Before coming to Palestine, I did, I think have a typically Western perspective on it and the so-called conflict. That is to say, I sympathized with the Palestinians but thought that there must be a reason why all this was happening, a reason that was the fault of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. There was also the small issue of my fear that I would arrive back in England after 6 weeks in Palestine missing my passport and several limbs…Happily, this did not occur. What did occur is that I gained a much deeper understanding of the Palestine-Israel situation, and an impatience to come back.
The Siraj Center program is a really good way of introducing yourself to Palestine; the way of life, the people, and the language. It also has the upside of not being boringly educational, but really really fun! It was fantastic to be able to volunteer in Palestinian organizations, and see how they manage to function under the occupation, as well as getting the chance to live with families, which I think is an important part of the program – it allows you a stable base in the country, which when the situation itself is not totally so, is very reassuring. You also experience for a while what people here have to endure daily, not only by living with people but talking to them, which everyone is more that happy to do. What I was struck with here was the friendliness of the people – no matter what difficulties they might be facing.
Another good part of Siraj are the Arabic lessons at the university – it is much more satisfying if you try to speak in Arabic here, although sometimes a little dispiriting when people look at you as if you are speaking elfish with a gerbil in your throat – and I would definitely recommend them. If you stay with a family then the transition period from garbling incomprehensible phrases at people to being able to have a small conversation is much shorter.
The trips at the weekend are a lot of fun, and enable you to see more of the country and which areas have been most affected by the conflict. Needless to say the Dead Sea was very weird and very salty, but Nablus is stunning and Hebron fascinating. And then of course there are the Dabkeh dancing lessons. Hilarious. It is also the people who work for Siraj and the other people on the program who make it fun. George and Michel work tirelessly to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and they are both great people – very funny. I am so happy that I took part in this program, but don’t think that I will really realize the impact this experience has had on me until I get home. I really urge people to come here and see Palestine, and not be scared off by the news – the fact is, Bethlehem is a very peaceful place. That is what I have realized here – that to truly get an idea about this part of the world, and the people and the problems in it, you have to come and see for yourself, and not be swayed by other people's ideas or preconceptions. The five weeks I have spent here have been fantastic, but definitely not enough, and I will definitely be coming back. Having said that, I am still to go through security at the airport…
My first week in Palestine has been incredible. Not only are all my planned activities with the Siraj Center great, but each and every hour of living here brings new and exciting experiences.
The group that I am with is awesome. It is small enough to get to know everybody well, but large and diverse enough so that we can enjoy spending long days together. Everybody comes from a different background. It is always exciting to hear stories from the group members.
The classes are really fast-paced, but also really interesting. They may be hard for me because they are college courses and I am still in high school. In Arabic, we have already learned how to conjugate verbs in the past tense, and in Palestine History, we have a map quiz on Monday. We’ve only had four classes! Even so, I am happy to be learning so much in class.
I’m not sure how I feel about my volunteer work. I’m volunteering at the Arab Educational Institute, but I’ve only really worked for them once so far because of scheduling issues. I really like what the organization has done and is planning on doing though. They had thought that I was older before they met me, so they were going to have me teach a class. When I came into their office on the first day, they realized I couldn’t be a teacher for a class with students the same age as me. Instead, they have me working as a photographer for a cultural project. I go to museums and take pictures of the things there. These pictures will go on a website for people to learn more about the culture of the Bethlehem area. While its really cool to have my pictures posted on a website, I am afraid that the work might get repetitive and I might get bored.
The nighttime activities are really fun. I loved the Dabka class! At first, it was hard to do, but once I got into it, it was super fun. I can’t wait for the lesson next week! The cooking class was also cool, but not as fun. I had wanted to cook the food myself, instead of only watching the cook do it. The movie was really good. I wish I could have watched it earlier in the day because I was so tired from the day’s activities that when the movie started, it was hard for me to focus well. I am excited to meet the director of the movie though. The barbecue on Friday was just what I needed after a long week. I liked that we could just sit down, relax, talk, and laugh.
I really enjoyed the trip on Saturday because it showed me a lot of things I had never seen before. I hadn’t known about the situation between the settlers and the Palestinians in Hebron until I watched Iron Wall. Before then, I had always thought that the settlers and Palestinians were always completely separate from each other and never interacted. Now I know that the settlements in Hebron and the Israeli people are a constant pressing force for the Palestinians that live there. Going to the refugee camp near Beit Sahour was interesting. I wish we could have gone through it and seen more of it instead of only looking at the wall though.
Overall, my time here has been awesome. I’ve learned so much and had such a great experience. Four weeks are not enough!
After two weeks in Palestine, sometimes I feel like I have been here for an eternity and other times I feel like I have only been here for ten minutes. Through my activities with the Siraj Center and my host family, I have seen and done a lot in a few short days.
My favorite part of being here is definitely my host family. The last time I was abroad, I felt really disconnected from the local culture and spent most of my time doing expat-y things with other Americans. This trip I feel like I am really connecting with the people and rhythm of Beit Sahour. I am enjoying spending time with them and also to getting to know their extended family. My host family lives in the second floor of a three-story building with one apartment per floor. Other members of my host dad’s family live in the rest of the building, so there are always plenty of people around. I have also been able to meet my host mom’s family at two family birthday parties at her parents’ house.
My volunteer work at a kids’ summer camp has its ups and downs. How I like it kind of depends on which day you ask me. On the one hand, I love seeing the kids smiling faces, playing with them, and getting an opportunity to practice my Arabic (the young campers are some of the few people I meet here without a solid grasp of English!). On the other hand, working with dozens of eight to thirteen-year-olds can be a bit chaotic and unruly. Finding activities that entertain for a full hour is a challenging task. I couldn’t do it without Bess, my co-volunteer, and the local Palestinian teenagers who also help with the camp.
The more political aspects of the Siraj program have been incredibly interesting and useful. Before coming here, I had a rough grasp of the nakba and of the present situation, but little knowledge of what happened in between. For example, I knew that Jordan and Palestine had a strong connection, but I didn’t know that the West Bank had been governed by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. The lectures, films, and tours have given me a lot of information to fill in my knowledge gaps. An especially helpful activity was the ICAHD tour of East Jerusalem and an Israeli settlement. Our guide provided a succinct twenty-minute history of the conflict, the clearest explanation I have heard so far. On the tour, he carried history into the present by showing us the practical, insidious effects of the Israeli occupation. I have also been attending the biweekly lectures at the Alternative Information Center which provide even more information and perspectives.
The longer I am here, the more I see and appreciate the small town life here in Beit Sahour. After a young man passed away last week, the whole community rallied together, attending his funeral by the thousands and posting his picture throughout the city. When I walk around or run errands, I almost always run into students from the summer camp. Once crossing the street I saw my favorite taxi driver. He slowed his car to let me cross and made sure to say hello. Yesterday I went to Ramallah and had a visual comparison of city life there versus the quieter life here. I had a great day shopping and exploring, but at the end of the day I was very happy to return here.
My experience with the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies began when the director of the stateside non-profit agency I work with, Playgrounds for Palestine, brought the program to my attention. I'm in the West Bank to explore potential playground build sites and initiate builds at Osh Ghorab Park and at the Bet Jala Arab Orthodox Club.
I often travel abroad for work and study and was prepared for the usual complications of making contacts, finding a place to stay, and spending countless hours trying to find the right people to show me the historical sights and features around my new home. Siraj remediated all of these impediments. George Rishmawi and the staff at the Siraj Center immediately began setting up contacts to help with my playground project. Furthermore, they recommended that I spend my time volunteering at a local organization beyond the scope of my normal work. I mentioned that I am certified emergency medical technician. Mr. Rishmawi went out of his way to get me an interview with the volunteer coordinator and public affairs director at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Ramallah. I received a placement at the Bethlehem Red Crescent working with an ambulance crew. Working with the medics at the Red Crescent provided me with a means of meeting people far outside the normal scope of the expatriate experience.
Immediately upon my arrival in Bethlehem, the staff at the Siraj Center welcomed me to my new family - the Siraj family - with a shared meal and introductions. I was immediately impressed by their professionalism as well as their honest desire to integrate me into the community of Beit Sahour without delay. I was introduced to my host family, the Salsas, and discovered another world of cultural exposure opened before me. The two months I spent living with the Salsas - eating together, meeting their friends and extended family - has provided me with insight and an understanding of the local culture that is oftentimes precious and rare for Westerners traveling abroad.
The guides and drivers provided by Siraj are of the highest caliber - university educated historians and teachers - who themselves live in the Bethlehem area and can oftentimes take a simple tour of a historical site far beyond the bounds of a textbook experience. By introducing the Siraj students to local business-owners, laborers, educators and others, they succeed in making relevant historical locations that date back many thousands of years. Any tour guide can explain the various architectural, archaeological and cultural traditions associated with, for example, the Church of the Nativity. Siraj guides introduce their students to the church's relevance to the people of Bethlehem today. They discuss the intricacies, difficulties, and celebrations that face the population charged with caring for this ancient structure. The teachers and guides from Siraj sought to bring these incredible sights into a contemporary context - something invaluable for a student of the 21st century.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that the Siraj Center also provided me with something I have rarely found with organizations that provide similar services. It provided flexibility. Siraj creates a full, meaningful itinerary for its students without locking them into courses, tours or volunteer experiences that aren't interesting or engaging for each student. The Siraj coordinators were constantly engaged in discussion with each student regarding their new interests. I remember - at one point I wanted to deviate from the program to visit a potential build site north of Jenin. The director of Siraj, George Rishmawi, arranged the travel and even accompanied me up to Jenin, showing me the sites along the way. I was surprised and touched by his commitment to my West Bank experience - to go so far out of his way to make sure that I was able to visit the places I wanted to. This personal attention to each student is the primary reason I recommend Siraj to my peers and coworkers back in the U.S. Every Siraj student lives, works, and learns in the Holy Land, but the staff at Siraj guarantees that this is not a homogeneous, boxed, cookie-cutter experience. Everyone here seems to have their own unique Siraj experience, whether it is for a week, a month, or a summer.
I will continue to recommend Siraj to students I meet here in Palestine, as well as my peers back home. I have accomplished my goals here in the West Bank - new doors have been opened to me - and I cannot wait to begin planning my return to my new family and friends here in Beit Sahour.
Nathan Dannison, Grand Rapids, Michigan.