Volunteer in the Palestinian West Bank with Project Hope
Article and Photos by Stephen Bugno
|Palestinian children in Nablus, West Bank.
There is no better way to experience Palestinian culture and get an inside look at life under the Israeli occupation then to go to the West Bank as a volunteer. I was in the midst of a 5-month Istanbul to Cairo overland trip when I found myself being drawn here to stay for a month. The incredible warmth and hospitality of the Palestinian people made it an easy choice for me.
Volunteering in the West Bank
I recommend volunteering through Project Hope in Nablus because of the diversity of projects you are able to carry out. I taught English to university-level students, but there are plenty of opportunities to go into the refugee camps to teach children not only English, but French as well. International volunteers come from a variety of countries including Canada, the U.S., the U.K., France, and even Norway. While I was there, two nurses from New York came to lead CPR and basic health seminars in the outlying villages. Others conducted art, music, or drama projects. Social justice and human rights is another sphere that is welcomed as well as workshops in music or circus.
Project Hope is an established local NGO with connections to almost any of the other NGO’s in Nablus and the rest of the West Bank. This allows you to offer your skills to reach the specific groups that are most in need. Project Hope is managed by Palestinians who raise their own funds and engage local community members who volunteer to assist the international volunteers. They also offer free Arabic language classes to help your immersion into life in Nablus.
English in the West Bank
Many Palestinians in the West Bank, like Israelis, speak English well enough that you can usually find someone to provide directions on the street. You mayr find yourself engaged by a shopkeeper interested in chatting with you about where you come from or about current events. French is also spoken as a second language and coincidentally, the French Cultural Center is right next door to the Project Hope house. However, English is the language that Palestinians feel will get them into the best universities and get them the best jobs. As a result, TESL is Project Hope’s flagship program.
The Effect of the Occupation on the Palestinian Psyche and on Volunteers
Volunteering in the West Bank gives you the opportunity to get a first hand view of the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You may soon become emotionally engaged and even disheartened about hopes for the situation moving toward a peaceful solution. While you’re there it is important to take opportunities to visit Israel proper and talk to Israeli Jews in order to give yourself the most balanced perspective of the conflict as a whole.
One of the many challenges of volunteering here—and I’ll use English teaching as an example—is the subject of your curriculum. Do you teach children vocabulary that is part of their everyday life—like gun, tank, and checkpoint? Do you avoid teaching them phrases like “going to the beach” or “going to the airport,” which are activities they might never have a chance to experience? In addition, you must avoid the topics of sex, politics, and because of the conservative nature of the area.
It is also difficult to witness the hopelessness among the population. You would like to tell them to stay positive or to “keep their chin up,” but how can you, as an outsider, tell them that? Many of them believe that their situation will never improve in their lifetime.
Most would agree that better education will benefit the Palestinians and their plight, but the most important part of your volunteer service may be what you do when you leave Palestine. Educating the folks back home on the reality of the situation and the injustices you witnessed may prove to be more beneficial in the long run.
|Palestinians listening to a seminar courtesy of Project Hope.
Is it Safe in Nablus?
One concern I had before committing to volunteer in Nablus is safety. Since Nablus in the heart of Palestine and a center of resistance, nighttime incursions by the Israeli military are not uncommon. Occasionally, I would fall asleep to gunfire. But because the missions are targeting militants in the refugee camps or old city, the violence was not a threat to us in the Project Hope house located in a safe part of town. It is important for international volunteers to follow the rules designed for their safety—such as only entering the old city with a staff member and most crucially being in the house by 10 p.m. You will be accompanied by local volunteers to your lessons or seminars. But overall, it is safe for international volunteers and I never felt in danger while living or volunteering around the region.
Weekends and Excursions
Volunteering in autumn gave me the opportunity to spend a day picking olives with a local Palestinian family in a nearby village, who need an international presence as they harvest to prevent harassment or attack by extremist settlers nearby.
Any time of year you will be able to meet and perhaps help the good people at the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. They do similar work, providing an international presence in places where Israeli Jews and Palestinians live in close proximity.
|Palestinians picking olives.
Time Commitment and Costs
There aren’t any program fees for Project Hope, but US$70 per month is requested for accommodations which include a shared room in a secure house. The commitment for volunteering is at least one month, preferably three months, unless you are involved in a specific project with a shorter duration. Living expenses in the West Bank are low and most volunteers spend about US$5 per day.
Israeli border control is notoriously tough on everyone entering. Since they are occupying the West Bank, they consequently control movement in and out using strict checkpoints. When entering Israel—be it from Ben Gurion airport or the Allenby Bridge border crossing (from Jordan)—you’re likely to get rigorous questioning and perhaps delays of a few hours. It’s important to have travel plans since they will ask you specific questions about your time in Israel. However, you can’t mention anything about volunteering in the West Bank or risk being denied entry. If the authorities allow you in, you’ll most likely be given a free 3-month visa.
For More Information
Volunteer In The West Bank
Experience a unique opportunity to live and volunteer in the West Bank while being immersed in Palestinian culture and making a difference in people’s lives afflicted by the occupation. Volunteering projects include teaching English, French, health, art, music, and human rights/social justice. Volunteers live together and receive free Arabic lessons. Volunteer dates are year round. At least three months preferred. One month minimum or shorter projects are OK.
Stephen Bugno served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan and has since continued to live, work, and volunteer abroad in Russia, Mongolia, Korea and the West Bank. Visit his outstanding websites, including bohemiantraveler.com and ourtravelpicks.com.