My morning begins when, in the space of 100 yards, I go through no less than eight reinforced steel security gates and have my passport closely scrutinized at two separate guard posts. I lose count of the number of security cameras watching me before I am able to cross into Gaza.
One and a half million people live inside this 30 foot high, miles long, concrete wall. Few are allowed to leave. They are all Palestinians, guarded by Israelis, and today, we are driven to a small youth center, where I am meeting with Palestinian students preparing their own photo-exhibit, entitled "Recognizing our Common Humanity". (photo of young girls pictured above is from the exhibit)
I meet with 30 of the more than 1000 students who come here each week. All part of Mercy Corps' Global Citizen Corps program we operate in 6 countries. They tell me about the local action projects they are leading; going to a local orphanage to play with the kids there, going last week to 9 homes of families who have been found by the students to be living in dire poverty and so they have brought food and comfort, going to a field and planting seedlings for new trees, since so many were killed in the war last January. I do a presentation to about 20 of the students on how to use on-line communities like Facebook, Twitter, Diggs and others to mobilize others for the causes they care about. They show me a crazy on-line game they use with friends called Barn Buddy and get me to join. Its Ramadan, so they are all fasting each day from 4am to 4pm for 12 days. We are sitting around a table talking, I am drinking from a very large bottle of water trying to hydrate in this desert heat when I remember. "Uh, sorry, I forgot it is no food AND no water". They laugh. Say its fine, no matter.
In the afternoon, I sat in on one of several classes being held that day in their youth center, and found the teacher presenting Steven Covey's 7 habits of highly effective people, for the leadership class. 25 students were piled into a 10 x 10 room, hotter than the blazes, sharing seats because it was so crowded. Everyone seemed very attentive and engaged, while I sat there wiping beads of sweat off my forehead.
I leave at the end of the day, shaking my head in wonder. Here is a group of students, majoring in things like Business Administration, Pharmacy, and Engineering, living in a community with 60% unemployment, and not able to leave. Held there by another country. And rather than raging in frustration, they are instead volunteering to sit in a crowded classroom, learning about becoming a good citizen, a good leader, carrying out community service projects and putting on a photo exhibit about "our common humanity?". I wonder how I would do in the same circumstances.
I leave after spending 6 hours with them, get driven to within a quarter mile of the wall, show my passport to two different sets of Hamas agents, then go through the gauntlet of 8 gates, multiple guards (they double checked my banjo and chapstick I was packing to be sure everything was on the up and up), get in the car, and soon fall asleep in mental exhaustion. Andy, the Country Director for Mercy Corps, drives us back to Jerusalem.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.