I spoke to my husband on the phone last night and we talked about what we’re going to do when I get back. I said I want to go and see my Mum on Sunday. He’s a wise soul my hubby and said: Well, let’s see shall we? I’m expecting you to have a bit of a boo and fall apart a bit on Sunday.
He’s probably not wrong. It does feel like I’m keep a lot at bay at the moment, inevitably when you’ve seen and heard things and been to places that are so desperate and upsetting. Things that make you so angry you want to tear your own hair out.
But my colleague Neil and I were discussing how we both feel like the ping ponging around the region, moving from the West Bank and Jerusalem, to Galilee to Gaza then back to Jerusalem has been hard going but the contrasts have helped us not become too overwhelmed in one place. Before we know it we’re in another area so different it makes it feel like the previous location was another world. It all adds to my sense of dislocation and distance from the time and place. I was in Gaza the day before yesterday but it seems like weeks ago.
But sadly they’re not another world. I’ve been in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank and I’ve been in plush restaurants and shopping precincts in Israel. I’ve seen fear and trepidation on a young IDF soldier’s face. I’ve been taken to a rather nice fish restaurant in Gaza. It’s a mass of contradiction. It’s a mess of corruption and occupation.
But nothing is simple. My reaction to it isn’t simple.
I spent yesterday meeting people at two different projects Embrace funds. The first is the Princess Basma Rehabilitation Centre in East Jerusalem, a highly esteemed facility for Palestinians, specifically disabled children and their families. Disabilities exist in high numbers in the region for many reasons including lack of education about inter-marriage. Small farming communities still promote the marriage of close cousins to ensure land stays in the family. Stigma is also still there – the disabled aren’t disabled but lazy, the parents are the cause of the disability. But the Centre is doing amazing work to help those with disabilities, their families and is equipping parents, especially mums to go back to their communities and change the way people see their children. They’re hoping to extend their capacity by building relationships with community based organisations who can deliver similar programmes in their own areas – which would be extremely helpful given the restrictions on movement for many Palestinians. There’s also a school and a vocational training facility – a sheltered workshop where the participants make the most beautiful furniture I have ever seen.
Then, I met an 11 year old girl who is supported to attend a school in the Old City through the Embrace education fund. We spent time with her at school, met her little sister in the kindergarten then went back to her home to meet her Dad, brother and see how and where they live. The young girl is shy, until we ask her what she would like to do in her future: “I want to be an actor” she says, throwing her hands in the air. Where would you live if you could live anywhere? “America” she says again! I ask her to show me how she spends her free time – a concept she doesn’t really understand. She goes to school, she does her homework, and she works in the house then goes to bed. But she does show me how she likes to watch videos on her dad’s ancient computer so she can learn how to act.
The family told us long stories of how the conflict impacts their lives. We talked about their hope for the future and once again I was sad, but not in the least surprised to hear that the hope they have is in being able to leave the region at some point.
Seeing these things and meeting people, hearing their stories is so important. I feel I will be a better communications officer now I have visited and can even more honestly talk about the things I need to communicate. We talk a lot at work about working with our partners to increase their capacity to serve the people here. This has been capacity building for me.
Life in unspeakably hard here for so many. Many people on all sides of this conflict live in fear, not that I feel comfortable calling them sides, so complex and varied are the positions and feelings I have heard expressed.
I am also very aware this is my first time here and I am bound to have a visceral reaction. I’m not a glass half empty person but I have found myself feeling the despair more than the hope. Because there is hope here, in places. The priest who sat and cried with us also smiled and laughed and cared very, very deeply about his people. “In Jesus Christ we have hope.” I’m left dazed.
I asked Neil, who lived in East Jerusalem for 3 and a half years, if it is just because we’re here for the first time and asking them questions that all people want to talk to us about is the conflict. He says no, it is always in conversation because it is always in their lives. For the Palestinians especially whose freedom of movement, access to education, healthcare, family is limited, of course it is always there. I think back to the young woman I met in Gaza who I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “You might be alive, but you’re never safe.”
I sit here typing away and I desperately want to finish with some happy memories. We fly home tomorrow and the day is mostly traveling and most likely having a long chat with the border guards at Ben Gurion so this will probably be my last blog from the region. Until next time. But I am very ready to go home – as I give this blog one last read over before posting, I’m already having a bit of a boo.
- The one thing you don’t have to press people to talk about is their kids. They ask me and Neil if either of us have children. When Neil tells of his nearly 4 and nearly 2 year old the immediate reactions is “God bless them” and he replies “and yours.” I have never heard anyone ask about another person’s children without them asking God to bless them.
- The smiles of mothers when asked if I could photograph their babies at the Well Baby Clinic in Gaza. They are incredibly proud of their children.
- Every child wants their photo taken. The kids in Jabalia Camp in Gaza loved looking at their images on the view screen more than most.
- Being high-5’d by a toddler in Jabalia.
- Bethlehem – how very glad people were that we were staying there and for 6 nights.
- “Hello, welcome!”
- The warmth of the limestone that so many houses here are built from, glowing in the setting sun. It reminds me of the city of Bath and how we build our houses on and of the same stuff.
- How much women are valued by so many of our partners. I think every single partner talked about empowering women, equipping them, loving them. The one time I have allowed myself to cry these past two weeks was hearing about a women’s education group in a West Bank refugee camp.
- Our Encounter tour – a fantastic group of people. Betty’s laugh which meant you knew where she was at all times, and the yell of “cows!” every time we spotted one out of the coach window.
- The call to prayer echoing across whatever place I’ve been in. It still sounds exotic to my ears so I know I need to spend more time here. I want to be familiar, not a visitor.
- Arabic coffee!
- All the people I have met, every single one has taught me something and I am grateful and humbled. I come away from this experience, one I never imagined I’d have, knowing that I know next to nothing and never will know enough, feeling my privilege heavy on my shoulders.
- The peace and beauty of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth – I was all churched out but it was beautiful. So lovely I forgot to take lots of photos which says something.
- Being able to put locations and distances on places I have read about my whole life has been very special. I have walked from the Mount of Olives via the Garden of Gethsemane into Jerusalem and along the Via Dolorosa. I have traveled through the Judean Hills. I have seen the pass from Nazareth to Galilee and seen places Jesus very probably walked and lived. Whether you believe in His divinity or not, Jesus was an incredibly influential historical figure and being here has turned what can often be words on a page into a 3D world. For that alone I’d recommend a trip!
- “Yalla, yalla!” (Hurry up!)
- One of those ‘coincidences’ when on our last day in Galilee we were meant to have a communion service at Magdala but because of the gender of our leader, we weren’t allowed. Another British female church leader had passed through earlier in the day and had left her card, which we were duly given and we ended up celebrating in her church in Tiberias.
- Spring has sprung while I’ve been here. The odd bit of oil seed rape was out two weeks ago, now there are pink and red and purple and yellow wild flowers everywhere.
- The view of the Jordan Valley from Jerusalem. Not one of my photos does it justice, I’m not sure it is one of those views that can ever be represented through a camera lens, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at it.