In 2016 I got the opportunity to live in Bethlehem, Palestine, to do an internship for an NGO. Our university wanted to send all of us to different corners of the world and as soon as I saw Palestine on the list, I knew I wanted to go there. And it was probably one of the best decisions of my life. My parents weren’t exactly happy that I was going there considering that all information they’ve ever gotten about Palestine was through media. Which doesn’t really depict it as the safest place to be. But how could they say no when it’s my own university who sends me there?
And so began my little journey to Israel and Palestine, which would eventually lead me back there a few months after. Me and 5 other classmates were going to split up for our internships in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. I got paired up with a girl from my class whom I also lived with – and laughed with, a lot.
When I landed in Tel Aviv, I started doubting this whole experience though. I had a boyfriend back then and knew for a fact that our relationship wouldn’t survive those months apart. But I also knew that if it couldn’t survive this, it wouldn’t last at all. And so it ended and instead, something else began in my life. I didn’t really know what to expect from Palestine, but I was more than shocked to realise that after a 40 minutes drive from Jerusalem, I had come to my destination. I thought it was a joke when they told me I had arrived to my destination. I’m not sure what I expected, but I thought it would be way more complicated to enter Palestine. Little did I know that it wasn’t getting in that was hard, it was getting out.
I did an internship at Wi’Am, which consisted of the nicest little team. We all got along very well and there wasn’t one day we didn’t drink tea together. I don’t think I’ve ever had that much tea to be honest. We worked just by the Separation Wall, which to me felt really eery in the beginning, but I was surprised by how fast I got used to it. And also how quickly I got used to seeing men walking around with guns.
Although we didn’t do a lot for the organisation, I learnt immensely just by living there and being able to speak to locals. Every weekend I tried to travel to a new place in Palestine, often alone, to see how life differed. I never felt scared, or threatened – quite the contrary. Everywhere I went, there was always someone polite who asked me if I was lost (not in a creepy way, thank god), if I wanted to have dinner with him and his family and if I liked Palestine. I said I really do and that I was a vegetarian, but would love to come and eat dinner one day. As with everywhere in the world, they thought I was a bit weird for being vegetarian, but told me that there were lots of choices I could eat, such as falafel… and more falafel. Which I didn’t mind AT ALL. And let’s not forget my favourites – hummus and tahini. For three months, that’s what I ate, and it was everything I’d ever wished for.
I managed to visit Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron (horrible, terrible place where you really get to see the ugly side of the conflict), Jericho and the Dead Sea during my months in Palestine. I traveled a bit in northern Israel as well, which took my breath away. But it was Palestine that really fascinated me. It was a culture that was so far away from anything I’d ever experienced before. The people were so kind and curious about us – but not in that annoying way – and just wanted us to get the best impression, since they’re well aware of how badly they’re portrayed in media. This made me realise that in order to get a full picture of a place, you just have to go there yourself. It’s impossible to trust everything media says and even if they’re right about one thing, a country and its people has more than one layer to them.
Living in Palestine made it possible for me to get my own impression of the conflict, the people living there, of the country, of the nature and surroundings. I got to form my own opinion because I had actually lived there and seen it with my own eyes, I got to hear stories from locals and not from politicians, and I was living not in a hotel, but in an apartment with Palestinian neighbours. It was an experience that I’m sure I’ll never get again. The world changed to me after this experience. I realised that even if we think we know something, we probably don’t know half of it. It’s not until we experience it ourselves that we can start forming real opinions.
I had my prejudices about Palestine before I came. The only thing that popped up into my mind was the conflict and that it seemed underdeveloped. I know – I was full of imagination right. But I quickly realised that life here was quite different than from what I had imagined it to be. Palestine isn’t this dangerous, war struck, poor country that we’ve been fed with in media. In my eyes, it’s this wonderful, beautiful place that I was lucky enough to call home and that really did feel like home to me. Strange, isn’t it? That a place that resembles nothing like what you’re used to, can feel so welcoming and safe. Of course it has several layers to it and I’m just rambling up the things I liked about Palestine, and don’t even get me started about the conflict. It’s a discussion that can go on forever without ever reaching a reasonable end. Which is exactly what’s going on at the moment.
I hope more people will actually take the time to visit Palestine, not just for a few hours, but at least for a few days. Talk to people, eat hummus, drink tea, visit the Dead Sea, become more educated in the conflict and come with an open mind. Don’t make up your mind before you’ve heard both sides. It’s equally as important to hear what the Israelis have to say. And remember to never judge a book by its cover – or by what media has to say about it.