I am 23 year old girl from Belgium, and I am currently taking a master’s program in Developmental Studies in Brussels. In April 2011 I came to Palestine for the first time. I had been closely following the Palestinian situation for about 7 years and last year I had enough of only reading about it, I wanted to see and experience Palestine myself. I don’t remember how I landed on this subject, but once I got involved with Palestine, it didn’t let me go. This summer I wanted to come back, to get to know the people and the culture, to learn more about the situation and to understand what it means to live under occupation. Moreover, I hoped I could do something positive and constructive, in addition to expressing support to the Palestinian cause. My stay at Deheishe and volunteering with Karama outstripped my expectations and got me still more involved with the Palestinian cause. Since I am back in Belgium, I tell the story of Palestine, to those who are eager to hear it and to those that are not so eager at first, because I believe it should be told. I organized a Palestinian evening for friends and family and in the next months I will go to a school, a lawyer’s office, a volunteer organization for refugees and inshallah to more places to talk about Palestine. I tell people about the BDS campaign, because every single person can contribute to the Palestinian cause. Lastly, plans are being made to take a group of friends and family to Palestine, as many of them got interested and concerned.
Living in Deheishe
When trying to describe how I experienced living with a host family in Deheishe, I would say it is indescribable. I have written and rewritten my experiences, because so many things are worth saying. For one thing, the unconditional hospitality and warmth of the people I met. It is something that is rare in the society I grew up in. I only stayed for two months, but I didn’t feel like a guest, I felt at home thanks to my wonderful family. The way my mother took care of me when I was sick, how her brother wanted to make sure I was fine during a power cut at night when I was alone in the house (he immediately came to our house to check on me, fixed me candles and woke up his wife to keep me company), how they all made sure I would never be hungry (and they managed extremely well by the way, I put on several kilos) ... They are one of a kind.
I arrived in Deheishe with my sisters, with whom I had been traveling in Jordan and the Westbank for two weeks. They stayed one night in Deheishe, before heading back to Belgium. Because we were three, we didn’t stay with my family, but with one of their relatives. This was already the first experience with the hospitality in Deheishe: our host slept outside in front of the door, partly because of the heat (it was August,) but also to let us sleep in his bed.
The next day I moved one floor down to my host family. During my first weeks there, it was mostly a woman’s affair as the brother of my mother, with whom she lives with, was abroad and as our female neighbors were around very often. I will always remember how we all watched cooking programs on TV together! At times it was difficult for me, because I only learnt some basic Arabic while I was there, and my mother only knows basic English, but gradually I think we managed to communicate well. She, her brother that lives right across the street and his wife helped me a lot with learning Arabic. And after the man of the house had returned, I also spent many hours sharing (English) conversations with him about Palestine, world politics and all sorts of things.
What was striking for me was that in Deheishe doors are always open (ours was literally always open, as the lock of the door was broken). People drop by unannounced to have coffee or tea, and the children run from one house to the other. As a result, it took me some time to figure out who lives where and which children belong to which family. Especially during the first month I was there, because it was the school holiday so the children didn’t have to go to school or study. Moreover, it was Ramadan, a family time. So often we had visitors or we went to our neighbors to share the break-the-fast with them. The most delicious meals were cooked, in impressive quantities.
Because of the wonderful time and experience I had with my family and neighbors, life in Deheishe sometimes felt more cheerful to me as it is at times. The lack of water or the power cuts are only practical examples of the encompassing reality that it is a life under occupation and in exile. But I will tell a bit about my experiences with this later on.
One story of many more that would be in place here, is about when my family took me with them to have a barbecue at one of their relatives’ house outside Deheishe. I found the ride to his house very amusing, I’ll describe why. Apparently for the barbecue we needed something from the shop, which seemed difficult to find. I still don’t know what they were looking for, but we stopped at every shop that we passed en route and every time somebody else stepped out of the car, went inside, came out again without the ‘thing’, followed by a discussion in the car, after which we left again to stop at the next shop. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to explain, but being in the car and observing without understanding was pretty funny. The barbecue itself was wonderful and I ate body parts of animals I had never tried before or even imagined they could be tasty. After we had finished the meal, or at least I thought we had finished, the barbecue host insisted I would try some pieces of meat. Some were delicious, some I didn’t like so much, but it was nice to sit around the barbecue and feel part of it. Even though I couldn’t understand much of the conversations (though my mother’s brother translated sometimes for me), I noticed the party seemed in a way similar to Belgian family parties. Sadly in Belgium and in other parts of the world, many people forget or do not realize that Palestinians are ordinary people, just like them. They have family parties, they go to work (if there is work for them), they sleep (or they can’t sleep when something makes them sad or angry), they dream, they hope, they joke around. Yet in the same time, in my opinion, there is a big difference between the Palestinians I met and for example Belgians, and this is their intense and conscious way of life. I guess we in the West are lulled and asleep somehow, due to all the rights and the economic development we have on the collective level, or should I say we had, while I feel like Palestinians are wide awake. They don’t have freedom, their rights are permanently violated, there is high unemployment, no social security system... But I believe the difference in way of life is mostly a cultural thing.
Anyhow, what I would like to say is the following: living under occupation and in exile is something I cannot feel as a foreigner. What I do feel is a dizzying contrast between the injustice and inhumanity of the situation caused by the occupying power on the one hand and the humanity of the people and the way they interact on the other. In my experience with Palestinians, I feel like they are somehow more human than Belgians, as in that we tend to reduce our way of life to earning money and not ‘wasting’ time. And in this rush we tend to forget to say hi to our neighbor, to take the time to know his name or to enjoy the company of a friend. Sometimes I wonder what the hell we are doing, but that is another issue.
Maybe you can understand it was difficult for me to leave my family and Deheishe, to come back to Belgium?
Working at Karama
On my first day at Karama, the children and volunteers shared the break-the-fast meal at the organization. It was overwhelming and chaotic, but in the same time intimate, and I knew immediately on which children I would have to keep an eye on… During the first weeks I volunteered at Karama, I gave Spanish courses and did sports, games, art and handicraft activities with the children. Additionally I took Arabic courses four times a week, together with the other international volunteers. Later on I focused on administration work, while now and then I assisted some children with their English or French homework.
What was interesting and often essential to me, especially when I was with the smaller children, was the cooperation with the Palestinians volunteering at Karama. It was challenging because I only speak a little Arabic and some of them don’t speak English, but playing with the children together with them was great. In general I enjoyed spending time with the Karama children a lot. They are straightforward: if they don’t like your idea for a game or activity, they will tell you. And they test you in the beginning. Once you’ve more or less earned it, they respect and appreciate you. But I believe this is how it works with all children. One thing I won’t forget is how some of the older ones helped me out when I needed them, for example during the few days I was the only international volunteer at Karama. Another moment of the many I will remember is when it rained, it was the first rain after the summer. The international volunteers got a bit cranky and stayed inside, while all the children were thrilled and ran outside. They played in the rain and collected the water that was flowing down the street in bottles to throw it at each other. And I was lucky to be there at harvest time, to pick the olives from the tree in the Karama garden together with some of the children.
Lastly, there is my beautiful experience with Karama’s director. During my last month at the organization, I spent a lot of time in his and in the other office as I was mostly doing administration work. For hours and hours I racked my brain on technical problems with the website, so I didn’t always feel as useful as I would have wanted to. But what is of great value to me is that he shared much of his experience with me. I learnt many things from him, that I will carry with me in my heart and mind.
Traveling in the Westbank
Before coming to Deheishe for two months I had been in Palestine for about ten days. At that time I came with a Belgian organization that set up the trip and the program together with a Palestinian travel agency. The program was mainly political, consisting of meetings with NGOs, political parties and different kinds of organizations and people. This first experience with Palestine was an eye-opener, seeing the settlements, the checkpoints, the bypass roads, the road blocks, the soldiers. At once, it became very concrete and real, while before I could only imagine in my head how it was like. But the trip was only ten days and with a packed program, so we didn’t have the opportunity to truly get in touch with the Palestinian society and culture, with the Palestinians and their ways of life. Luckily, I got this chance later on, because it is a pity to let this side of Palestine slip!
I returned to Palestine with my sisters about a week before I would start to volunteer at Karama. We stayed in Bethlehem in a lovely hotel, where we immediately got in touch with the Palestinian hospitality (they really made us feel at home). From Bethlehem we went one day to Hebron, with a Palestinian guide, because I think you have to hear the stories when you go to Hebron. For me the situation there shows well what the Zionists have in my mind for the Palestinians and it is a model example of how apartheid looks like. At least in H2, the part of Hebron that is under Israeli control, because the other part is alike other cities in Palestine: lively and buzzing, many shops and little markets, many people on the streets, busy traffic, mostly taxis, lots of food being bought and sold. Furthermore, we went to Ramallah for one night and made a little trip to Taybeh, we went to Jerusalem for one day and of course we spent some time in Bethlehem.
What is wonderful in Palestine, beside its people, is to be on the go by car. Not so much on the highways that connect the Palestinian cities, because there the landscape is offset by the settlements, but on the minor roads. I like the hilly and sometimes rough scenes, the donkeys by the side of the road, the olive trees, the banana and orange trees near Jericho and I like to see the villages in the distance. Maybe it’s odd, because they shouldn’t be there, but I like the view of the black water tanks on top of the roofs of the houses. It’s something I associate with Palestine. On the trips I made organized by Karama (while volunteering with them), to Hebron, to Jericho and the Dead Sea, to Nablus and to Ramallah, I very much enjoyed this being on the go. Traveling is so much more interesting when you are with Palestinians explaining, describing and telling stories, on the road as well as in the cities itself. So as a Karama volunteer, I was lucky to have these experiences.
When my time as a volunteer was finished, my parents came to Palestine. They met my family, they saw Karama, they saw Deheishe, they saw our house. The brother of my mother came with my parents and me to Ramallah, to Nablus, to Hebron, to Jericho, to Solomon’s pools, to Herodium, to Bethlehem to see the wall and to Aida camp. It was wonderful to travel around with him and he is a fantastic guide. In one week, he showed and told us a lot, so it was an intense, absorbing and surely an eye-opening experience for my parents. Like my stay in Deheishe and at Karama was for me. This is why it was brilliant to be able to share it with them.