We shall overcome…

Paris, March 28th, 2013,

Flight US 797 from Tel Aviv landed at Philadelphia at 5:00am on March 16th, 2013, bringing sixteen exhausted and homesick faces home after two weeks away. The flight lasted for twelve hours, eight of which I spent catching up on sleep, the rest spent convincing myself that the past two weeks had really happened. A few days later, on a red-eye from New York to Paris, I spent time on the plane doing the exact same things – sleeping and thinking about my past trip. It felt too strange for me that I can easily jump on a plane at any convenient airport, then fly to different places in the world without being held up because of my nationality – compared to the many stories I’ve heard about how Palestinians have to fly out of Amman, Jordan even though they live very close to Tel Aviv, my life seemed like a different world, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty about that.

The whole trip has felt like a whirlwind, with us waking up at an uninmaginable time even for boarding school students who are used to strict timetable, going out all day, then coming back exhausted and ready to crash to bed. We met with people from all walks of life – rabbis, doctors, professors, land-owners, farmers, housewives – to piece together our own understanding of the conflict. So bear with me while I try to piece together my picture in the next few thousands words, not because I’m trying to be wordy and bore you, but because I myself feel that my grasp on the conflict is not strong enough to describe it in fewer words.

We spent our first week listening to stories from people, and our second week experiencing those stories for ourselves as we lived with local host families in Beit Sahour and Ramallah. The 40-45% umemployment rate in the West Bank meant little until I heard my hostdad in Beit Sahour talked about how he struggled to find a job as an engineer. The refugees’ precarious future barely registered until I saw the children in Al Amari Refugee Camp and realized that they did not have a lot of options for their future. The concerns from Israelis about security also rang louder and clearer in my mind after listening to Lydia Aisenberg, an Israeli freelance journalist, explaining how she got on a bus every day to go to work, and contemplated what seat would be least affected if a suicide bomber was to explode that bus. History and religion also unfolded in front of our eyes as we visited the Old City, walked through the twelve stations that Jesus went to when he was crucified, lined up to see the Dome of the Rock (where an abrasive confrontation between Arab prayers and Jewish people happened the day after we visited, which reminded me that even though we were not in danger, the people here had to live with violence and threats as part of their everyday lives), and saw many churches in Nazareth, where Jesus spent the majority of his youth. Not religious myself, I found these sites fascinating because of their magnificent architecture, the thousands years of history they locked in every brick, and the meaning that they held to many people in the world. The language nerd in me was also awoken when I caught many Bible passages in Latin in different churches and tried to translate them into English, and when I pieced together my little knowledge of Arabic to figure out what a road sign said. Needless to say, the academic experiences I have had in the past two weeks have been comprehensive and unparalleled to any classes at Westtown.

Yet the stories of resistance I’ve heard and seen in the past two weeks also urged me to come back someday and make change. Whether it is to teach children at the Bedouin refugee camp twenty minutes out of Jerusalem, to take care of the kindergarten at Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, to work with the Tent of Nations in building a summer camp for local kids, to demonstrate with Rabbis for Human Right against house demolitions, my meager efforts could hopefully support the people’s resistance to injustice, and help solve the immediate problems that hindered the peace process. Many Israelis and Palestinians we talked to have said that they did not believe both governments could come up with a solution within the near future – five or ten years, and that my generation would be responsible for finding a way out. I had no idea how “a way out” would happen, for I left Israel/Palestine feeling more dejected and bewildered than when I first came, but if people who lived with violence and oppression every day could hope for a brighter future, then I can keep my finger crosses for them, too.

But to leave you (and I) on a bright note, let’s end my goodbye post with “We Shall Overcome,” a beautiful, hopeful tune widely known as the protest song in the 1960s Civil Right Movement in the US. In the documentary “Life on the other Side” shown to us in Aida Refugee Camp, a man was playing this song on his violin outside of the Separation Wall to serenade the long line of Palestinians waiting to get through a checkpoint to go to Jerusalem for work. The chorus goes,

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday

Just like that violinist, I want to leave you with hope. The situation may not be easy, and solutions may not come  tomorrow, but we know we can hang in there, and “overcome” together. If the incredible stories I have heard from Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life about how they strived for peace are any indication, there is will and great anticipation that the days ahead can be brighter.

I hope to keep collecting stories from people around me, to follow closely the news from this region, to stay in touch with the friends I made during my time there, and to find a way to come back someday. There is so much about this land that I love and want to understand better. Still, what I have taken away from the past two weeks not only makes me feel closer to the place and sympathize with the people, but also ignites my wish to help solve the problems and change life for the better.

So thank you for having been here for me throughout this journey. I hope I have successfully delivered a tiny part of what I experienced, and urged you to go search for more stories and different truths. Someday, hopefully, we will be able to meet in a peaceful and just land – the land once torn apart by hatred and misunderstanding, but eventually unified with friendship and patience.

Until then,

Follow that star to Bethlehem

Ramallah, March 10th, 2013

In the Christmas concert of my sophomore year, the choir sang an a capella tune called “Follow that Star,” which told the story of how the three wise men followed the guiding star of Bethlehem to come see the newborn Jesus. The song started with the tenors singing “Follow that star to Bethlehem…” on repeat for four times, the later with higher notes and more urging tune than the previous. It was a lovely song; and even though I could not remember how the rest of it went, “Follow that star to Bethlehem” stuck in my mind. I wondered when I would be able to follow a star to Bethlehem and see the history for myself.

I finally am able to “follow that star” all the way from Jerusalem to Ceasarea to Nazareth to Bethlehem during the past days of my Senior Project. We spent the past two nights with local host families in Beit Sahour, a small town close to Bethlehem, and spent the day visiting different people who wanted to share their perspectives on the conflict with us, as well as seeing religious sites. Continue reading “Follow that star to Bethlehem”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem…

Jerusalem, March 3, 2013

I’ve spent the past 30-ish hours in the breezy Middle Eastern air, and I still have a hard time believing I’m here. I love the weather, the food (every meal is served with warm, fluffy pitas with creamy hummus – which is actually pronounced with a defined “kh” sound from the back of your throat instead of a “h” – and ten different other types of dips), and the people who return my clumsy “Assalam alaykum” with a friendly smile, but I very soon realize that there is so much more to this land than the beautiful things I love. Continue reading “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…”


Westtown, February 28th, 2013

I am sitting in my empty, spotless dorm room as I type this – I will leave Westtown in about half an hour, and my flight to Israel/Palestine departs in a little bit more than 24 hours. The countdown gadget on my computer has finally reached zero, and I could not be happier about it. Senior Project is so close, I can almost feel it in the air!

“Marhaba” means “welcome” in Arabic, a phrase that I have heard so many times when I was in Abu Dhabi last December on a college visit trip. I love Arabic hospitality – they are so warm, welcoming, and always happy to give interested people a slice of their world. That is partly why I am very much looking forward to being in Israel/Palestine this time. But all that aside, welcome to my thrilling journey as I find my way to one of the oldest, holiest, and most complicated lands in the world. Continue reading “Marhaba!”