounce the situation. We are talking about basic human rights.
“People will never give up, if not this time, they will eventually find a way to freedom.”
It went by so fast. The local volunteers are the most amazing team I’ve met so far: always helpful, so full of energy and ready to help in the most embarrassing situation, anytime, anywhere. It was my absolute pleasure to work with them. Moreover, they are generally fluent in English, which is a very important point for us, as foreigners.
As a foreigner, before I came here, I had a very general point of view regarding the Palestinian situation. In Hebron I understood that former victims of Nazi camps (Zionist Jews) can be aggressors. Maybe this is not a very impressive discovery, but personally it is. It was very strange to walk across closed streets under such hard control. At one moment I was trying to take a picture and suddenly there was a fully armed Israeli soldier right behind my back. Another point of revelation was the checkpoints – a few of them in the same street. We were asked on one of them to show everything we had in the backpacks and to explain why one of the volunteers’ surname sounded Arabic. They even sent a drone to fly over us. On a positive note, I simply adored the so called “glass” that is made in Hebron. I would love to go back there once again and sit peacefully in Ibrahim’s Mosque for some time, next to prophet thumbs.
Spending the night in the desert and watching the sunrise to Catach from the cliffs over the Dead Sea was priceless!
The walk through the street over Askar’s refugee camp showed a different image of the struggle that lots of people face living in such a small place: there is no privacy and almost everything is shared between neighbors. In that same place, however, you will find no surrender - people will never give up and, if not this time, they will eventually find a way to freedom.
The training workshops part of the camp was very refreshing. It is so when you work with people who really care and want to improve their skills. But, at the same time, I have to mention that students were expecting ready answers or solutions for their problems. It is strange for me, because we are not experts - we were not offered answers to our problems, we were taught to deal with problems step by step, making mistakes.
In what concerns the volunteers’ security during the camp, we were escorted by our local friends like VIPs. No complains in this matter at all!
About the people involved in the programme, I cannot complain about the local volunteers at all. They are an amazing team of hardworking people. I will do my best to come back and meet them again.
“A good balance between the unpleasant realities of the conflict and all the amazing things in Palestine.”
The Zajel Youth Exchange is a really good option for people with little to no travel experience in the Middle East and Palestine, as the program includes a wide variety of trips, visits, lectures etc. Zajel provides rich opportunities to gain knowledge about many aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict - both political, cultural and psychological issues - and to learn more about Palestinian culture and customs. It is, however, up to every single participant to ask in-depth questions, as the presentations are often very general and time is short. There is a good balance in the program between the unpleasant realities of the conflict, of which it is extremely important to inform internationals, and all the amazing things that are also present in Palestine - e.g. food, music, architecture, and of course the incredibly friendly Palestinian population.
The training workshops for the local university students offer good opportunities for personal development within the fields of volunteering and teaching, and they are a great way to meet some young and super engaged Palestinian men and women in the more informal environment of the classroom. I would recommend all future volunteers to just trust in themselves and that whatever they can bring with them of skills, knowledge or the like is great for Zajel!
Besides from the workshops, there is a really tight schedule of trips in and around the beautiful and bustling city of Nablus. We got a glimpse of the brutal reality of hundreds and thousands of Palestinians when we visited the Askar refugee camp in the outskirts of Nablus.
We watched the harsh conditions the Palestinians in Hebron face with settlements in the middle of the city center, in stark contrast with the Christian tourism magnets of Bethlehem, where the Church of Nativity secures visitors to the city all year round. The nature is also worth mentioning - mountains and hiking paths meet the Mediterranean Sea by the Lebanese border in the North, and the desert in the East is a spectacular place to watch the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea after a night in a Bedouin camp.
It is important to note that all the experiences mentioned above - trips, workshops, etc. - are all crammed into a twelve days schedule. Therefore, I really think it is important that one is cautious to take some time off once in a while to relax, have a walk around the old city without a guide, and chat to the locals in smaller groups. It is a lot to walk around with 24 other people, and I really believe (from personal experience) that Palestine opens up in a whole other way when you spend some time alone and are forced to ask locals for directions, help and so on. I wish there was more room for this in Zajel’s itinerary.
The group of internationals is a very diverse one, both with regards to nationalities, age, background and previous experiences. This has both ups and downs. I think this is important for future participants to know and to consider, in order to get the best out of the trip.
“Viva, Viva Palestina”
My last visit to Palestine was ten years ago and there was something inside of me that steered the wheel to come back this year. Luckily, I came across the possibility of joining Zajel camp at An-Najah University. I contacted them via email to find out more about the camp and I must say I only needed their first reply to make up my mind, even though I still didn't know the details. It was the "welcome home" at the end of the email that made it. I would be staying in Nablus for two weeks and I would eventually find out more about what I would be doing. Well, now I can say that these two weeks have been the most intense, insightful, rewarding and sometimes heart wrenching weeks I have had for many years.
Alaa, the coordinator of the camp, is one of the most energetic people I have ever met: he was never tired of helping us, no matter how many issues he had to deal with at the same time. Always with a smile on his face, the knowledge he has about all the places we visited made him a great guide. However, he was not alone on this venture: an amazing group of young local volunteers was always there to help in whatever was needed. Together they formed a very good team, everyone knew exactly what their role was, they were always aware of our needs and provided for them and their professionality was up to everyone's expectations.
The workshops made up an important part of our program. There were many of them and the international volunteers could choose and sign up to be either main trainers or assistants. I joined the icebreakers workshop as a main trainer and the main reason why was because I have been an English teacher for the last 26 years. It turned out to be one of the most requested workshops as I had to deal with over 40 students for two hours. If there is one trait I would highlight about the local students is their willingness to learn, to make themselves understood, to improve and get better every day.
Sometimes I was so moved by their motivation that I would never get tired of preparing materials and activities - I felt I had to be up to their needs. Needless to say that, as a teacher, this is the most rewarding approach to teaching.
As I mentioned above, the workshops took only part of our time during the two weeks the camp lasted. A significant part was dedicated to travelling through the West Bank and beyond, to 1948 historical Palestine.
One of the most unforgettable moments of this trip was when we arrived at the Mediterranean Sea and all the local volunteers that were coming with us that day ran towards the shore. I learnt that some of them were seeing the sea for the first time in their lives! Can you just figure it? For the time of our stay they all became children again, splashing each other and fooling around. It was a great sight to see.
At the start of my two weeks with Zajel I already knew it would be an unforgettable experience. Moreover, now that it is over, I feel I have learnt a lot, maybe not so much about the conflict and the situation the Palestinians are enduring, but mostly about their endurance, their willingness to carry on with their lives and pursue their dreams no matter how much it costs or how long it takes.
Viva, Viva Palestina
“An eclectic mixture of beauty and suffering.”
These past two weeks have been transformational for myself and so many of the other volunteers. I found the trip to be an eclectic mixture of beauty and suffering. On one hand, Zajel did not shy away from showing us the reality of life here, with a tour of Askar refugee camp early on the agenda, where we slipped through alleyways between houses hardly wide enough for one person to walk down, never mind to walk down two abreast. During our trip to Hebron we witnessed our Palestinian friends being turned away from a street and forced to take a 4km detour, and we ourselves spent almost an hour getting through a checkpoint due to the passport and bag checks, metal detectors and questioning. Even some of our most joyous moments were bittersweet: splashing about ankle-deep in the Mediterranean on our trip into Israeli territories should have been blissful- as it was for many of us- but I was also so aware that for many of the locals it was the first time any of them had seen the sea, and none among us could say for sure when they'd next have the chance to see it again. The young people we worked with in workshops were open and honest with us about their problems: many of them spoke of family and friends in prison in Gaza or Jerusalem, who they couldn't get visas to visit, of the crimes they had witnessed or experienced as children, and of the worry they feel when they try to envision their futures as individuals and as Palestinians.
But on the other hand, our experiences here were overwhelmingly positive. We were welcomed with humbling hospitality, generosity and patience, from not only the Zajel local volunteers, but the students and people we met along our way. We attended a wedding party where we were fed, danced with and marked with orange henna to symbolize joy. In Askar we had the privilege of seeing the children perform traditional dance for us, on a stage where one of the surrounding walls bore a bright mural with the words "their artillery can't kill our roots". A personal highlight was our night spent in the desert with Bedouins after we went to Bethlehem, after which we drove to watch the sun rise over the Dead Sea. Even the frankness with which the students spoke about their issues in our workshop was a positive, as their willingness to share what they experience (let alone in a language they aren't all confident speaking) was nothing short of inspirational.
Alongside friendships, amazing hummus and, for some, the discovery of a love for teaching, I think I speak unanimously when I say that the internationals here were given something incredibly valuable: the opportunity to interact with a culture which is being intentionally suffocated and stifled by another and yet is persevering. There are terrible things happening here, for sure, but, more importantly, there are- despite the odds- still wonderful things happening. Zajel is one of them.
“I like to believe that the next Intifada will be social and cultural!”
I came to Palestine with many questions because I knew this country was suffering from the Israeli occupation, but my main questions were: how can Palestinians succeed in maintaining their culture and their way of life? Is there common ground between the Palestinian youth and the Western youth?
During the exchange I taught public speaking to Palestinian students, and it was incredible to see their willingness to bring their opinion about the world. They know, for example, that in western countries people have many stereotypes about Palestine and Islam. Through this programme, it was very interesting for me to listen to their convictions. In addition, they are committed to discovering new cultures and this is a beautiful desire!
I really enjoyed discovering the incredible landscapes in Palestine, especially when we spent a night in the desert with the Bedouins. It was an exceptional experience to admire the sunrise at the Dead Sea. Besides, Jerusalem is probably the most beautiful city I have seen in my life. I particularly appreciated the peaceful place of Al-Aqsa Mosque. In addition, the opportunity to visit refugee camps, Hebron and the Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem was very instructive. We cannot accept the situation; all of the volunteers will speak out against it in our countries in order to defend the human rights of Palestinians!
I discovered how Palestinian culture is the most powerful weapon against Zionism. I like to believe that the next Intifada will be social and cultural!
In Palestine, food is shared and served on plates on the table: it fosters a spirit of conviviality and togetherness. Then, Palestinians like to share their traditional music and to invite you to dance with them! Their spirit of sharing is definitely a life lesson.
To conclude, I am very proud to have been part of the Zajel programme and to discover this beautiful country. I will invite my friends to come here. This trip was probably one of the most enriching experiences of my life: I have learned so many things here! Finally, I hope my Palestinian brothers and sisters will come to France to help them discover my country and my culture!
Celia Polestra and Marqus Aphiler
“Great synergy and competence have characterized our stay.”
We greatly appreciated the warmest hospitality and organization of the two week stay. Despite the complex situation, we enjoyed a complete feeling of security when discovering the direct, deep and large experience of the reality and the profound problems of living in Palestine. But we also deeply appreciated the fact that we were given a chance to discover the strong engagement and the open-mindedness of the students and of all the other people we came to know in order to cope with the problems and to resolve them in the best way for everyone. It has been particularly astonishing to share opinions with female students, who demonstrated a profound awareness and capacity to reflect on and discuss the Palestinian society as well as a concrete willingness to share opinions at an international level. We feel that these women could represent a strong energy in the future development of the country.
The workshops we went through could have been organized a little bit more in advance, but we obviously understand that bringing very different professional experiences together is very difficult, considering also the fact that whoever organizes them does not know the people before they arrive. Nevertheless we enjoyed collaborating with other internationals and, of course, with our students, who demonstrated they are able and ready to take the rudder. They were willing and able to learn rapidly, although we had to notice that certain fundamental aspects on culture and concepts in practice were not disposable in the way we thought they would be. But, on the other hand, we ourselves have also learnt from our students.
The lectures and the visits were very interesting and they opened up our minds to the reality of Palestine, not only regarding the very problematic relationship with Israel, but also the problems inside the Palestinian society. The visit to the Freedom Theatre was extremely interesting and surprising. In this sense we would have appreciated more experience with the cultural initiatives and movements, which promote their part of resistance (literature, music and performing arts) through cultural and artistic activities as instrument of local social development. We also think that artists could play a greater role as international ambassadors of Palestine and promoters of international exchanges.
Finally we wish to pass on our deepest thanks to Zajel and all the local volunteers, who not only have been doing great work in assisting us and organizing even the minor problems and issues, but have also anticipated every need and problem almost every time along with the solution. Great synergy and competence have characterized our stay.
“The work camp served as a great introduction to Palestine’s history and politics.”
I developed an interest in Palestine from following media sources like teleSUR, Democracy Now, and Al Jazeera, and watching lectures by thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and David Graeber. Having been trained in anthropology, which holds fieldwork as its defining methodology, I felt that I needed to immerse myself into the Palestinian context in order to better understand it.
I now have an understanding of the chronology of the conflict and the territorial configuration of Palestine. Zajel, the local volunteers, and the lecturers were very informative. I truly felt welcomed and I appreciate everyone’s keenness to share their knowledge with us and answer all our questions. Every trip that we took across the West Bank was captivating. Our walk on Al-Shuhada Street (which is not open to Palestinians) in Hebron and discussion with Youth Against Settlements, a local guide’s insights into settlements and the apartheid wall in Bethlehem, and our meeting with a group of elders who lived through the Nakba at Askar refugee camp were especially eye opening. We also learned about local culture by attending a pre-wedding ceremony, meeting Bedouins in the desert, and visiting a Samaritan village. Academic lectures on topics including health, energy policy, and education further enriched our learning experience. The work camp served as a great introduction to Palestine’s history and politics, which I hope to explore in greater depth in the coming years.
I helped deliver a workshop on research opportunities abroad to a group of about 15 students. I think a lot of work is needed to improve students’ English language skills and their understanding of European/North American guidelines for resume and proposal writing in order to prepare competitive applications to universities in these regions. I was, however, impressed with the students’ desire to expand their horizons and their extremely respectful attitude towards the international volunteers.
My interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is grounded in a preoccupation with inequality. I believe that we must pay attention to power disparities both between societies and within them. I was impressed with what seems to be a total lack of homelessness in the West Bank. Inequalities between men and women, however, are very visible. Men almost exclusively occupy public spaces like streets, cafes, and restaurants.
Overall, the Zajel program exceeded my expectations. Zajel and the local volunteers were extremely flexible in accommodating our interests and requests. The PR department succeeded in educating international volunteers about the impact of the occupation, and I am sure that many of us will continue to engage with and advocate for Palestine. Thank you for these extremely enriching two weeks and please reach out if there is anything I can help the PR department with remotely from Canada.
“I noticed a more cosmopolitan perspective and a greater sense of humor and relativity.”
It’s really not fair how the young Palestinians in and around Nablus have to find their way in life. It was not fair the first time I did the Zajel work camp in 2004 and it’s not fair now. But I did see some progress and even though it’s not fair to compare this year’s workshop with the one I participated in more than a decade ago, in this reflection I will focus on this comparison.
For starters the world was still a lot bigger when I signed up for the first time. There were no smartphones yet, no Facebook, no Google Maps - so the first difference I noticed was the way coordinators, volunteers and other travellers communicate with each other: email and SMS has been replaced by WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Of course, the political situation is a lot different too. In 2004 the Second Intifada was still very much underway and posters of martyrs were plastered all over the center of Nablus. I was happy to see most of the facades covered with advertisements for beautiful Palestinian clothing instead.
The third big difference is the professionalization and scaling of the camp. During my previous visit the local and international volunteers would eat, sleep, shower, wash clothes, receive lectures and lessons all in the same building: an old primary school (boys and girls separated). Now the international males slept in a flat not too far from the university where we would give our workshops. We would eat in a bistro and wash our clothes in a laundry service nearby. The scale of the work camp has exploded: whereas there were some 20 local volunteers in 2004, there were over 60 volunteers in 2017.
The fourth difference is a logical result from the two previously mentioned developments. Thanks to a decade of relative political stability, combined with a period of professionalization, I noticed a greater sense of detachment. Both in public lectures and in personal conversations, I noticed a more cosmopolitan perspective and a greater sense of humor and relativity.
In Hebron we got to experience the weight of the occupation first hand: the international volunteers were temporarily separated from the locals and, due to a mistake on our part, we had to pass through checkpoint twice to catch up again. It took us more than an hour to go through this checkpoint with only 23 internationals. We could only begin to imagine how it must feel to ensure this hassle and humiliation on a daily basis.
I really enjoyed contributing to the English lessons with some of the other volunteers; the eagerness and enthusiasm of the students was so rewarding! And last but not least I liked the informal meetings and friendships I got to make throughout the camp as well!
“Remaining neutral on issues of oppression is to be complicit in the oppression itself.”
The Zajel Youth Exchange Program has been one of the most incredible and valuable two weeks of my life. I had visited Palestine briefly once before, so I had a basic understanding of the effects of the Israeli Occupation. Throughout the Zajel Program, I not only learned more about the Occupation, but I also came to understand Palestinian society in a way that would have been far more difficult if I had travelled alone.
Our trip to Hebron highlighted both the severity and scale of the Israeli occupation. At one point, the international volunteers walked down what was once the main street of Hebron, al-Shuhada Street, which Palestinians were not allowed to walk down in order to demonstrate the division enforced throughout the city by the IDF. However, we mistakenly took a wrong turn and became stuck at an Israeli checkpoint. It took us an hour to pass back through the checkpoint as Israeli soldiers deliberately held us up. For us, this was a minor annoyance. But for Palestinians living in Hebron, this is simply the reality of their daily lives. During our visit to Bethlehem we witnessed the most striking manifestation of the Israeli government’s oppressive regime in Palestine - the Wall. To stand next to the Wall and see the graffiti that covers nearly every inch of it was a strangely personal insight into Palestinian resistance.
Throughout the Zajel Exchange Program we also had the opportunity to see some the region’s natural beauty. Camping in a Bedouin Camp in the Arab Rashaydeh desert, before watching the sunrise over the Dead Sea was easily one of the most striking experiences I have had the privilege to enjoy during my time in Palestine.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the exchange has been meeting Palestinian students. In our free time we went to cafes and bars, walked around the Old City of Nablus and talked about everything from politics to football. Without Zajel, I never would have had such an opportunity.
Prior to the Zajel Program, my teaching experience was very limited. Through running workshops on employability, focusing on CVs, cover letters and research proposals, I feel I have been able to offer genuinely useful advice to students here, and in turn have learnt about the barriers faced by Palestinian students that wish to study and work abroad. During my first workshop I was jittery, nervous and unclear when speaking in front of a group of twenty students. By the end of the camp, however, I was confident when leading a class.
Prior to the Zajel Program, I had always been cautious about forming strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It seemed to be a complex, sensitive and divisive political situation - particularly given how it is portrayed in the West. But over the past fortnight I have come to realize that remaining neutral on issues of oppression is to be complicit in the oppression itself.
“The most incredible and valuable two weeks of my life.”
Although I was incredibly excited to visit Palestine and participate in the Zajel programme, I was apprehensive before I left as I was so unsure of what to expect. I distinctly remember being driven to the airport by my friend and thinking “What am I doing?” and “Is this really a good idea?”. However, the minute I arrived at An-Najah National University all my worries were put to rest. I was made to feel so welcome by the team of volunteers and within 24 hours of meeting the other volunteers and internationals I knew I had made an excellent decision.
The workshops were definitely some of my favorite parts of the camp. I was asked to lead a workshop on English Language and Public Speaking. Never having taught before, and not feeling particularly confident in public speaking myself, it's fair to say that I was terrified. Understandably, the first workshop was the hardest; I did not know what to expect, and within an hour of the class we had run out of material for teaching and were improvising on the spot (in front of 50 people!). However, once that first workshop was over, and we knew exactly what to expect in terms of numbers and the desired content, I took to it like a fish to water. I discovered an ability for teaching that I never knew I had and, as a result, I have been inspired to go into teaching as a future profession. The students in my class were enthusiastic, incredibly eager to learn, and persevered even when the activities were difficult.
Another great aspect of the Zajel programme is the incredible amount of Palestine we were able to see. In two short weeks - alongside running workshops and attending lectures - we went on day trips to Bethlehem, Hebron, the Arab Rashaydeh Desert, Jenin, Sebastia, and some areas of historic Palestine such as Akko and Upper Galilee. A particularly distinctive moment was during our trip to Hebron, where we walked down al-Shuhada Street. Once it was a bustling market street filled with shops and street vendors, but it now lies dormant; a ghost town of what once signified livelihood and prosperity is now nothing but an empty shell, littered with Zionist propaganda, leading to one of the many settlements. Due to some miscommunication, we ended up taking a wrong turn and ending up on the other side of a checkpoint, and had to pass back through it again from the Palestinian side. It took us an hour to pass back through, with the IDF soldiers deliberately holding us up. What for us was only a minor inconvenience, is a harsh reality faced daily by many Palestinians.
Overall, I've had the most incredible and valuable two weeks of my life; I've come out of the experience a far more educated person on the Israel-Palestine conflict, formed friendships that will last a lifetime, and had experiences that I will carry with me forever.
“What Palestine needs now is peace, justice and security and I pray that that day will come soon.”
It is hard to believe that my first visit to Palestine was in July 2016- and what a memorable visit it was. My original thoughts were mainly on the illegal occupation, the brutality of the regime and the hideous circumstances in which Palestinians are expected to live. These thoughts were focused very much on what was wrong with Palestine.
In 2017, I want to focus on what is right with Palestine. The people’s desire to strive for a better life is top of my list. Despite their atrocious circumstances, they are happy, optimistic and so incredibly giving. They are the most generous people you’ll ever meet. They have an incredible spirit which I believe will remain undefeated no matter what pressures they face.
The educational value of the visits to towns like Acre, Jenin and Hebron was invaluable in allowing us to understand these very proud and industrious people. The beauty of these places is unquestionable and yet everyday life is a struggle for basic freedoms and opportunities; movement, work and human dignity. I want to thank all of the local volunteers for their hard work in looking after the international group and for making us feel so welcome and secure.
What the Zajel’s team did was incredible. They welcomed us, they helped us, they demonstrated the beauty of their homeland, they took us to the most wonderful places and they shared every moment with us. For the international volunteers, this was an incredible opportunity. That is why, on behalf of all of the group, I say that we are eternally grateful.
The programme was also a great opportunity for the local volunteers and students to understand the worldview of people from different cultures to their own. We built strong relationships and friendships, and those lead to better understanding in both ways. The programme is the best starting point for people that are looking for a change in the world and learn about the culture of opportunities there is.
I support the Palestinian people in their fight for a better life. What Palestine needs now is peace, justice and security and I pray that that day will come soon.