This blog post has been contributed by Sean, a Leeds Beckett student who participated in the 2014 volunteering/walking trip in Israel and Palestine, organised by the university and supported by the UK Friends.
The Israel and Palestine conflict has been one of the most important political and social issues of the last three decades or more. The conflict has been widely reported, so it is very prominent in minds of the public and the suffering of everyone involved in the conflict is clearer to see. The result is that many may feel they want to help relieve some of the suffering and contribute to building peace in the area.
The Abraham Path trail and community service scheme, run in the UK through Leeds Beckett University and the UK Friends of Abraham’s Path (UKFAP), enables individuals to work in groups in communities on projects aimed at creating the environment where dialogue and understanding can flourish. UKFAP also aim to facilitate dialogue at home.
Leeds Beckett and UKFAP organised a trip to Israel and Palestine in the summer of 2014 that involved a mixed schedule of volunteering, hiking and educational outings. The volunteering was based in two places; in a Bedouin community in the Negev desert and at a Christian farm just outside Bethlehem.
The Bedouin community in the Negev desert is increasingly being pushed in to a small area of the desert. As a semi nomadic people, this has become an issue. When they have tried to settle in traditional villages, their homesteads are considered illegal so that new houses are destroyed by the state. The volunteering project in this community was focused on finding a way to build new houses, cheaply, quickly and out of natural material. Our group was almost used to test this project, which a local Israeli hopes to extend across the Negev. Visiting this community can also be viewed as an act of solidarity, showing the Bedouin that they are not forgotten. Our hosts urged everyone who visited to go home and talk about their plight.
The second base for volunteering was in the Tent of Nations, a Christian Palestinian family farm that aims to bring a message of peace within the community. Surrounded by Israeli settlements, they are exercising their right to remain and their motto is “We refuse to be enemies‘’. Groups from all around the world (Including Israel) come to work on the farm, see the consequence of conflict first-hand and show solidarity with the family. The work that was undertaken involved planting a small vine yard, and clearing a stony area for further planting of crops.
I believe the Leeds Beckett/UKFAP volunteering opportunity is important. It enables everyone who goes on the trip to gain a fuller understanding of the conflict and history of the area. It also enables us to help in whatever way we can in bringing hope to the people of Israel and Palestine.
The trip lasted 2 weeks and involved 60 hours of volunteering. We stayed with local families in the Negev desert, and were able to wander around historic Jerusalem and the modern capital of Tel Aviv. Along our journey we were able to see a Palestine and Israel that most other visitors would not. We gained first-hand accounts from people from all walks of life about the conflict. We worked alongside activists on both sides of the conflict and local people. Abraham’s Path aims to give a powerful educational experience that means people bring home a fuller view on the culture of both Israel and Palestine – a view that has the potential change people’s lives.
Thanks to Jeanne Coker for this blog – edited from a record of the journey written for ‘Christians Aware’.
Note to readers: Italicised sentences have been added to the original text for additional clarification.
The group met together at the delightful Amman Pasha Hotel. A meal on the roof, overlooking the Roman amphitheatre, to introduce ourselves before setting off the next day. We start by driving to Ajloun Castle, built by one of Saladdin’s generals in 1184. We walk North up and down the rocky hillsides and along the wadis. It is tough walking but our guides take good care of us. We are led by Murad from “Experience Jordan” (the Jordanian travel agency which is the local AP partner) and accompanied by a person from the local community. The trail has recently been marked by a group of young people from the local community together with people from the UK and the USA. The team need to explain to local villagers what they are doing. There is some suspicion that they might be a political party and need to overcome this! Another problem is what to mark. The only static objects are electricity poles but in between rocks are chosen which are unlikely to be moved by a local farmer. Our trail takes us through the village of Baoun and visit the site of Mar Elias (known as Tishbe in the Bible) the home-town of the Prophet Elijah. It has been a hot, tough day so we are pleased to reach our homestay in Orjan where we will spend two nights. Homestays are an essential part of the itinerary – local people provide food and somewhere to wash and to sleep. The money we pay for this hospitality goes directly to the local community. We are also able to learn a little of the local customs and culture. Some visit the Soap House, a local income generation project, but I need to rest my weary feet! Our hosts feed us well, too well; the showers are very welcome and the beds are comfortable so we are refreshed for further walking – Rasoun, Beit Idis, and finally Pella which is one of the Decapolis cities located along the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.
Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark
Here we participate in some community service
The Sharhabil Bin Hassah Dam (Ziqlab) is the first dam built in Jordan (1964). It is one of the clearest water resources in Jordan.
The park was established in 2005 – to rehabilitate and conserve the natural ecosystem of this area. Prior to that time this area was suffering from pollution, overgrazing by livestock, and soil erosion. Now it is a green oasis. Staff outlined various projects, the aim of which is to improve the lives of people in the local communities in the Jordan valley.
There are 10 wooden eco lodges which are used for residential conferences and the paying public (to raise money to resource the park). Visitors are guided on the walking trails – another source of income. There are two natural wetlands which are major breeding grounds for birds and animals. There is a small artificial wetland where grey water from showers and sinks is treated and then used in plant irrigation.
A geodesic dome was built by local students. These domes are easily built with no need for internal support. They have good acoustics so can be used for lectures without the need for amplification. It is also used for theatre where the audience sit outside.
The area is green with mature trees (which need little water) where once was stony desert. We spent some time weeding with hoes around established plants and filling 2 litre drinks bottles with sand to create the walls of a bird hide.
The next day we took to transport instead of walking which was considered unsafe by our guide after 24 hours of rain (more rain fell than during the winter rainy season) which pleased the Jordanians but limited our activities. As we drive north along the ridge we see the River Jordan way below and the Ash-Shaykh Husayn crossing into Israel. One of our group took this crossing into Israel and then on to Nablus where he was planning to set up a town twinning in Colorado. Onwards to Um Qais, another Decapolis city. It is a large site with paved Roman road looking over the Golan Heights down to Lake Tiberias. The town is called Gadara (reference Mark 5 vv 1-15. And v20 – So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.). We return to Amman for our first encounter with refugees.
Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ)
Founded in 2011 in response to the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan, HRJ is a volunteer organization that seeks to support local and international charities meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees and Jordanians. HRJ currently supports over 20 local charities all over Jordan and many formal and informal schools. These numbers are expected to rise.
Funds permitting, HRJ is able to respond quickly to needs highlighted by these charities, acquiring essentials such as baby and children’s clothes, shoes, toys, blankets, kitchen supplies, milk powder, hygiene items, school supplies and medical equipment.
HRJ has over 150 international and some local, non-political, non-profit charities working with refugees and Jordanians in the host communities. The close working relationship between Mercy Corps and HRJ ensures that items bought complement existing programs, plug any gaps and meet any emergency needs that are highlighted by field workers in host and camp communities.
We went out, with other international volunteers, to a refugee camp in an industrial area of Amman. There are about 200 families living in tents on waste land beside modern commercial buildings. We took craft material and other activity material together with a clown from Ecuador! On the way we bought bananas, tetra packs and cakes. We were told to expect 100 children, we catered for 120 but many went away disappointed. I watched three brothers who walked around holding hands, disappointment on their faces not to get a banana; they only know the daily round of having nothing to do, nowhere to go where a shared banana is their greatest treat. I walked around the campsite and talked to a teenager in a wheelchair. The mother invited me into their tent where there was another severely disabled child about 8 or 9 (both children probably have cerebral palsy). Inside the tent the thing that struck me most was the total absence of possessions.
The Christian Missionary Alliance at Al Mafraq
“Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity” psalm 131.1
It has opened the church to co-ordinate the work with refugees living in the community in the area of Al Mafraq to the northern border. The church is supporting Muslims – my brother in need. It has brought church members (about 70) together as a family. The paid pastors in the church are all Jordanian. Currently there are 38 short term volunteers, funded from where they come. These revitalise the long term volunteers where there are problems of “burn out”. There is a building programme at the church for more accommodation for the volunteers with much of the funding coming from a church in Surrey. The Missionary Alliance is audited (by Mercy Alliance) to see how the donor money is spent.
We were given a presentation on the CMA’s work with refugees. It was explained that there is limited access for volunteers into the UNHCR camp where most refugees start out. Refugees need to be sponsored by a Jordanian family to leave the camp but many leave illegally. (Hence the work of the CMA who run their own registration process to track the families they are supporting). About a dozen NGO’s support the CMA. These include: local Jordanian volunteer organisations; Docas Aid, a Dutch NGO; Medair, who pays the rent; Mercy Malaysia, who provides the heating; and the Czech Republic,a major donor.
(At first CMA’s work was mainly handling out a welcome pack to each family they registered. The welcome pack contents, in two parts, were:)
Basic provision: mattresses, blankets, pillows, floor mat, gas stove, gas bottle
Consumables: food packages, clothes, diapers, medical equipment
660 packs have been delivered in the last three months (February to May 2014).
40 families were registered in the winter 2011/2012; the following year this number was 3,000. Now there is an average of 40 new families registering, twice a week (family size average is 5.8 people). Families fled Syria with no possessions, and Jordanian families sheltered them (where they were supposed to pay rent). Now, over a year in, the CMA has turned its attention from basic relief toward development to address the long-term problems arising from permanent refugee status. Jordanian schools have opened a second (afternoon) shift for Syrian children but there is no capacity for the remaining 50%. Muslims pay 2% a year to local organisations. It is called Zakat and helps poor Jordanians too.
The CMA’s approach to the refugee challenge is governed by a set of simple principles: Everyone is an individual; Openness; Flexibility; Help in what people need; Do what can be done; Patience in listening to people’s traumas; Accountability; Weekly meeting for encouragement and feedback
After our morning with the CMA, we drove to the border at the Jabir checkpoint and crossing, taking with us packages of provisions (containing much the same as UK food banks) and clothing. We distributed these to families who fled at the beginning of the hostilities. They live in concrete rooms, open at the front, which were intended as shop premises. I asked about toilet facilities and how they managed to wash clothes. The response – “The neighbouring shopkeeper is so kind”.
Penny Cowell from East Sheen writes about the UK Friends walk in Jordan in May:
Tinkling goat bells, the smiling welcome of our Jordanian hosts and their wonderful hospitality, the muezzin’s call to prayer, ancient ruins lying long forgotten on the hillside, the laughter of refugee children – these are some of my abiding memories of a week in Jordan, walking along the Abraham Path, a long distance walking trail across the Middle East.
There were eleven of us from the UK branch with a local guide. We spent three days trekking and it was like stepping back two thousand years as we walked amongst the olive groves and watched the Bedouin shepherds with their flocks on the hills. We stayed with local families, enjoying wonderful Arab hospitality. On one day of unheard of rain we visited the vast ruined city of Umm Qais, where Christ cast out the devils and they entered the Gadarene swine.
At the end we had the opportunity for three days community service. We spend one day working at a Friends of the Earth Middle East ecopark and two days with Syrian refugees. Jordan has one and a half million living in the country and 600 more arrive every day, most of them hoping to return. We entertained children in a tented city and delivered food parcels to families living in a squalid concrete shopping mall within sight of the Syrian border. I was struck by their quiet dignity and welcome.
It was altogether an amazing experience and I felt immensely privileged to have been able to go. As the leader of our group summed up: step by step we are all walking side by side towards a common goal. Yahweh, Allah, God. Shalom, salaam, peace.
Max Farrar, Board member of UK Friends of Abraham’s Path, writes:
Leeds Metropolitan University linked up with what was then called the Abraham Path Initiative back in 2007. The Vice Chancellor at that time, Professor Simon Lee, could immediately see how important this project was. I was Head of the Community Partnerships and Volunteering office at Leeds Met. Simon suggested we took a party of our students to help develop the Path in north Jordan. This was to be one of our ‘international volunteering’ projects, enhanced by joining with a party of students from Yarmouk University in north Jordan. In June 2008 seven Leeds Met students, the Yarmouk students and me worked with the API team on road-and-home stay-testing the path in the Al Ajloun region. It was a life-changing experience for us all.
As a result, with help from Daniel Adamson, the British member of the API staff in Jordan, I started the process of forming the UK Friends of Abraham’s Path. I retired from Leeds Met in 2009 but the university wanted to continue its international volunteering in the Middle East. So the UK Friends partnered up with my old office, now run by Chloe Hudson, and we developed, with great input from Daniel, a trip to Israel and Palestine, which duly took place in the summer of 2013. We learnt a lot from the students’ responses to the 2013 trip (some of them appear below) and a different version of that experience is happening in the summer of 2014.
The sheer amount and impact of what I learnt and experienced in those short two weeks will stay with me forever. From the highs of the breath-taking scenery of Abraham’s Path to the lows of a refugee camp created a trip of a lifetime for me. Having been lucky enough to go on a number of other volunteering trips, even I was surprised at how emotional, complicated and deep the trip was for me.
Two immediate and practical outcomes: I have cut down the time I spend in the shower knowing of the dire water shortages on the Palestinian side; and I talk about the beauty and safety of the region we hiked, travelled, home-stayed and laughed in.
My aim from now on be able to confidently answer back to the shocked faces and stern enquires of ‘Why the hell are you off there?!’when I told the bank manager, friends and colleagues that I was off to Israel and Palestine for two weeks. It is a place of historical importance, beauty, culture, entrenched politics, the centre of the three Abraham religions and key to the future as we all know of the efforts that have gone into securing peace in the Middle East. The people are so friendly which I am especially happy to report due to the fact most will have either lived in fear or oppression all their lives.
I have learnt that hope is an immensely powerful emotion – one that people spend their entire lives living by and, for some, justifies their very existence to HOPE for a solution and for the Palestinians at least the hope to, one day, return to their homes. The state of Israel was formed by the hope of the Jewish people for somewhere to finally call home and somewhere safe for them in the Land they believed was promised to them by God. I will never use the word ‘hope’lightly anymore or lessen its use in future.
I’ve learnt that no peace can come without justice too. How can there be a two state solution when there are Palestinians who have no access to water or electricity? Those basic needs were always in my head even in the relaxing times on the beach in Tel Aviv and in the historic city of Jericho. I almost could not stomach the Herculean admiration and awe for an ancient water cistern hand-carved in the rocks beneath the ground on the Israeli side, as we knew they were still building and using them to collect rain water on the Palestinian villages and farms scattered across the land. It was either ignorance or the human emotion of simply forgetting, especially in this case, that made me feel so ill. It will be extremely difficult to find a solution due to the politics and views that are entrenched from birth about the opposing sides.
If only the path to a solution and true peace was as beautiful, thought-provoking and inspirational as Abraham’s Path itself we would be in a much better position.
One thing that I definitely got to appreciate a lot more after having seen all the injustice, segregation and deprived living conditions in general of the Palestinians, is that we in Western Europe have real democracies, with fair and (politically) independent jurisdiction.
I experienced injustice. I also experienced hope.
I remember Hamsah (a guide) saying that he was still full of hope for the return to his family’s house/land one day. And if not him, then maybe his children or grandchildren…this hope I find is good and inspiring although it might hold worrying potential in the future. This hope is what keeps them going: alive, calm and mostly peaceful – for now I’d say. But what happens with future generations who will get more and more detached from the original conflict?
It is truly admirable that people like Hamsah or Amal (from the Tent of Nations) can still be so positive and are able to transform negative feelings into something that can actually have a great positive impact on their local communities but also inspire visitors like us with their great attitude!
I’ve also learned that it is difficult to talk about this conflict with many Israelis. There are a lot of very open people and those against what their government does, but I feel it is a topic where the general rule is “Don’t ask them about it.”
Other things I learned: how perfectly safe it is to travel and be in the West Bank (at least with a good guide like Dan). I never thought the food would be so amazing….I’ve never experienced such hospitality towards total strangers! That moment of being invited to a cup of tea on my first night definitely was a key moment.
I felt very welcome in the West Bank and liked the overall atmosphere and environment the people create with their mentality.
It was also great seeing what kind of skills Muhanned (another guide) has with regard to our senses. He smelt a cadaver ten minutes before we got there; he knocked out that scorpion; he made tea and made a fire with a few stones and wood he collected on the way. If there was to be any big catastrophe he would definitely know how to survive and feed his family. We’re already starting to be useless and feel helpless if we don’t have our phones or the internet around all the time.
First of all I would like to say that I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I have learned so much about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and we were welcomed by lovely people everywhere we visited. The experience that we’ve had is beyond what anyone could learn from an academic course and also beyond the news headlines. I was very touched by the stories we heard and I have great admiration for the resistance and strength of the Palestinians despite the oppression imposed by the Israelis. Unfortunately, when we visited Israel I didn’t feel that the Israelis had much compassion for the Palestinians and they seemed to be unaffected by the conflict, but it was important that we visited both sides.
I will continue to share what I have learned with my colleagues, friends, family and hopefully raise awareness of the conflict. The experience has also made me appreciate having running water, electricity and overall freedom of movement. I now feel that I have a strong connection with the areas we visited and I would love to go back and help the people who are affected by the conflict in any possible way.
It has been an amazing journey and a life changing experience. Over a small period of time I felt I was fairly educated about the conflict and the situation on both sides which was one of my main objectives. It was physically and mentally challenging but I believe the amount of time, effort and research put behind each activity really facilitated us and made it such a joyful experience.
We worked with the communities on the ground and had dialogues across the borders. This was a great sense of achievement as we felt that we contributed to making a differences by reducing the barriers and bridging the gaps in a most divided community. We worked with people with such positivity and spirits who taught us that in spite of suffering , injustice and oppression their determination to do good has only become stronger and stronger.
It was wonderful to know that in spite of on-going struggle a large number of organisations are striving so hard to promote non-violent resistance and bridge the gap between Palestine and Israel.
We have had some of the most amazing memories to take away such as playing with children at refugee camp; visiting Batir; the home-stay in Kufr Malek and the Palestinian wedding; the visit to the Dome of the Rock and the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.