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.