Enti Qaweea (You Are Strong), A Reflection on Women in Palestine: Newsletter #5

Em Musa and myself at Meals on Wheels

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.

بجنن \ Bijennan: Newsletter #3

Sunset at Ein Qiniya with Majd and Eli. Photo credit: Reem Masri

I have now been in the Jerusalem area for almost five months. This is an astonishing fact. Time has been moving by at a blinding pace. Frankly, I find this somewhat distressing, and I already find myself dreading the day I say “see you later” to this place that has taken so much of my heart. There is some comfort in the fact, however, that the majority of the year still lies ahead of our ragtag YAGM cohort.

YAGMs “walking on water” in the Galilee. Photo credit: Colin Grangaard

I digress. Time to talk about something that I’ve been reflecting on for the past month. I’ve been more or less silent on social media and the blog for a number of reasons. For example, the craziness of the end of the semester at the School of Hope and the hectic nature of Christmas in the Holy Land took up a lot of time and headspace.

Yet, I think the main reason I’ve been less connected on social media is frequent encounters with startling beauty in and around Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and more. This beauty has left me with a feeling of fullness and contentedness, not desirous of more than to bask in the moment. Another English word that fits well here is “awe” (shout out to Dr. Andy Tix).

To me, the Arabic word that best fits this sense is بجنن / bijennan. I have heard Palestinians use it when referring to people and things that exude beauty, even in their imperfections. Over this holiday season, I found myself speaking it over and over, as it felt like the right thing to say. In this newsletter, I’ll invite you into my life here and share a number of the moments that drew this word from my lips.

At various times throughout December, EIi and I were asked to help with various decorating projects in and around the church. Most of our work was focused on the Lutheran Church of Hope’s sanctuary. In it, Pastor Imad (my host father), a myriad of women and men from the community, and us YAGM put together trees, hung lights, and even built a replica manger scene grotto out of chairs, tables, wire stars, and crumpled paper made to look like stone. We played Christmas music in Arabic and English, and simply rested in the spirit of the season. Late one night, Imad, Ra’id, and myself finished the grotto. I was ready to go onto the next project but both men said, “Let’s just sit and look at it for a while.” We did. Minutes of silence admiring the scene: twinkling lights, wooden Christ child, realistic grotto, hay, and star suspended by fishing line between two chandeliers. بجنن.

December 9th was our friend Ibrahim’s birthday – the big 2-5. Myself and a few friends hatched a plot to surprise him. On the day, I said nothing to him other than asking him to come over later that night. Each of us had an assignment throughout the day. Mine was to get the house in order and purchase a Nutella cake from Ramallah’s Vanilla Café (it is even better than it sounds). We talked to a few friends (he prefers smaller gatherings) and everyone was in position when he arrived. I led him into the living room, and song and laughter soon followed. After, he told me it meant so much to spend his birthday with his closest friends in his “second home.” Bijennan.

My view while walking to pick up the Nutella birthday cake.

The 14-15th of December were spent in Bethlehem for a YAGM cohort Christmas and joint-birthday celebration. We exchanged secret Santa gifts, ate cheesecake (courtesy of Jeni Grangaard), sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Arabic, and offered thanks for this past year with Courtney, Calla, and Colin. The next day, I found myself buying a White Elephant gift for the Bethlehem Bible College’s Christmas Party. An invitation came my way via my friends Keren and Daniel. I faced a dilemma, though – what to buy? White elephant exchanges can be full of gags or somewhat serious/thoughtful. And, I only knew Keren and Dan…I didn’t want to be the one guy no one knows coming in with a gift-wrapped toilet seat. So, I played it safe and got a pretty bowl made in Hebron. However, Keren went the “gag” route and bought live pet fish to give. So, I filled the bowl with fish food to go along with the joke. Hilarity ensued, and I came out of the party with many new friends. And, I got to dance at a club called Taboo and enjoy a late-night kebab sandwich with Dan, Keren, and new friends Areej and Josch. بجنن.

Post White Elephant. The fish are swimming in the kitchen.

The following week was taken up by finals and Christmas celebrations at the School of Hope. Finals mean no real teaching responsibilities for the volunteers, which in turn translates to writing a few grant proposals and spending a lot of time with the teachers. The yearly program here looked like many in the U.S.: all the students are unbelievably cute, but some of them are more gifted singers (or dancers) than others. When one’s child is up front, parents rush up to get the best shot. And, teachers (including English class assistants) have their work cut out for them. In a brief moment of escape, fellow teachers Wafa, Majd, and myself played volleyball for a few minutes in the teachers room. Bijennan.

That evening all the teachers and staff members got together at a local hotel to relish in a job well done. Icebreakers ensued (including me having to speak Arabic into a microphone for the first time) and we enjoyed a wonderful meal together. The best part, however, was the dancing. This group is comprised of fun-loving, life-engaging folks. As such, we all felt comfortable to cut loose and dance together in the hazy, smoke-filled room. And, we had the pleasure of watching Principal Naseef and Pastor Imad tear it up together in the traditional Palestinian dance called dabke. I was astounded by their skill and joy. بجنن.

The best table at the School of Hope Christmas party. Soon after this picture was taken, the dance started.

A couple days later on the 22nd, we “Ramallis” (teachers and staff from Ramallah) made our way through terrible traffic – courtesy of the Qalandia checkpoint – to Beit Sahour for the Lutheran school-wide Christmas party. And a party it was! One of my fellow teachers, a close friend, told me that this is what she appreciates the most about the Lutheran community here – their ability to fill a room with joy. The Ramalli folks dominated the dance floor and afterwards we stayed up together until about 4 AM discussing school, life, meaning, and everything in between. The moon shone full in the sky above and my heart was touched by a deepening love for people and place. Bijennan.

Majd Masri’s rendition of an aspect of the hotel we Ramallis stayed in after the Christmas party.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. The place where it all went down. Around 10:00 AM, Eli and I walked from Jeni and Colin’s place in Beit Safafa through checkpoint 300 into Bethlehem to meet up with our friend Keren and a few others. We situated ourselves just above Star Street at a favorite café to watch the Scouts parade through Bethlehem. This was an experience unlike any other. The scouts are more or less mixed-gender boy/girl scouts that play percussion, brass instruments, and (the best part) bagpipes in their respective communities. Each Christmas Eve, scout troops from the area join a parade from the lower city to Manger Square. The Catholic Patriarch (awesomely named Pierbattista Pizzaballa) brings up the rear, shaking hands along the way – including mine! Seeing some of my friends performing and simply having fun on this journey brought tears to my eyes. After the parade, we attended a number of worship services, including one where Pastor Carrie of the English speaking congregation in Jerusalem offered a reflection on the nature of Christ’s birth and the important role of the midwife who helped bring him into the world. Humility from the start, and humility till the end. We also had dinner next to the Nativity Church and afterwards ended up at my friend Daniel’s house. Stargazing until about four AM. بجنن.

Christmas day. We rise early in order to make it back to Ramallah for the morning service. The road is somewhat long and we’re somewhat ragged, but we get there. I catch the last half of the service and partake in communion. The community meets for a few moments after church at our family’s house for drinks and sweets, but soon filter out to their own homes. Imad’s brother is here visiting with his wife and fun-loving young daughter. We open presents together and then partake in one of the most delicious and meaningful meals of my time thus far: lamb neck, rice with meat, stuffed chicken, assorted veggies, and more. We eat, drink, talk, laugh, tell stories, and play with the kids. One game becomes a mainstay – myself or Imad chase after his niece, she hides in a room and closes the door, and when we walk away she comes out again calling for us to chase her. The dynamic between uncle and niece, brother and brother, wife and husband, and friend to friend is steeped in life. Later in the evening, I look through Rula and Imad’s old wedding photos with my host sisters and turn it in tired, but full. Bijennan.

The next day we woke up slowly. I read a bit of Nora Krug’s Belonging, a first-generation German immigrant’s “reckoning with history and home” in regards to the atrocities propagated by the Nazis and her family’s place in it all (I highly recommend – especially for Americans – given our troubled past characterized by empire and domination). Eli and I then received an invitation from our fellow teacher and friend Majd to watch the sunset from the top of a mountain called Ein Qiniya. That was a no-brainer. In the late afternoon, Eli, Majd, Reem (her twin sister), a French artist named Juliette, and myself wandered the top of the mountain and took in the tapestry that was the sky that evening. We drank in the view while weaving through olive trees and sitting together on top of an abandoned house that has been empty since 1948. Afterwards, we went back to Majd and Reem’s studio to play a card game called Hand and roast chestnuts (I loved this so much I’m now nicknamed Abu El-Kastina, “father of the chestnuts”). While the chestnuts were resting on the space heater, Majd and Reem showed us their awe-inspiring artwork. بجنن.

The next day, Eli and I wandered a rain-soaked Jerusalem in order to get his parents from the airport in Tel Aviv. This was the beginning of a six-day span where it rained daily, and therefore my socks were constantly damp. Somewhat annoying, but the reasons for being out in the rain made it more than worth it. Dinner with Eli’s parents in the Old City. An Ultimate Palestine tournament in Bait Sahour (We came in 4th place out of five teams, but given how new everyone on the Ramallah team was, we were happy with the result). Trip to Haifa with Genna, Katie, and Hannah, my fellow YAGMs. Dinner in Haifa with old friends (Aicha, Ali, Sara, Alaa) and new. Exploring the ramparts of the old city of Akka. Eating burritos. A candlelit New Year’s Eve in Ramallah spent with dear friends playing the Four Questions game (thanks, Keren!). New Year’s day breakfast consisting of za’atar and cheese manaqish at Marcelo’s. Continuing education with the YAGM cohort, including but not limited to: a day trip to Nablus, exploring the precariously-placed Mount of Temptation monastery in Jericho, swimming in the Dead Sea, learning about the racialized roots of mass incarceration in the U.S. through the documentary 13th, engaging in a difficult but important conversation on antiracism, and eating lemon bars to celebrate Katie’s 24th birthday. Bijennan.

Bikafii /بكفي (enough). There you have it. Christmas and the New Year in the Holy Land. Life is not perfect here. It is definitely not always easy for those who live here. A forthcoming blog will explore this more. But, in the midst of the difficulties, there is beauty. There are laughing friends (old and new), hearts drawn close in community and shared suffering, and some of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever seen. I’ve received so much from my friends and companions here, and my life will forever be marked by their love. بجنن.

Newsletter #2: “A Day in the Life”

My eyes open around 7:00 and see a small amount of light coming in through the windows above my bed. This is a sure-fire sign that Eli (my roommate and friend) is eating breakfast. After absentmindedly skimming social media for a few minutes, I rise from my heavily-blanketed bed (the winter has started, and our home is surprisingly chilly) to join him. I start the day with a chuckle – Eli is sipping coffee with leftover spaghetti from last night, having decided to opt out of the usual hummus and bread. I am a few minutes behind him, as this is the one day a week we go to different volunteering sites: Eli to the school and myself to Meals on Wheels.

We chat together about our after-volunteering plans for a few minutes, and then Eli gets up to shower. While eating breakfast, I throw on a podcast. This morning, it is a Radiolab episode discussing the events of mass hysteria that followed fake radio broadcasts proclaiming War of the Worlds alien invasions in the U.S. and Ecuador. It’s a fascinating piece that ends up delving into our tendency as humans to be drawn to horrifying news events in order to be pacified by the calm, commanding voice of the objective news reporter.

I’m still chewing on this idea as I crawl into the warmth of my bed – not to sleep, but to spend about thirty minutes trying to get the Arabic flashcards I’ve been making on my computer squared away. After clicking around for a while and watching a YouTube video, I accomplish half of my goal. I have yet to figure out how to “flip” the cards I’ve made on the Anki flashcard app on my phone. Later.

I glance at my watch and realize that it’s time to shower. I get that done, get dressed, wander out to the living room to strum out a few notes on the ukulele, and then throw on my headphones and begin making my way to Meals on Wheels. In the U.S., Meals on Wheels is a program that delivers food to the homes of people who are unable to get out on their own due to age or disability. The program in Ramallah is similar, but backwards. Each Tuesday, Abu Ali hops into a large van (oftentimes with me) to pick up the 20-30 elderly folks (mostly women) and bring them to the Ramallah Women’s Center for a delicious home cooked meal.

When I am about a third of the way to my volunteering site, the Women’s Center’s van happens to pull up next to me and Nawal signals me in. Nawal is the leader of the Center, a women who strives day in and day out to do the most good possible for the residents and visitors that depend on the Center. She does this work masterfully and with limited resources. She, Abu Ali, and myself chat on the way to the Center after making a short stop at a dukaan (shop) for Abu Ali to grab a small to-go breakfast.

This morning, I decide to forego riding along to pick up the program participants in favor of being present with them as they sit in the Center waiting for the meal. This is a wonderful time for conversation and storytelling. While waiting for the first car-full to come, I spend a few minutes chatting with the kitchen staff: Shahar, Em El-A’bed, and more. They provide me with a glass of tea and I wander outside to a spot that, if you were to visit the Women’s Center on Tuesday morning, you would likely see me sitting. It’s one of my favorite places in the city, as it is a relatively quiet space filled with green – a nature-filled oasis in the middle of the metropolis. Here, I sit quietly to think, pray, read, and reflect.

After about thirty minutes, I see the first group of women pull up in the van. I help a few up the steps and then situate myself next to the group. The topic of conversation wanders from topic to topic, covering things like: cell phone difficulties, things planned for the upcoming holidays, family all over the world, beautiful places to visit in Palestine, and the recent escalation in Gaza. Sometimes, we just sit quietly and listen to the clamoring sounds emanating from the kitchen.

A curious sight – a crew of uniformed governmental officials – enter about forty-five minutes into our time together. It turns out that today is the Palestinian Civil Defense’s volunteering day. Medical practitioners among them start taking blood pressures and one man gives a presentation on safely heating homes in the winter. The Meals on Wheels cohort is captivated, asking many questions and exclaiming when another horror story (on, say, an accident with an indoor heater) is told.

During the presentation, one of the leaders of the Meals on Wheels program, a woman named Selwa, spoke to me about their work. She said that, for the program participants, this program is nothing short of a lifeline. “We need connections as people, and many of these women are lonely because the family is working or gone,” and Meals on Wheels facilitates meaningful relationships between these individuals. And, of course, an ajnabi (foreigner) from Minnesota.

After the uniformed officials left, I help deliver meals. Today: chicken, potatoes, and carrots all slow-cooked together. As usual, it is nothing short of delicious. I grab my plate and happily wolf it down (as an aside, one of the women told me a few minutes before I look like I have gained weight. I think it might be the loose sweater I’m wearing. But, if she is right, I know a large contributor is this scrumptious weekly lunch). After picking the bones clean, I add them to the bag that Leila – one of the women – collects every week to feed the cats outside her house.

I sit and chat for another hour or so, then leave the Center to meet Eli and Majd. Majd is one of the educators at the School of Hope. She teaches art, and is herself an artist. Today, Majd is showing two posters at the Palestinian Museum at Beir Zeit University not far from Ramallah. She created them for the Qalandia International’s Solidarity project. In them, she tied the plight of the Palestinians with other peoples in order to communicate shared values and desires for liberation from injustice. On the way to the university, we pick up two of her friends. One chats with me most of the ride in Arabic (Majd tells me after that he does not know a lot of English, and therefore was excited to talk to a foreigner in his native tongue). He’s a jokester, and we rib each other while trying to stay in our seats on the windy, hilly city streets.

Upon arrival, I am immediately struck by the beauty of the Museum. It’s architecture reminds me of some sort of trapezoidal structure meant to mimic the topography of the mountains around it. The group sits outside for a few minutes to have a smoke (as usual), and then we move downstairs for the presentation. All in all, there are twelve posters communicating Palestinian solidarity with seven countries/places: Yemen, Syria, South Africa, Venezuela, Western Sahara, Africa, and Ireland. Majd’s pieces are beautiful and haunting – see below, words do no justice. There were postcard-sized representations of the posters to take, and hers disappeared first.

Following the exhibition, Eli and I wandered through the exhibit upstairs showcasing traditional Palestinian cross-stitching. Then, we all pack into the car (four deep in the back!) back to Ramallah. After thanking Majd profusely for the ride and for sharing her wonderful work with us, we open the door and promptly make our way to the couches, where I promptly begin to stare at my computer for an embarrassing amount of time while trying to think about how to write this newsletter. Writers block persisting, I decide to make a hummus, hot pepper, and labna (yogurt dip/spread) sandwich. Maybe I’ll find inspiration there.

It worked. Not long after eating, I begin typing the first paragraphs you see above.

As an aside, one thing my cohort and I have learned is that onions and hot peppers are particularly potent here. After cutting peppers, the oil can remain on your fingers for hours, rendering an itchy eye occasion for screams of pain and profuse crying. Eli has taken to wearing gloves when cutting peppers. I did not today.

Having gotten a start on my newsletter, I begin to get ready for the weekly workout with a local organization called Right to Movement (RTM). I go every Tuesday, and every time I get crushed by this punishing hour and a half. Having worn glasses all day, I take them off and, as is my habit, put in my right contact.

Pain. Curse hot peppers. Put in left contact. Pain. Curse them again.

After the tears stopped, I walked the car-filled streets to the gym. This workout is a particularly difficult one, in part due to the sprints and part to the nagging presence of hot peppers in my stomach. Lesson learned. When the workout finishes, ya’tik al’afia (a hard-to-translate phrase that here basically means “good job”) abounds and we take our mandatory post-exercise group picture. I and four other friends (three local, one international) walk back together, making for a conversation in both Arabic and English. My international friend, a woman from Holland, decides to check out a shop to look for a gift for her boyfriend’s family. I decide to join her. The shop worker (and owner’s son) explains the history of the place and even brings us upstairs to the antique museum that is filled to the ceiling with old trinkets, furniture, etc. from all over the world. His father was an avid collector, and his habit served as the motivation to start the shop. While in conversation, the worker and I connect in a special way because that he attended the School of Hope when he was a child.

After taking our leave, my friend and I part ways and I make my way back. Not long after walking through the door, someone tries to get in. No cause for worry, however – we were expecting our friend Ibrahim. Generally the door is unlocked when we are around during the day and he just walks in. He’s become that kind of friend. Eli goes to bed soon after in anticipation of the early morning and long school day before us. Yet, Ibrahim and I have not seen each other for two days. Which, to us, is actually quite a long time. As such, we sit and catch up for about an hour and a half, covering almost every topic imaginable. This is one of the best ways to end the day, in my opinion. Ibrahim is an engineer with a full day tomorrow and as such leaves around 10:45.

I’m tired. So, I read a few pages of Braiding the Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and turn out the lights. Cozy in the dark, I say “thank you” and then drift off.

Phifer’s First YAGM Newsletter

(This is the first of the bi-monthly newsletters I will be sending. If you are interested in receiving them directly via email, please let me know. Otherwise, I will continue sharing them on the blog throughout the year)

On October 14th, just shy of 80 young adults convened in the South Side of Chicago for our Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) orientation. Although the Discernment, Interview, and Placement weekend had taken place months before, in many ways it felt like we had just learned of our country placements. The reality of the coming year had not yet settled in. But, after eight days of group conversation, sharing of painful and beautiful stories, exploring privilege, prayer, worship, ultimate frisbee, liar’s dice, and more, the time had come – whether we were ready or not. For me, personally, I was eagerly anticipating our departure, despite how surprisingly difficult saying “see you when I see you” to many members of this remarkable community was.

We were welcomed in Tel Aviv after our 11-hour overnight flight from New York by the Grangaard family – Jeni, Colin, Josie, and Amos – alongside Adrienne Gray, another ELCA missionary. Jeni and Colin are the JWB country coordinators, and Josie and Amos are their wonderful children. We then took jet-lagged selves to their home for a light lunch and some introductory conversations. That night, we got to know each other better over delicious pizza from Bethlehem’s Zuwadeh restaurant, and soon after tried to catch up on some sleep. Some familiar sounds and smells greeted me from the start, such as the call to prayer out of a mosque near we were staying and the aroma of jasmine wafting from the plant just outside our building.

The next two weeks of in-country orientation were a blur of activity. The first few days were full of procedures/safety protocols, the hilarious “Servant Leader, Servant Schmuck, and Servant Martyr” exercise aimed at helping us imagine what a successful life looks like here, and intermittent periods of prayer and spiritual reflection on our journeys that brought us to the JWB program. In one of the afternoons, we hiked the Wadi Makhrour valley from Beit Jala to the beautiful town of Battir with a local guide. Along the way, he pointed out a myriad of plants and geological features, and also provided a vast amount of historical information. For example, Battir is the location where the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E) against the Romans was definitively crushed.

Some of the most powerful moments, however, came when he discussed his life growing up as a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Our guide spoke nonchalantly about being imprisoned twice during the second intifada for no explainable reason. Further, he discussed worries about announced Israeli settlement expansions around al-Makhrour and Battir that would effectively wipe out a Palestinian town called al-Walaja. He then explained that this Christian faith keeps him, despite the injustices that so characterize his existence, from hating his enemies. Instead, he feels called to work towards justice and the good of all people in the land.

The rest of orientation carried on in a similar manner. We learned from many Palestinians and a number of Israelis the ancient and current happenings in the Holy Land as we toured the Bethlehem area, the Old City of Jerusalem, Lutheran World Federation-run Augusta Victoria Hospital, and the various neighborhoods and settlements that comprise the greater Jerusalem area. As a group, we also visited each Lutheran School/volunteer site in which we will be working.

Recently, Eli Yackel-Juleen and myself moved into our home for the next year. Over the past week, we have worshipped with the Lutheran Church of Hope, hit the ground running in the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah, and shared delicious meals with our host family. Furthermore, this week I met with the Meals on Wheels program, and am incredibly excited to form relationships with members of the elderly population in Ramallah as a part of this community-centered service.

This place is already starting to feel like home, and I look forward to meeting many more people as I continue to establish myself here. The next steps on my list: playing with Ramallah’s newly formed Ultimate Frisbee club and joining the local Right to Movement running club.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers and support. As always, I welcome any correspondence and am happy to answer questions you have for me. I look forward to learning together with you.