Blooming in Palestine

My mom always says to bloom where you’re planted. It’s a cryptic life instruction; I think it’s somewhat akin to the superficially obvious unattributed quote, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Nearly a year ago, I left my friends and family in Los Angeles to pursue some sort of ambiguous higher calling. I never expected to wind up in Palestine. It’s amazing where a random email through your graduate school listserv can lead.

I suppose we all wind up in unexpected places. These sometimes-serendipitous-sometimes-scary digressions frequently compose more of our lifetimes than the stuff we planned. And while it’s always experience, living impulsively is not always easy. I’ve recently been hit, as I think many TYO interns are at some point, with a wave of homesickness. Perhaps this was spurred on by blackberry season in Wooster, Ohio, the small midwestern town where I was born and raised. My mom’s blackberry pies are otherworldly.

But something funny happened last weekend. Some of the interns went to Ramallah to sample exotic new flavors of iced coffee and explore another area of our new home in the West Bank. Upon our return to Nablus later in the evening, I flopped down in my room and listened to the confused rooster outside my window who starts to crow at 11pm. I walked out to the balcony to take in the Nabulsi breeze and fantasize about the kunafa I’d eat in excess the following day. It was good to be home.

In that moment, I realized that unbeknownst to me, I had taken mom’s advice. I liked it here. Actually, I loved it here. I realized that Palestine had gotten into my blood, and perhaps it would be a little harder to leave than I originally anticipated. I still miss my family and friends – mom’s blackberry pie, my dad’s high pitched giggle when he plays with the dog, the dimples in my nephew’s cheeks when he does something his mother JUST told him not to do – but there are just as may things about Nablus that I’m going to miss when I’m gone.

So, whether it’s the kunafa, little Rida’s subconscious habit of pushing his glasses up during a soccer game, the “secret hi-five” we have with the neighborhood girls, or the friendships I’ve made with the other interns, I’m going to spend the last three weeks here taking in every single moment of it. Well, maybe not the kunafa part – I’ll stick to every other day with that.

Intern Journal: An Afternoon in Ramallah

Our first week of classes was not only chaos free but without a doubt enjoyable and full of energy. I can only speak for myself, but the kids in my photography class were attentive, and eager to get their hands on the cameras as soon as feasibly possible. They’re looking forward to running wild on next week’s class trip to the Old City.

Outside the classroom, the interns took Friday to visit Ramallah, a nearby city in the West Bank, approximately 14.63 km from Jerusalem – or Al Quds as it is known in Arabic. As a newbie to the Middle East, it was my first time out of Nablus, which provided a refreshing break from living and working exclusively in the same building all week – especially as last weekend was spent indoors brainstorming and organising for the week ahead. However from here on out, the weekends shall be a chance to explore this fascinating region or at the very least areas nearby.

The landscape is breathtaking. As our vehicle sped along the twists and turns, I got more of a sense of the hilly nature of the land. I had arrived under the cover of darkness from the airport two weeks back, but on this drive the sunlight bathed the horizon in gold, barely a cloud in the sky.

Friday is Islam’s holy day, and in the West Bank – along with much of the Middle East – most establishments are closed. People have the day off from work to pray, eat, and spend time with their families. This meant that we saw a version of Ramallah that was only representative of the quietest seventh of the week. A couple of cafes and shops were open here and there, but seeing the quiet sunlit streets lined with shut shops, reminded me of sleepy little French towns on Sundays.

After a quick visit to Yasser Arafat’s memorial we meandered into town and sampled the delicious local shawarma. Then, we walked and walked, the length and breadth of the town, eventually culminating in an ever-decreasing spiral to end up back where we started on Main Street.  It was a pleasure to see the beautiful architecture, a maze of weathered limestone houses, gardens and new half-finished constructions. A man walking his daughter back home in a stroller asked us if we were lost, telling us not much happens on Fridays. Another boy ran out from an al fresco family lunch to insist we all try some of their sfiha (small Levantine breads topped with minced meat and spices) then kindly inviting us to join their table. But not wanting to intrude and already touched by such open generosity from a stranger, we thanked him and were on our way.

As usual, the few people we encountered made us feel incredibly welcome. Ramallah is home to more ‘internationals’ than Nablus so no doubt people have more chance to practice their English there. Nevertheless, we were impressed with the level of English across the board in Ramallah. When someone can speak English in addition to their mother tongue, they immediately widen their potential for human interaction, increase their audience and gain access to a plethora of information on everything imaginable — if they can get online too. I feel that if someone has a story to tell, then maybe it should be heard.

Through our English classes here at TYO (both for children and the wider community) people can access and communicate with a world outside of the Middle East. Each new Arabic phrase we are taught and every step we take here as guests in Palestinian society is the flip side of the same inter-cultural dialogue, which we hope will benefit all of us. Once again I can only speak for myself, but every day I learn something new.

– Mathilda

Mathilda is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Photo of the Day: Al-Mustaqbal School of Ramallah Visits TYO

Children visiting TYO

Over 80 children aged 3-5 from the Al-Mustaqbal School of Ramallah visited the TYO center in Nablus this morning, getting a chance to participate in some fun and educational activities with the Core Program teachers and TYO’s own morning program students. In addition to outdoor art activities, the children played with the giant parachute while getting to know the teachers and each other.

Children visiting TYO

Intern journal: When the students become teachers…

Teaching is a humbling experience, but humility need not mean feeling defeat – rather, it is awareness that my role as a teacher and even my lesson plans provide only the foundation for all the growth and excitement that can take place in a classroom. Indeed, the moments I most treasure from working with my kids this summer are the ones in which my role as a teacher is minimal – the moments in which I feel a surge of pride to see them reach out to help, teach, and support each other. In my Explorers class, we were presenting the photos that each “Explorer” had taken with his or her take-home camera: introducing family members, explaining neighborhood hangouts, and displaying the beauty in their surroundings that they had wanted to capture on film – a view of Nablus in the evening from the top of a Khallet al-Amood hill, a close-up of a display of car engines waiting to be sold, flowers and plants from around their homes. As Halima, from Askar camp, shakes her head repeatedly when it is her turn to go up and show her photos, Ibrahim, from Balata camp, sees that she is nervous and offers to stand with her as she speaks to the class. Drawing confidence from his presence, Halima walks up to the front of the room and allows the class to get to know her better, through her eyes, through her words.

A striking example of the power of peer-to-peer inspiration and support has occurred twice with my Model United Nations class. On many levels, it is impossible to solely convey through words the organized chaos that is a group of high school students getting dressed up and debating, writing, and voting to address the challenges faced by the countries they represent and the world at large. Early in the summer program, therefore, the class went on a trip to Ramallah to watch the Model UN club at the Friends School go through a four-hour simulation of what MUN geeks affectionately refer to as “ECOSOC,” the Economic and Social Council of the UN. The students were enraptured to see Palestinian students their age, who have had far greater educational opportunities and thus can debate the merits of immigration policies like pros, engage in the simulation and fully enjoying themselves while doing it. “How can we be like them?” they asked me, and I told them we had plenty of time to practice in class! I’ve built up a relationship with the students from Ramallah, after having advised them on the planning of a “Model UN summer camp” for students new to the club (and I was even invited to be the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies of the camp!) A week ago, three of these students were kind enough to visit and give a guest lesson to TYO’s Model UN students on the UN, Model UN, and how to learn to represent your assigned country with confidence and intelligence.

The effect of this lesson on my TYO students was tangible. Brimming with excitement after the lesson, they repeated the same desire: “We want to be like them!” and recommended we increase the amount of times per week that the class meets. To have high school students, in many ways just like themselves, tell of their experiences as Model UN delegates to conferences around the Middle East, meeting and befriending students from around the world, galvanized my students to spend their summer training to be mini-diplomats in a way I could never do on my own, no matter how stimulating a lecture I give or how creative a “world affairs” game I concoct.

For these reasons and beyond, interning at TYO is to be so much more than a teacher. To have my students – at TYO and from Ramallah – build on each other’s strengths, learn from each other’s experiences, and inspire each other to attain what they wouldn’t have previously conceived to be possible is something I am thrilled to enable.

TYO's Model United Nations class attends a Model UN simulation in Ramallah!

TYO's Model United Nations class attends a Model UN simulation in Ramallah!

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