English lessons offer insight & connection to Palestinian society

by Kerstin, Bethlehem team

The occupation shapes various dimensions of Palestinian life, including education. Photo EAPPI/L. Aquino

The occupation shapes various dimensions of Palestinian life, including education. Photo EAPPI/L. Aquino

English lessons are very popular in Palestine and in great demand among various local institutions.  This fall, the Bethlehem team, decided to give English lessons in rural villages, as a way to socialize and meet various sectors of society.  Within the context of English lessons, we brought up all sorts of topics – the Palestinian family structure and gender roles, personal preferences, how one introduces oneself in job applications, and even one’s experiences at the checkpoint. Sensitive issues were aired out in a natural way, things that we could not bring up in an ordinary conversation.

We taught English lessons for staff at a center for disabled children in Beit Fajjar. A group of about 12 people usually took part in our classes, of which only 3 or 4 were men. Of course, we taught grammar – the differences of ‘these’ and ‘those’, how to use expressions like ‘so on’ and ‘so forth’, etc. But above all, we – and they! – greatly enjoyed smaller group discussions, about checkpoint experiences, the traditional vs. the modern family, who makes the decision at home – he or she?! – and much more.

One woman told about the difficulties getting through the checkpoint to visit her husband, when he was in jail. Another talked about getting very frightened by the soldiers.

The pride of the family

I remember quite a few sighs from women about the weight of the never-ending housework of washing, cleaning and cooking, which is the duty of every Muslim women – mixed with the pride of being a mother responsible for, often, a large extended family. When talking about the hierarchy of the family, most agreed that the husband has the last say, but people also stressed – the men, particularly  – that if there are different opinions on a matter, the man and wife must have a discussion about it and put forward their views, after which they would usually manage to decide together.

Surprisingly many said two to three children was the preferable family size and and that they did not cherish the extended family model, whereas others said they wanted many children. One woman underlined that, for children, the extended family has great values as a learning place where you get to understand human values, other people (old and young), and get the opportunity to train in various skills of the house and neighborhood. In short, it offers an education on how to live and love, an experience far superior to just watching TV.

 Dreams for the future

At a women’s Centre in Nahhalin, run by Jihan, the wife of the head of Tent of Nations, one lesson, we divided into two groups and discussed cultural customs, mainly clothes and food, famous places in Palestine and places to go. To see the sea was a dream hopefully to come true sometime in the future.

Breaking the isolation

We also talked about daily life in the village and it turned out that joining the Women’s group three hours a day was an important means of breaking the isolation and boredom at home for many of these young persons. Jihan said that whereas in Bethlehem, there are lots of things going on all the time, there is a great need for meeting spots, contacts and activities in the villages, especially for women. Joining English lessons is a way of breaking the isolation.

Although as an EA, teaching English lessons is not a requirement, I found it to be a wonderful way to gain insight into Palestinian society and hear of personal experiences I would not hear anywhere else.

From the occupied Palestinian territories to the European Union

Jenny Derbyshire, previously based in Bethlehem, was part of a team from EAPPI that travelled to Brussels recently to bring to light stories of Palestinians living under siege. Derbyshire, from Ireland, used her eye witness accounts from the occupied territory to urge the European Union to support the two-state solution for peace and stability in the region.

by Jenny Derbyshire

Raba Fanoun from Nahhalin village near Bethlehem shows his olive trees destroyed by Israeli settlers. Photo: Merita Saajos

Raba Fanoun from Nahhalin village near Bethlehem shows his olive trees destroyed by Israeli settlers. Photo: Merita Saajos

In March this year, Raba Fanoun, from the village of Nahhalin near Bethlehem, discovered that Israeli settlers had come to his land during the night with hatchets and destroyed 80 mature olive trees, which his father had planted thirty years ago. This was nearly half the total number of his mature olive trees. The livelihood for his extended family depended on them. Later that day, volunteers from the EAPPI Bethlehem team visited Fanoun, to report on this destruction.

“When you plant a small flower in your house,” Fanoun said, “imagine how you feel when it dies; and think about the trees we have cared for, for 30 years.”

“This is a big attack on your livelihood,” I said.

“It’s not just our livelihood, it’s our life,” was the reply.

During my three months in Bethlehem I was often in this village, which is under constant threat from settlements on the surrounding hilltops, including the huge nearby settlement of Beitar Illit. In April we were called out to witness and report on the military orders left under stones on village farmland, confiscating another area of land for the extension of the security zone around Beitar Illit.

“When you go home, tell people in your countries,” the mayor urged us, “tell them what is happening here. This is the last of the farmland of our village. They want us to leave. They are trying to drive us away.”

As part of a meeting of EAPPI representatives with EU officials in September this year, I was able to tell the stories from Nahhalin to members of the European Parliament (MEPs), permanent representatives, officials from the External Action Service and the cabinet of the commissioner for research. We showed them a photo of the building activity that we saw taking place in Beitar Illit, right above Palestinian farmland. Such establishments lead to the extension of the security zone, and run-off from the settlement sewage system polluting the Palestinian farmland and water supply.

I was also able to show a photo of Fanoun with his destroyed olive trees and describe the impact settlement has on local people. We told the MEPs what Fanoun and the mayor shared with us.

We also brought to them words of another farmer from Nahhalin: “What they call Area C is actually the future of Palestine.” What most people in the occupied territories shared with us was that “the situation is urgent, if the two-state solution is to have any chance of success”.

For the visit to Brussels I worked as a team with two other former Ecumenical Accompaniers: Jonathan Adams from the United Kingdom and Dominika Blachnika from Poland were EAPPI volunteers in East Jerusalem in 2012; I was in Bethlehem this year and in East Jerusalem in 2012. So we also described the impact of the developments in the E1 area outside Jerusalem on the lives of the Bedouin people we had met there.

This is now a well-known issue politically, but the stories from people living there and the impact of the loss of land, water and access to Jerusalem shows the level of displacement and deprivation. We linked this with the stories from the Bethlehem villages, where Palestinian people are also threatened by forced displacement. Their farmlands are disappearing into settlement construction, is claimed by the route of the separation barrier, and comes under repeated attacks from settlers.

We shared what we had seen and passed on the words of the Palestinians we got to know during our stay; we shared maps and photos; we shared statistics. We reminded politicians that under international humanitarian law, which the EU upholds, Palestinians have a protected status and settlements are illegal. EU officials have recently taken steps through issuing EU guidelines on grants and loans to settlements. We hope that our testimonies will encourage them to continue in this direction and take the necessary actions for the resolution of the Israel Palestine conflict.

This article originally appear on the World Council of Churches website and also appeared on Christian Today.