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Experiential Education
In numerous ways and numerous places, Laurentians are applying their learning to “real world” situations, and discovering that they’re still learning

Summer on the West Bank
By Vanessa de Bruyn ’05

Editor’s Note: For Summer 2004, Vanessa de Bruyn ’05, of North Bonneville, Wash., arranged a summer job at The Hope School, a Palestinian school in Beit Jala on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “The town sits on top of a hill, overlooking valleys of olive trees and vineyards, and is an amazing vantage point for watching sunsets,” she wrote in one of several detailed e-mails to family and friends. “The school has about 150 middle- to high-school-aged girls and boys, both Christian and Muslim. About 15 of them stay in the school’s boarding section, since they are either orphaned or too poor to travel home. The school also has 8,000 chickens, which the children help raise as part of their business education. They sell the eggs, which provides for nearly 20 percent of the school’s costs.” Her e-mails provide an intimate glimpse into life in one of the world’s most troubled regions. In the excerpt below, she and two companions are returning home from services at a Christian church. She cautions that “The Situation” is as she observed it several months ago. DeBruyn is also a prize-winning photographer; see her award-winning photo on page 7. She begins a Peace Corps stint in Jordan in July.

On the way back from church we got stuck at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for 45 minutes. While we were waiting, a group of teenage Jewish tourists pulled up in a bus behind us and got out to stretch their legs and check out the view. I could tell they were Jewish because they were protected by two guards, rifle-toting kids no more than 16 themselves who were holding tightly onto their guns while looking suspiciously at the cars around them. After 15 minutes of observing the long line of idling cars, they got back on the bus and headed back toward Jerusalem, either too nervous or too impatient to wait in line.

Finally our turn came to pass, and on the other side of the checkpoint, once we entered Palestinian territory, was The Wall. Right there in front of me, it stood on either side of the road, its massive slabs of concrete reaching what I estimate to be 15 feet high. It was the first time I had seen the thing close up. It was repulsive, yet compelling; it made me sick to look at it, but I couldn’t avert my eyes.

Most of the time, however, I am in absolute awe of the beauty that surrounds me here. My house overlooks the valley where David and Goliath supposedly fought their famous battle. When I go running in the evenings, I travel a road that winds through this valley; olive trees below, the Har Gilo settlement above. It’s so quiet—only the occasional passing car or herd of goats—and it stretches on forever.

Last week, one of the Hope School’s teachers took one of the students and me for a drive to the Italian Catholic Salesian monastery and famous Cremisan winery tucked away in another valley. We parked the car and walked through the orchards, and a passing farmer, his arms laden with ripe mish mish (apricots), tossed us a few fruits from his collection; the three of us sat down to eat, admiring the view of Jerusalem in the distance as the sun sank behind the hills.

While at times I feel like my life is a scene from a movie here, the people I am living among understandably do not. As my friend Bashir told me, “Life here is like a dream,” and then corrected himself: “No, not a dream—a nightmare.” This nightmare they live in, no matter how surreal it is to me, is their reality. At night, maybe once or twice a week, I am awakened to the sound of guns being fired; in the mornings when I walk to work, more often than not I am assaulted by the sound of

F-16s flying overhead. When I hear a loudspeaker during the day, I know it is one of three things: the soldiers giving a command or “having a good time,” Muslims reciting the Koran at the nearby mosque, or Palestinian farmers selling batteikh (watermelon) from the back of a truck.

But the worst part is not the gunshots or the jets or the soldiers; the worst part is listening to the peoples’ stories. My neighbor and friend Zaki told me the other day that two years ago he had been used as a human shield. The soldiers knocked on his door late one night, told him they needed him as a translator, and took him to a nearby village. They then instructed him to knock on the doors of several houses, making him stand between the soldiers and the people who opened them—not exactly a safe position to be in when Israeli soldiers are raiding suspected Palestinian militants’ houses in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until Zaki was at home, lying safe in bed, that it struck him what had occurred, and he realized what a dangerous situation he had been placed in. But he was thankful, because he knew that things could have gone much, much differently, as they have for many.

My friend Nicola tells me about a different aspect of life under occupation. Nicola is 27; he graduated from Bethlehem University with a degree in hotel management, yet has been unable to find a job related to his field of study. He worked for a casino in Jericho for two years, but after tourism slowed to a trickle, he was out of work. Last year he was lucky enough to land a job with the Hope School, teaching computer science and sociology. He doesn’t like it much. He asks, “What is my future? If you ask people this question, they don’t even know what they are doing tomorrow. You see people walking down the street, and they are laughing on the outside. But if you look inside them, they are not so happy.”

Nicola wants to travel and see the world, but for three years he hasn’t even been able to leave his own city. He wants to go out and do “normal guy things,” but says it is impossible when you are under curfew, or have to be back home before the checkpoint closes, or have to worry about running into the soldiers at night, or have no money to go and do these “normal guy things.”

What Nicola wants, what everyone here simply wants, is freedom. “You see people in America and you see people in Europe—they can get into a car and go wherever they want!” he exclaims. “You see the people here and we are kept in prison! You tell me, where is the peace? Where is the democracy?” He is quiet for a second, and then—speaking more to himself than to me—he asks softly, “Why are we so different from everyone in the world?” I wish I had an answer.

But even Nicola has to admit that lately things seem to be looking up. At least the siege that engulfed Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour no more than two years ago is over. The curfew that imprisoned their residents for six long months is over. The killing of Israeli soldiers and settlers, of Palestinian militants and innocent civilians, for the most part is over. These things, while never forgotten, are over, and life is looking better.

Two weeks ago, the soldiers put up a wall at the roadblock across the street: large pieces of concrete that separated the sidewalk where the pedestrians walk from the soldiers who check IDs on the other side. But last week the barrier was taken down, and yesterday the roadblock was opened for the first time in months. Cars with green-and-white Palestinian license plates can now travel from one side of their city to the other uninhibited, people no longer have to carry their groceries from one car to another, and ambulances no longer have to stop to transfer their patients. Now, of course, instead of long lines of cars parked at the side of the road, there are long lines of cars on the roads, waiting their turn to be examined by the soldiers at the newly opened checkpoint as they pass through. Because of the long wait, many people still decide to park their cars and walk across, hopping a taxi on the other side. No one is sure how long the road will be open, however; it depends, as does everything around here, on “The Situation.”


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