Palestine is under occupation, there is no question about that. Yet, to me and so many other people, Palestine is such a beautiful place to live. I have met numerous people from all over the world who have come to Palestine for a visit and have been so drawn to life here that they felt the need to return. Of course, part of the appeal is the opportunity to learn about the occupation, but there is something more than just the educational component that brought me, and so many others, to Ramallah.
It is the people here and the cultural richness that makes Palestine such a special place. Yes, the occupation is a huge component to living here, but the personal connections and the cultural experiences are what are most rewarding. When I returned to Palestine this time around, I was so lucky to an amazing community to return to (the friends I made last time I was here). Returning to Ramallah felt like returning home.
For the first month I was here, I stayed at my friend Ahmed’s home with his family. I had met his father a few times before but I had never met his mother or sister. They graciously took me into their home and soon I felt like part of the family, eating meals together, taking part in family meetings, and spending the Eid holiday with the extended family in the village of Sinjil. Even though I have now found my own apartment, I know I have a second home to return to anytime I need a home cooked meal.
The friends I have here are some of the most loving and caring people in the world. It is amazing how far people go out of their way to help you. I feel such a part of this community here, and this community feeling exists on multiple levels.
Beyond my immediate group of friends, Ramallah itself is one small community, and after living here for nine months it is easy to feel completely included in it. Recently, a friend of a friend came to Ramallah from the U.S. As is always the case when internationals come to Ramallah, even if the connection is distant or there is no previous connection, people are always looking to help fellow foreigners settle down here. After a long day of travel, Sarah (the friend of a friend) had made it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then had a horrible taxi experience from Jerusalem to Ramallah. Once in Ramallah, she was dropped off in the unfamiliar environment of downtown Ramallah, unsure where to go or what to do and without a working cell phone. She wandered around briefly until a taxi pulled up next to her. The driver spoke very good English and assured her that everything would be fine. She got in the car and told him: “I’m just trying to find my friend Zach [me].”
“Oh, don’t worry, I know Zach,” the driver responded. I hadn’t seen him since the last time I was in Palestine, but we would often call Issa, the taxi driver, when we needed rides and every now and then we would see him out at one of the cafes. That night, after Sarah got in the taxi, my phone rang and I answered to hear Issa’s voice. “I have your friend Sarah with me. Should I take her to your place in Ein Misbah?” he asked. Ein Misbah was the neighborhood I used to live in Palestine. Shortly after telling Issa where my new apartment is located, Sarah arrived here safe and sound. In this way, the small feel of the Ramallah community takes under its wing and makes us feel so comfortable and at home.
Ramallah also provides you with an ever-growing extended community and network of friends. Earlier this week, after a long day of work, I could not decide if I should stay home and rest or head to a bar to see a few friends. After deciding to go out, we arrived at the bar and as I walked in I realized I knew about 50% of the people who were there. At each table I recognized a face or saw someone from some part of my life in Ramallah. It is like a ritual each time I walk into a cafe. First I look around to see who I might know and then I proceed to make the rounds, saying hi to people, even if they are just a familiar face. Throughout the evening I felt like I was playing musical chairs, shifting from one table to another as we laughed and talked about everything from politics to new years eve plans. This type of environment creates such a warm and welcoming atmosphere. With experiences like this, I feel so loved by people here and such a part of the Ramallah community. I feel like I belong here.
Yes, a big reason I am living in Palestine is because of the political situation and the work I believe in doing, but it is the people and the culture that truly drew me back. No matter how suffocating the occupation is, this richness is such a big part of life here. This is the beauty of Palestine.