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.
The friendships formed in the program will certainly last beyond the two weeks, and the experience and memories we made will last a lifetime. Even though the program is over now, it was no goodbye forever. Instead it only was the beginning of a story yet to be told, a story, and a travel, to be continued. See you all soon.