This past winter I helped facilitate a weekly men's group at a Palestinian refugee camp in Tulkarm, nine miles from the Mediterranean Sea. This was one of my activities during the three months I spent volunteering with the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. I was part of a four-member team from the U.S., Sweden, Norway and Switzerland in Tulkarm.
A teenager named Mohammad attended the men's group. During one meeting he announced that his 14th birthday was the following week. Later that day he brought our EAPPI team a carefully written invitation: "Tomorrow is my birthday at 4:00 afternoon in my home, and on this occasion I will invite you to come to my birthday and I will come to your home at 3:30 and take you to my home. I will be very happy if you come. Mohammad"
|Mohammad lights his birthday candles.|
He arrived promptly at 3:30 to take us to his home in the camp. Under colorful balloons, Mohammad lit 14 large candles around the tiny living room. He and his family offered bowls of red gelatin dessert, followed by a delicious cake. We were the only guests besides his family and one friend. What a true celebration of life! Palestinians living in the refugee camps have so little, yet they share so much. This was one of the best birthday celebrations I've experienced.
My journey to the West Bank began in April 2010 when I read my synod's newsletter. I saw a request for volunteers for the EAPPI, a WCC program that is supported by the ELCA. The newsletter said the EAPPI accompanies Palestinians in daily life, using nonviolent action to help bring about just and durable solutions to end Israeli occupation. As a Lutheran Christian and a professional social worker, I was interested.
Thanks to generous financial support from my congregation, Peace Lutheran in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Gloria Dei Lutheran in Anchorage, Alaska; family; friends and an ELCA grant, I was able to go. I would become one of more than 700 international accompaniers in the last 10 years.
Our mission was to provide ongoing advocacy and testimony as "eyes and ears on the ground" while living among Palestinian people in the West Bank. We documented activities at Israeli-controlled checkpoints. We listened to Palestinians share what it is like to live under occupation. We kept in regular contact with Palestinian Christian families in Tulkarm and attended worship in nearby Nablus. On Christmas Eve, we worshiped with Palestinian Christians at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.
During the three months, it became clear to me that Americans are systematically shielded from accurate news about Israel and Palestine. My respect for Palestinian people and Israelis who stand in solidarity with them grew immeasurably.
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