Monday 25 May 2015

Getting to Abu Dis: part 2

It turns out I picked quite an eventful first day to spend in Jerusalem. I genuinely liked the city and found it very beautiful, with the small exception of often being surrounded by people casually walking around with machine guns slung over their shoulder. This is not something you’re used to if you've grown up in London, or indeed most places I think. I had no idea what was going on at first, all I wanted to do was find a new sim card for my phone and exchange the British money I had left. Neither of these plans ended up working out for me so after hours of wandering aimlessly round Jerusalem, I decided it might be a good idea to head to the Jerusalem Hotel where I had planned to meet the other two volunteers Rowan and Hana.

Even that wasn't as simple as I had hoped. While walking through the city centre I noticed a huge amount of people were running around wrapped in Israeli flags singing and shouting. I am aware of the great love the Israelis have for their country, but it was fair to assume that this level of nationalism isn't a daily occurrence there. At first I naively concluded that some international sport event might be the cause of all this and carried on in my attempt to find a taxi. The attempt took about 3 hours as it turned out that most of the roads were closed because of the parade and by now it was way past the agreed 5 o'clock meeting time. The only taxi that eventually did stop for me was driven by an Arab, who kindly explained that the parade was nothing to do with sport but was infact a yearly occasion in which the Israeli settlers celebrate the taking of Jerusalem in the 6 day war by walking around the city waving flags and shouting. What a day to arrive!

I made it to the Jerusalem Hotel just in time as the girls had almost given up on waiting for me and weren't really sure what to do next. We introduced ourselves and headed off in the direction of the buses, hoping we hadn't missed the last one. I was struck by how different East Jerusalem felt to West as the girls showed me the way while recounting the eventful day they had had coming to meet me. It turned out they also hadn't been aware of the Israeli celebrations and had accidentally found themselves in the middle of a protest in East Jerusalem. The settlers had apparently been very aggressive and the soldiers, far from holding them back, were more interested in violently dispersing the protesters. As we walked past the scene of the earlier protest, we noticed one of the boys had a serious facial injury.

We did make the bus in the end and by this point, I was very excited to get to Abu Dis. The bus was full of Palestinian men going home from work and even though a couple looked slightly confused by our presence, no one made us feel out of place. The journey went pretty smoothly and the view of Jerusalem at night from the hill was stunning. It was tragic to think that many Palestinians also had this view every night. The view of a city that was once a major part of their lives, that they were now not even allowed to set foot in. It’s in moments like these that the reality of what these people have been through and are still going through, really hits you.
View of Abu Dis from our window

Getting off the bus, I finally realised I was actually in Palestine. I was struck by how much I felt at home already. The air was warm and still and there were sounds of dogs barking in the distance. I crawled into bed exhausted but happy and fell asleep in seconds. 

Sunday 24 May 2015

Community Spirit

On Saturday and Sunday this week, the young men of Abu Dis came out in force; first to sweep, clear and clean the streets, then to paint all the curbs, and some walls, posts and pavements! I've never seen so many young volunteers working so willingly to improve the environment of their local community. They worked well into the night, and all through the town. This morning everything is bright and shiny!

Thursday 21 May 2015

Getting to Abu Dis part 1


A couple of weeks ago, I made a decision that I think only people who feel they've been offered a unique opportunity make. I was offered a chance to travel to Palestine and volunteer with the local community. For those of us in the world that care passionately about the situation out there, being offered something like this is sort of equivalent to an astronomer being offered a trip to space.
The only catch was that I had to make my decision in a of matter hours, the other volunteers had already been out there for a month and I was only lucky enough to go because they had funding for one more person. I said yes, of course. This meant I needed to give notice at my job, move my things out of the flat I was staying in, book a flight and say all my goodbye’s in what felt like seconds. Those couple of weeks are now a bit of a blur. Leaving my life in London behind didn't feel like much of a sacrifice for what was essentially an opportunity I had waited years for and had never fully believed would ever come my way.

Sitting in Luton airport waiting for the flight to Tel-Aviv, I felt strangely calm. Almost like I was just heading off to another day at work. The flight was one of the smoothest in my life, but it did feel a lot longer than five hours. Still, I suppose that’s what Easyjet does to you.

Soon, it was time for the inevitable airport security experience. Having an Arabic surname like mine meant that the odds of simply walking through customs were pretty slim. Sure enough, the welcoming smile that lit up the customs officer’s face as I approached the desk with my British passport quickly disappeared as soon as she read my full name. The questions then followed... Relatively normal ones to begin with.” Is this your first time in Israel? What is the purpose of your visit? How long are you planning to stay?”  Then gradually less normal. “What is your father’s full name? What was his father’s full name? What nationality is he?”  It seemed strange that she would be so interested in my father’s family, given that they weren't actually the ones visiting the country, but nonetheless I answered everything politely. I was then told to go and sit in the waiting room while she kept my passport. There were several others in the waiting room, including one girl who was on her own and didn't look much older than 16. She was crying.

Not feeling reassured, I sat and waited for about 20 mins before another woman came to find me. I followed her into the office and was asked the exact same questions again. She wasn't particularly unpleasant but it felt quite frustrating to give the exact same information a second time, as if the first time was supposed to be some sort of rehearsal. She also wanted all of my contact details in the UK before telling me I could go. “Brilliant, that wasn't so bad” I thought, assuming that was the end of it. It wasn't. I then had to sit in the waiting room for another 45 mins before a third woman came to find me. All of the same questions followed once again but this lady was a little more aggressive. She wanted more specific information about my father, as well as all of my UK contact details again and ALL my email addresses. She was very clear about that. Then it was time for another hour in the waiting room, before finally being given back my passport and a small paper which turned out to be a visa (which they didn't bother to mention) and shown the way out. 

It suddenly hit me that I had no idea where my suitcase might be, since it had now been almost three hours since we’d landed. I was very happy to find it waiting for me by the baggage claims, grabbed it an bolted for the door thinking what a good call it was that I had planned ahead to spend the night in Jerusalem rather then head straight for Abu Dis. There would have been no buses at this time of night.