By Sam, Palestine
After graduating from university in 2015, I spent three years moving around the cities of the West Bank, unemployed and looking for a job or any other opportunity.
Given the situation of favouritism and nepotism in my country, all my attempts meant nothing, and I lived three years in a bubble of puzzle and isolation. Personally, I lost all hopes of helping myself or my family, who had sacrificed a lot for me to be able to study media at university. I was spending my time doing nothing but browsing my Facebook, feeling completely useless and numb.
One day, spontaneously, I saw a post on Facebook for an institution in Israel called the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES).
The add explained that the institute was located in Israel but provided opportunities for Palestinians to go to Israel and study. I didn’t know what to do. I was stuck in the West Bank with no opportunities, and had no way of seeing things change, spending my time in a refugee camp, feeling depressed. When I thought about studying in Israel, I felt a deep sadness that I would be studying and dealing with Israelis who I considered killers and occupiers. But I decided to apply, I needed a way out of my camp, I wanted to see what life felt like outside of this big opened-air prison. I got an email back from the Arava Institute asking me to apply for a scholarship, and a few months later I got accepted after a very long application process. At that time, my eyes were alive with hate. I had no way inside my heart to reconcile with killers. Jews and Israelis, for me, were killers. But I needed to go, holding all of my fears and caution, to discover a new adventure inside Israel. I had no idea this decision would change my life forever.
On the Thirteenth of February 2018, I started studying at the Arava Institute. I arrived to meet many students from all over the world: Palestine, Israel, Jordan, the US, Europe and more. I was really impressed to witness all of these people studying together, and discussing their own stories as one big family. To be honest, in the beginning, I was terrified and confused. I asked myself what I was doing with a lot of Israelis and Jews around me. The hate was still lingering in my heart, I still carried all the trauma of my childhood and my life under occupation. Participating with Israelis and Jews from all over the world in many different activities was the hardest decision I have ever made in my life. It is not easy for a Palestinian refugee who lives in a refugee camp to do that. I encouraged myself and pushed myself to talk to people who I did not use to talk to. I wanted to show them the truth, the place where I came from, the experiences of being a Palestinian during the conflict. I wanted people to know how my life was destroyed, how I was confined to the big prison of a refugee camp for most of my life.
Day by day, I noticed my thoughts and feelings were shifting. All of the experiences I was having were completely new. It was my first time talking with Jews and Israelis, my first time studying with Israelis, sharing meals with Israelis. Every day brought new questions, as we had a very intensive program of dialogue sessions and classes. We were studying and discussing the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, together as a group of Israelis, Palestinians, and international students. We lived, learned, researched, and discussed many different approaches to peace, conflict and the environment. In Israel, I was really shocked to meet Israelis who were very supportive of Palestine and our struggles. I met Jews participating in demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the Israeli government and its aggressive actions against Palestinians. I did not know that these people existed before. Since then, I had to start rethinking everything related to the conflict. Week after week, I became friendlier with people I used to hate, they showed me the love and respect that I needed to be able to humanize and find forgiveness in my heart. They introduced me to their families, invited me to play soccer with them. We exchanged our cultures, danced and celebrated life during the night together, shared our secrets and stories together. These experiences allowed me to understand how to communicate and respect the varying opinions of my peers. Through living and studying together, we were able to form a relationship outside of the pain that was inherent in our different narratives. We built relationships through our shared humanity.
During the week, we would take classes in environmental studies and once a week, we would sit together and talk about the conflict. When I first heard the Israeli narrative, I would yell and scream in anger in response to what I heard. I couldn’t even listen to what they were saying. I couldn’t understand how the people I played soccer with after classes were also Israelis with such painful opinions and narratives.
At that moment, I had to think very deeply about why I have to hate the people who opened their doors for me and listened to my story. I know I have a lot of stories and hate in my past, but at the same time, a lot of them are innocent and are not willing to continue the conflict. I had been uninformed that there are a lot of Jews from all over the world who aren’t even connected to the conflict, and a lot of Israelis who loved me and shared their secrets with me. How could I hate them in the first place? We have to be very brave to share these topics about peace with the public, when many of these topics are considered unmentionable. Despite all my pains, I knew that if we wanted to keep focusing on revenge, we were going to lose more. The new generations of Palestinians will have the same pain that my generation had. I would never wish that upon my children and my people in future. Merely thinking of this instils fear in me. I do not want to let the next generation see what I saw.
As a refugee living in a Palestinian refugee camp, with poor education systems and diminished living conditions, I was blind to the possibility of a clear future. Despite these many challenges, now I have changed. Through my beliefs, I have been encouraged to know more about Israeli society, and to try and find the best solution for my people. I started participating in a lot of activities in Israel: conferences, workshops, and lectures, with a different organization who believe in peace (AIES, Yad Beyad, YaLa Young Leaders). This has taught me the skill of listening, which has proven to be the most valuable skill in a conflict-stricken world.