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By: Elisa Lintern

These past two weeks at An-Naja University have been transformational for myself and so many of ‎the other international volunteers. I found the trip to be an eclectic mixture of beauty and suffering. ‎On one hand, Zajel Program did not shy away from showing us the reality of life here, with a tour ‎of Askar refugee camp early on the agenda, where we slipped through alleyways between houses ‎hardly wide enough for one person to walk down, never mind to walk down two abreast. During our ‎trip to Hebron we witnessed our Palestinian friends being turned away from a street and forced to ‎take a 4km detour, and we ourselves spent almost an hour getting through a checkpoint due to the ‎passport and bag checks, metal detectors and questioning. Even some of our most joyous moments ‎were bittersweet: splashing about ankle-deep in the Mediterranean on our trip into Israeli territories ‎should have been blissful- as it was for many of us- but I was also so aware that for many of the ‎locals it was the first time any of them had seen the sea, and none among us could say for sure ‎when they'd next have the chance to see it again. The young people we worked with in workshops ‎were open and honest with us about their problems: many of them spoke of family and friends in ‎prison in Gaza or Jerusalem, who they couldn't get visas to visit, of the crimes they had witnessed ‎or experienced as children, and of the worry they feel when they try to envision their futures as ‎individuals and as Palestinians.

But on the other hand, our experiences here were overwhelmingly positive. We were welcomed ‎with humbling hospitality, generosity and patience, from not only the Zajel local volunteers, but ‎the students and people we met along our way. We attended a wedding party where we were fed, ‎danced with and marked with orange henna to symbolize joy. In Askar we had the privilege of ‎seeing the children perform traditional dance for us, on a stage where one of the surrounding walls ‎bore a bright mural with the words "their artillery can't kill our roots". A personal highlight was our ‎night spent in the desert with Bedouins after we went to Bethlehem, after which we drove to watch ‎the sun rise over the Dead Sea. Even the frankness with which the students spoke about their issues ‎in our workshop was a positive, as their willingness to share what they experience (let alone in a ‎language they aren't all confident speaking) was nothing short of inspirational. ‎

Alongside friendships, amazing hummus and, for some, the discovery of a love for teaching, I think ‎I speak unanimously when I say that the internationals here were given something incredibly ‎valuable: the opportunity to interact with a culture which is being intentionally suffocated and ‎stifled by another and yet is persevering. There are terrible things happening here, for sure, but, ‎more importantly, there are- despite the odds- still wonderful things happening. Zajel is one of ‎them.‎

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