Eric Shuman '14 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Volunteers in Palestine
The bright Middle-Eastern sun awakens me early, as it does every morning. I roll over and look at my watch--it's only 6:30. I still have 15 minutes to doze before I need to get up. I wonder why I even bothered setting an alarm since the sun does a better job. At 6:45 I roll out of bed and get ready to head out the door. My host family isn't awake yet; I get up long before them because I've found a swim team to practice with while I'm here, and like most teams, they practice in the morning. On my way out of the house I grab some of the pita my host mother bakes and an apple to eat after practice.
I walk out to the main road where I can catch a taxi to the pool. I live with a family just outside of Dheisheh Refugee Camp, the largest camp in Bethlehem, but the practice is in Beit Sahour, a town just outside of Bethlehem. So a little while later I arrive at the YMCA where the team practices. The team is pretty small, just 6 or 7 young teenagers, and practices are fairly short, but I'm extremely thankful to have the opportunity to swim at all. It's also a great cultural experience--I'm slowly learning swimming terminology in Arabic. Most of the time I understand what the coach wants us to do, but I've definitely embarrassed myself and done completely the wrong thing a couple of times.
After practice I head to the volunteer position that was assigned to me by the program I'm participating in, Palestine Summer Encounter. It is run by a Palestinian NGO named Holy Land Trust, who arranges our home-stays with a local family, our volunteer positions, and Arabic classes. I'm volunteering at The East Jerusalem YMCA Rehabilitation Center, so it's just around the corner from where I practice. The Rehabilitation Center began as a way to provide mental health and counseling services to those suffering psychological trauma as a result of the occupation of the West Bank. They now provide similar services to those with physical disabilities. Most of my work there is on the clerical side--I help writing grant proposals, translating from Arabic to English, and other tasks where my abilities as native English speaker are useful. However, a few days a week I get to shadow some of the counselors, and today is one of those days.
Shadowing is a challenging but rewarding experience, mostly because of the language barrier. The counselors and those they work with only speak Arabic. While I've studied 2 years worth of college Arabic, my vocabulary is still fairly basic. This, combined with the sizable difference between Modern Standard Arabic, which is taught in universities, and the dialect that is actually spoken, means that it takes all of my concentration just to get the general idea of a conversation, and sometimes even that is elusive.
Today we are meeting with a group of mothers and children in Nahhalin, a small village outside of Bethlehem. These families are receiving counseling because someone in their family (usually a husband or older son) has been arrested and imprisoned by the Israeli military. First, the counselors sit down to talk with the women. I just watch and try to listen and understand as much as I can, with varying levels of success. One of the women I understood the best was discussing the inescapable stress that was taking over her life as she tried to provide for her family. She explains her difficulties trying to find ways to earn money to provide for her family in a village where the unemployment rate hovers around 60 percent. After the session with the women, the counselors work with the children. The main thing they did was ask the children to draw places important to them and then rate how they felt about them, as a way to get the kids to talk about and express what they were feeling. I interacted a lot more with the kids, since my basic Arabic is better for relating with children. I would help them draw or discuss what they were drawing. Surprisingly, many of them described their homes as places where they felt scared and uncomfortable. One little boy explained to me that his picture was of soldiers coming into his house to take his brother away. Arrests are often made during the night, so children are awakened by soldiers coming into their homes and seizing their father or brother. As the children finish their drawings, I chat and play with the ones who are done early so the counselors can focus on those still working. Once everyone is done, we clean up and head back to Bethlehem.
Shadowing usually runs a little bit longer than my normal volunteering, so I have just enough time to grab some falafel for lunch and then head to my Arabic class. Unlike my classes in the U.S., in Bethlehem I study the Palestinian Dialect rather than Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which has been extremely helpful. When I arrived and started speaking to people in MSA I got a lot of weird looks. And even though people usually understood me, they would respond in dialect, meaning that I would have a lot of trouble understanding them. While I still have a long way to go to fluency, the classes and immersion have improved both my standard and dialect Arabic enormously.
After class I head home to a delicious dinner with my family; tonight we're having stuffed grape leaves, one of my favorite Palestinian dishes. It's also the night of the semi-final of the European Cup, and Palestinians love soccer like most of the world. So my friends and I are going to The Wall Lounge to watch the game. The Wall Lounge is probably one of my favorite places in Bethlehem, mainly because it has such an interesting story. The owner used to be an olive farmer but when the separation barrier was constructed he was cut off from all of his agricultural land by the wall. Stripped of his past livelihood, he came up with a creative solution. He painted a large swath of the separation wall white, bought a projector, and turned the rest of his property into an open-air café. He now projects sports events onto the wall and his café is one of the most popular places to watch games in Bethlehem. The story of The Wall Lounge is symbolic of the Palestinian persistence and optimism that I have come to know and love--an attitude that makes something good from even the worst circumstances and always finds a way to carry on. I couldn't think of a better place to spend my evening and my summer!