Monday 30 June 2014

Arrival at Tel a brown skinned Muslim

I got into Tel Aviv at 3.30am local time. When I got to the passport control I was asked to go to the waiting room for a 'few minutes' whilst they ran security checks. Obviously because I have brown skin and a Muslim name. At 4 am I was questioned for the first time, basic questions such as name, email address, parents names, grandparents names, purpose of the visit, who and what is CADFA, how I got onto the volunteering program. The man questioning me was very rude and arrogant and was getting annoyed when I could not understand what he said. Why have someone who speaks rubbish English interrogate someone from England?

11am and  I was still in the waiting area. I had a terrible back and neck pain. Throughout my wait I was brought a sandwich and bottle of water twice, which I must admit I found surprising.

1pm came and I was questioned again. Same questions, this time she took my mothers and fathers mobile numbers. My old mobile number. The woman made me log into Facebook on her computer and show her the CADFA page, she even went through my phone. After that I was sent to wait a further half hour and then let go. I had to go and find my suitcase which was sat in the middle of nowhere and then let out of the airport. The airport must be well ventilated because when I stepped outside, the heat pretty much assaulted me.

I then caught a bus to Damascus gate and met with another volunteer and we got a bus up to Abu Dis. On the bus journey up there was a check point and the army woman got on the bus and demanded to see the passes of the people on board. About 10 Palestinian men were taken off the bus and were being patted down and checked but the bus had to carry on the journey. The women were very rude and it was harassment more than anything.

Not amongst the best of journeys I've had.


Last Saturday, we attended the graduation ceremony for students at Al Quds university. Around 150 students graduated during the event which marked the end of the academic year.

We were treated to many speeches by the faculty and students. Unfortunately, my Arabic is still non existent so the words were lost on me.

There was traditional Palestinian Dabke dance as well as hundred of balloons in the colours of the Palestinian flag released. The event was one of celebration and achievement. Families proudly cheering their sons, daughters and siblings graduating.

Unfortunately, the even was marred that night as the Israeli army entered the university during a raid, apparently looking for information on the kidnapped Israeli teenagers.

Traditional Dabke dance during the graduation ceremony

The Bigger Prison

During the first intifada, in order to more easily distinguish which Palestinians had already been arrested, the Israeli military administration devised a colour coded ID card system. All West Bank and Gaza residents had been issued with orange IDs, but upon release, prisoners had to report to the Israeli civil administration centre and be issued with new green versions. In the tumultuous days of the intifada, as the Israelis cracked down brutally in an attempt to quash the nascent uprising, the flash of green (no further inspection necessary) at a checkpoint was liable to result in harsh interrogation and even re-arrest. As a result many prisoners, of the over 120 000 arrested during the intifada years, chose to confine themselves to their homes rather than risk the humiliation and degradation of further months or years (often without charge or trial) behind bars in Israel. Reasoning that a prison-like existence in their home towns was preferable to the brutality of the Israeli Prison Service, thousands of Palestinians lived under a further, more-concentrated version of the Occupation.

Today the situation has been magnified and institutionalised to encompass nearly all of Palestinian society, points out Abed, a director of Dar As-Sadaqa in Abu Dis, and himself a former prisoner and intifada veteran. “Even the symbols are the same – except now all West Bank Palestinians have the green ID, and the prison wall surrounds us on all sides.” The apartheid wall to which he refers, 400 miles long and twice as tall as Berlin’s iconic barrier, has been constructed of the same material and in the same style as the walls that surrounded the Naqab Prison, a desert facility that Abed and other teenage Palestinians were sent to as other prisons began to fill up in 1988. “After Oslo the colonisation became much more thorough. At least during the intifada we were in it together – when an army truck approached Abu Dis you didn’t know who it was coming to arrest, and this created camaraderie. ‘Al Mousawa fi Thulm Adalah’ – Equality in injustice is just.”
Now, however, Palestinians are all inmates in the bigger prison, save for those who are afforded the VIP passes and privileges from heading up the Palestinian Authority, who may drive through the checkpoints with a wave of a (non-green) pass and a smile at the IDF guard. Otherwise, settlement construction continues unabated, administrative detention remains a favourite of the Israeli authorities unwilling to afford their Palestinian targets a charge or a trial, and the gargantuan wall cuts ever further into Palestinian land. In areas the prison is intensified, as in besieged Gaza or more recently Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank where all entrances are sealed and the IDF roams the streets looking for residents to imprison. In the overflowing prisons a hunger strike has passed its fiftieth day, while the land of Palestine, the bigger prison, recently marked the sixty sixth anniversary of its subjugation by Israeli jailors.

Hunger Strike

On the 25th of June, between 60 and 80 prisoners currently help under Israel’s controversial ‘Administrative Detention’ law have ended their hunger strike. The prisoners had started their strike on April 24th this year as a protest against being detained indefinitely without charge. Various sources have been speculating as to why the strike has ended now with no official reason being verified.

Israel has been debating as to whether to bring forward a contentious law of force feeding prisoners on hunger strike, a move condemned as ‘unethical’ by the Israeli Medical Association. Jerusalem Post has stated that the Israel Prisoner Service has made little to no concessions and that the ending of the strike could possibly be due to the fact that the hunger strikes are futile in their attempt to change conditions as Israel steps up its operations in the West Bank as a response to the kidnappings of three Israeli settlers.

Whatever the reasons behind the strike ending, there is little evidence to suggest that the 190 prisoners under administrative detention will face charges, be brought to trial or be released anytime soon.
This number will seemingly grow as Israel continues its actions in the West Bank as the search for the missing Israelis continues. Some 371 people have already been arrested over the past 2 weeks with operations continuing daily.

As recounted by another volunteer in a previous post, the Israeli army came to Abu Dis in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Six arrests were carried out, four of which were of children under 18. We witnessed soldiers storming houses and have since seen pictures of homes turned upside down looking for ‘persons of interest’ and evidence against them. As my first experience seeing the Israeli army carrying out operations so close to us, it was fairly shocking. 
Israeli army in Abu Dis
For Palestinians living here in Abu Dis, it’s seemed to have become an almost farcical routine. One Abu Dis resident who we were with the next evening left our company early to go home as he had forgotten his ID card and didn’t want to be caught by the army without it. It is situations like that that can sometimes be hard to process as a westerner, something so trivial as say forgetting your wallet leads you to go home because you are worried about being arrested by the army.

As of now, operation ‘Brothers Keeper’ being carried out by the Israeli Army is still in full swing. The increased army presence, with all that it entails, continues in Abu Dis and the rest of the West Bank.


Tuesday 24 June 2014

(S3) Palestine part 2 - The Freedom Theatre

I am torn - between a place I have grown to love and my place of birth and upbringing. The last time I wrote to you all, my story didn't end happily and I wrote in that email that I would assure you that it would get better, so be assured, it got much better - I was just too lazy to write about it. I've found writing helps me to express my sadness or anger but happiness is harder to express via writing for me. Just a natural emo I guess.

I am writing this in the back of a car, returning to Ramallah from Jenin, but more specifically The Freedom Theatre. This organisation has been the one place I definitely wanted to see before I left this beautiful land. Why? In 2011, I went to Berlin for a cultural exchange, the topic was titled Gender and Sexuality but that's not why I went. In all honesty, I went because I had never been to Berlin before and thought it would be fun. It was. The exchange involved participants from Great Britain, Germany, Lebanon and Palestine. This is when I met Mustafa, a name that I will probably never forget. Mustafa and I didn't have much time to speak one on one, but when you were in his presence, you enjoyed yourself, he was the life and soul of every gathering, until Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered. Juliano was a film director and one of the co-founders of The Freedom Theatre. Upon hearing of his death, Mustafa broke down. This man, this bold confident man, broke down. He didn't care who saw, he didn't care who heard. This man was breaking down. He left Berlin after one week of arriving and travelled back to Palestine. For some reason, he left a lasting impression on me. 

After Berlin, I knew I wanted to come to Palestine but why, I don't know. When I first arrived, people kept asking me, from the Israeli officers to locals "but why Palestine?" And I couldn't answer it, not honestly. I came to learn and I told them that, however I could have gone to a different country to learn about their way of life. But why Palestine? I came to Palestine to see what her land looks like, to smell her land, to listen and engage with her people and to see what this conflict ridden land is like to live in on a daily basis. What have I learnt?

American films always show a pretty little hippy looking blonde girl talking about her desire to travel to India to "find herself" and I always wanted to gouge my eyes out at that point. Give it a rest. But get gouging guys, because it's crazily weird how being in a foreign country without family and friends can teach you about yourself. I learnt that I am attached to Slough, to my route to work, to the Horlicks Bridge, to Gino’s cafe lunches with Charlotte, to my parents and siblings and to my job, my passion, more than I ever thought I would be attached. I realised that every Tuesday at around 7.30, I would think of Aik Saath. I would think of how all the young people would be sharing their news in the safe space of Newsround. 

I realised that confidence can decrease and increase and decrease and increase and that just keeps on going. I realised that some people will always be able to see past your fake smile and some people will never be able to see past the words you actually speak. They don't care to know about the distant look in your eyes. And then there are the ones that see your expressions and can't hear your words. They are the ones that get under your skin because no matter what you say, no matter how convincing you think your words are, they can see through you. At first, and many other times, that person (or people) will irritate you like crazy but eventually you realise this is all part of the journey. Being in Palestine doesn't mean all I have to do is speak to Palestinians or speak about the conflict. Being in Palestine means trying to live outside of my comfort zone, comfortably. To flourish, not survive.

The Freedom Theatre reminded me of my love for Aik Saath. A Palestinian man named Adnan gave us a tour of the place, he told us about the history of the organisation and then asked if we have any questions. My friend did - before arriving to the infamous camp in Jenin, Khaled (a Palestinian man, local to Ramallah) and Lee (a Korean guy working in Jenin) were laughing about how when you enter the camp, people always ask you if you are visiting The Freedom Theatre, but they asked in such a way that you could see they do not want the answer to be yes. I assumed it was just because it might be a typical tourist thing to do but no. Khaled asked Adnan why such questions were asked and why people made negative comments - this is one of the parts that really made me think of Aik Saath. He said people are scared of change. The Freedom Theatre is resistance through art, Israel has not just occupied the Palestinian land, but also her economic and social aspects. The Freedom Theatre works to educate the young people of Jenin and primarily the camp. Jenin like many parts of Palestine is a conservative place. In my short two day stay, I saw a total of three women. I then met some girls at the theatre itself, totalling my tally up to seven females. The Freedom Theatre has acting classes for both male and females, it is open to all religions (the founder was a pro – Palestine Jewish woman, Juliano’s mother), The Freedom Theatre, like Aik Saath is a safe place for young people to come, share their experiences and be educated upon issues that will help them become stronger, happier young people. 

But what connected me most to that man Adnan was his passion. He lives right next to the theatre, his children have been part of the theatre but most importantly, he knows of the constant rumours spread about his work and his passion, yet he continues. "Ahlan wa sahlan" (welcome) he says, to everyone and anyone - "let my work show you why The Freedom Theatre is an organisation to support" and it does. It speaks volumes. 

We were invited to watch the first full performance of their latest production, "Enemy". Their actual performance is tomorrow but I couldn't stay and luckily, I didn't have to. The young people were amazing. I couldn't understand a word (actually, I understood a few words) but our language barrier didn't matter. The young people spoke with their bodies, their passion displayed through their hands, and their powerful facial expressions. These young people reminded me of my young people at Aik Saath. My young people with passion, energy and loyalty to the Saath. My young people make me proud. They make my heart feel warm and fuzzy (where's the emo in me gone?)

Now I am near Abu Dis but it's taken us a little longer than we had expected due to a combination of Lee getting lost and Israeli soldiers stopping cars at the checkpoints. We got stopped at one - he asked who we are. Khaled explained that he is Palestinian (note that he didn't specify where exactly but made a statement by saying he is Palestinian), he pointed at Lee and said he is Korean and then pointed at me saying she is English, the soldier replied in Hebrew "What? Is every country in this car?" I only learnt about this joke later, if he smiled and laughed, I might have realised that he was actually quite funny. But the soldiers don't laugh or smile. They stand there with their big guns and stern faces pointing, checking.

My time in Palestine is nearly coming to an end. I only have twenty - four days left, only. It is now that I realise time is precious - what you choose to do and who you choose to spend it with will impact the who that you are.

I am glad that I chose to come to Palestine, that I chose to struggle through the tough first month, that I chose to admit I am finding this hard, but more importantly that I chose to experience this land through her people.

Long live Palestine.

Monday 23 June 2014


It's 3am and we've just witnessed the Israeli army invading Abu Dis. Protests were dispersed about an hour ago and most people are inside or watching from the rooftops as soldiers roam the streets. Have heard gunfire and tear gas, and they're doubtless arresting many. We saw one soldier climb through the window of a 3rd floor flat, others looked to be entering houses in the town centre. An army jeep, with the engine running, has been stopped outside the building opposite us for half an hour, presumably to kidnap our neighbours.

The local wild dogs, who are usually pretty vocal at this time of night, faced off a few patrols in our area and forced a brief retreat. After last night's invasion and ransacking of Al-Quds University campus, where I'm working, tonight's was expected to be an attempt to arrest as many as possible, as has been happening all over the West Bank. We'll know more tomorrow morning.
— in Abu Dis, Palestine.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Arriving, getting started and the World Cup

Having arrived in Tel Aviv on the 10th of June and spending a few days trying my best not to get sunburnt (unsuccessfully), I went to Jerusalem to meet up with Jack, another volunteer, and head to Abu Dis.

I was shown round the apartment I’ll be staying in and a bit of the town before the inevitable question came up, where shall we watch today’s World Cup games? World Cup fever has definitely hit Abu Dis it seems and with every new person that I am introduced to, I get a kindly reminder from them of how England lost their opening game. Thanks!

That evening’s big game was Germany vs. Portugal and a local coffee shop was the venue at which to watch the match. Here I met Hossam a local volunteer who works at Dar Assadaqa and his friend Sharif. Portugal received a thrashing and provided some mirth for the locals as I seemed to be the only one supporting them.

For the second match of the evening, we went to the local Nadi (youth club) and watched the game on a big screen. At half time, there was a raffle with some prizes given out following which most of the kids there left as that seemed far more important than the second half of Iran Nigeria!

View of Abu Dis from our balcony.

On Tuesday morning, I went to Dar Assadaqa where I met with Abed, the co-ordinator for CADFA and the EVS project in Abu Dis and Moussa, another local volunteer. In the scorching heat, Moussa showed me round a bit more of the town, the music centre and the prisoner museum at the local Al Quds University. The museum was a stark reminder that so many Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer in jail without proper trials or other rights that should be afforded to them.

In the afternoon, I spent some time with some local kids at Dar Assadaqa. I was treated to some plays the kids had just learnt before teaching them the game of ‘Ninja’ where a boy by the name of Basil was just too fast for me!
I also held a conversational English class with some kids aged between 12-16. Having not prepared any proper subjects to talk about, I just asked them about what they liked doing, favourite foods, aspirations etc. It seems Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers are the main careers of choice with sleep as the favourite leisure activity!

At one point, I asked them what do they know about life in England i.e. food, customs, leisure. The first thing that answered was that people in England don’t live under occupation, another reminder of the situation these kids are living in every day.

The evening was taken up by, of course, more World Cup football. This time, we watch the match at a coffee shop right next to the separation wall. We also heard the parade of cars beeping their horns and waving flags letting us know that two local boys Adam and Johar, who had been shot and arrested by the IDF, had been released!

Watching the football with the separation wall backdrop.
Abu Dis’ locals have all been friendly, welcoming and genuinely interested in spending time with us volunteers. Its early days yet but I’m excited to get to the town and its residents better as well spending time at Dar Assadaqa with the local youths. 

Thursday 5 June 2014

Volunteering in Abu Dis

It is currently Thursday evening and I shall be flying to Tel Aviv next week before heading to Abu Dis and starting the project the week after. 

After a few months of getting everything together, I've quit my job and moved out my house and now ready to go.

I am looking forward the EVS volunteer programme in Palestine. I want to help make a difference in the lives of the people I will work with and am looking forward to experiencing life in Palestine. After the student visit in England and learning more about Palestine and about CADFA I am very excited to see what the project will be like

Volunteer day in CADFA London

It's going to be great to see some of our old EVS volunteers as well as to meet some new ones at our London event next Saturday.....