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Volunteering at Project Hope

Board member Barbara Hanst traveled to Nablus in April and May of 2014 and spent 4 weeks as a volunteer with Project Hope. Below is a report of her adventure…

I went to Nablus last Spring to volunteer with Project Hope, a non-profit begun in 2003 in the midst of the Intifada (uprising) when there was little reason for hope and much cause for despair.

Project Hope uses volunteers from all around the world to teach English, French or Spanish, music, photography, art, dance……….or any skill the volunteer wants to share! PH sends volunteers to some 30 centers in Nablus, the refugee camps (of which there are 4) or surrounding villages. If you do not speak Arabic, you are usually accompanied by a Nabulsi volunteer who is eager to help as a translator……..and to get to know you!

I was surprised that I as an American was in the minority as a volunteer. Volunteers, all of whom when I was there were in their 20’s, were from The Netherlands, France, South Africa, Germany, England, Turkey, Peru, Brazil, Malaysia and Singapore. In the 13 years of Project Hope’s existence there have been 16 marriages resulting from volunteers meeting through the organization. Living with internationals was definitely a “plus” in this experience. For instance, I never knew the difference between Holland and The Netherlands but I do now!

I went to teach English but I ended up doing a whole lot more. Many of you know that there is a group here in Boulder that would like to make Nablus a Sister City. I am a part of that group. I first traveled to Nablus in 2010 when I was on a fact-finding tour given by Friends of Sabeel-CO. Nablus has the reputation of being “the safest city in the West Bank.” I fell in love with the city then, and traveled there for 12 days in 2012, talking to various people of influence about their interest in becoming a Sister City. We received universal affirmation of our goal there, but were turned down by Boulder’s City Council in June of 2013. Nonetheless, I wanted to go back. I simply had fallen in love with the people of Nablus and wanted a way to spend time with them and get to know more of them. Project Hope provided that opportunity.

But we had not given up on becoming a Sister City, either, and when Hakim Sabbah, the Director of Project Hope, heard me say during a radio interview that I was hoping to help the relationship along, he immediately “signed on” to the project by suggesting people I should meet………beginning with the mayor! ‘’Why go through a window when you can walk in the front door?” he urged.

Hakim was living in France at the time of the 2nd Intifada. He flew home because he wanted to help his people. He was born and grew up in a village outside Nablus. He said that as a child the only stranger he ever saw was at the end of a rifle. He was determined that children now would meet strangers at the end of a pencil. We strangers were greeted everywhere we went with “Welcome!” or “Where are you from?” and sometimes “What’s your name?’ and “How old are you?”

Fellow Board member of the Sister City Project, Carl Tinstman, happened to be traveling in the area so joined me for several days in Nablus and was present for the meeting with the mayor. The mayor gave us his endorsement and further suggested that he would like to invite as his personal guests those who had opposed the Sister City Project when it went before the City Council. “Let them come and see our city!” He also offered to travel to Boulder to speak to the City Council and any skeptics.

That’s what occurred when Carl and I met with the mayor, but I had a number of other very encouraging appointments. We had lunch with the mayor’s assistant and a member of the City Council, we visited the Nablus branch of the Edward Said Natl Conservatory of Music, I went to the campus of An-Najah National University several times, meeting with the Director of their Library and the Chair of their Fine Arts Dept.

I also reconnected with a nurse I had met during my 2012 trip, and a recent An-Najah graduate who had majored in media. I ate in several homes during my month-long stay, and visited the parents of Boulder friend, Ayman Alawneh, who is from Jenin, Palestine but in Boulder now working on his PhD in chemistry, as is his wife, Nancy. Yes, lots of socializing; lots of contacts.

Meanwhile I am supposed to be teaching! When I joked with Hakim, Project Hope’s Director, that I was going to get fired by the Coordinator of English studies for spending so little time in the classroom, his response was “Barbara, do you think that the only way we try to bring hope to Nablus is through teaching? I think that if you are able to bring about a sister city relationship between your city and Nablus, you will bring a lot more hope to this community than through your teaching!” Enough said! On to the next appointment………this time with the President of the Boy’s Youth Club which is almost a professional soccer team.

Because I like to walk for exercise, I did what I normally do in Boulder…….go for an early morning walk. In Nablus I went earlier than in Boulder because traffic gets pretty heavy by 7:30 or 8, so I was normally hitting the pavement by 6. I loved this part of the day and in time developed friendly relationships with people I passed every morning: the man jangling something like finger cymbals to advertise his selling of coffee, the street cleaners, the man sitting in the produce warehouse awaiting his daily delivery, the poultry shopkeeper, and especially the pita bakers and the corner grocery store owner. These became my closest morning friends. I bantered quite a bit with the pita bakers, and they never would allow me to pay for the pita I got. Instead I was blown a kiss! From Ayman, the grocery store owner where I daily bought a liter of water, I learned the headlines in the daily newspaper and got political commentary,

During the month I was living in a PH apt, I had several frightening experiences: once I was awakened at 1 am by terrific gunfire that I could tell was coming from near-by. I jumped from my bed and went to our 3rd floor balcony but could see nothing. I heard, but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. Earlier in the month I had heard something similar, two nights in a row, but from further away. This time it was very close. None of my apartmates knew what was going on but Ayman, my grocery store friend, dismissed my questions almost with a wave of his hand the next morning saying “This sort of thing happens almost every night. The Israeli military comes into the city, sometimes to arrest an activist, or simply to shoot their guns in the air to remind us who is in charge. Often they destroy our street lights.”

The other thing I found quite frightening was the sound of planes flying overhead. It was really strange. They sounded very close and yet I could never see them. One of the 20- somethings with whom I lived with said it was like Star Wars: the Force was there, but you couldn’t see it. For sure they were Israeli jets because no other airplanes are allowed to fly over Israeli airspace. Normally those planes flew during the day and, yes, it was frightening because they were so loud. But the time I was really frightened occurred at night. I think it was around 11 but certainly after I had gone to sleep. The planes shook me awake and again the next morning I asked Ayman to explain. Once again……a frequent occurrence, according to Ayman. Who knows where they are going or why they are flying? “They are probably training, preparing to bomb Hezbollah in Lebanon again, or maybe Gaza. We do not know; we cannot know.” For sure they were Israeli jets because no other airplanes are allowed to fly over Israeli airspace.

That’s only one of the uncertainties with which Nabulsis live. They also don’t know if their water will run out (all water is controlled by Israel and sold to them,but in very limited quantities), or if the electricity will be turned off. Fortunately during the time I was there, we never ran out of water and we lost electricity only briefly twice and during the day. We were asked by Project Hope to shower only every other day and then, quickly, Navy-style.

The only other thing scary about being in Nablus were the steps. Steps were everywhere, and lots of them. I remember thinking during my 2012 trip that you shouldn’t travel to Nablus if you had bad knees!

I want to say a little about my teaching because I did teach a bit. When adults from the community register to take a language class at Project Hope, they are assigned to a specific class depending on their language proficiency. I taught Level One, which was the lowest level. Theoretically those students knew virtually no English. They paid a small fee which covered the book they were given. So teaching should have been easy……everyone at the same level and using the same book. But that wasn’t the case. Some were more advanced than others, and got frustrated at the slow pace I and the book were using. When I went quickly through the material, others, not so advanced, were frustrated that I was moving too fast. It was frustrating and what made it more difficult was that the more advanced students would shout translations in Arabic to those not understanding me, making it cacaphonous in the tiled floor room. No, it was not easy, and yet I loved those young adults. They were soooooo eager, and they kept coming back. When I asked them why they wanted to learn English it was because they knew it was the primary language of the world and if they ever wanted to advance, they needed to know English.

When I announced that I would be leaving at the end of my final class, they were so vehement in their “Oh, no!!!s” that I almost broke into tears. Several wanted to know if I were on Facebook and would I be their friends.

I feel as though I now have close friends in the West Bank: Ayman’s parents and siblings who live in Jenin and are devout Muslims; Maria Khoury who lives with her husband, David in Taybeh where they own a famous brewery; and Kamal Mukurker and his parents and sisters in Beit Jala. Both Kamal and his mother are tour guides, and Kamal has worked as the guide for Rick Steves (be sure and see the latter’s travel program on Israel/Palestine which will be aired on PBS this Fall.) Both the Khourys and the Mukakers are Orthodox Christians.

I learned something very important from Faten Mukarker, Kamal’s mother, and that is how dangerous the word “the” is. She told me he used to hate the Americans: “The Americans were the ones who supplied Israel with the F-16s that bombed our land; It was the Americans you sent over Apache helicopters to spy on our people. It was the Americans who made the tear gas canisters thrown on our children. But then I visited America and was shocked by how nice and friendly and welcoming the people were. I learned I could no longer talk about ‘THE’ Americans. “The” is a very dangerous word,” she stated emphatically. I, too, know that I can’t talk about “the Israelis” or “the Jews” for, indeed, none are monolithic groups.

One of the real benefits of living and volunteering in Nablus was being immersed in an Arabic and Muslim culture. I very definitely believe that is why personal safety was never a concern. I was told repeatedly that noone would lay a hand on me and I never felt afraid. I also was amazed by the honesty of every shop keeper and taxi driver. I always got all the change I expected and if I were ever over charged, it surely was’t by much. One time I dropped some coins in the souk (Arabic word for marketplace located in a narrow alley-type space), and a young man ran after me a full block to give me what I had given up finding. I didn’t have the experience this time, but a housemate did: she left her camera in a taxi and the driver went to great efforts to return it to her. That happened to me twice in 2012. This time I was more careful!

Also interesting to me was observing the faithfulness of Muslims in their practices of prayer. When I was visiting the family of my Boulder friend in Jenin, I was having a wonderful conversation with the father when he asked to be excused because it was time for prayer. My French strawberry blonde roommate was a Muslim, and several times she donned a different article of clothing, washed herself and knelt on the floor of our bedroom to pray. Wow! I normally read my Bible in a clandestine fashion, almost embarrassed by what I’m doing. Yes, I thought I could learn a great deal from the Muslims. Just their practice of praying 5 times a day is awe-inspiring.

I’m told that it is considered shameful to beg and that is why you see virtually none of it. Also because Arabic culture is so family-centered, families take care of their own. In Nablus where everyone knows everyone else, it would bring dishonor to your family to have a member begging. They also have no homes for the aged for the same reason: families take care of their elderly.

I was also struck by the fact that Nabulsis seem to socialize quite well without alcohol, this due to their Muslim faith. Interesting! Tea or Arabic coffee is offered everywhere you go, and frequently Coca Cola but no alcohol.

Spending a month in Nablus was a great experience for me in many ways. The hardest part, to be candid, was living with all 20-somethings who didn’t have the standards of housekeeping that I prefer!! But they surely tolerated me, a 70-something, quite well, and for that I was grateful. But the welcome and the hospitality of the Nabluses was amazing. I said Goodbye to the pita bakers and the grocery store owner before I left, taking little gifts, and, again, tearing up. I will miss them.

This, I believe, is what Sister Cities are all about………..building bridges between communities and cultures to erase fear and misunderstanding and establishing friendship and trust in their place. I surely hope Boulder will take this step; I surely hope many others from Boulder will be enriched by the same kind of experiences I had.

Barbara Hanst Boulder, CO June, 2014

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