By Matthew Wright
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.