Everything about coming to Palestine was a first for me: travelling on my own, being in the Middle East, living with a host family and teaching. Before I left Denmark, I was not sure whether coming here would be a good idea or not – but now I am so happy with my decision to just quit my job and to go on an adventure. I have been volunteering at the Excellence Center in Hebron for almost 3 months now and I have had so many amazing experiences and have met so many wonderful and kind people at the Center and in the city of Hebron.
When I arrived here three months ago, everything was new for me. I started off living with a young host family; my 'parents' only being a few years older than me. The family was very kind, but it was difficult to become a part of their daily routine without being more like the nanny of their two baby girls. They also lived far away from the Center, so I had to pay 10 shekels to go both back and forth everyday (this is 4 times the usual rate in Hebron). I enjoyed my family, but unfortunately my host mother at that time had to travel to Jordan, and I was not allowed to be in the house with the father alone. Luckily for me, the night before getting this disappointing news about having to move out, I met the fiancée of my host father's brother. She wanted me to meet her family. We bonded instantly and I moved in the very next day.
It was a rough start to my time in Hebron, what with all of the changes, but I am so happy that I moved. I love my current host family. They feel more like my real family than a host family by now. My host parents are exactly the same age as my parents in Denmark, so it is just like home. I have 3 brothers and 4 sisters in Hebron. They are all around my age. I spend most of my free time with my family. We talk, laugh, and watch television and they are always willing to answer all of my never-ending questions about their religion and customs. Sometimes the language can be a bit of a barrier, but we have made it work. One of my sisters is pretty good at English, so in the beginning she translated as much as she could. During the last three months my family have developed their English and I have gained a lot of knowledge of Arabic from them.
During my stay my host sister, the fiancée, has gotten married. It was a great experience for me to be a part of all of the planning that is necessary for hosting a Khalili wedding. The wedding was beautiful, she was so happy and I even cried. It was very overwhelming, and very different from the Danish weddings that I am used to.
I will miss my Khalili family so much.
One of my main reasons for coming here was the possibility to try teaching for the first time. In the future I want to study History and being a teacher is one of the career possibilities that a bachelor degree opens up for me. So I wanted to test out if teaching was even something I could picture myself doing. The Excellence Center is one of the only places I have found where you can teach without experience – so I came here to get that experience. I have realized that teaching feels very comfortable for me. One part of the role as a volunteer at the Excellence Center is to help the teachers with developing creative games and activities for the students. I have had so much fun discovering how the students learn the easiest way and also figuring out which games work and which don’t. The Center has provided plenty of material and books to be inspired by when planning lessons. The focus at the Center is to develop the students’ language, and I have been so proud when I could feel that that was exactly what was happening for my students.
I have taught my students a lot, but they have taught me even more. It has been very interesting for me to get an understanding of the young Palestinian peoples struggle under the occupation and the conflict with Israel. They have told me a lot about their daily life, both regular life and the one that is affected by the conflict. They have also taught me about their views on the role of the women in the Khalili society – and I have had to stop some very heated discussions between students with different views. Other than that I have learned about their opinions and points of view about religion, Zionism, culture and customs. The Center sometimes hosts Conversation Days at other schools and community centers. I have found them to be a really good opportunity to see the different layers of the society in Khalil. It is also a lot of fun to try to teach new students and be in new places. It is very heartwarming to give the students positive experiences with speaking English, which might be new for some of them.
I arrived here three months ago with absolutely no knowledge of Arabic at all. I struggled a bit in the beginning, but now I feel more comfortable using it. I have had a wonderful newly educated teacher called Marwa. She has done everything she could in order to make my lessons about the topics of my interests and to use different methods while teaching. I wanted to learn Palestinian Arabic so I could speak with the people that I am surrounded by. The staff at the center have done everything they could to teach me and to practice with me every single day as well. Before I came here I thought I would be better in Arabic than I am now, but according to the staff I am one of the starters that have learned the fastest, which is a great feeling.
The Center has been a wonderful place to be. The staff have done everything in their power to give me a positive experience. They have been my friends from the day I arrived. They have helped me understand the society that I am now a part of. They have explained about religion, culture, special occasions and customs. They have also done everything they could to be as flexible as possible about days off and planning of trips. The social life at the Center is a joy to be a part of. I love the laughs over breakfast and the political discussions over dinner. I am so happy that my colleagues and the staff at the Center have become my local friends. I will definitely go back to visit them in the future.
The Center has also organized many trips and ceremonies that I have been a part of. I especially enjoyed the graduation party for the students and the visits to the refugee camp Al Fawar, Suhada Street and the Bedouin village Susya. The party was a great opportunity to say goodbye to the wonderful students I have taught, and they were all so proud when they received their diplomas. The trips really gave me a special kind of goose bumps. It is very intense to see the results of the occupation and very touching to hear the stories of the people it has affected the most.
The customs of Hebron are very different than the customs in Denmark. It took some time and some inappropriate handshakes with men, before I figured out how to greet others properly. I have been here for so long that I now feel that I have most of the customs figured out. At all times I have had covered shoulders and knees. Sometimes it draws some unwanted attention to me when walking on the streets of the city, but it is never more than attention and looks. I have at all times during my stay felt safe and respected. I have always felt welcome. Wherever you walk people will shout out "Welcome!" to you. You will meet people everywhere that invite you for a cup of coffee or even a Friday lunch. I like this feeling that adds to the city. Every single person in Hebron is just a friend you haven’t met yet.
The culture in Hebron is exceptionally interesting. From the delicious local dishes such as stuffed eggplant, Makluba and Mansaf to the extraordinary way of celebrating weddings! The city never seizes to amaze me. The area is packed with interesting traditions such as the beautiful traditional dress and the slaughtering of sheep for Eid-Al-Adha. The architecture of the buildings is not that interesting, but the interior design is beautiful in most houses. From the creatively decorated roofs, to the almost caricatured design of the children's rooms to the beautiful, beautiful guest salons. All of that mixed with the excellent weather and the welcoming people makes Hebron a fantastic place to live.
When you have days off I recommend you to travel and see the country. Spend a night under the stars in the Bedouin village Susya, climb the roofs of the Old City in Jerusalem, swim in the Mediterranean sea at the beautiful beach in Haifa and explore the markets of Nablus. This country offers so many amazing experiences. You can travel with the friends you will most likely meet at the Center or you can travel on your own. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in history, religious sites, politics and the occupation, architecture, scenic nature or partying, the country offers something for everyone. If you are interested in historic sites I recommend Hisham's palace in Jericho, which shows architecture from the earliest Arabic period. If you are interested in Christian religious sites I recommend walking in the Jordan river close to Jericho, visiting the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and walking on the Via Dolorosa all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Of Muslim sites I recommend visiting Abraham mosque in Hebron and Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Of Jewish sites I recommend the oldest cemetery in the world on Mount Olives in Jerusalem. The best places to get a closer look on the occupation is taking a stroll along the separation wall in Bethlehem, walking around in the Old City of Hebron and visiting the Bedouin village Susya, which is just south of Hebron. If architecture is more your thing I recommend the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem and the extraordinary tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. If you are interested in scenic views and nature I recommend taking a hike in Bateer or spending time on Mount of Temptation close to Jericho. But if all you want to do in your free time is relax, party and have a good time I recommend going out in the discotheques of Bethlehem, grabbing a cocktail on the beach in Haifa or going to the Shuk Market in Jerusalem on a Thursday evening (market by day, party by night).
My last travel recommendation is a thing you cannot miss out on – you have (!!!) to visit the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is an “otherworldly” experience and is an absolute MUST.
I think the pre-departure communication was too slow.
Also the general communication between the staff and the volunteers needs to improve. Many times the center planned dinners or trips and forgot to tell the volunteers (which the things were planned for) about them. Also I would have liked if the level of the students participating in the Conversation Days were more clear - it's difficult planning for a beginner 2 level class and then show up at the school to realize the students are starters and not beginners.