I have been back for 3 months now after spending 3 months volunteering with Karama, and it has taken me this long to be able to put into words what I experienced... It's still hard to know where to begin! so I shall write as it comes and hope that it makes sense and helps you to make an informed decision about whether to volunteer with Karama.
As I'm sure you are aware, the situation in Palestine is hard and dangerous at times, and the week that I was due to arrive was at the time of the last war between Israel and Gaza, back in November 2012. I was feeling very nervous and vulnerable before I left, but I spoke to the director a few days before my flight was due to leave and he put my mind at ease, and rightly so, I felt totally safe and calm once I had arrived in Dehisha Camp. So the support I had from both the director and his brother started way before I arrived in Palestine.
Whilst living there and working at Karama on a daily basis, I continued to feel their support; If I was feeling homesick or finding it challenging (at the beginning, it can be hard being away from loved ones in a totally new place) they were always there for me to talk to. On the odd occasion that I felt unwell and couldn't get into Karama, either one of them or their wonderful sister would be at my door with some delicious medicinal tea and a comforting smile... I never felt left alone and I was always made to feel welcome and part of the community.
Being made to feel part of the community was the highlight of my whole volunteering experience... Being a lone westerner in a place that quite rightly feels some uneasiness about the west and our lack of compassion for their plight, I thought in the back of my head that I may feel slightly unwanted.. how wrong I was! The people of Palestine, and of Dehisha in particular made me feel wanted, respected and loved. Living with a family was THE best part about being there. It truly is the only way to experience real Palestinian and refugee life, sharing with them in moments of laughter, joy, sadness and sometimes distress. I felt my being there brought something new into their lives, through playing music and games with my younger brothers and sisters, and by helping by beautiful mother in cooking and cleaning around the house. I'm sure there have been some volunteers that have gone there and expected not to have to do any of these things, and fair enough, you don't have to, but out of respect and love for your family, I think that helping out when you can is a no-brainer.
I found the actual working days at Karama to be alot of fun, I was teaching the children the guitar and melodica, and granted, at times, it did get very noisy! but hey, they are children, and that is what children do!
As a volunteer, you are expected to be independent and to work out your own lesson plans, with help from the director, and as long as you are confident with working by yourself then you will have no problem. I was a little nervous about this before, but after a few weeks I soon found my inner strength and found it very rewarding in knowing that I can do something challenging on my own.
The children were wonderful and very friendly, but at times I did find some of their behaviour challenging. All you have to remember is that these children live a very different life from ourselves. They are controlled and oppressed from a very young age, they have most of their human rights robbed away from them, it is understandable if they can sometimes get a bit challenging. I found that as soon as I showed them that I was a friend, and a teacher, and that they could trust me then all those behaviours soon disappeared. I say this as I feel it is important, but as long as you go there remembering where you are and what these children have to live through then you will have absolutely no problem. they really were a fantastic bunch of kids to work with.
I was given the chance to visit some other places around Palestine like Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus and Hebron...all of which blew my mind. seeing the devastating effects of the occupation first hand, especially in Hebron, is something that I will never forget. I am forever grateful to the Karama team for setting those important trips up for me, and especially to Luay, for acting as my guide. Both Yasser, the director, and his brother Luay were always very keen to answer my questions about life under Israeli occupation and the lessons I learned have mapped my thinking for life.
I was also given Arabic lesson's, you do have to ask for them though as they are not part of the package, but I heartily recommend getting them. Learning even the basic Arabic is very important and it shows the residence and the children that you are making an effort and I know that doesn't go un-noticed. On a personal level, I had alot of fun in my lessons, my teacher was very kind, patient and helpful. and again, it was a real confidence boost to know that I can learn another language, when the last foreign language lessons I had were 7 years ago!
Just a few little things to end on... it is no problem being a vegetarian as long as your family knows before hand, and if like me you have a head of dreadlocks, be prepared for a lot of curious looks and questions! ;)
The decision to volunteer at Karama was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has changed the way I see the world and her people, It has opened my eyes to a new kind of poverty, one not necessarily just of wealth, but of hope too. It has made me a stronger and more confident person, and taught me how to use my own personal Jihad...to fight for Peace, justice, empathy, compassion and love.