Thursday, November 4, 2010

Project Hope, Palestine

It's not often that expectations match the reality on the ground, but I must say PH seems to be doing just what it said in their website. There are four hard-working permanent members, all locals from Nablus, and a score or more local volunteers. The International volunteers come from all around the world and offer their expertise in various activities: English and French language teaching are top priorities, but there is also German, Spanish, dance, art, music, etc. There are 18 of the latter at the moment, there were 50 in the summer.

As I sit here listening to the early evening call to prayer, and the sun sets over Nablus, I think of how interesting today has been. Over to the school this morning, to be told by the lovely local English co-ordinator that I have an assessment this afternoon of two girls who are at University.

As hardly any of the International Volunteers speak Arabic, we are assigned a local volunteer, who walks us all around the city to our various classes. These students come mostly from the University and are taken on as serious members of the group, even though they, like we, are unpaid. These local volunteers have studied or are studying everything, from IT to Structural Engineering to Medicine, and this is their chance to mix with people from the outside world, to practice their languages and to share their experiences with us.

Within ten minutes of meeting one volunteer, we were talking about the possibility of exporting Nablus soap, which is (apparently, but I'll be visiting a factory soon) 50% olive oil and 100% natural. He had all the figures ready: 50USD for the first half kilo exported, being four bars of 125g each. There are no import taxes, as it is from Palestine, and the sum goes up by 30USD every extra half kilo, so to export a kilo of Palestinian soap would cost 80USD. He said that not only is it made locally, but in people's homes, and is often sold under the Fair Trade logo. I will visit one of these establishments in the next week or so, but sounds very interesting. I told him to hold off calling Fed-Ex just yet, but that we could discuss it further.

Then this afternoon my first lesson: two charming girls with astonishingly good English, both studying at Al-Najah University here in Nablus - a Uni of 18,000 students which covers all disciplines, funded by richer Arab states. My local volunteer is half way through his structural engineering course, and we got to chatting. He was born in Saudi Arabia but his family moved back 'home' when he was ten, and he prefers it here because he is surrounded by family. I assessed the girls, and will be teaching them twice a week from Sunday.

As I said I was interested in agriculture, I'm being picked up tomorrow morning at 0800 along with a few others, to go and help with the olive harvest. Partly this will be physical work, but partly also as International observers, as over-zealous Israeli soldiers have been known to pick off olive pickers if there is no-one watching. There are Israeli checkpoint on almost every hill, and olive groves have been cleared for a better view: I'm going to wear my Project Hope vest!

I've been told that if I want to witness Palestinian agriculture, I have to go to Jericho, where I will see a lot. There is a ten-day break coming up, so I might go and have a look, if I can get past the checkpoints. I was also told today that a resident of Nablus is not allowed to visit Jerusalem if he/she is under 50 years of age. As Jerusalem is where the majority of the administrative offices are, this makes doing the paperwork nigh-on impossible.

I have yet to start my free Arabic lessons, but I was told today it's the fourth hardest language in the world to learn, Japanese being the first, apparently. Doubt I'll get further than counting to ten, but I think it's important to try.

To finish, I have been touched and impressed by the friendliness of the locals: not too far from what I was expecting there, but lovely polite, modest, kind and generous people, everything said with a big smile and a slight inclination of the head...

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