During his three months in Palestine, Derry man Sean Canning said he met the most hospitable people - even the winner of Arab Idol...
I applied to the International Citizens Service to volunteer abroad, having previously worked in both America and South Africa.
Following an interview I was placed with a group called International Service in York, England who gave me a place in Palestine - where my adventure began.
Arriving in Israel and travelling by bus to Palestine on our first day was something special. We landed in Tel Aviv which looks like any major city from around Europe, but no more than an hour away we crossed the border into Palestine, I was initially nervous knowing very little about the conflict apart from how it is portrayed in the media. The landscape as we passed through the armed checkpoint was a harsh contrast as instead of blue water and sandy beaches we were greeted by dry and dusty mountains with the odd shack In the distance.
I wasn’t sure if this was what Palestine was going to be like. We drove to Ramallah, the largest and richest part of the West bank which is where we would live for the next three months, dropped off our bags and headed out to explore.
On our first night we were in for a treat, Mohammed Assaf who was from Gaza and had only days before become the first Palestinian to win Arab Idol was in town to play a free concert.
We walked into the city of Ramallah and the whole place was buzzing, thousands of people all going crazy, cars driving and beeping everywhere for their idol.
The smell of ‘Falafel’ and ‘Shawrma,’ the Palestine national foods was everywhere. Wherever we went people stared and shouted ‘Welcome, welcome to Palestine’ not many spoke English, but everyone knew how to say welcome, which was very warming. On our second day we were shown to our work placement. I was placed with a media programme called ‘Voice of the Youth’ which aims to help spread the stories and problems facing the Palestinians through the occupation.
Over the course of three months I helped produce podcasts, articles and short videos covering music, sport, politics and women’s rights with Voice of the Youth.
My role enabled me to travel freely around the West Bank in order to collect materials. This allowed me to meet some truly inspiring people and hear their stories. One person we met was a man in the city of Hebron, a very troubled city which has been divided by illegal Israeli settlements.
He has lost his wife, a son and his two other children have suffered some terrible physical injuries due to the troubles with the illegal settlers, yet he still remains strong refusing to leave his land and home even though his life is under threat on a daily basis.
His harrowing story made the hairs on the back of my neck stand but his resolve and determination was something I admired,
Through my time in Palestine I integrated well with the local people, I spent the majority of my spare time playing football with the locals, and had the great honour to spend pre-season with one of Palestine’s leading professional teams Shabab Al-Amri. I also represented a few local sides in tournaments.
A personal highlight for me was playing for Arafat FC a little village on the edge of Ramallah. We did well and managed to get to a big final which wasn’t expected of the team. Before the match the manager gave a long and heartfelt team talk, getting the players pumped up. It was all in Arabic. All the players knew I spoke only minimal Arabic yet they were having this team talk like I could fully understand them, they were speaking directly at me so I would just nod my head and smile! We eventually lost the final 1-0 but it was a great experience. I was able to meet with the head of the Palestinian FA and Olympics committee and the head of the Players’ Union during my time away. I interviewed them for a podcast on sport and the trouble it faced due to the Israeli occupation.
The strict rules on travel had made it impossible for the 2012 Palestinian Olympics team to train together; the first time they were all in one place was at Heathrow Airport in London.
I found this shocking, and in no other situation or country would be placed in such a situation, yet in the 21st century the athletes of Palestine were being treated like terrorists, by Israel.
During my time in Palestine the Muslim Festival of Ramadan was on, where people aren’t allowed to drink or eat during the hours of sunlight. Even as a foreigner I was unable to eat or drink water in public and this was a real test.
Yet each night Palestine would come alive, people partying and eating beautiful foods celebrating the struggle they had just won.
It was a great experience, but a testing one.
The hospitality of the Palestinian people was something to be seen; they wouldn’t let you pay for anything and wanted to give you the world. The majority of the people I spent my time with were poor, yet they would share what little they had with you, which was very touching.
Palestine is a very religious place, where Muslim, Christian and Jews can all trace their heritage. I was able to visit the holy sites of all three religions during my time.
From the Jewish Walling Wall, The Dome of the Rock to the Nativity Church. The experience was amazing, and allowed me to gain an insight into different areas and sections of religion, especially Islam, which I knew very little about before.
In order to enter certain places in Palestine or to enter Israel you have to pass through heavily guarded checkpoints. On a day during Ramadan we headed to the Kalandia check point which separates Ramallah and Jerusalem.
This is the biggest and most protected checkpoint in the West Bank and a hotspot for clashes.
The dome of the rock and AlAqsa mosque are situated in East Jerusalem, the Muslim side of the city.
The Al Aqsa is the third most holy site in Islam and draws worshippers from all over the world to pray.
Yet stood less than ten miles away at Kalandia checkpoint with thousands of worshippers wishing to pass through and pray I felt anger and frustration.
People were being herded like cattle into various pens in order to try and gain entry into Israel in order to worship.
The attitude of the Israelis and the inhumane way in which people young and old were treated at checkpoints saddened me. Many of the IDF soldiers had little or no respect for any of the Palestinians trying to cross the checkpoint, treating them like dogs.
Palestine is struggling, and will continue to do so as long as Israel is allowed to steal land and perpetrate and kill people at will whilst Israeli allies such as the UK and America stand by and turn a blind eye.
Palestine is not at all how it is portrayed in the media and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back, or encourage others to go and visit. I assure you that you will be pleasantly surprised.