Olga Kishek was just a child when her family left the West Bank but a Palestinian programme encouraging participants to “know thy heritage” has brought her back to her birthplace.
At two years old, Kishek moved to the US state of Michigan with her family, following a familiar path for emigrating Palestinians, learning to speak English with an American accent and graduating from a US university.
In the two decades since the move, Kishek had made just one trip back, so she jumped at the chance to return with a new programme that seeks to strengthen diaspora Palestinians’ ties to their homeland.
“I wanted to come back and visit and live Palestine and see my roots — see my heritage,” she told AFP.
The “Know Thy Heritage” programme that Kishek applied to is the work of Rateb Rabie, a Jordanian-born, Palestinian-American who is founder and president of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a US-headquartered Christian group.
He said he wanted to provide an in-depth experience that would expose participants to their cultural heritage and the political situation.
He approached Palestinian companies and associations in the West Bank and the United States for support, raising $300,000 (210,440 euros), enough to cover everything but the plane tickets for the participants.
For the programme’s inaugural trip, Rabie solicited applications exclusively from Palestinians in the United States, but tried to cast a broad net within the community.
“We were looking for people from all over the place, people who are both Muslims and Christians, males and females and people who are from different parts of Palestine,” he said.
He put out a call for applicants between the ages of 18 and 25, specifying that they had to be “at least 50 percent Palestinian” and requiring them to fill out a six-page application explaining their interest.
“This is not a vacation,” he said. “We made the point that they have to be ready for this, to commit to the programme, and to commit to Palestine.”
Although Rabie prefers not to draw the comparison, the programme in some ways mirrors the “Taglit-Birthright” project that each year brings thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel in a bid to strengthen their ties to the state.
Started in 2000 and funded by the Israeli government and private donors, the programme has brought over 260,000 youngsters from 52 countries to Israel.
Rabie’s programme, running for the first time this year, can only dream of such numbers, but he hopes it can become an annual trip for diaspora Palestinians in the United States and elsewhere wanting to learn more about their heritage.
For the first round, he narrowed down 71 applicants to 33 participants, picking only those he deemed both “moderate politically” and ready to “start working with us on building a new state of Palestine.”
“We succeeded in getting everything except that I have 27 women and nine men,” he laughed. “But I feel that the women are going to raise kids and they’re going to raise them aware of their Palestinian heritage.”
The trip aimed to introduce the participants, 80 percent of whom had never been to the Palestinian territories, to “the good, the bad and the ugly”, he said.
They visited holy sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, visited Palestinian refugee camps, experienced the tense relations between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in Hebron, and ate meals with Palestinian families in Nablus — both cities on the West Bank.
For Jessica Rayyan, a 25-year-old from Arizona, the experience was an eye opener.
“Visiting a refugee camp, for instance, it really made me appreciate things way more. It just makes you way more appreciative of what you have,” she said.
But she found parts of the trip difficult, including the experience of being held for seven hours at the Israeli-administered Allenby crossing between Jordan and the West Bank.
It was “pretty difficult”, she said. “But it could have been much worse and it makes you think about what it’s like for the Palestinians who live here, what they go through every day.”
She was also horrified by Israel’s security barrier along the West Bank, which will span 709 kilometres (435 miles) when complete.
Israel says the wall has dramatically reduced Palestinian attacks inside Israel, but the Palestinians denounce it as a land-grab, noting that 85 percent of the barrier’s final route will lie inside the West Bank.
“The hardest thing for me was seeing the wall. That was just devastating and horrible, and I just can’t stand it,” she said.
Mohammed Iftaiha, a 31-year-old from Washington who joined the programme as a group leader, described the trip as a “roller coaster”.
“It’s been hard at times to get around. We had to take a detour on our way back from Nablus because settlers were throwing rocks at the road.”
But Rabie stressed the tour showed participants both the success stories and hardships of Palestinian life.
“We took them to the Bank of Palestine and they saw all these sharp young Palestinians in the workplace… and then we took them to Aida camp,” a Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem.
“They learned that we have the foundation for a state. They found out why we are negotiating this way, not just carrying a gun,” he said. “We gave them a sense of belonging as Palestinians.”