The feelings of nerves, curiosity and excitement were all present the way they had been during my first week of school, at my first job and the first time I moved away from home. Everything was brand new. The streets, the food, the people, I didn't know what to expect and had no idea what my time is going to be like in Khalil. I had done plenty of research on the Excellence Centre website, read a lot of reviews, watched a lot of their videos, and the message of safety was always conveyed, but hearing from someone else and experiencing it yourself are two very different things.
I arrived to Khalil in the late evening. Having asked around a bit and got some help from the locals, I found the Excellence Centre and waited for Osama and Marwa to arrive as it the Centre was already closed and having had no internet I couldn't inform them until I got there. They welcomed me, gave me tea, showed me around the centre and took me to my host family.
I was greeted with the famous Arab hospitality. I was fed well and shown where I was going to stay. It was the middle of February and bitterly cold, especially indoors. I was fortunate to be given my own room and my own bathroom however the cleanliness was definitely not up to standard.
As I had arrived on a Thursday evening I had the next day off as Friday is part of the weekend. Having completed Friday prayers my host family invited me to a barbeque in their garden. It was delicious and we spoke at great length, with all of them having a lot of questions about my background, my reasons for coming to Palestine, what I thought of it so far, and it was great to watch them all together being a family I have grown real affection for.
Saturday was my first day at the centre and it was very active. Students of all ages were going in and out of different classes and I was invited to one of the English classes with students ageing 10 to 15. Soon enough I was asked to take over and I introduced myself, answered a lot of questions and in turn asked a few myself about their daily routines and interests. I was then introduced to my Arabic teacher Doha and we had our first Arabic lesson which was followed by joining another teacher in the centre, Annas, in helping him teach his English class.
I arrived on time for breakfast the second day and enjoyed a spread of hummus, baba gunush, falafel, salad, bread, tea and coffee. I was introduced to the rest of the members of staff of the centre and the visitors who joined us for breakfast on that day. Every day different friends of the centre would join us for breakfast or drop by to say hello and all would make the effort to converse and welcome me.
The second day I sat in on an English class and then got taken to Fawar Camp. The refugee camp I came to work and teach in. The journey took half an hour and Osama took drove myself, Alicia, a Swiss volunteer, and Doha. The camp was drastically different to Hebron city. A dirt bumpy road spit a deteriorating encampment. Shops selling the basics had hoards of men sitting outside of them, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
We arrived to where the lesson would be taught and were greeted by 30 Fawar camp students. Happy and excited to see us, and eager to learn but struggling with being disciplined and paying attention. Though they were receiving an education, it was clear to see the difference between them and the students of similar ages who would come to the Excellence Centre in the city. Good kids, but severely lacking attention and opportunity. After the class I was shown the rest of the camp and saw the environment thousands were forced to call home.
All the people I interacted with, whether young students or adults, within the Excellence Centre or out on the street, everyone welcomed me to Palestine and Hebron with open arms. People were genuinely happy to see an 'ajnabee' (foreigner) in their city. Shopkeepers and restaurants refused to accept money when realising I wasn't a local. I asked one why he, like others before him, insisted on not taking payment and he told me that it was important to the people of Hebron, and Palestine, that when a foreigner leaves they leave with the best possible impression of their country. So they tell their own people about the positivity and spread the message on their rich, hospitable culture.
Over the next few following days I found myself teaching a number of classes, answering a lot of questions about who I was, why I came to Palestine and what I my experience was like so far. My first week was a blend of teaching English classes, receiving Arabic classes, going to Fawar Camp and receiving tours of the city. Being taken to the old city of Hebron, a beautiful historic place, with thousands of years worth of stories and culture embedded in its stone walls.
Everyone in the Excellence Centre ensured I was taken care of and welcomed. Marwa and Osama checked up on me everyday to make sure I did not need anything, as did my host family. When I did ask for something, they made sure I got it straight away. Where I lived lacked cooking equipment and when I told Marwa about it she made a bag full of utensils, plates, pans etc and gave it to me so that I could cook for myself.
My first week was a blur. It was intense, I saw a lot of faces, shook a lot of hands, ate a lot of food and was thrown into the Palestinian culture with support behind me.