A Good Balance
The Zajel Youth Exchange of An-Najah University is a really good option for people with little to no travel experience in the Middle East and Palestine, as the program includes a wide variety of trips, visits, lectures etc. Zajel provides rich opportunities to gain knowledge about many aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict - both political, cultural and psychological issues - and to learn more about Palestinian culture and customs. It is, however, up to every single participant to ask in-depth questions, as the presentations are often very general and time is short.
By: Mariane Lordt
There is a good balance in the program between the unpleasant realities of the conflict, of which it is extremely important to inform internationals, and all the amazing things that are also present in Palestine - e.g. food, music, architecture, and of course the incredibly friendly Palestinian population.
The training workshops for the local university students offer good opportunities for personal development within the fields of volunteering and teaching, and they are a great way to meet some young and super engaged Palestinian men and women in the more informal environment of the classroom. I would recommend all future volunteers to just trust in themselves and that whatever they can bring with them of skills, knowledge or the like is great for Zajel!
Besides from the workshops, there is a really tight schedule of trips in and around the beautiful and bustling city of Nablus. We got a glimpse of the brutal reality of hundreds and thousands of Palestinians when we visited the Askar refugee camp in the outskirts of Nablus.
We watched the harsh conditions the Palestinians in Hebron face with settlements in the middle of the city center, in stark contrast with the Christian tourism magnets of Bethlehem, where the Church of Nativity secures visitors to the city all year round. The nature is also worth mentioning - mountains and hiking paths meet the Mediterranean Sea by the Lebanese border in the North, and the desert in the East is a spectacular place to watch the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea after a night in a Bedouin camp.
It is important to note that all the experiences mentioned above - trips, workshops, etc. - are all crammed into a twelve days schedule. Therefore, I really think it is important that one is cautious to take some time off once in a while to relax, have a walk around the old city without a guide, and chat to the locals in smaller groups. It is a lot to walk around with 24 other people, and I really believe (from personal experience) that Palestine opens up in a whole other way when you spend some time alone and are forced to ask locals for directions, help and so on. I wish there was more room for this in Zajel’s itinerary.
The group of internationals is a very diverse one, both with regards to nationalities, age, background and previous experiences. This has both ups and downs. I think this is important for future participants to know and to consider, in order to get the best out of the trip.