The following was written by Katie, a participant in Achvat Amim from September 2015 - February 2016. This is an excerpt from a more detailed post on https://katiegoestoisrael.wordpress.com
Since it started in September, this spate of violence has been called the "youth intifada." I want to offer a completely different experience with youth in this land. The kids I encounter every week are smart, funny, honest, and inspiring. They are doing what so many adults are too scared to do - meeting, listening, empathizing, and collaborating. They give me hope.
I recently celebrated my 28th birthday in Israel as a volunteer with Achvat Amim. The whole experience was surreal – especially that it happened in Jerusalem. I realized that, ten years ago, I was 18-years-old - the same age as many of the kids I work with in this city. When I was 18, I was deciding between college at Purdue University or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. When I was 18, if you had told me that I’d be living in Jerusalem in ten years, I would have told you that you had the wrong girl. I was so far removed from my Jewish upbringing by the time I graduated high school that it wasn't even a possibility. All I cared about was going away to college, and that’s what I did.
Today, in my Jerusalem life, my favorite few hours every week are those that I spend at the Jerusalem International YMCA with the kids in the ACTV Youth Program. They are anywhere from 14- to 18-years-old, and they are from both East and West Jerusalem. These teens are amazing, and many of them already speak two or three languages. They are smart, honest, interesting, funny, and sweet. They continually impress me with how they behave as if there are no boundaries between them. They talk to each other in whichever language they have in common, even if it's limited English on both sides of the table. These kids appreciate each other, share their artistic creations with each other, and create new things together.
When I think about their lives outside of the YMCA, I realize more the reality of life in this place. Some of these youngsters are thinking about their role in the Israeli army when they graduate in the next year or two, and how that impacts their relationship with the friends they've made here. Some of them are hoping to go to university, not from the "will I get in or won't I get in" perspective we have in America, but from a "will I be able to get there every day or won't I?" perspective. One day, I was at the top of the YMCA bell tower, looking out towards the West Bank with one of the kids from East Jerusalem. I didn't know where he was from (he just looks like a teenager to me), which language was his first (his English is quite impressive), or in which direction I was looking at (I was new in town - but really, I'm still pretty bad at knowing what is where here). I saw a wall in the distance, and I saw a teenager standing next to me looking longingly out at the city before us. I asked him what we were looking at and what he saw. He clued me in and mentioned something about the wall that tears through the panoramic view from there. I asked him what he was doing after he graduated from high school. He told me he was going to study at Bezalel University, hopefully. He told me that it's hard for him, because of the conflict, as an Arab-Israeli, to do something like attend university. It broke my heart. This place is so complicated. Now, my choice between Purdue and Embry-Riddle feels pretty insignificant compared to the army and the borders and boundaries that I never had to consider when going to university.
I've developed a really good relationship with these kids, despite my lame efforts at their languages (guys - languages are really hard!). Every time there's any activity in the conflict anywhere in Jerusalem, a wave of fear rushes over me. ’Oh my god, what if it's one of my kids?’ Surely, none of them would ever be involved in the violence of this conflict. They are all so grounded, smart, and responsible. Still, every time Haaretz notifications pop-up on my phone with the words "youth," "youngsters," or "teens," I suddenly feel like what I suspect any parent in this region feels - fear and worry. I can't help it. So many of these incidents involve kids on both sides of the conflict (they've been calling it the "youth intifada"), and I respect and appreciate so many kids on both sides of this conflict. They are all wonderful and have so much potential within them. Who knows, they may work together someday to make this world less divided and more cohesive - they could be the ones who bring peace to the Middle East... or at least Jerusalem.
It's also imperative to remember that my experience and worry while living in this conflict zone for five months is completely different from growing up in Nachlaot or Beit Safafa for a person's entire life. So when one of the kids showed me a video on his phone that he clearly filmed himself from across the street from Damascus Gate while an attack was in progress, I needed to find a way to stifle my initial and automatic response of sheer terror. ‘What are you doing so close to the chaos?!’ cannot be words that I utter. Who am I to judge what his life narrative has been that lead him to being there at that time to film the events as they unfolded? He saw that seeing that video made me uncomfortable, but he wasn’t showing me the video to make me uncomfortable – he was sharing this with me as if he was sharing a piece of himself with someone he trusted.
I wholeheartedly believe that because these incredible, bright, and unique kids come together every week and have the opportunity to hear narratives from the other side, understand and empathize with each other, and make themselves heard to someone from 'the other world' means that they would be less likely to take their emotions out in any other way. The videos they are making are journalistic and captivating, and I believe that this creative outlet has to be both a release for them as well as a motivation to keep their bright futures in mind when dealing with the madness of this place. I have faith in them pursuing what is right, just, and safe. After spending four months with these teens, I truly believe they will grow up and make a difference in the world. They’ve already made quite a difference in my world, and that’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Click here to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, "Baby We Were Young" by The Dirty Guv'nahs
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