Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Human Element

Text by Eliza A. '12

After spending almost two weeks traveling throughout Israel, I find myself confused on many levels. I have so many questions I wish I could find answers to, and I have so many emotions all of which seem to be in conflict with each other. In reflecting today with the group on our experiences in the West Bank and hearing from a representative from the American Jewish Committee, I wish I knew how I felt. When reflecting on the experiences I have had here it is almost impossible to try and separate out all the political voices both here and in the international community; however, when I think about my Palestinian host mother, I find it easy to separate all this noise out. 

I saw my host mother as the Palestinian version of my grandmother, who I call Nanny. The similarities between the two are almost endless and at times just funny. To start with, I don't think there were five minutes that went by during my home stay where my host mother did not offer me some type of food. She was always cooking something warm and delicious and even between meals was offering me lots of snacks, which my Jewish Nanny would refer to as nosh. During meals, my host mom refused to sit down until everyone had everything they could possibly need, a scene that is mirrored during meals at my Nanny's house. One of the more funny similarities between the two is their abundant collections of free hotel mini shampoo, conditioner, and body wash bottles. Something so simple and silly, yet something for me that made me feel a connection between the two.

On the more emotional side, my host mother made me feel at home from the moment I walked in the door. She always checked on me to see if I needed anything, told me over and over that I could take anything I needed without asking, and really did everything to make me feel comfortable. For me, this was the greatest part of my home stay experience, the warmth and real love I felt from my host mother. She took away all the fears and anxieties I had and allowed me to fully enjoy my experience. Throughout my life, my Nanny has given me so much unconditional love, comfort, and support that I have always been grateful for, and my host mother in Ramallah provided all of that for me. 

When I reflect on the experiences of this trip, the criticisms of it, and the larger conflicts within this region, I have found it really easy to lose sight of the human element in all of this. When I think about my host mother and the way she treated me with love and warmth despite my personal religion and political views, I find it a little bit easier to see the human side and I am incredibly grateful and thankful for that. I am more appreciative that I feel I am coming away from this experience with more of a human connection absent of all politics.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Conversation About Coexistence

On March 26, students met with Dadi Komen of The Abraham Fund Initiatives. This non-governmental organization has been working since 1989 to promote coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Named for the common ancestor of both Jews and Arabs, The Abraham Fund advances a cohesive, secure and just Israeli society by promoting policies based on innovative social models, and by conducting large-scale social change initiatives, advocacy and public education.

Meeting for Worship

On Sunday, March 25, students visited the Ramallah Friends Meetinghouse and attended Meeting for Worship. Following Worship, students met with Jean Zaru, Presiding Clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting, and learned about the history of the Quaker community in Ramallah.

Zaru said that there has been an active and vibrant Palestinian Quaker community in Ramallah since the late 1800’s. In 1910, the community built the Ramallah Friends Meetinghouse and later added another building that was used for community outreach.

She added that the Ramallah Friends Meeting has always played a vital role in the community. In 1948, the buildings and grounds became the home to many Palestinian refugees.

Jean Zaru was one of the 18 religious thinkers and leaders who served on the Council of Conscience, a multi-faith, multi-national group. The Council crafted the Charter for Compassion.


On Friday (3/23), students, joined by their Ramallah Friends hosts, visited the Jordan River Valley with Mira Edelstein, who works in the Tel-Aviv offices of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). During the tour, Mira explained the demise of the river and how a looming ecological disaster may foster Mideast cooperation.

FoEME is a unique organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. Their primary objective is the promotion of cooperative efforts to protect their shared environmental heritage as they seek to advance both sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in the region.

Following the tour of the River, students volunteered at the FoEME's Auja Environmental Education Center.  There, students created traditional Palestinian bricks out of mud and straw, which will be used for construction in the Auja community. To learn more about this project and FoEME, click here.



Saturday, March 24, 2012

We are Friends

Text by Will N. '12 and photos by John G.

I will definitely remember today (Thursday, 3/22) for the rest of my life. It was one of those days that was so long and so full that it felt like at least two days, if not three. We toured Bethlehem, where among other things we visited the Church of the Nativity. We also toured Hebron, an experience which I will certainly never forget. Of all the places we’ve visited, it was in Hebron that I could see most tangibly the effects of the conflict in this region. Makeshift barriers closed off networks of streets. Waist-height barriers split deserted streets down the middle. A religious site was physically split into a synagogue and a mosque. Truly, I think one has to see Hebron to feel the full weight of the place and of the conflict.

On the same day as this intense visit, and halfway into a trip full of visiting and looking and observing, it was a welcome release to do something tangible: to write on the separation wall.

We had driven to a spot of the wall covered with artwork. Many of the enormous murals were beautiful and uplifting, and I felt bad painting over parts of them. But we found some free spots, and went to work. It was truly exhilarating. And I have to say, it was one of the most “Friends”-like experiences I’ve ever had. We were all painting messages of hope and peace, and beyond that I was moved by how much we were supporting each other, both metaphorical and literally: Not only did we cheer each other on and applaud each other’s handiwork, but I actually lifted Rose up on my shoulders so she could find space to write. I also wrote my own message; after much internal debate, I decided to write the phrase that kept coming to my head: “WE ARE FRIENDS.” And walking away in the sunlight, with empty spray-paints cans in hand and classmates at my side, I really did felt that these words were true.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Like Me

Text by Jacob P. '12 and photos by John Galayda

Wow. This week has been amazing. When we arrived in Ramallah, I was apprehensive, to say the least, about my stay with a host family. But, in all honesty, these past few days have changed the perspective through which I view other cultures. Right off the bat, I launched into the most profound philosophical discussions with the Friends students, which ranged from the beauty of our universe to the political conundrums to the existence of God. I was amazed at how much these students like me, and also fascinated by the cultural differences.

The following morning, our group shared our oral history project with the Ramallah Friends students, and they shared their ideas with us. The energy they brought to the project warmed my heart, and I cannot wait to hear their stories on the oral history website. Later in the day, our group went to the Friends Lower School, which hosts grades K-6. We spent time in their classrooms and taught them how to use the cameras with which they will take pictures of Ramallah. (see photos below)

Although the days I have spent with our group have been amazing, the nights with my host brother have been life-changing. The crowded, bustling city of Ramallah turns into a much calmer city in the night and in the past few days I have grown to love wandering around its streets with my host brother and his friends. What surprised me the most is how nice everyone is to one another. First of all, everyone knows everyone, and second, everyone  greets one another with a "marhaba" or "shu akhbaarak."

At first I was hesitant to use my Arabic, because all of the the Ramallah Friends kids are nearly fluent in English and the Fusha (formal Arabic) of the classroom is much different from the dialect of the streets. But, as I became comfortable with my host brother and listened to the conversations with his firneds, I grew more confident and learned the idioms of the local language.

Over the past few days, I have become a part of the "boys." I've learned how to play the most complicated card game of my life, been informed of the inside jokes and ate at the best shawarma place ever. I've grown accustomed to the olive oil and cheese breakfast, the traffic-lightless streets, and the pestering salesmen. I greet my friends with and "Eish wale" (slang Wassup) and am no longer scared of the overly friendly locals who originally intimidated me.

I could go on forever, but I would rather not. What I have told you is only the tip of the iceberg (roughly 2% of the whole structure). I never want to forget my experiences here, nor do I want to forget the lessons that I drew from them even though we are from different cultures and hold different beliefs. We are the same where it matters most: we both want peace, we both want to laugh, we both value passion, and we both enjoy a good felafel.


Text by Rose A. '12

So I was afraid yesterday (Monday, 3/19) as we were leaving Jerusalem, because it really hadn't hit me yet that we're in Israel and that we're going to the West Bank. I was worried it was never going to hit me and I would get on the plane home still feeling like this whole experience was just a dream. But any worry I had vanished entirely when we crossed the border today. We saw the wall and the checkpoint and it hit me like a truck. The infamous "it" we all wait for. I think it was mostly shocking just because the West Bank has been entirely intangible until now - just this impossibly hazy, mutual figment of our imaginations that we spent so much time talking about.  But there it was.  The Separation Wall.  And on the other side - The West Bank.  Ad-Daffa al-gharbiyya.

Bram was telling us that you can always tell a Palestinian home from an Israeli home because of the black water tanks. They only get water during certain hours of the day so they have all these methods of storing it. We drove into Ramallah, met up with Dr. Adel Yahya (greatest name. ever.) and went over to the Friends school. My host sister's name is Jana and she's the absolute greatest. They're all the coolest kids I've ever met.

Jacob and I were sitting and talking to them about the government and the conflicts and Syria and we just looked at each other in acknowledgement of how truly amazing it was. They're so remarkably open to talk about their situation as well, and totally opinionated in all kinds of ways. Jana took me to this club at Ramallah Friends where students were comparing the South African Apartheid to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. There I was in a room sitting with some of the most intelligent kids, talking about their lives - entirely in English, I might add - only 15 minutes after I had arrived.

 We're simply not staying here long enough.  It's a relief.  A dream come true.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bizzubit...as they say

Text by Lizzy '12 and photos by John G.

Today (Monday, 3/19), like the rest of our days so far, has gone by so fast that I certainly won't know where I am when I wake up tomorrow. The day started off bright and early when some adventurous souls left our hostel at the crack of dawn to go to the temple mount during one of the arbitrary allotted periods of time when it is open to visitors. Plagued by jet lag, I didn't join the group for this experience, but from what I've heard, it will be worth the return trip for the view of Jerusalem from one of the holiest places on earth. 

By 9:30, our group had packed and lugged all of our baggage up the steps of the Arab Quarter and out through Damascus Gate (not a small feat, I might add). While we waited for our bus driver, who seems to be chronically five minutes away in typical Middle East fashion, we observed a custom that I see as representative of the culture of Jerusalem. One by one, shopkeepers seemed to emerge from the Old City to claim delivered packages that lay waiting for them outside the gate. Based entirely on an honor system, shopkeepers came and took what were theirs and only theirs. It's just funny to me to think about what would happen if New Yorkers attempted this...

The bus took us fifteen minutes outside the Old City to the Israel Museum—a museum that holds a collection that spans from the Mayans to Monet, but also holds an amazing amount of Israeli and Jewish art, as well as significant modern art exhibits. Oddly enough, our tour whizzed by one of Monet's Water Lillies and a few Picasso's sketches. We also spent some time exploring synagogues, and I especially enjoyed one that had been reconstructed from India. One particularly moving piece to me was a backlit sculpture that essentially dropped sudden gushes of water in a way that it formed words from popular daily search engines on the Internet. In streams of water, I watched the words Santorum, Israel, Kony, and Obama disappear as fast as they formed. I could go on about art pieces we saw, but that would take forever.

After finishing our tour, we met with the director of a program at the Israel Museum that offers both Arab and Jewish students the opportunity to come together to learn about and make art. He spoke about the profound impact on numerous alums of the program, and I believe we all truly appreciated the work the program is doing.

Then, it was off to Ramallah—about a 15-minute drive through a single checkpoint. We hopped off the bus and went into the PACE headquarters where we were reunited once more with our guide, Adel. After a brief discussion, we drove five minutes to the Ramallah Friends School, where our host siblings were awaiting our arrival. I immediately spotted my host sister, Jessica, and she led me into the school's library. After a brief tour and some introductions, we split off (although I believe a large group stayed together at a cafe).

Jessica and I, along with four other girls, headed to their favorite restaurant. Our conversation ranged from everyone’s love of Adele to the different political status of each girl. Jessica is shy and perhaps more reserved than the rest, but she is incredibly sweet, and we're getting along very well. Dinner was at home with her older sister, her sister's fiancĂ©, and her mother and father. I'm practicing my Arabic very frequently and I think they're surprised by how much I can understand.

Now I am lying down before bed under an electric blanket because it is absolutely freezing! Across from me is a handwritten quote taped up to the wall: "The only people who fail are those who never attempt anything new." Bizzubit (exactly)...as they say.

View from Austrian Hospice

Bram and Leitzel waiting for the bus to the Museum.

Students waiting among items dropped off for shopkeepers outside the Damascus Gate.

Students visited the Israel Museum and met with Eldad, a program director, who hosts workshops in which Palestinian and Israeli children create art together.

Students at the Israel Museum

Qalandiya check point on our way to Ramallah

Wall near Ramallah

We arrive at the Ramallah Friends School and students met their host brothers and sisters. 

Downtown Ramallah at night