We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
The following is a guest post from Jamila Hanani, a long-time volunteer at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus and a member of TYO’s Youth Leadership Committee. She is a rising senior at An Najah National University where she studies English Language and Literature.
I have been volunteering at TYO since 2010. As a translator in art, music, creative thinking and sports classes, I’ve been working with young Americans in a non-formal education setting for two years. Being a volunteer was a huge step for me because my family thought voluntary work was useless. Although I go to An-Najah University in Nablus, I live with my family in Beit Furik, 15 minutes outside of the city, and convincing my family that spending additional time in Nablus to volunteer was difficult for them because of their belief system. But once they learned more about the work TYO does, and saw how happy I was, they understood why I wanted to spend my free time there.
As an English Language and Literature major at An-Najah University, I always yearned for opportunities to put my English skills to use. I’ll admit – working with native English-speaking Americans at TYO was very much a selling point for me. Nablus rarely sees foreigners; especially English-speaking ones so volunteering at TYO gave me a special opportunity to meet Americans my age. Since working alongside Americans in the classroom, I have learned so much about American culture, norms and lifestyle.
My first session at TYO, I learned about Halloween – a beloved American holiday – with Ashwini an intern from the fall 2010 intern class. Together, the volunteers and students made frightening masks and dressed up as scary creatures in celebration with the TYO staff. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved as we have no similar holiday here in Nablus. Working with Americans has enriched my knowledge about westerners, improved my language, expanded on my vocabulary and gave me chance to learn about myself.
In sharing Halloween with the students and myself, we shared some traditional Palestinian holidays with Ashwini and the other interns. Americans are always interested in knowing more about Ramadan and Eid and how they are celebrated in Nablus versus elsewhere in the Arab world. Frequently, interns even get to partake in the festivities with us. They’re often invited to weddings, parties, and festivals where they get to better understand Palestinian culture. And once they prepare to leave Nablus, the Americans can go home and share their experiences with others.
With each new intern who comes to Palestine, they come with a certain expectation. Americans always joke with me that they thought life in Nablus would be more stressful for them – that they’d constantly see signs of war, violence and fighting. Some interns even expect to find a more desert-like landscape with camels at every street corner. But once they come, they quickly realize that Nablus isn’t really any of that. It’s a city of simplicity, kindness, smiles and hospitality.
It is important to have American volunteers in Nablus. We need to bridge the gap here between Americans and ourselves. We need to clear up all and any misconceptions of one another and understand our similarities and differences. The presence of American volunteers – who have traveled a long way from home to help our children – encourages Palestinians to start volunteering themselves to help their own people. Volunteerism is important for Palestine. Volunteerism can strengthen our country. Empowering our youth to volunteer can help equip them with necessary life skills including professional conduct, leadership, and public speaking.
I am convinced that voluntary work is important for my community and for myself. As a female living in a conservative society, I faced a lot of criticism and judgment from people telling me that my voluntary work will get me nowhere. But I have already proved them wrong. Because of my dedication to my voluntary work, I was invited to Washington, DC to represent TYO at Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U). There, I learned even more than I ever thought possible about American life – volunteerism was everywhere I looked. I saw it at CGI U, I saw it at various organizations and I even saw it on the streets of DC.
I encourage all Americans to come spend time in Nablus. There’s a lot to learn here and the Nabulsis want to learn a lot from Americans. The American presence at TYO encourages young Palestinians to inquire about this organization and to get involved. Americans – please bring your passion to volunteer to Nablus where you can directly encourage a culture of volunteerism amongst Palestinian youth. Because of my volunteerism, I am more qualified and skilled than ever before. My relationship with my father has strengthened – now he sees me as a role model for my siblings. And now after my trip to Washington, more than ever before, I felt called to take action and to encourage others to take charge in their community. Real change can begin with us. I hope to continue spreading my message, inviting people to become active citizens and using myself as an example as to how volunteering can change your life.