Perspectives from Palestine: Q&A

GC students Kiernan Wright, a junior from Orrville, Ohio, Sam Carlson, a junior from Goshen, and Jessica Davila, a junior from Goshen.

Three current Goshen College students are serving in Bethlehem, Palestine this summer: Sam Carlson, a junior from Elkhart; Jessica Davila, a junior from Goshen; and Kiernan Wright, a junior from Orrville, Ohio. Clare Maxwell, a 2013 graduate, also served alongside them until her return in June. Read their story.

Though Goshen College does not encourage students to visit dangerous locations, the GC students arrived in the West Bank during a period of relative calm between the two states, before tensions escalated in June 2014.

The views expressed here are solely those of the students and do not necessarily represent the views of Goshen College. The following responses were collected by email and edited by Kate Yoder.

Why did you decide to visit Palestine?

Davila: Two years ago, I met Marcelle Zoughbi. She is from Bethlehem and graduated a year ago from Goshen College. She is very passionate when it comes to world injustices and she used to tell us stories about the Palestinian occupation.

Marcelle told us about a story about a friend of hers who was shot and killed while they were playing soccer. The image of this terrible tragedy marked me forever. Two years ago, I promised her I would one day come and visit the precious holy land that she always told us about. Today, I find myself in Palestine, experiencing the horrifying and unjust acts that affect the Palestinian people as well as the immense richness of this beautiful land.

Carlson: I am studying peace, justice and conflict Studies. I’m in Bethlehem, Palestine to gain first-hand education on nonviolent social change as well as expand my Arabic language proficiency. I have passions in social justice and the Arabic language, and Palestine was a way to combine these passions.

Maxwell: I first visited Palestine two years ago, to spend the summer working at the al-Rowwad center in Aida camp. I lived with the Zoughbi family in Bethlehem. I came back this spring with the intent to do more politically slanted work, and ended up finding the International Women’s Peace Service, which is an organization that provides accompaniment and media work for Palestinian activists.

What did you witness during your time there?

Davila: I have been to many places around the world and I have never come across a community with such strong faith and resilient hearts. These families have been through so much. Many have witnessed a loved one’s death. They have found ways to cope with the pain and those mechanisms have been integrated into their culture. It is a culture that values mental and spiritual health as much, or even more, than physical health.

Carlson: I have witnessed nonviolent protests being disintegrated by tear gas and stun grenades. I’ve witnessed the lament of a young child. At eight years old, she prayed for the safety of all the children in Gaza. She prayed for peace in their minds and hearts. I’ve witnessed an ever-present cloud of tear gas over Aida Camp, one of the refugee camps near the apartheid wall.

The Israeli military recently replaced their rubber bullets with glass marbles, deeming them more effective when they want to clear the streets. It’s a very terrible feeling when walking to work every morning. Stepping over hundreds of tear gas canisters, stun grenades and smoke bombs—and now glass marbles.

Maxwell: While doing protective presence work, I saw Israeli soldiers attack a young Palestinian man and beat him unconscious with their rifles. On another occasion, I was at a demonstration where two teenage protesters were shot and killed. At other demonstrations, I saw soldiers attack protesters with tear gas, rubber coated bullets and stun grenades, shooting at young children and even disabled persons.

What sort of service did you do?

Maxwell: I was working for the International Women’s Peace Service. Our activities ranged from accompanying protesters, reporting on human rights abuses (arrests, house raid, harassment at checkpoints), protective presence (staying with families who were being targeted by Israeli soldiers and settlers) and accompanying child prisoners to court.

Davila: When the opportunity of going to Palestine came up, I decided that fulfilling my pre-medical and psychology internship requirements in a Middle Eastern country would be a great experience. I fulfilled the requirements of my pre-medical internship at a baby hospital (Caritas Baby Hospital) and my psychology internship on the way a nation copes with war-related trauma here in Bethlehem.

I spent five weeks at the hospital spending time with the medical team. However, it was very sad sometimes because I witnessed many deaths of babies who died from lack of medical resources. I also volunteered at a Christian orphanage, Le Crèche. Many of the children there have been traumatized due to previous war-related experiences or other traumatizing events. This gave me a glimpse into what I would want to spend my life doing: benefiting the needy with medical services.

Wright: I am volunteering at the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center (Wi’am). For over a month there has been a summer camp for children of all ages which runs during the morning. I try to be useful during this time, and in the afternoons I do whatever else is asked of me. This includes weeding, writing grant proposals, updating Wi’am’s Facebook page and having lots of extended coffee breaks.  

Carlson: When Wi’am’s children’s summer camp is in session, I serve as a camp counselor. I help plan and facilitate daily activities of campers ages 4 through 17. More recently, we’ve begun to include more substantial art therapy activities into the curriculum.

It’s a lot of fun when the children can enjoy the summer camp. They take part in arts and crafts, dabkeh (a traditional Palestinian dance), singing and organized sports. Everyone has a lot of fun, children and adults alike.

What surprised you about Palestinian culture?

Wright: I was surprised that I didn’t get harassed about being an American. In general, everyone still admires American culture.

Carlson: Palestine gives and gives. The morning after my arrival began with a feast. My neighbors—complete strangers—opened up their home to me. They gave me plate after plate of food. Lemony olives, warm pita, crisp cucumbers.

Davila: One thing that really amazed me is that food and family meals are a big part of the culture. Instead of cooking small portions of food before every meal like it is usually done in more westernized societies, the cuisine consists of huge quantities of delicious food, which are made almost daily. It almost always involves olives, dough based meals and rice. It is very common to find kitchens stuffed with vast quantities of food in the house, ranging from full boxes of fruits and vegetables, freezers stuffed with a great variety of meats, cabinets stuffed with all kinds of spices, and huge sacks of rice and grain based food.

Not less impressive is the importance of religion in Middle Eastern societies. Ramadan, for example, is a very important Muslim religious holiday that we experienced in July. During this time, people fast from sunrise to sun set for a month and no one is allowed to eat in the streets. The calls of prayer are heard five times a day and respected by everyone in town. The sounds of church bells that come from the Roman Catholic and other catholic derived Christian denominations are also heard multiple times a day.

What was your experience like as an American in Palestine?

Carlson: After acclimating to the new setting, I have been treated like a member of the community. I’m invited to weddings and birthday parties of local community members. I’m treated like I’m more than just an American living in Palestine, and I find that incredibly valuable.

As an American living in Palestine, I live in privilege. If my safety is threatened, I have the option of fleeing home. My Palestinian community, however, cannot flee back to the comforts of their home. It’s difficult to see my Palestinian community under such oppression, being denied basic human rights.

How was your experience shaped by being an American woman?

Maxwell: Being a western woman in an Arab Muslim country is interesting. Because we tended not to fit in easily in a culture with much stricter gender roles, I often felt like I wasn’t treated entirely as a woman, or entirely as a man. I had a somewhat open invitation to both parts of society–something that an American man might not be able to do.

Davila: My host family had to teach me a variety of common societal rules in order to be more respectful of the culture. Very conservative clothes have to be worn. Co-ed relationships and friendships are also very restricted to family members.

What did you learn, and what do you hope to do with the knowledge you’ve gained?

Carlson: I’ve learned a lot more about the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as trauma and recovery. There’s a prodigious amount of news being unreported, especially in the United States. The news reports thousands of rockets coming from Gaza, when most of these rockets aren’t larger than a firework. The U.S. media coverage is incredibly biased. It has been valuable to witness the conflict without it traveling through news publications first.  I hope to continue work with Palestine in whatever capacity I can. Hopefully, continuing graduate studies will deepen my understanding of peacemaking in relation to Israel and Palestine.

Wright: I have learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab culture and life in the Middle East. I hope to share my experiences not only with the Goshen College community, but also with my home church in Ohio. For many people, the Middle East is associated with fear, terrorism and rubble. I want to share my experience of a fully functional society full of life.

Davila: I think the most life-changing experience I had here was witnessing the occupation. I cannot help feeling a moral responsibility to try to do something about the horrible things I have witnessed.

Yet, I am happy to know I am not the only one who feels this way. There are hundreds of foreigners, mostly from America and Europe, who volunteer in Palestine. They are all here to witness the situation and report back to their home countries to try to make them more aware of what is happening. I learned that there are so many injustices in the world, and we cannot just sit back and wait for someone to bring about the changes.

Maxwell: I have a deeper understanding of the conviction it takes to believe in non-violence when you are exposed to egregious violence and oppression. Now that I am back in the U.S., and living in Boston, I am working on actions with human rights activists and the Boycott Divest and Sanctions campaign to raise awareness, and pressure our government into cutting off military aid to Israel.