This Sunday I will leave behind everything I know to travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where I will begin a three month placement working as a volunteer at Birzeit University. I will be working on a project which documents the violations of Palestinian students’ rights to education, which are repeatedly infringed by the Israeli government’s checkpoints and blockades.
I’ve serviced my camera, done a supermarket sweep of Primark to buy some modest clothing for my stay (hot pants and leotards definitely discarded…Burqini considered), and told work that I’m not going to be available to serve any stroppy fashionistas for the next few months. My bags are now packed, plane tickets printed, and the enormity of what I am about to undertake has suddenly begun to dawn upon me.
I’m not sure if I’m scared; I am certainly travelling into the unknown. Unlike many other parts of the world, I haven’t been bombarded with travelling photos from facebook acquiantances – nowhere can I find a trace of neon paint and sand buckets filled with cocktails, white shores and deep european tans, the perspective shots of one friend standing in another friends hand. Not a multicoloured alpaca trouser leg in sight. I cannot grasp what the country looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like – I have no touchstone experience with which I can place myself in Ramallah or the rest of the territories.
This may seem surprising to some seeing as we are constantly bombarded with images of the violence and conflict that has racked the region for sixty years. I know I will see checkpoints, hear the sound of rubber bullets, smell the acrid stench of teargas, feel the agony and frustration when witnessing the terrible rights violations that the Palestinians face on a day-to-day basis. Yet everything inside me is pushing against this clichéd idea of what I will experience.
Instead, bubbling around my head are the questions I’ve had since I was offered a place on the project – Do I have any skills or anything useful to offer the project? How effective can a group of 18-22 year old British people really be? Can I affect change in the short time I’m there? Do I understand the conflict well enough to not be deemed as a fraud – a do-gooding voluntourist?
I had a good chat with a friend who suggested that I put these questions out of my head from the beginning – whatever I think I can achieve, I should half this and realise it will take double the time I thought to do it. Instead, she recommended I focus on what I am going to get out of this experience. Many times in conversation with people about my trip, the most oft repeated phrase is “This is going to be a life-changing experience”, “Ooh you’re going to come back a different person”
At first I was mildly offended – why were my friends so apparently eager for me to change?! However, I think they are probably right. On Sunday I am going to begin a once-in-a-lifetime journey and I have no idea what to expect, all I know is that I have never wanted to do anything more in my whole life (cue X Factor style crescendo of Take That’s Greatest Day “Today this could beee the greatest day of our liiives”…)
I have been given the opportunity to visit a country that has preoccupied all my thinking since being taken on a Pro-Palestine demonstration as an ill-informed Fresher almost four years ago. As a slightly better informed 22 year old, my political convictions and opinions never escape the ears of anybody who will listen, but I know that many of the things I hold true are likely to change in the time I’m away.
I intend to update this blog as regularly as possible – for my family and friends – but also for anyone who is interested in the conflict and would like to read about what life is really like in the Occupied Palestinian Territories… It is definitely an exciting time to be travelling to the region, I am going to be entering the country on a wind of change; it may even be recognised as a state by the time I get there. Unlikely, but we shall see. Whatever happens, no amount of camera servicing and plug adaptor buying can prepare me for my experience, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, and looking forward to taking up the challenges I know I am due to face.