By Stephen Bugno

An American nurse volunteer and a Palestinian woman

There is no better way to experience Palestinian culture and get an inside look at life under the Israeli occupation then to go to the West Bank as a volunteer. I was in the midst of a six-month Istanbul to Cairo overland trip when I got an invitation to stay for a month. I couldn’t say no. The warmth and hospitality of the Palestinian people made it an easy choice for me.

It’s important to try to make contact with any of Palestinian NGOs in your home country before leaving. Talk to anyone who has been there. They may be able to guide you into the best program. After you arrive, you may want to change organizations based on your preferences and what skills you bring. But Project Hope is a good place to start.

Project Hope

At Project Hope, volunteers are able to carry out a diverse range of projects. I taught English to university-level students, but there are plenty of opportunities to go into the refugee camps to teach children not only English, but French as well. International volunteers come from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., France, and there were even two Norwegians there with us. About half-way through my month stay, two nurses from New York came to lead CPR and basic health seminars in the outlying villages. Others conducted art, music, or drama projects. Social justice and human rights is another sphere that is welcomed as well as workshops in photography or circus.

Project Hope is an established local NGO in Nablus with connections to almost all other NGOs in town and the rest of the West Bank. This allows you to offer your skills to reach the specific groups that would be most in need. Project Hope is managed by Palestinians who raise their own funds and engage local community members who volunteer to assist the international volunteers. They also offer free Arabic language classes to help your immersion into life in Nablus.

Project Hope is a volunteer driven organization and because of their limited funding, ask volunteers to donate $100 towards materials and equipment.  500 NIS per month (US $135) per month is requested for accommodation costs which include a shared room in a secure house. The time commitment for volunteering is at least one month, preferably three months, unless you have a specific project that lasts a lesser amount of time. Living expenses in the West Bank are low: about $5 per day should be enough to cover food and transportation. Contact: projecthope [at] projecthope [dot] ps for more information.

Freedom Theatre

The Freedom Theatre is a great place to volunteer for projects in the arts: performance photography and videography. Located in Jenin, in the north of the West Bank, The Freedom Theatre uses the arts as a model for social change. It is currently developing the only professional venue for theater and arts in the north of the occupied Palestinian Territories. The aim of this project is to empower and give voice to the children of Jenin Refugee Camp through a unique program of workshops and activities in theater, supporting arts and multi-media: ranging in their emphasis from largely therapeutic and healing, to the presentation of high-quality artistic products.

The Freedom Theatre welcomes volunteers who can contribute their expertise in theater and other art forms by presenting short, intensive workshops, or by joining them for a longer period, or by providing professional advice within your field. If you are an Arabic speaker, your help is particularly valuable.

They welcome volunteers who have professional skills mainly within the following fields: theater and drama, multi-media, music, fundraising, leadership and management, design, computers and IT. Contact them if you have any other skills you would like to share.

Freedom Theatre offers board and lodging to their volunteers. If you are interested or have any questions, contact: info [at] thefreedomtheatre [dot] org

Alrowwad

Alrowwad, initiator of the “Beautiful Non-violent Resistance”, is an independent, dynamic, community-based not-for-profit organization which strives to empower children and women by targeting behaviour, knowledge, concepts and practices through beautiful and non-violent means. It is a center for artistic, cultural, and theater training for children in Aida Camp of Bethlehem trying to provide a safe and healthy environment to help creativity and discharge of stress in the war conditions they are forced to live in.

Alrowwad welcomes volunteers with experience in artistic fields such as theater, photography and video, arts, puppetry, set design, costume design, and graphic design.

Other fields of interest are languages, health and environment, public health awareness, and administrative work. Possible projects include English/French teaching and editing, science museum design, sports for girls and women, recycling and environmental awareness, fundraising, grant writing, and organizing artistic tours with new potential partners and funders.

Alrowwad is exclusively organized and run by Palestinians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem for the Aida Refugee Camp. Email: alrowwadtheatre [at] gmail [dot] com Or contact the director Abdelfattah Abusrour at: aabusrour2 [at] gmail [dot] com

Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel

Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) provides an international presence in places where Israeli Jews and Palestinians live in close proximity by bringing internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Volunteers called Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, many EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions.

Volunteers are organized through church organizations in the volunteer’s home country. Visit Become an Ecumenical Accompanier for your home country’s application and requirements. US EAs are responsible for their own expenses, including roundtrip travel to Jerusalem via Washington, DC. The cost of the EAPPI program is $5,100 for a minimum 3-month term. Contact: [email protected] for more information.

International Solidarity Movement

The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. Founded in 2001, ISM aims to support and strengthen the Palestinian popular resistance by providing the Palestinian people with international protection and a voice with which to nonviolently resist an overwhelming military occupation force.

International volunteers provide protection for Palestinians engaged in nonviolent resistance, an accurate message to the mainstream media, and act as personal witnesses for transmitting information back home, while providing hope for Palestinians.

The ISM is not an organization, but rather a movement which all organizations, groups and/or individuals who agree to their principles can join. Volunteers who join the ISM are responsible for paying their own way and covering all their expenses in Palestine. All volunteers attend a two-day training program where they will learn about the history of nonviolence in the Palestinian resistance and the role internationals have played over the last several years.

The Effect of the Occupation on Volunteers

Volunteering in the West Bank gives you the opportunity to get a first-hand view of the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You may soon become emotionally engaged and even disheartened when you, as most volunteers, grow more and more pessimistic about the situation moving toward a peaceful solution. While you’re there, it’s important to take opportunities to visit Israel proper and talk to Israeli Jews to give yourself the most balanced perspective of the conflict as a whole.

Educating folks back home on the reality of the situation and the injustices you witnessed may prove to be more beneficial in the long run than anything you could hope to accomplish while in the West Bank.

Is it Safe in the West Bank?

One concern I had before committing to volunteer in Nablus is the safety. As the center of Palestinian resistance, nighttime incursions by the Israeli military in Nablus are not uncommon. I fell asleep to gunfire a few of the nights. But because the missions are targeting militants in the refugee camps or old city, the violence wasn’t a threat to us in the Project Hope house, located in a safe part of town. Each organization can advise you on the safety in their locale.

Entering Israel

Israeli border control is notoriously tough. Since they are occupying the West Bank, they control movement in and out with strict checkpoints. When entering Israel, be it from Ben Gurion Airport or the Allenby Bridge border crossing (from Jordan) you’re likely to get rigorous questioning, searches and perhaps delays of a few hours. It’s important to have travel plans since they will ask you specific questions about your time in Israel. However, you can’t mention anything about volunteering in the West Bank or risk being denied entry. If the authorities allow you in, you’ll most likely be given a free three-month visa.

Stephen Bugno volunteered in the West Bank in November of 2007, stopping for a month on a six-month Middle East journey from Istanbul to Cairo. His writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at: Blog of a Modern Nomad