Israel and Palestine: Questioning Homeland

December 13, 2010                            Jerusalem

The past few weeks I have spent in Israel and Palestine have taught me so much and I have grown immensely both in my personal identity and my understanding of the world. I have thought a lot about how to accurately convey the impact this particular region has had on me as well as the complex political issues that are constantly at the forefront.

After much thought, I realized this is really beyond me. It is impossible to sum up a conflict that has been going on for centuries and is deeply steeped in history, religion, politics, ethnicity and power. However, what I can do is share the stories of the many people I was lucky enough to meet whose lives have been touched by this conflict as well as some of my own personal experiences in this land where my many social identities converge.

(Sorry for the length. Please feel free to read in chunks. It’s a lot but I am making up for  several months of no blogging)

Taxi Ride to the Boarder

On a beautiful sunny afternoon, I packed my bags, hailed a cab, and in a low voice asked the cab driver to take me to the Israeli border which connects Aqaba, Jordan with Eilat, Israel. Though the land borders between Israel and Jordan are open, I still felt cautious about mentioning my plans to travel to this controversial country.

I sat in the front seat with the taxi driver and with a warm smile he said, “See right over there? That is Israel…where you are going.” I looked across the way and thought about these two countries that are so close in proximity but worlds apart. Most Jordanians have never met an Israeli and most Israelis have never met a Jordanian yet, physically they are neighbors less then minutes apart from each other.

I probed the cab driver a bit and asked him what he thought about Israel.  He told me about the history of the Torah, the Quran and the fight over the holy land. My head began to swell and for a moment, I actually had the urge to ask him to turn back around. I questioned if I was ready to step into this conflict head on but it was too late…there was no going back. I asked him, “So is there a solution? Do you think there will ever be peace?” His response, “This conflict has been going on for too long between the Jews and the Muslims. Jews don’t want Arabs to exist on that land. Peace will not happen.”

He dropped me off at the border and pointed, “You need to walk that way and then you will be in Israel.” I cleared Jordanian customs and began walking the 200 meter stretch between the Israeli and Jordanian border. Midway, I stopped between the two boarders in no man’s land. I felt paralyzed from moving further. I looked ahead of me and saw the blue and white Israeli flag waving in the sky with a sign saying, “Welcome to Israel” and then looked behind me to see the Jordanian flag with the king’s picture proudly displayed. Standing between the two borders I felt an odd sense of comfort realizing that this ambiguous middle ground is also where my identity lies…neither here nor there. I was hesitant to cross over, wanting that moment to be suspended in time to avoid having to leave one aspect of my identity behind for the other.

I took a deep breath and continued walking until I reached the Israeli border. I was met by an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier and a female officer. After about 2 hours of answering many questions from my grandfather’s name to the names and purposes of various Jewish holidays as well as my reason for traveling to Arab countries, I was granted admittance into Israel.

I hailed a taxi and again, sat in the front seat with the driver. He began talking with me about the conflict in the Middle East and after listening to him for about 10 minutes, I posed the same question I did to the Jordanian driver, “So what do you think the solution is? Do you think there is any chance for peace?” Ironically, his response identically matched that of the Jordanian taxi driver. “No my dear. There will not be peace in this area of the world. There is so much history and too much damage. The Arabs want Israel to be wiped off the map. There will always be fighting over this land.”

Jaffa Souk

I wondered through the souks of old Jaffa, trying to resist the urge to buy thousands of little knick-knacks, when I heard the store owners calling out to me in Farsi, attempting to lure me into their shops. I had unknowingly landed in one of the main Iranian immigrant settlements in Israel.

After 6 weeks of living under a false identity, I felt jolted by being recognized for exactly who I was: a Jewish-Iranian. Though I thought this would feel extremely empowering and comforting, I sadly felt just as alienated here as I had in the Arab countries. I did not solely identify with my Jewish heritage like the many Iranian immigrants in Israel. My story was different, the reality I lived was different and my knowledge of how both sides, Muslim and Jewish, see the world was holding me back from relating to either side.

I walked into a small shop on the corner of the street. The shopkeeper asked, “Where are you from?” I responded that I am from the US and his response was the usual, “But you are looking like an Israeli.” In turn I asked where he was from and he responded, “Damascus!”

During my time in Damascus, I was mysteriously led to a street where the Jews of Syria use to live which is now eerily abandoned. Trying hard to conceal my interest and not ask too many questions at the time I wondered: Who are they? What happened to them? Why did they leave and where did they go? What were their lives was like?

Never did I think my questions would be answered. I told the shopkeeper that I had just come from Damascus and a smile appeared on his face. He fondly reminisced about his homeland and old neighborhood; the  same street I visited two weeks ago. With deep curiosity he asked me about the street. “Who was living there? Are the houses still there? Did you see my home on the corner?” Unfortunately, the only thing I had to report was that the neighborhood was totally abandoned with only a few stray cats and a 24 hour security guard on duty.

He explained that he left Damascus about 20 years ago after years of being terrorized by the Syrian government and living in hiding though he was banned by the government from doing so. His sadness in not being able to return home was palpable; a sadness my parents and family as well as the many Palestinian refugees share with him.   Though he now lives in Israel where he is safe and free, he still longs for his home. The place where generations of his family have built a life and memories and where he can reclaim the Arab piece of himself he was forced to abandon when leaving Syria.

I left his shop and thought about the conflict in the Middle East that has stricken so many people’s lives on both sides. How many millions of innocent people have tragically lost their families, their homes and their histories…with the losses only continuing  to rise.

The West Bank

Two weeks in Israel had left me ravaged and torn…more confused than ever before. I had met over a dozen Israelis from the most conservative who believe that as god’s people, Jews are entitled to this land, to the left-wing liberals who hold protests to free Palestine and end Israeli occupation. I still could not make sense of the political context. Everyone’s reality was totally skewed by their experience, making it hard to get answers.

A big piece of the puzzle was missing. I needed to go to Palestine to see for myself and witness both sides of this insidious conflict. I got in touch with my Christian-Palestinian friend who kindly offered to let me visit her family in the West Bank city of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. I was nervous. Scared that they wouldn’t accept me and that they would only see the years of pain they had suffered from Israel in my eyes instead of who I really am.

Outside of the Jerusalem main gate I hopped on an “Arab bus” and within 15 minutes and no stops, I was in the West Bank. I met my friend’s father who welcomed me kindly and told me a bit about the work of his charity organization. I shared with him my interest in refugee populations and he set up visits for me to various refugee camps in the area.

That afternoon we left his office and drove to the Aida Refugee Camp. Peering out the window onto the streets, the West Bank looks like any other Arab city. Traffic, bustling vegetable markets,  shwarma and hummus food stands and women dressed in traditional headscarves.

We arrived at the camp and the first thing I noticed was an enormous steel wall about 20 feet away from the entrance of the refugee camp with graffiti sprayed up and down it. I had heard about this wall constructed by the Israeli government referred to as, “The Separation Wall.” I stood and just stared at the wall and without noticing I was talking out loud said, “But why?” A man walking by heard the words come out of my mouth and with resentment in his voice responded, “We ask the same question. We don’t know the reason. The only thing we can think is they don’t want us there. That is why.”

I slowly approached the camp and above the entrance, directly next to the ‘separation wall’ was a key that underneath it said, “The right to return.” I asked the staff about both this and the wall…what was the story behind it?

He explained to me that the wall was put up by the Israeli government, not to separate Israel from the West Bank but it is actually inside West Bank territory separating two Palestinian communities from one another. On the other side of the wall is a park where the kids in the refugee camp use to play. Many families in the camp have neighbors, friends and relatives on the other side but as a result of the wall they have been separated and relationships have been severed. Families inside the camp who have already been displaced and lost their homes in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth (after Israel was declared a state in 1947) to be confined to the tiny quarters of the camp, are now even further alienated from their homeland and community, with still no prospect of returning home.

I walked around the refugee camp which resembled a poor neighborhood in the US. Small run-down houses in close proximity to one another often with bullet holes through the doors and windows. Generations of people who have known nothing but life inside a refugee camp. Whose experience of their homeland on the other side of the wall consists only of stories and pictures. A young man told me he has been waiting 21 years to visit his family’s neighborhood in Jerusalem, only 20 minutes away. His request has been rejected year after year and he has been forced to live like a prisoner in his own home, with no way out.

Throughout my few days in the West Bank I visited several refugee camps, all of which were devastating experiences. I saw the cramped conditions; the bullet holes in the doors; the limited opportunities; the poverty and destitute.  I felt guilty…guilty that their pain and loss of a homeland was inextricably linked to my right to one.

Within all of this, I also saw the strengths and resilience of the Palestinian people. They are not victims but are survivors. The youth participate in things such as theater, art, and academics as a forum to share their story with the world while the parents work hard to provide a better life and an education for their children. The camps I visited have some of the highest  literacy rates with 90% of the residents being college education. The restrictions placed on their lives has not killed their motivation to strive for something more and to keep hope alive for a better future.

From my conversations with people in the West Bank I learned that the Palestinian struggle is not a religious one but a political one. Palestinians as an ethnic group, whether Muslim, Christian or even Jewish, have been occupied, displaced and ruled by one oppressive government after another. To my surprise, I didn’t see the same sentiments of hate and  antisemitism in Palestine as I had in other Arab countries.  Instead most messages refelcted a demand for peace and freedom. “Yes I have suffered so much and am hurt but they (Israelis) are still my neighbors and I must love and learn to live beside them,” said my host sister. I asked my friend’s father what he sees as the solution, he said, “We either need our own land or we need a secular government where we can all live together. But having our own country with freedom and independence is the most important.”

Most Palestinians simply want an opportunity to build up their nation and live freely without feeling threatened, terrorized or kept like prisoners in their own home. Regaining their dignity and humanity and getting back a piece of how much they have lost is their key to becoming a free and independent people.

Mai

After two days of visiting refugee camps, I was overwhelmed and drained. My friend’s mother, Mai, noticed my emotional state and after rushing home to cook a traditional Arabic lunch, she invited me to sit down for a cup of Arabic coffee with her in the living room.

From the day we met, I felt a closeness with Mai. One that transcended the political barriers that existed between us. She saw me as a daughter, regardless of my religion and I in turn saw her as a mother at a time when my family was thousands of miles away. I told her how hard the few days had been for me at the refugee camp as she listened compassionately.  I immediately felt embarrassed for even mentioning my pain considering the years of suffering she had endured.

I asked her about her experience as a Palestinian woman and she shared her story with me.

65 years ago, before she was born, her parents were living in Nazareth (now located in present-day Israel). Her father got a job offer in Ramallah where they moved to temporary. Mai was born in Ramallah and soon after, Israel was declared an independent nation, banning Mai and her family from returning home. They were stuck, on the other side of the border, separated from their family and friends and the only home they had known for generations.

As she was telling me the story, I could see the pain in her eyes, how much she had lost, and what it takes for her to keep it together and continue life every day. She told me her father would often talk to her about his dream of swimming in the Mediterranean Sea again before he dies; the way he used to everyday as a child.  Sadly, his dream never came true.

Though it may appear that Mai has healed from being torn away from her homeland, her wounds are constantly reopened.  Last year, after months of applying to attend her nieces wedding in Nazareth, she was denied permission each time, without explanation, while the rest of her family was granted entrance.  With a heavy feeling of sadness she said, “The worst part is, I don’t belong anywhere. The West Bank is not my home but at the same time it is the only home I have ever known. Not having a place you belong to is a terrible feeling.” Ironically, I could relate to her.

She looked me in the eye and asked me, “Do you feel that this land is your home?” I sat there in silence and thought about the question she had posed to me and had no idea how to answer. I was confused, unsure about how I related to this land. What are the implications of belonging here and calling this land my home? Does it make my sole identity Jewish in turn cutting off ties to Iran, my other homeland? Does it make me a colonizer who steels land from vulnerable people? Does rejecting it as my home indicate internalized oppression and a rejection of a piece of myself?

Struggling, I finally answered, “I really don’t know.” She said, “Well, you can’t go to Iran and it doesn’t sound like you feel at home in the states. So I guess your feeling is not that different from mine.”

I thought about how we share the experience of being strangers in our own land. How both the Jews and Palestinians have suffered so much throughout history, yet often the pain we’ve endured blocks us from seeing our commonalities.

The day I was leaving Mai’s home she spent the morning packing food for me to take back to my hostel, just as my own mother would have done. So many things should have separated us and made us strangers yet after two days, we saw each other as family.

Through getting to know Mai, I had come to reconcile that supporting freedom, dignity and rights for the Palestinian people is not synonymous with rejecting a piece of who I am. As Jews we sometimes fail to see how we are inflicting the same pain onto another group as our oppressors have onto us. My hope is that as a people who have been persecuted, pushed out of our homes, and demoralized, we can see our commonalities with the Palestinian struggle. To view their right to independence and freedom as an integral part of our own liberation so people like Mai, have the opportunity to reclaim their home and the part of themselves that was lost long ago.

A Rooftop in Jerusalem

It was Friday night and Shabbat was setting in Jerusalem. I left my hostel and began walking through the cobble stoned streets of the old city, in hopes of catching some Friday night prayers before heading to my friend’s home for Shabbat dinner. Winter had suddenly hit the city and along with the cold chill, there was a deep feeling of calm that came over the city. A drastic contrast to the hectic pace of the city during the week.

I weaved through the empty alleyways, from the Muslim to the Jewish quarter and someone called out to me in Farsi, “Salam, do you have anywhere to go for Shabbat dinner?” I kindly nodded yes and continued on my path down to the walling wall. From the top of the stairs I saw the crowd had cleared and only 3 women stood, praying in silence. I walked down and joined the women, standing in front of the wall for a few minutes. This very morning, I was in Palestine, standing in line at the confining prison like border between the West Bank and Israel, trying to convince the officials that I should be let back into the country. And now, here I was, at the holiest site in Jewish history. On the other side of the wall that separates our worlds.

I walked away and climbed the long staircase that leads back to the main quarters. The streets were completely abandoned and the only sounds were those of people in their homes, smashing wine glasses and chanting Friday night prayers. A man called out to me and said, “Have you seen the view from the rooftop?” I briskly answered no and kept walking. He came behind me and said, “It’s really amazing, especially tonight, let me show you.” I usually decline these sort of offers but this time, realizing how many risks I had already taken that day, I said, “OK.”

He led me up the narrow, metal, windy staircase to the rooftop with a breathtaking view of the whole city. He pointed below us to the two different sides of the roof and said, “See that? This is the Jewish quarter and this is the Muslim. Right across from each other. They use to throw rocks at each other so they covered the roof in between so people would not get hit in the head.” He led me to the other corner of the roof and we sat on the ledge just looking out at the city. I was silent. He asked me what I thought of this city. I told him, “I am confused, overwhelmed. Don’t really know what to think.”

He pointed to the gold adorned Dome of the Rock shining in the distance, a holy site for all three religions, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. “See that? That is the core of all the problems here. Everything starts from there. I often think of what life would be like without it.”

I listened intently and suddenly realized I knew nothing about him to contextualize his perspective. I asked him about his background and he told me that he is Druze; not Jewish and not Muslim but “somewhere in between.”

A religion and culture that is unique to Syria, Jordan and Palestine/Israel, Druze speak Arabic but don’t identify as Muslim. Many Druze have Israeli citizenship and have fully integrated into Israeli society while others still reject the government and protest against their separation especially from their neighbors in Syria. He told me about the wrong doing of both sides, the Palestinian and Israeli, and how they each fail to admit to how much damage they have done and instead blame the other.

What I had thought I came to terms with earlier that day in Palestine, I was now re-questioning. My head was spinning with all the additional information he was giving me, trying to make sense of it and fit it into my limited knowledge of the conflict. However, my capacity for understanding had reached its limit.

I asked him the same questions I ask every person, “Is there any hope for peace?” He looked me in the eye and said, “To live here…You have to shut off. Not care about anything other than the day you are living. If you want to survive in this society, you have to only use your head and not your heart. There will never be peace here…but I have learned to accept that and still live my life. So if you come here be prepared to only think with your head and leave your heart behind.” I nodded, knowing inside that is something I could never do.

Noticing I was late for my dinner, I hurried down the stairs and we split off in different directions back to our respective quarters. As soon as we left the roof and re-entered the city, too much separated us from one another. All that was left between us was the brief moment in time and the stories we shared on the rooftop.

Arab Israelis

I spent about a week in the old city of Jerusalem, seldom leaving the walls that contained the four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. Though I had visited all four quarters, I was clueless about the areas that lie outside of the old city, particularly the ‘Arab Israeli’ enclave of East Jerusalem (Arab Israeli is the term for Palestinians who are granted permanent residency by the Israeli government).

A good friend of mine put me in touch with her classmate who lives in East Jerusalem. With the typical Arab hospitality he picked me up and gave me a tour of East Jerusalem. As a Palestinian growing up in Israel, he attended Arabic schools as a child and then entered an Israeli integration course where he learned fluent Hebrew and now studies law at Hebrew University.

It appears that his quality of life is good. His family is economically well off, he is receiving a top notch education and he is free to move about not only the country but the entire word. He told me about his many Israeli friends, his experience in school and the numerous things he loves about Israel. He even said if Palestine was to become a free state and he had the choice, he would probably stay in Israel. Yet with all of this said, I could still sense bitterness in his voice.

When I asked him about this he explained that even though it may appear that he has all the same rights and privileges as any Israeli, he still lives as a second class citizen. “As long as Israel is a Jewish state, we as Arabs will always be second class citizens.”

As we drove through East Jerusalem, he showed me the homes that use to be Arab homes now taken over by Jewish settlements. I asked him about the population of Arab Israelis in Jerusalem and he explained that only a decade ago it was triple the number it is today. When I asked how this could be, he told me, “See the wall they built. It’s not really for security. If there is terrorism, it can happen inside of the country as well. It doesn’t have to come from outside. The wall separates the Arab neighborhoods from Jerusalem making Jerusalem majority Jewish and maintaining Israeli control over the city.”

The questions of why the wall was resurrected all came back to me, now with a more complex answer. Israelis I spoke to told me that the wall actually has decreased the number of deaths due to terrorist attacks and maintained the security of the country. Now I was confused about the truth…or whose truth to believe.

We spent the afternoon together, often leaving the political conversations behind and talking about things such as school, traveling, friends, relationships and career. As I was getting out of the car to go back to the old city of Jerusalem, I asked him what he thought about the prospect of peace. He said, “Let me put it this way. You are an American. Let’s say all of a sudden a bunch of East Indians came to the U.S., pushed people out of their homes, took over and renamed the country United States of India. How would you feel?” I nodded my head and agreed that I would feel horrible and then asked him, “But don’t you think the Jewish people, who have suffered a genocide also need a home?” He responded, “Yeah sure but they should go somewhere where there aren’t already people living. Like Argentina…I am sure they would love to have them!”

A Persian Music Lesson

It was my last day in Jerusalem and a storm was blowing furiously outside. I felt lazy to leave my warm hostel bed but being my last day in Jerusalem, I layered on every piece of clothing I had, and stepped outside to face the storm.

A friend of mine had given me a contact in the city and on my last day, I decided to call him. We spoke and he asked me to meet him in the square. As I was about to tell him how to recognize me he said, “No don’t tell me, I will find you.”

I sat on a stair ledge, my face burning from the cold and my eyes stinging from the intense wind. I examined each person who walked through the square wondering, “Is that him?” After 15 minutes of speculation and almost totally frozen, a young man came up to me and said, “You must be Roxana.”

We started walking together and I assumed we would go get coffee or explore the city but he immediately said to me, “I have a Persian music lesson now that I have to get to. Would you like to join me?” Totally surprised and taken off guard I obliged.

We walked through some of the oldest streets of Jerusalem until we finally arrived at a beautiful old building. We entered a room with two Persian men warming up their oud and domback (traditional Persian instruments). I sat down and listened as my new friend started his lesson and perfected his singing and Persian accent to classical Iranian music. The harmonies that filled the air felt oddly familiar and comforting. Songs and sounds that were the soundtrack of my childhood brought back memories and a piece of home.

After the lesson, we walked together and talked. He told me his parents moved to Israel right after the Iranian revolution, around the time my family came to the states. We bonded over our experience having Persian immigrant parents and he invited me to his home for dinner.

As soon as I stepped through the door of his home, the familiar scent of Persian rice and spices filled the air, again reminding me of home. We sat at the kitchen counter and talked about everything from music to school to friends and finally, the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

I told him about my time in Palestine, the refugee camps I visited, the family I stayed with, and all the stories I had heard in hopes of personalizing the other side of the conflict. He responded, “It really is sad. What the Palestinians have endured.” He told me about his time as a soldier in the Gaza Strip. What he saw and how it still haunts him at night. How there are things that he witnessed that he still cannot talk about to this day. How his innocence was stolen from him at such a young age.

I asked him how he could support such a senseless war. He said, “Many people have died on our end as well as a result of the war including civilians. And if Israel were not here…where would we all be? You can’t forget the holocaust was less then 80 years ago. We, as a people, have been occupied, ruled and opppressed as well….look at our parents. If we don’t protect our country, where will our home be?”

I responded to him that I understand and support the need for Jews to have a safe haven, a home they can always go to but my concern was around the extreme human rights violations committed by the country. His response was, “I agree with you. Israel has made a lot of mistakes and hurt people but at the same time Roxana, so have many countries around the world. The US is in violation of so many human rights and Europeans have wrongly stolen land for centuries yet Israel gets scapegoated for all the world’s problems. Every country surrounding us hates us and is ready to attack at any minute. We have this one tiny space on the face of this earth to hold onto and if we let our guard down, we will be destroyed.””

I pushed back a bit and insisted that if he could just see the humanity on the other side, our common suffering, maybe his perspective would be different and this destruction would come to an end. He responded, “That’s so easy to say but it’s not as simple as you are making it.”

I felt naïve. Naïve for thinking that just seeing both sides would get the sides to see each other. As someone who has lost nothing to this conflict, I felt selfish for coming here and reopening painful  wounds; making demands of people to have compassion when my lack of suffering is what has given me the luxury to do so. As a privileged American, I have not had to fight or risk my life for this land yet I have the security of knowing that this land is here for me if my life is ever at risk, the way my families was 30 years ago.  I realized in a way, my friend was right. It’s easy for me to come here and judge people for not empathizing with the other side when the truth of the matter is, I will leave here and unless I chose, will never have to face this issue. Those living here, Palestinians and Israelis, cannot escape.

A few moments later, my friend’s father walked through the door. After 15 hours of work he came in, lovingly kissed his wife, sat across from me at the kitchen counter and said in Farsi, “So you are from America huh?”

I responded yes and he quickly asked me why I don’t move to Israel. In my head, I had a million reasons for why but before I could start listing any of them he looked at me and said, “You may feel that you have a lot in the US but here, we have something you will never have. We are not lonely, we share a history. We are connected to one another in a way you are not in the US. You see, we are all immigrants so we share a struggle. We have learned to live with one another and find comfort in our relationships. You may have more money, cars, and larger homes but you are lonely.  Our kids have a family here…they feel a part of something. In the US, your life is empty even if you don’t realize it.”

I sat there in silence and thought about what he said. I thought about all the people I had met in both Israel and Palestine. Regardless of all the pain and devastation they had experienced, my friend’s father was right, their lives were not empty. They had each other and valued the people in their lives and what they stood for, collectively.  I often found myself admiring them for feeling part of a group identity, a shared experience and believing in something larger then themselves. Something which I realized was sadly missing from my life.

Another Taxi Ride to the Border

On my last day in Israel, I arrived in the town on the border of Israel and Jordan.  After finishing my last falafel sandwich, I finally peeled myself off my seat and hailed a cab to the border.

I sat in the front seat with the cab driver trying to distract myself from my impending tears. He began telling me about Israel and all the many tourist attractions up north. I admitted that I had not visited any of them. He said, “Well then you haven’t seen anything yet.” I responded, “No, I have seen so much. More than you can imagine.” As my eyes filled with tears, I noticed a deep melancholy in his face.

He asked me if I would like a coffee before my journey and I agreed.  We stopped at a gas station, he bought me a cup of coffee and we sat on a bench outside overlooking the valley of Israel into Jordan.

I was touched by his kindness. Struggling to start a conversation and feeling his loneliness, I asked him if he speaks Arabic. He said, “Yes….my parents are from Morocco, so I learned Arabic.” In an attempt to relate to him I said, “My parents are from Iran.” He looked down and was quite. Then he looked back up and said, “My wife was from Shiraz, Iran, but she died 2 years ago.” His eyes filled with tears and though silence occupied the space between as we held eachothers pain and sadness.

We finished our coffee and got back in the car to head to the border. Catching the last glimpses of this land which has given and taken so much from me, I thought about Mai’s questions of a homeland again. The number of people I had met who had lost their home. Why this is such a significant loss and what ‘a homeland’ means to me.

Was this my home? If it wasn’t would I feel so sad about leaving it? Could it be that this trip is about searching for a home and realizing that the fact that I don’t have one, allows me to make one for myself in each country I visit through the different people I meet?

Interrupting my thoughts, he stopped the car and full of emotion I asked, “So this is the end of Israel?” He gently touched my cheek and said, “Yes, and you are welcome back anytime.”

I walked away from the car and crossed the Israeli gate. I turned around to say goodbye to this land one final time and I saw him, standing next to his taxi, watching and waiting for me cross the border. For the last time I waved goodbye to him, to this land that has stirred so much inside of me and to an experience I know will be a part of me for the rest of my life.

More Photos from Israel and Palestine

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Remembering Alena

February 11, 2011                                           Chiang Mai, Thailand

I am in a small town in northern Thailand and opened my email today to find some devastating news. My dear friend and fellow Bonderman recipient, Alena Suazo, passed away, one day before her 31st birthday, while traveling through Guatemala. I am still shocked by this news and cannot grasp how something like this can happen. Yesterday, I was obsessing over which route to take and where to go next and now all I can think about is how fragile life truly is.

Alena was someone I connected with immediately from the day of our Bonderman orientation. We talked about how excited we were about this opportunity, how we would see the world as woman of color and how our lives would be so different once we returned.

At our Bonderman Anniversary celebration, I witnessed how many people truly admired and respected her tenacity and motivation for life. Each faculty member told me, “There is not one person on the panel that was not in tears when Alena left her interview.”

I knew she was special. She was an advocate who rose out of very difficult times to complete law school and be a voice for the most vulnerable people. She was not afraid to speak her mind and question people’s intentions. She made me have faith that one day the world would be a better place.

Before we left on our trip, we talked about our anxiety, how scared we were but most importantly, how excited we were to see the world. I know Alena touched so many people’s lives in the last few months of her life and that she felt a freedom and purpose as she traveled, embracing each moment and opportunity that came her way.

4 months ago, I left this reference on Alena’s Couchsurfing page:

“Alena is so great. She is smart, motivated and has such an incredible life experience that she brings with her to every situation she comes across. Most importantly she is curious about people and the world and eager to learn and experience new things. You will be lucky to cross paths with her during her 8 months of travel!!!”

Today is her birthday, a soul gone way too soon, leaving the world the same day she entered it 31 years ago. A devastating loss for everyone who knew her. Though the news of her death initially made me want to give up and come home to safety and security, I know she would not want that. She would want me to go ahead with courage and strength and not let fear take over me. So for the remaining 5 months of my journey, I will carry a piece of her spirit with me and live life to the fullest for Alena, for everything she was not able to do and to keep her memory alive. 

To read more about Alena’s life and accomplishments follow the links:
http://uwnews.org/uweek/article.aspx?visitsource=uwkmail&id=58472

http://www.washington.edu/uaa/textpattern47/tp/features/162/2010BondermanFellows

Collateral Repair-Jordan’s Iraqi Refugees

November 23, 2010                   Amman, Jordan

A taxi dropped me off in a narrow, dark street in Sulaymania, a hilltop neighborhood in Amman. I encountered a group of Arab men socializing on the street, looking at me suspiciously. “Sasha?” I said in an inquisitive voice and they all pointed to a small apartment on the first floor of a building.

I entered the home-like office of Collateral Repair, a small grassroots run Iraqi refugee aid organization founded by two Pacific Northwest women. After going to Iraq to protest against US occupation and invasion, they witnessed the devastating impacts of the Iraq war on the people and shifted their focus from protest to action…providing aid for the  millions displaced by this war.  

They chose Jordan as their base since the country has absorbed many Iraqi refugees without the means or resources to accommodate them. The country has simply agreed to admit these refugees on a temporary, time-limited basis until the UN Office of Resettlement (UNHRC) can process their resettlement proceedings and move them on to another country. However, the number of refugees forced to flee Iraq are enormous (more than 5 million) and as one might guess, the process is long and complicated. Unfortunately, after many years of waiting, for many families the proceedings have not even begun.

So Iraqi’s in Jordan remain in a holding place, a middle ground, neither here or there. They are barred from employment due to their non-resident status (with serious jail time penalties if caught working), are physically separated from others in their community (they are not housed in refugee camps but scattered throughout the city), often are denied even the basic UNHRC monthly assistance stipend (due to increased restrictions and stipulations on receiving this funding) and although their children (many of whom were born in Jordan) are allowed to attend public schools, their rights are terminated  there. Sadly, the future looks dim for most of these families.

After winding up their nightly adult ESL classes, I sat down with Sasha, co-founder of the organization, and a Iraqi refugee who now works voluntary with Collateral Repair. Over a cup of strong Arabic coffee, they shared with me the histories, losses and stories of the Iraqi people.  

A young Iraqi man, around 40-years old recalled his life in Iraq before the war. “Life was good! My wife got her master’s degree in civil engineering and we both had stable, good jobs and a steady income.” In contrast to many other refugee groups, many Iraqi refugees are from middle and upper class backgrounds and are well-educated and highly skilled. Full of emotion he said, “I was forced to leave my life behind. My home, my belongings, my culture, my history. We lost everything including our dignity which was truly the biggest loss. My kids have no identity, nothing to hold onto or relate to. I have no future. The only thing I can hope for is something better for my children. That is the only reason why I keep going.”

To further complicate things, another barrier Iraqi refugee’s encounter in Jordan is each day they overstay their temporary visas, they are charged $1/day.  The young man I was talking with explained that he is over $20,000 in debt with the Jordanian government as a result of his family of 4 overstaying their visa for over 4 years. However, his options are severely limited. He risks being killed if he is to return home to Iraq. In Jordan, he is banned from working to pay back the debt yet each day that goes by, his debt grows and his opportunities to restart his life declines. A tragic catch-22.

Seeing my shocked reaction to all this information, Sasha told me, “There is not one instance in which I have sat with a family and not felt my heart being torn apart and my eyes stinging with tears. The things I have heard are really so heartbreaking and traumatic that it is hard for any human being to grasp.” Often ravaged my horrible memories and disabled by their past trauma, most Iraqi refugees struggle to do things that at one point were effortless. Simple daily activities such as working, cooking, cleaning, and parenting have now become daunting tasks as they often trigger dreadful memories of war and death. This community has been in survival mode for the last 8 years, missing the chance to process and grieve their losses, which they now carry around with them like a heavy load.

As we talked about what the future holds for this population Sasha explained, “We are really trying to get people to move beyond their trauma and not only be seen for the catastrophes that have stricken their lives but their strengths and resilience as a people as well.”

Though very little hope for the future remains for Iraqi refugees in Jordan, many of them refuse to stay stuck in the past. Although they are haunted by it each day, many are tired of being defined by the war. They are tired of talking about it with no solution, no refuge, and no prospect for a better life.

As Americans we often get stuck on the two-sided debate of this conflict: whether to end the war in Iraq or not. Sitting across from the young Iraqi man and seeing his pain I realized for him and many others, that is a moot point. The damage has already been done yet the question still remains….how do we take responsibility for the millions of people who have been displaced due to our invasion?

Sasha, who has actually relocated her life to Jordan to live and work among the Iraqi people personally feels this responsibility. I told her how much I admire the work she is doing and how much she has sacrificed. Her response was, “I can’t say it is totally unselfish. I also gain so much out of living here, being part a community, and feeling that I am part of something beyond just myself and my own life.”

Along with her colleagues, she has cultivated this same sense of family within the atmosphere of the organization. Collateral Repair is somewhat of a haven in the mist of suffering for the Iraqi people in Amman. Sitting on the sofa in the office (which is more like a living room) I felt the communal energy of the space. The walls are covered with photos of families, children’s drawings and traditional Iraqi artwork to remind people of home. The young Iraqi man tells me, “I never thought I would be able to trust or be so close with an American but Sasha is just like my sister. Nothing separates us from one another. She is a part of my family.”

The family at Collateral Repair works tirelessly to pull together projects to support the plight of the Iraqi community. These project include ESL classes,  emergency assistance, a women’s craft co-op, a library, support groups for men, children’s playgroups, art classes, and basic advocacy. Collateral Repair reestablishes the sense of community that was lost with the fleeing of Iraq and encourages these refugees to not let that little flicker of hope, though it is a very small one, fade away.

To learn more about Iraqi refugees and the work of Collateral Repair or to donate to their efforts please visit their website at: http://collateralrepairproject.blogspot.com/

Riding Solo in Jordan

November 29, 2010      Aqaba, Jordan

After almost 3 weeks in the Syria and many highs and lows, I woke up with a strong feeling that it was time to move on to the next destination.  As I boarded my plane to Jordan, I knew I was leaving behind people in Syria who I had grown so close with to reenter a life of bona fide solo travel; a simultaneously thrilling and nerve-racking feeling.

I arrived in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, and realized how surprisingly calm I was about landing in a new place alone as opposed to other times I was in unfamiliar territory. I strolled around, asked a few questions, gathered my baggage and even took the local bus into the city instead of a taxi. Suddenly, after only one full month of being abroad, I felt not only like a well-versed traveler but also felt the excitement of arriving in a place where no one knows me or anything about me but I am just there, with a blank slate, to fully embrace any experience that comes my way.

Along with some of the most incredible sites I have ever seen, the people of Jordan greeted me with such warmness and hospitality. To share every detail would be overwhelming but below are some highlights of my time in this truly rich and beautiful country.

The Dead Sea

Instead of taking the typical tour, I decided to travel on my own for a day trip to the Dead Sea. I took a taxi to the bus station and then road a local bus to another town, switched to a taxi again and finally arrived at the beach. It was a beautiful, warm day and I floated in the Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth with a higher content of salt than any other body of water) covered myself in black mud from the sea and of course, snuck in a bit of tanning!

As dusk was setting in, I asked how to get back to Amman and was told to just wait for a taxi on the road that will take me to the nearest town and then take the bus back into Amman. With a bit of hesitation, I crossed the street and waited for about 10 minutes, watching the pastel colored sunset and many cars go by without stopping. Just as my fear of being stranded was starting to set in, a taxi finally stopped and I happily jumped in with several other passengers. I asked to be dropped off at the nearest city and en route, discovered the taxi was headed to Amman and the driver offered to take me all the way to my hostel. I debated in my head for a moment if it actually was a good idea to ride with 4 strangers in a car yet was surprised that I was less hesitant about doing this in Jordan then I would be in Seattle. In the end I just trusted my instinct that it was ok and got back to Amman safely with some interesting conversations along the way. It’s ironic how sometimes you can feel safer and more protected in a place that is completely foreign and unfamiliar then you do in your own home.

 

Petra

After a few days in Amman, I headed south towards Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, Petra. A 3-hour taxi ride and a hefty entry fee later (the most expensive site entrance fee in the world) I entered the city of Red Rocks. Petra was established sometime around the 6th century as the capital city of the Nabataeans with the architecture and entire structure of the city carved out of red rocks.  This ancient city, which was only re-discovered about 200 years ago, is perfectly preserved and really feels like you are taking a trip back in time.

Along with the breathtaking beauty and architecture of the site, there is an underlying layer to Petra that is hard to miss. Though Bedouin communities still consider the hills and mountains of Petra their home, tourism has immensely impacted the culture and lifestyle of the local people. Prior to the boom in tourism, the Bedouin communities who inhabited Petra lived off of the land and natural resources of the area. Today, these communities are largely dependent on tourism as their main source of income and have lost much of their traditional lifestyle since their environment has become so highly commercialized. I noticed this not only in the tourist driven environment of the site but also with my interactions with the vendors and local people. I realized once again how even with something such as a historical site, the past has so many implications for the present.

 

 

Wadi Rum

On Thanksgiving Day, I left Petra and I arranged a two day tour to the famous desert of Wadi Rum. With a group of other travelers we explored the beautiful red sand desert on a 4×4 open air jeep. I even got a bit adventurous and climbed a few cliffs and rocks. After our tour, we arrived at our Bedouin camp site and spent the night there watching the breathtaking sunset, eating a traditional Bedouin meal, stargazing and hearing some live Bedouin music. This year was my first Thanksgiving way from my friends and family and although I anticipated being really homesick, surprisingly I still felt the spirit of thanksgiving sitting on the floor in the tent and eating a meal (chicken which is close enough to turkey) with people I had met only that morning but who no longer felt like strangers.  

 

Aqaba

After all of the site seeing, traveling and touring, I was seriously ready for some R&R and thankfully…that is exactly what I got. I coincidentally landed at this hostel that was like a slice of heaven on earth. A family run place right across from the beach with a beautiful pool, tropical décor, and tons of nooks and crannies to just chill out and relax. I went snorkeling in the Red Sea and right off the shore saw amazing coral reefs as well as some of the most colorful, bright, diverse fish I have seen in my entire life. I spent two days longer there than planned because I just could not tear myself away from this lovely hideaway and made a last minute decision to prioritize process over progress :)

In addition to the amazing sites, natural beauty and warmth of Jordan’s people, the most incredible part of my travels in this country is I was truly by myself the entire time and finally felt the essence of independent travel. I noticed a confidence building inside of me that was not there before which is due largely in part to the feeling of empowerment I gained through managing things and navigating decisions completely on my own. I had many moments that I felt extremely vulnerable and alone especially in the Middle East when I was constantly asked, “So it’s just you?” However, this very feeling of vulnerability made me realize why independent travel is such an essential part of the fellowship. There is a sense of freedom and openness you have that is so different from traveling with another person or a group. You learn so much about yourself, your capabilities and who you are in the world detached from all the things that define or confine you in everyday life. The world becomes a smaller place and you see that no matter where you are, you have the ability to connect with people and open yourself up to new experiences and that is something no one can take away from you.

Click  here to view more photos from  Jordan

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