The majority of my volunteering here consists of assisting the English and science teachers at the School of Hope. However, one day a week – every Tuesday – I throw on some music, walk past the Ramallah hospital, and end up at the Ramallah Women’s Center where Meals on Wheels (MoW) is held. MoW is a program that may be very familiar to some readers. In the U.S., volunteers deliver meals to elderly and infirm participants at their homes. In the past, our project was set up in a much similar way. Today, however, instead of the “wheels” taking meals to each participant in their home, they bring them from home to the Women’s Center. There, a hearty, homemade meal is served, medications are administered, and community is fostered.
The main goal behind placing a YAGM volunteer like myself with MoW is to help support the final aspect of that list: the formation of a community. Past volunteers have had the opportunity to run with this objective in the best way they see fit. For example, this year I heard many things about Katherine’s Valentines Day art exchange with the second grade at the School of Hope. One thing that I brought to the table this year was previous experience and ambition to improve in Arabic. As such, I have spend a considerable amount of time honing my language skills through regular classes and intentionally taken risks to try new words and phrases each week with the program participants. At the beginning of the year I spent the majority of my time simply listening intently, trying to pick up on the flow of their rapid conversations.
A few months ago, I finally got to the point where they were comfortable with me and my command of the language was such that I could meaningfully engage in dialogue (I am far from fluent, but, thankfully, have become conversant). MoW quickly became one of the highlights of my week, and this is largely due to my burgeoning relationship with a woman named Mansura (or, Em Musa, meaning “the mother of Musa,” which is part of a cultural convention where the mother and father assume the name of their first-born son).
I had always noticed that there was a special deference and respect shown to her from the other program participants and even the staff. She also was particularly graceful when engaging with some of the workers at the Women’s Center who have disabilities, always going out of her way to converse with individuals who were often ignored by others. I sat next to her one day and spent most of the time discussing her grandson’s medical studies in Georgia, family living in Lexington, Kentucky, and personal health problems. In the following weeks, we went deeper.
One day, a few simple questions in my limited Arabic led us into a conversation about her past that both challenged and inspired me.
She was married at the age of twenty. Throughout her twenties she had four children: two girls and two boys. Raising kids is a time-consuming job, one that many choose to devote their entire lives to. However, Em Musa saw that, although her family was the most important thing to her, there were larger forces at play that called her to action. Therefore, she chose to work towards justice for her people by becoming active in the Palestinian resistance movement. To this day, she bears the scars of this decision. In the span of her time as an activist, she was wounded on her forehead, shot in her left thigh, and spent almost a year and a half in prison. At some point after her release, her husband suddenly passed away during the Easter season when their youngest child was just two and a half years old. To this day, she has not remarried or even made traditional Easter cookies called ma’mool due to the pain of this loss.
Yet, Em Musa continued to strive. Her job sustained the family and now all four of her children are thriving. Today, she is still active in the community through her church and other organizations. All I could manage to say to her throughout this story was “enti qaweea” (you are strong). Her life, for me, is a compelling example of strength employed for the good of others – both family and the larger human community.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for sharing her story with me and tried to communicate how much she means to me. She answered “You are like one of my children. Thank you.” Tears filled my eyes. Now, on a weekly basis, she saves the seat next to her for me. I have grown to love her, and feel the weight of that privilege and gift.
On Women in Palestine
Her story spurred me to better take note of the strength the women that I’ve met here possess in the face of the significant challenges that confront them. Last weekend, our YAGM cohort spent a couple days reflecting on how to “leave well,” as our time in Jerusalem and the West Bank is quickly coming to a close. One of the questions we were asked to think about was “tell us about the women in your host community.” This was perhaps my favorite to engage with, as names and faces and stories began to flood my thoughts.
I thought of Em Musa and her sacrificial commitment to political activism and family. I thought of Aseel and her choice to forego a lucrative job and instead pursue a career in human rights law. I thought of Majd and Reem, two artists who engage their personal stories with larger social issues, and, also, simply pursue beauty. I thought of Areej’s tenacious spirit, and her liberation theology-fueled passion to strive for political and social justice for all people in this land. I thought of Rula, my host mother who balances work, church, and home life with grace and fortitude. I thought of Ms. Amaani, our school’s biology teacher, who brings joyful energy to her role as a mentor and educator. I thought of Diala and her wonderful leadership of Right to Movement – an internationally recognized running club – in Ramallah. I thought of Ms. Mays, the School of Hope’s assistant principal, who not only literally makes our school function, but also is working toward her masters while raising two small children.
The list goes on and on. The women here in this land are nothing short of astonishing. Despite the difficulties and barriers imposed by ongoing military occupation and often-times stifling social norms, they continue to give of themselves for the good of others. I am immeasurably better for having known them, and can leave this place with a measure of peace knowing that the future here is in the hands of strong, kind, driven, ambitious, justice-oriented women such as these.