Monday, May 21, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Palestine, My First Home Away from Home

Tonight is my last night in Nablus. I know saying “I can’t believe it,” and “It hasn’t sunk in yet” are the trite phrases people use to fill in conversations about their impending departure, but in all earnest, that is exactly how I feel. This has been, by far, the most amazing experience I could have possibly imagined. I have been challenged in so many ways—to the point where multiple times  I wanted to quit and give up—and have made some incredible friends and acquaintances whom I will never forget and am determined to see again someday.

Even though I wrote not all that long ago, a lot has happened. I had seen the wall of separation that divides Israel and Palestine many times before, but knew there was a segment outside Bethlehem with incredible graffiti protesting the existence of tangible hatred from the occupier. Just south of Bethlehem lies Hebron, the city I had been wanting to visit the most as I knew it to be the most visual representation of the effects of occupation due to its unique situation, so me and some friends set off to see them both and make a weekend of it. It was incredible trip starting out with a night on the town in Ramallah Thursday night for the opening of Snowbar—an outdoor bar in Ramallah open only during the summer. After dancing the night away and a large collaborative breakfast the next morning, I set out with Ella, John, Emma, and a couchsurfer I had run across named David (who is the current president of the Salsa club at Boston University) for Bethlehem. With a great group dynamic on all accounts, we walked around Bethlehem and up to the wall, taking pictures, talking to people and admiring the art and creativity crying out against oppression. As the afternoon sun began to wane we hopped in a service (shared taxi) and headed off for Hebron.

Hebron has two sections of the city: H1 and H2. H1 is under Palestinian control, whereas H2 is an occupied military zone home to the Palestinians that have always lived there, and Israeli settlers which had occupied that part of the city. We spent the night at a Palestinian couchsurfer’s house in H1. He was incredibly generous to let us all crash in his living room. The next morning we set off to tour H2. Hebron was a Palestinian city. The settlements there (and in general) are documented as illegal by the United Nations, and are therefore in violation of international law. This is a fact, not an opinion.  We went on a tour with a known activist who is constantly persecuted for standing up (non-violently) to the horrible conditions under which he and his fellow Palestinians in H2 live. They are not protected by Palestinian law as the PA has no authority there—and they are not citizens like other Arabs in actual Israel—so they are not even marginally protected under Israeli law. The Israeli settlers walk around with large machine guns, while Palestinians have nothing. I could go on for hours with stories he and his family told: his pregnant wife getting beaten to the point of miscarriage and her filed complaint ignored, children getting beaten (the Palestinian school has had to continue to build more fences, walls, bars on windows, etc. to keep settlers from attacking, settlers cutting down Palestinian fruit trees and plants and throwing garbage (including a broken washing machine) into their yard. I could literally talk for hours about the things I saw, heard, and saw video footage of. This isn’t science fiction about the evils of the enemy—no! What I was told was supported by facts, video, evidence. I dare anyone who challenges me to spend some time in H2. You can feel the hatred, see it written in graffiti, see it in the gleam of an M16 on a settler’s back, see it in the damaged foliage and rotting trash courtesy of their occupying neighbors. If you want to see oppression on multiple fronts, go to Hebron. If you don’t want to see it—go anyway, for the challenege.

After H2, we walked through the old city and bought some things at a women’s co-op and then headed off for the last Keffiyah factory in Palestine (Keffiyah= Arab scarf, distinct between the different countries). Now most are made in China—go figure. They have a plethora of colors and styles to choose from at the factory, and we got to see how they’re made. I think the thing that made the trip was that each of us there was easy-going, down for anything and everything, and good at making interesting and open-minded conversations.

Since then, I’ve had my end of the year celebration at Balata with my refugee kids who showered me with gifts and love letters I will treasure forever, visited a few of their houses (Taima the scholarship girl for next year and Zainab who started her scholarship to PBS this year) to say goodbye on a more personal level, been in a water/hummus fight with my private school kids during which I was covered in a disgusting blue hummus and other unknown edible substance mix, and now said goodbye to nearly all my wonderful friends and students. I will visit my Palestinian family for the last time in the morning at which time I will also say goodbye to my dear dear Aussie: Ella and my partner in Askar camp crime Rita.

I went to Taima's house (girl on my right) and almost never left. Zainab (the one on Taima's right) is the girl on scholarship now and perhaps the girl I am closest to. Salem (directly in front of me) is so smart and fun--she came out of her way to deliver an incredibly sweet handwritten goodbye letter. 

Leaving Askar camp for the last time in the foreseeable future, although I do intend to visit, is going to leave me with a strange sensation I am sure. This was my first home away from home, postgraduate, on my own. I have laughed harder here than ever before, cried harder here than I can remember, and made sisters here I will always love and never forget. The isolate nature of this house, being outside the city and holding the only ajanab (foreigners) in Askar has been the source of joy and frustration, but most memorably, of some incredible people who have welcomed me with open arms and free food, whether they’re selling it on the street or serving it to me from their home ovens. I can’t describe how blessed I feel to have lived here with these people.

What will I miss most? I will miss my co-workers and friends, the rolling mounts surrounding me, the variety of flora and fauna everywhere, the ancient ruins left unguarded, the street kids that now refer to me as Cristiano Ronaldo, my favorite students whom I love and who love me back, being referred to as Ms. Casey (just kidding, not a fan), being mocked by my seemingly cynical but really big-hearted fellow teacher, free fruits and veges from Khalid in the Askar market, amazing hummus and other foods, the other cities and friends I have in Palestine, and really just living in Palestine in general. I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing first (mostly likely of many) homes away from home. 

Next time I post I will probably be in Egypt, starting a new life there. Or perhaps if I am bored tomorrow waiting around in Eilat to get my visa for Cairo I will ramble on about something in more detail. Regardless, last post from here. I'm excited to start my new internship with refugees from Iraq and Sudan in Egypt, and hoping to soon gain more insight into if Sudan is the next step after Cairo. We shall see. I tried to find a good ending line that wasn't incredibly lame or trite, but couldn't, so I'm going to end with a quote that I am trying to live by: 
"Seek peace and pursue it" Psalm 34:14

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