Tuesday 4 August 2015

A Month in Abu Dis: First Impressions

The welcome has quite simply been fantastic! Abu Dis is a town of about 10,000 people just east of Jerusalem in the West Bank. It’s so full of life. Once it cools down in the evening (we hit 44°C yesterday!), the streets fill with people and cars drive by, blasting out loud music. We have found nothing but hospitality among the local inhabitants. Being a volunteer with CADFA, you instantly gain an adoptive family that has made adapting to this different part of the world so much easier.

The people here have made this place beautiful to me. The local volunteers have taken us under their wing and spend a lot of time showing us around and introducing us to this new culture. Everyone we have met so far is keen and open about sharing their stories and their country. We have learnt so much about Palestine and are making great friends in the process. At the end of the day, people are people regardless of where they are from, and we've found common ground and good discussion topics in politics, music, religion and football. The sense of humour here is simply brilliant, everyone is joking, smiling and laughing! It’s refreshing after the occasional depressing mood from London (no offence!).

As a European, there are some big differences you notice straightaway. Almost all the men here smoke, cigarettes or narghile, inside and outside, all of the time. Not quite our good old smoking ban. That was actually one of the first questions I was asked here, why British people can't smoke inside, it’s so alien here! The traffic/road is also mildly crazy. No one uses the pavement (because, you know, it’s not wide enough and discontinuous, or something along those lines), so you just walk in the middle of the road and try to avoid being hit by a car. The food is fantastic, plenty of fresh vegetables, rice, falafel and fruit. I have already had a cooking lesson to make warak dawale (stuffed vine leaves) that I will hopefully be able to put to good use as soon as I figure out how the hob works here! And of course, as a caffeine addict, I must mention the gloriously thick, spiced and strong Arabic coffee!

Still, even with all the jokes, smiles and cultural discoveries, it is impossible to miss the occupation here. From the minute you arrive, you learn the difference between a blue and a green ID that determines whether Palestinians are free to go to Jerusalem and Israel or if they need a special permit. You learn about the different Areas in Palestine. Here we are in Area B, under Palestinian Authority management but Israeli military control. There is no police, just the army to throw tear gas and fire “rubber” bullets at people. I have learnt that you should hold an onion to your nose or perfume if there’s tear gas around, a necessary life skill here. And more than anything, you cannot miss the separation wall. It’s 12m high, sometimes cutting off roads and making a trip to Jerusalem 30-60 minutes (sometimes longer depending on the checkpoint waiting time) instead of the 10 minutes it used to take! Everyone here has stories of how the wall and the occupation have changed their lives, from being forced to change schools or being unable to visit family on the other side of the wall, ambulances stuck at checkpoints and some patients not making it to the hospital in time.

Over the next few weeks, I will endeavour to recount my volunteering experience, but more importantly, the stories of the people here, the human rights situation and the day-to-day life in the West Bank. I hope that you will bear with me and enjoy discovering this country as much as I am. More to come.

The view from the volunteer guesthouse!

Abu Dis at nightfall
The separation wall near Al Quds University in Abu Dis

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