My internship at SZOIL dominated my stay in China. The shifts were Monday to Friday, from 9:30 to 17:30, with some voluntary extra time and a couple of weekend activities. I had very nice colleagues, not just my fellow CRCC interns, but the whole team working at SZOIL, from the regular Chinese staff members, to three other student interns from China, Nepal and Sri Lanka. While each of us worked on our own projects, we often lent a hand to each other, or had a break from one and did something different for a while (which is how I ended doing the variety of tasks mentioned below). Moreover, one of SZOIL’s regular workers, whom supervised my work for the GHL, taught us how to use some of the machines in the lab. I only used the laser engraver and cutter, as 3D printing required designing and that’s something I’m awful at.
(If you haven’t, check the first part of my latest blog series ‘CRCC Asia Internship in China’ before reading this one: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2017/09/25/crcc-asia-internship-in-shenzhen-preparation-arrival-and-induction/)
After a long three-day weekend of being ill and trying to recover, my first day of work as an intern in China came. I had to wake-up early and meet the rest of CRCC Asia interns in the lobby of Apartment One, to take a group picture before heading to our internships. Most, if not all, interns worked for companies which weren’t near our accommodation. Fortunately, for the first day of work, CRCC staff members took us by minivan to our workplaces. I was not the only CRCC intern working in SZOIL, my assigned company, there were three others CRCC participants coming with me: a student from a university in Northern England, a student from an American university, and a fellow Sussex student. I had only spoken briefly to two of them before the start of the internship, so I didn’t know much about any of them, but hoped for the best, as they would be my co-workers for a month.
The summer of 2016 was memorable for various reasons, from studying in Singapore for a month, to participating in an international work camp in Palestine. I met a lot of people from all over the world and learnt a variety of things useful for both my academic and personal life. Particularly, my introverted self gained confidence to adventure myself into similar opportunities in the future. Hence earlier this year, when I was presented with the option of doing a funded internship in China, I was unable to say no to the opportunity.
Visiting important places and learning about political and social issues were amazing aspects of the BZU work camp. Although it only lasted nine days, my knowledge on a variety of issues expanded. I could also practise some strategies I learnt whilst in Singapore to improve my cultural intelligence. And I experienced living in a different environment, hearing a different language daily, eating different food… Although, without doubt, the highlight of the camp were the people, from Palestinians to international participants (like me).
As I always say, I’m not a good socialising and I was scared about that aspect of the camp. I didn’t want to be my usual self and stay in a corner away from the fun 24/7, nor did I want to force myself into uncomfortable or awkward situations. I just wanted to have an opportunity to be social while staying true to myself. Fortunately, I had many of those opportunities and the majority went quite well. Much better than I expected. I widened my networks and made many acquaintances throughout the camp. I even think I made friends with whom I would like to stay in touch, very possible in the era of social media.
The majority of conversations I had whilst in the camp were 1:1 or small groups of 3-4 people. This made it easy for me to feel comfortable and talk freely. Every day I engaged in conversations with different people about a variety of topics. There were people with whom I spoke daily, others with whom I spoke now and then, and others with whom I spoke once or twice. Regardless, all the interactions were valuable in different. Sometimes they were just fun. Others they were politically charged. Sometimes they were about sharing experiences and thoughts. Others they were about discussing and arguing (respectfully) about contemporary issues.
As expected, the occupation in Palestine was a frequent topic, nonetheless there was always something new to learn when it came up. I heard people talk about their experiences trying to enter Israel and Palestine through the airport in Tel Aviv and through the border with Jordan. They were stopped for several hours for no apparent reason, other than being of Palestinian heritage or/and having an Arab background/name. I wasn’t shocked by any of this, I’m not unfamiliar with ethnic profiling, but it was still disturbing to hear. Some of them thought Israel did that to scare them from coming back to the region again, which is believable.
Another topic of discussion regarding the occupation was whether if Palestinians wanted a 1 or 2 state solution. One of them argued that they tried the 2 state solution, Gaza and West Bank were meant to be for Palestinians, but the checkpoints, settlements and the Wall happened, together with constant arrests. Hence, the question is whether if Israel wants a two state solution. Another Palestinian said that the issue wasn’t about one or two states, but about the right of Palestinians to exist, be free, end the occupation and develop their region. This line of thinking can be linked to complaints I heard regarding the checkpoints (were Palestinians are humiliated and treated like prisoners and animals) and the constant needs of permits to move around for Palestinians. In fact, when we visited Jerusalem, the majority of Palestinians in the camp couldn’t come with us, which made the day bitter-sweet.
Hebron was also a topic that came up now and then. Hebron is a main city in the West Bank to which we were meant to go, but we couldn’t due to ongoing tensions. Hebron is the most critical place in the West Bank: there are two Israeli settlements in the middle of the city. To protect the settlers, the IDF is present. The situation in the area is similar to apartheid. Palestinians in Hebron suffer from attacks from settlers, and due to the IDF, resistance is tough. It is a bit surreal how Israel has settlements in a main Palestinian city, but as I was told, it is the mentality of colonisers and oppressors: power and control. Hebron is an important economic and commercial era, many imports from China go there and are exported to other parts in the West Bank. I was told that buying there is cheap. Meanwhile, Ramallah is the main city for shopping and fun. Nablus, Bethlehem and Jericho are more historical and cultural areas.
The last conversed issue regarding the occupation that is worth talking about is the Wall. I saw it for the first time when we were coming back from Jerusalem after a day out. My main thoughts were how the international community allowed this to happen. Then, some international participants talked about how in Europe they got rid of the Wall of Berlin and promised to never step that low again, yet there was that monstrosity in the West Bank, separating families, villages and neighbourhoods.
The Israeli occupation in Palestine was not the only political and social issue I talked about with participants in the camp. I had conversations about topics like marriage, dating, religion, governance, race, ethnicity, Europe, Brexit, Turkey, democracy, the USA elections… I never felt uncomfortable discussing any of these topics because I’m used to do it in university and because many people in the camp were very educated, good at debating and respectful about others’ opinions. That’s something I liked a lot about the people I met in the camp: I could discuss issues I care about outside an anglocentric environment. In addition, I realised I had various things in common with various participants in the camp, when comes to personal experiences, knowledge and opinions.
Leaving politics and social issues aside, there were various fun and nice social moments whilst in the camp. We had an afternoon session of painting pots, we went to a music festival whilst in Bethlehem, we hanged out in some bars in Ramallah… My favourite moment was being invited to eat to the house of one of the Palestinian participants, together with two European girls and another Palestinian. It was a very spontaneous invitation that turned out to be a great decision. His mother prepared traditional Palestinian dishes for us: maqluba, dolmas and kousas. They were delicious! We also had coffee and tea.
Our pal’s young cousins and siblings were around the house too, we spoke with them. After eating, he showed us his family flats and his pet pigeons. At some point his father, who is a taxi driver, came. We spoke with him for various minutes. He shared with us some anecdotes of working as a taxi driver in the region, mainly the negative stereotypes of Arabs that Israelis have and share with foreigners, which he challenged thanks to his good conduct as a taxi driver. I felt a lot of empathy and frustration, I understand how it feels when you have to prove you are not what is told about people like you. Overall, the afternoon in our pal’s home was very pleasant, the Palestinian family had remarkable hospitality with us.
Socialising, living and travelling around the West Bank nine days gave me a good taste of Palestinian life. I miss certain aspects of it. Mainly the food. Before going to Palestine, I had never eaten Middle Eastern food before, other than Turkish food. I remember being unsure about eating hummus for breakfast on the second day on the camp since the one I ate in Singapore wasn’t very nice. Now I miss having hummus with khubz (a common type of bread similar to pita, the world also means ‘bread’ in Arabic) for breakfast every day. I also miss eating falafel and some pizza-like dishes (I don’t remember their name sadly). And deserts like baklava and kanafeh stole my heart.
At the end of the BZU work camp, I was very sad to leave, although I needed to leave. My physical health was very irregular while my mental health showed signs of emotional exhaustion. I couldn’t wait to go to the doctor in England and carry out tests to see what was wrong with me. I also couldn’t wait to go back to quietness and loneliness after a summer of daily interactions and experiences. While various international participants stayed behind, I left Palestine the day the work camp ended, the 11th of August, together with a participant from Germany. We had to cross through a checkpoint and it was a negatively bizarre experience, although because of our European passports & non-Arabic names, we had no troubles.
On our journey to the airport I was scared about having problems. I had read various accounts on how leaving from the Ben Gurion airport in Israel can be problematic. It is regarded as the “safest” airport in the world, although I wouldn’t describe it as such at all. My companion and I separated when we arrived because we had to check in through different terminals. Before checking my luggage, I was briefly “interviewed” by a security officer. She asked some random questions about my luggage and then checked my passport for minutes. I could see the confusion on her name whilst reading my details, as if something didn’t add up.
Finally, she asked “”where are your surnames originally from?”. I didn’t know the answer, I just mentioned my parents’ birth countries. She didn’t know my mum’s home country, I had to explain there are three Guineas in Africa. After my response she stared at my passport for a few more seconds and then gave me a sticker with a number, which I had to show after checking my luggage and going through immigration. The number I given was a ‘5’, meaning I was 1 number away from the highest level of threat (the airport uses a system of 1 [low] to 6 [high] to determine how suspicious are passengers). I didn’t even mention I’m learning Arabic and that I visited Palestine. I knew that Arabs and Muslims, people with Arabic / Islamic names and people who had visas from Arab / certain Muslim majority countries got a 5 or 6 by default. I didn’t expect it for me, although I wasn’t that surprised.
Obviously, I wasn’t very pleased with this, not only because I was racially/ethnically profiled, but because I had to wait for minutes while my hand luggage was thoroughly checked before I went to the area where my departure gate was. However, since I’m black hence used to this, I got over it. At the end of the day, I don’t live in Israel. But there are black people and Arab people who live there and go through similar and worse situations every day. I was actually lucky to have an EU passport, I know that travelling with an African passport would be much more troublesome. Moreover, when I met my German companion before she boarded her plane, she told me she was given a 6 and asked various uncomfortable questions, because she was heading to Jordan and Lebanon through Greece. I didn’t have it that bad after all.
Talking about my nine days in Palestine requires over four blog posts, even though I had to condense my experience because I didn’t want to bore people with unnecessary details. As you may have realised, I didn’t add many personal comments on reflections on what I witnessed and learnt, mainly regarding the Israeli occupation in Palestine. Needless to say, I still support the Palestinian cause 100%. Needless to stay, my dislike of the Israeli state and its treatment towards Palestine increased. I would be happy to write a reflective account on my experience if it weren’t because of my current struggle to write essays and informative blog posts. That’s why I wrote a freestyle reflective poem. My opinion on social issues normally flows better in poetry than in essays. So here is a link to my poem, titled “History is Today”: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/09/05/poem-history-is-today/
This is the fourth and last post of my blog series “BZU Work Camp in Palestine”. I hope you enjoyed it and look forward to new series on the future.
Palestine is a beautiful region with rich culture and fascinating history. Whether you are interested in food, religion, architecture, literature or others doesn’t matter: there is a bit of everything, a lot to see and learn about! This post will show the places I visited as a part of the work camp, while sharing any significant details about them.
Birzeit University: the institution goes back to 1927, started as secondary school for girls. It has 8 faculties and specialised centres for research and masters. I was marvelled by the stunning architecture and nature on the campus.
Birzeit town: a historical Palestinian village that dates back to even earlier than the Byzantine period. A representative of Rozana Association, an organisation based on the town that works to promote the rural development of the area, gave us a small tour around the place. Apart from walking around the town, we visited the Sa’deh & Technology House, home to a showcase of scientific innovation and education, the Al-Rozana Mosaic Workshop, a workshop where mosaics are made, and the Palestinian Circus School, an institution that uses circus activities to promote social and behaviour change.
We also learnt about the activities the Rozana Association is involved in, including alternative tourism, preserving heritage, Birzeit Heritage Week, engaging women and youth, and the annual Maftoul Festival, where Palestinian women come together to compete to prepare the best maftoul. Maftoul, a Palestinian dish, was chosen for the festival to preserve identity, highlighting something not usually highlighted. It is made differently across Palestine.
An ancient and historical city, home to significant landmarks for the biggest Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We visited the Old City, located in East Jerusalem, to see these landmarks, including the Western Wall (Judaism), the Dome of the Rock (Islam), Al-Aqsa mosque (Islam) and the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity). We also went to the Mount of Olives, which is close to the Old City, known to me (as a Christian) as the place where Jesus went after he was betrayed by Judas. There is also a big Jewish cemetery.
Eastern Jerusalem is also a significant area due to disputes over sovereignty: while the Israeli state controls it, it is internationally regarded as part of Palestine. The construction of a wall by Israel, considered a violation of international law by the International Court of Justice, and other restrictions, separated the area from the West Bank. Now, Palestinians in the West Bank have a very limited access to Eastern Jerusalem. While Israel defends the Wall in the name of “security”, Palestinians regard it as an “Apartheid Wall”.
(This topic will be more explored on another post in the series.)
A busy and vibrant city in the centre of the West Bank. It is the administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the governing body in the West Bank area of Palestine. We walked around the city centre and visited the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the first president of the PNA and a renowned Palestinian leader. During the work, we went to two different bars: Vintage and Snowbar. Both of them had relaxing environments in which you could order food, drinks and shisha. I tried shisha, but I didn’t like it (I’m not a fan of smoking). On our free day, I saw the Mandela statue gifted by South Africa to show solidarity with Palestine, as well as the Ramallah Memorial Wall.
My favourite place I visited in Ramallah was the Dar Zhan Heritage house. It is more than 200 years, considered one of the oldest houses in Ramallah. It comprises three rooms, from three different family houses. There are two levels, in between there is an opening from which heat from animals from the low level came to warm up the high level. The family-run heritage house is fascinating showcase of Palestinian culture. There are painting exhibitions from Palestinians, including two Palestinians refugees and locals, artisanal products for sale, Palestinian items and old tools displayed. The owner of the house was very nice and offered us biscuits with tea/coffee, after giving us a nice presentation of the place.
A very warm city in the North of the West Bank, also one of the oldest cities of the world. We went there to spend the night, and were received by the local authorities, who gave us a lecture about Jericho. 3 years ago, it was the 10,000th anniversary of the city. At first, people lived in mountains and caves, then they moved to the valley and built small houses, starting farming. It is the lowest city in the world, more than 400 metres beneath sea level. Jericho is important because it is the fruit basket of Palestine, providing vegetables and fruits across the region. Because there is a lot of oxygen in Jericho, vegetables and fruits have superbquality and taste. There is no need to use chemicals or greenhouses to make the harvest faster.
There are more than 123 old sites (e.g. monasteries and palaces) in the city. Jericho has seen many empires ruling it. If you dig on the soil you can find many archaeological objects from different eras. In 2012, local authorities tried to make Jericho an international UNESCO historical place, but didn’t work. The state of Israel doesn’t want to leave Jericho to Palestinians, arguing about “security reasons”, but local authorities think it is because of the rich culture and history. There are issues with access to water, Palestinians don’t have a right to take water from Jordan. Water in the Jordan River costs millions of dollars and is used by Israel for chemicals and other matters.
In Jericho, we visited the Hisham palace, a significant site for Islamic heritage. The palace was destroyed due to an earthquake and its ruins were found by an archaeologist. It is part of the Umayyad caliphate architecture legacy in Palestine. In the inside, it had Persian and Byzantine decoration. On the outside, gothic elements and symbols. My favourite piece of art was the Mosaic of the Tree of Life: it was made of a tree, gazelles and a lion, representing good and evil, peace and war. Another place we saw was the Mount of Temptation, to which we travelled by cable car on the evening. The night views of Jericho from it were amazing.
A historical city in the South of the West Bank. We visited a Palestinian refugee camp, one of the 59 across the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I always struggled to understand why Palestinian refugees existed inside Palestine: the definition of refugee involves being outside of your state. However, later I learnt that those refugees were citizens evicted from villages after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Their villages are currently part of Israel and they aren’t allowed to return. The camp we visited, known as Dheisheh, was created in 1948. For four years, it was composed of tents. Then tents turned into small units created by the UN. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, although the camp now looks like a well-established neighbourhood, even though quality of life in it isn’t great.
We also went to the Church of the Nativity, were Jesus was born. It was beautiful inside, I was in awe with the drawings and decoration. As a Christian, I felt very special being there because I have heard about the place many times through my life time.
The last place we saw in the area was a beautiful village called Battir. Battir means “house of the bird”. Around 5000 people live there. Many of the residents of the village come from registered refugee families, who left in 1948 because they were scared for their safety, but ended up coming back thanks to Hassan Mustafa, a community leader aware of the borders, the situation and their rights. In fact, community work was very important to build the community and the village, and the tradition still lives. Israel tried to build a wall there, but it was fortunately prevented.
Between 2006-2008, the oldest area in Battir was renovated and given the name “7 Widows”, because the only people who were still living there were seven widows. In it, there are ruins from different civilisations. Recently, the 1st chamber of commerce was open, an artisanal shop. The price of the items comes from its makers. 16 families own a tent each inside the shop. Each object has a label with name of the maker and price. The shop doesn’t take commission. There is box in each tent, anyone who takes something from it puts its cost there: it is a way building trust in the community.
Burqin is a village in the municipality of Jenin, 3.5km away from the city of Jenin. It is famous for its agriculture. There are five schools in the village: two for boys, two for girls and one mixed. There is one medical centre. There are 13 voted members in the municipality. The village wants to develop its tourism. It is home to the 4th oldest church in the world. It is a Roman Orthodox Church made of rocks, built in two different periods of time. The first part contains an old Roman well. People with leprosy used to be isolated inside the well and they were given food and water through an opening. It is reported that Jesus stopped around this place when travelling and cured these ill people.
Both the name of a district and the main city in it, Nablus is a notorious area in the North of the West Bank. We visited Sebastia village to see a historical place full of ruins. It had a roman theatre. Kings across empires and ethnic groups liked to build there. Close to the ruins there is an Israeli settlement. It is a strategical place politically, due to the quest for control over water supplies. The day we were visiting the ruins, we saw a destroyed family business, a café. It had been wrecked by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The family wasn’t allowed to take things out, and they relied on the business for their income.
We also went to the city of Nablus. Students from the An-Najah National University in Nablus gave us a tour around the Old City inside. They spoke about how Nablus is home to Samaritans, Muslims and Christians, who live together as Palestinians. In fact, during Christmas, Muslims are invited to the celebration, and in Ramadan, Christians are invited to break the fasts. Nablus has some of the oldest mosques and churches. While walking around the Old City, we saw a parking were 30 families used to live in their homes. During the Second Intifada in 2012, the area was bombed by Israel and the homes were destroyed. 10 people died. On the streets, there were pictures of Palestinian Freedom Fighters, who sacrificed themselves to defend Nablus, its freedom and its dignity. The Old City is very crowded, but most shops are closed: there is not much tourism in the area.
When comes to landmarks and significant places, we saw a more than 800 years old Turkish bath from the Ottoman Empire, a Nabulsi soap factory owned by a family from Nablus and a kanafeh (delicious Palestinian sweet) bakery. We also learnt about the political importance of the city through history. In 1967, Yasser Arafat and others made significant operations against the Israeli army in the Old City. Over 300 Palestinian freedom fighters lived there. Israel bombed the area. Palestinian freedom fighters had to move to Jordan, then had to leave to Syria, and then to Lebanon. When Israel had war with Lebanon, many of them died. Some moved to North Africa. Many leaders of the movement were assassinated by the Israeli army even abroad. We were told that thanks to those fighters, cities like Nablus still exist.
The last place we went to was the Samaritan Museum. We were given a speech by a Samaritan priest. It was about the 5 principles of Samaritanism, traditions such as circumcisions, how women in their period are treated according to their faith, their version on the history of Judaism & Islam… Samaritans consider themselves the true descendants of Israelites, from Adam and Moses. The Samaritan calendar is often regarded as one of the most accurate in the world. During the division of Kingdoms, Jews were set in Jerusalem and Samaritans in Nablus (Judaism and Samaritanism are very closely related). Samaritans believe in peace, and this nature made them victims of killings through history, going from 3 million believers in Palestine to 785. Religiously talking, the Samaritan priest believed that Jesus came for a specific group, Moses for Israelites, & Mohammed for the whole world. The museum was located in Mount Gerizim, an important place for Samaritans.
(More pictures of all the trip will be uploaded in a near future to my Flickr account.)