Monday, January 27, 2014

Continued Service: One Brain Stretched By Two Continents

When met by difficult truths, the instinct to crawl under a blanket and yell “go away!” can be hard to refuse. Even the most passionate and well-intentioned could, upon returning to one’s old life as a considerably new person, fall victim to the seductive comfort of ignorance. I am not above this very human characteristic, nor should I pretend to be. But, even so, I wish to commend my fellow Alt. Break participants as they have risen to the challenge. It is for this very reason that I write this blog entry exactly two weeks after returning to the United States.
I have been asked to discuss the topic of continued service and how the participants of this Alternative Break program will maintain activism and engagement with the asylum seekers community in Israel. As soon as we landed, I would have outlined this game plan:
  • Keep raising awareness in our respective networks and communities
  • Form a formal group on campus to partner with Students for Refugees
  • Through Facebook and email, keep updated and connected with our new friends and family in Arad
  • Finish their website
  • And (for me) finish their promotional video within 2-3 weeks.
Barring scheduling difficulties, we have stayed true to these goals. In fact, this morning, about ten of our participants attended a protest in solidarity with the asylum seekers in front of the Israeli Embassy in D.C. I am amazed with the dedication and energy that my fellow participants have embraced since returning home. As each day passes, though, I find the inner struggle to keep the fire burning grows increasingly difficult. But not for lack of passion.

I had accounted for the surge of coursework, scheduling conflicts, and commitments that come along with the start of a new semester. I had not prepared myself for jet lag that would last three full days. I had certainly not prepared myself for the shock of being dropped back into an environment familiar enough to be comforting and yet distant enough that made all my efforts to stay connected to my work for SRF immensely tiring. One moment I’m sitting in class trying to take notes about Rousseau, the next moment my mind is wandering through Ye’elim, worrying that I’m racing a clock now 7 hours in the future.

The word for our overall experience in Israel, corroborated by the interviews I gathered, would be complex. The word for the experience at home would be overwhelming.

No matter how much we talked about it, how many assignments on culture shock I had to fill out, how many lists and schedules I planned to fulfill my objectives, nothing prepared me for the rip current beneath my feet. The trip was only thirteen days, but in just under a fortnight I made friendships and learned more about the world and myself than I ever could have accomplished in a classroom course. We cleaned and repainted an old bomb shelter turned community center; we ran after-school activities for neighborhood children; we started dialogues and gathered as many perspectives as possible; we were invited into living rooms and dining rooms; we helped organize a community mapping to help asylum seekers apply for refugee determination; we heard their stories and shared in return; and we learned invaluable lessons of humility, service, and community. And then, after this intense and intimate journey, we returned to our separate lives in our over-committed and spread-too-thin networks, clinging to the shores of Tel Aviv while sleepily hailing a taxi back up to NW.

The work we started may be back in Israel, but it was burning strong before we got there - we just left them with a little bit more resources and a lot more support. I am proud to say I have met and worked with such talented, fearless, and dedicated human beings. When the waves threaten to crash over my head, when I feel like a drop in a limitless ocean, I remember we are only as strong as the net we weave. Hand me the next rope.

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.
Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

- David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

This blog is written by Lucette Moran.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Lexington native advocates refugee rights in Middle East

Our own Sarah Schmidt recently had an Op-Ed published about our trip to Israel. Not only is she a tremendous writer but she captures some of the feelings and emotions that we experienced during our 13 day journey. To read Sarah's full blog click here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Impact of Our Trip

           Eleven days often go by without much consequence. We often forget how short a period of time is necessary to have a profound experience that changes us. The eleven days our group has spent in Israel has been one of those times. With different backgrounds, skills, ages, and points along our personal journeys, we have all learned and changed in this short period of time. As we recover from the jet lag and busy schedule, we look back on and try to process the past week and a half even while trying to keep up with the activism and demonstrations continuing in Israel.

            So what exactly was our impact during this service-learning trip? We touched down as asylum seekers across Israel were receiving summons to indefinite detention and as communities were mobilizing to support each other and demand a change in government policy. For much of our trip, we were observers on a steep learning curve. In Arad, we were introduced to a delicately balanced community trying to negotiate its evolving identity. We met community leaders, activists, education figures, and ordinary citizens who demonstrated a profound commitment to social justice. We worked side by side with Israeli volunteers and service members, sharing our personal and group stories while painting and organizing a local community center. We colored, glued, dribbled, and piggy-backed through three evenings of activities with children from Arad’s Sudanese community, young people unfortunately stuck in the middle of the refugee issue whose voices are not often heard.

            Finally, we worked with southern Israel’s central organization working with African refugees and asylum seekers, Ben Gurion University’s Students for Refugees, offering our time and skills to support the volunteers who dedicate so much energy to the cause. We developed website capacity, created lessons for English language study, and designed children’s activities to benefit the community members that Students for Refugees works with. Impact, however, can rarely be shown with a checklist of deliverables. Impact is less tangible when we think of the conversations we’ve had as a group and as individuals, and when we think of the solidarity felt around the asylum seeker issue. We hope our impact can continue in advocacy work we start back in the U.S. on our campus and in our communities.

            Impact is a two way street and during our trip we have been challenged, inspired, and called to action. Each of us has had our own journey through these eleven days and each will orient this trip differently into our lives. But we can all agree that we have been deeply impacted by the community mobilization, commitment, and organization that we witnessed both in Arad and Tel Aviv to challenge the government’s treatment of asylum seekers in Israel. Whether it was with the local community center’s collective vision for a safe and engaging place for youth in the area or participating in three days of community outreach and mapping with the Sudanese and Eritrean population of Arad, we are struck by the local empowerment and perseverance we have witnessed. We are humbled by the solidarity and hope fostered by asylum seekers in Israel and the Israelis advocating with them out of love and dedication to their country’s advancement of human rights and justice.

            Impact is easy to declare and celebrate, but far more difficult to sustain. Near the end of our time in Israel, Maayan reminded us that a commitment to social justice must be reflected in our daily lives – the passion we bring to our causes, the way we treat each other, and the way we can be of service to others. As we arrive back in the U.S., events continue to unfold rapidly in Tel Aviv and across Israel. We hope the ongoing activism of asylum seekers and their allies bring a positive impact that fosters peace, tolerance, and human rights. We hope our own impact can continue through advocacy and education among our peers, school, jobs, communities, and media here at home. Finally, we hope that these eleven days will remain with us all as a reminder that change requires change makers. Our connection to this issue will serve as a reminder to stand up in our own lives and communities and embrace the idea of an impact that is never truly finished.  

This blog post was written by Emily Bird.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Two Blog Reflections

I found myself staring into the eyes of the men, women and children we had been working with all week. Over one hundred asylum seekers. They stood shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter of the room, waiting for their interviews. Shuffling their feet. Talking in low whispers. Holding numbers on little pieces of paper that they had nervously creased and rolled until translucent. They waited to tell us their stories- about their families in Darfur, their difficult journey to Israel, their summons to prison. We were mapping the African asylum seeker community in Arad in the face of hard times imposed by new Israeli government policies.

We labored through many languages and long hours. Translators from the community ran laps between intake stations. Brothers helping brothers. Small paper cups filled with hot coffee kept us going into the night. That this simple documentation of their existence was so meaningful to these men and women faced with almost sure deportation or imprisonment was humbling. It was more than just information typed into a computer; it was a safeguard, one more potential step towards refugee status and the basic rights that come with this determination.

Still, the future of this strong and hopeful group of people is uncertain. They protest peacefully in the capital in unprecedented numbers. They reach out to the international community, hoping their stories will inspire action.

Our quick departure feels painful and unfair. How easy it is for us to move between countries. To pursue higher education. To see our families. We continue to check the news and eagerly read communications from our partners in Arad and Tel Aviv. The person to person connections we made during these long days have made a lasting impression on all of us. Our thoughts are with our friends in Israel, and we are committed to sharing their stories. We are thankful for this time together, which has inspired renewed passion for social justice and shed new light on a complex issue we all care about.

By Jes Walton

With the intensity and rapidity of the last few days in Arad, this post was put on hold, which in hindsight was beneficial because it has given me a chance to reflect after a few calmer days. Our last few days in Arad were marked by a complete spectrum of emotions—anger, sadness, jubilance, and exhaustion. First, we completed our work at the bomb shelter, with a beautiful memorial being the distinguishing feature that now welcomes people as they enter the door. We were also able to put the finishing touches on our projects for the Student for Refugees organization; my group was focused on developing activities for the children of the community. But the most moving part of our last few days in Arad had to be working at the democratic school mapping the asylum seeking community as they started receiving invitations to the detention center as Israel’s laws were changing. We heard so many touching stories and personal accounts of people who made the trek across the Cyanide desert and this experience came full circle after we attended a press conference and peaceful demonstration in Tel Aviv where we saw them fighting for their rights. This asylum seeking community is so positive and hopeful that they will succeed in their plight and it was uplifting to see that even after just a few days of protesting, their support grew exponentially. We all hope to continue our work with them while back in the states, starting by raising awareness on the issue.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms—to choose ones attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose ones own way.” Victor Frankl

By Rebecca Gustine

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The top of the mountains to the depths of emotions, the hope prevails

         Since we got to Israel, we’ve had many different kinds of days. Starting from our days of exploration and learning in Jerusalem, to the early stages of our work in Arad, none have been the same. However, none have been charged likethe last two.

Leaving our apartments at 5AM we hiked our way up Masada to watch an incredible sunrise over the Dead Sea and Jordan. Afterwards, we spent time floating in the Dead Sea. It was incredibly relaxing and for the first time in days, we didn’t get up early to work and didn’t spend our morning busy. But, we had no idea what was waiting for us in the evening.

On Friday night we were invited by Ben Gurian-Student for Refugees to help them map out the status of the Asylum Seekers living in Arad Saturday night. We weren’t sure what to expect, we had nothing to compare it to.  After setting up on Saturday night, the doors opened and the people streamed in.
We got a humbling experience that night. We heard stories of many people who had to flee their homes for situation that were out of their control, activists who were wanted by their oppressive governments, and civilians who had their lives uprooted by a conflict. Most, if not all, of these people had to cross through Egypt (a trip that is approximately 1200 miles) in deadly situations. After they arrive in Israel they face the next challenges. First they are normally arrested for an undetermined time. Later on, they have a Visa, which doesn’t allow them to work, or anything. They can’t live back in their country and they are not wanted by the Israeli government; in other words, the situation felt helpless, but the hope they had for a better future motivated us to keep working.

We count it as an incredible opportunity to help in any minute way possible and feel deeply honored that they trusted us with their stories. The Asylum Seeker community in Arad is filled with inspiring and beautiful people, even in the midst of the complicated and challenging situations they live in. We know we can neverforget them and this experience bonds us.

In a perfect utopia, no one would ever have to go through what these incredibly strong men and women have seen; unfortunately we cannot change the past. But, hopefully we can take this experience we’ve had here in Israel to strive for a better, hopeful, and brighter future for the Asylum Seekers throughout our beautifully flawed world.

This blog post was written by Andreia Barcellos and Hurubie Meko.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Personal Reflection

           Power is an incredible source—for good and for evil.  Throughout history power struggles have taken countless lives, but it is important to remember that change also comes from empowerment, which is a part of the concept of power.  I think we witnessed empowerment tonight.  A call was made for a last minute community meeting, as policy changes and implementations have provoked a wave of arrests targeted at the Sudanese asylum seekers as Israel continues to discourage migration.  We arrived at the democratic school and helped set up for the meeting, anticipating a small gathering, typical of the asylum seeking community.  The numbers were staggering.  As the large, open room began to overflow, more and more men and women continued to flow in, like a bottle of water beginning to spill over.  An overview of the policy changes, possible affects on the community, and a plan for action was announced and translated into four languages, a testament to the diversity of the gathering, which included individuals from Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Israel, America, and Ethiopia.  The solidarity in the room was tangible.  Fear may have been the motivation behind the unusual number of people, but we can all be reminded of the iconic words of Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.  The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”  Something beautiful happened tonight.  I realize that there is a horrific and malevolent force suppressing and oppressing a group to a point where they are left without a home, without a refuge, and without freedom, but it doesn’t leave them without a hope.
            It’s incredibly humbling to experience and witness something like tonight.  I walked away with the realization that this is how change happens.  I could feel it in my core—something is on the cusp of happening.

This blog is written by a trip participant and is a personal reflection. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014


            A significant and important aspect of a service learning trip is the act of reflection.  As we reflect on the day today, three topics are outstanding.  First, is the topic of identity, which was discussed as a group during our afternoon reflection time.  Second, is the powerful experience of a community meeting; and third, is Shabbat dinner, which ended our eventful day with a beautiful dinner graciously prepared by our house host, Avi Cohen.
            Among the multitude of the complexities we faced in Israel was the idea or concept of identity.  In the United States, individuality is held in high regard.  We are taught, as Americans, to feel unique and special.  However, in Israel, group orientation seems to be a more favorable quality to possess when compared to the individualism of America.  True to our upbringing, each team member expressed a unique reaction to their individual identity as they reflected on the week thus far.
            To end the day, our hosts in Arad prepared a Shabbat dinner for our group.  Avi Cohen represents a group within the Jewish community with their own set of traditions.  As a Moroccan Jew, he prepared Moroccan food like cuscus, mujadara, roasted eggplant, and baba ghanous.  In addition to the incredible food, we had the opportunity to experience the traditional prayers and rituals of the Shabbat dinner.  This amazing encounter gave us a glimpse of Jewish culture that we will remember forever.

This blog was written by Sarah and Kylen.