By Genevieve Begue, MA Program in Peace and Conflict Management
Upon leaving Alabama in May of last year, I already sensed that one year in Israel would fly by. I had made no plan beyond the one year it would take me to complete my MA in Peace and Conflict Management Studies at the University of Haifa. However, everything about my new life turned out to be more exciting than I imagined. I immediately felt home in Haifa and I embraced the city’s diversity of cultures, religions, and even landscapes; I also quickly learned to enjoy Israelis’ straightforwardness. It wouldn’t be long before I looked into the Aliyah process, and November would mark the celebration of my new Israeli citizenship.
My MA program required a practicum but I was reluctant to work with an NGO as I felt it would inevitably politicize me, something I wanted to avoid. Out of an encounter with Neta Hanien Frankel on the beach of Jesr-az-Zarqa, my focus quickly turned toward the village, the only Arab village located on the Israeli Mediterranean coastline and at once Israel’s poorest village. There, Neta initiated the Juha’s Guesthouse in partnership with Ahmad Juha, a resident of the small community. I was drawn to Neta’s work and personality: a young Jewish woman mother of three, she was energetic, down-to-earth and humble and had left her job as a prosecutor for the State to build a social business in a conservative Arab village. From this encounter, bridges were built and Neta came to the University to introduce her work to our class. We later joined a field trip to Jesr to learn more about the village and its challenges, and to discover the Juha’s Guesthouse as a responsible tourism initiative.
Neta and one of my professors, Ran Kuttner, inspired me to build my own practicum project from scratch. With their support, The Zarqa Pallet Project eventually came to life and I would soon spend most of my spare time in Jesr.
The project aims at sparkling a spirit of entrepreneurship and leadership in the village of Jesr az Zarqa, while working toward a prettier Jesr and while supporting responsible tourism. At every stage the project will reflect the work of the residents of Jesr az Zarqa. It is a socially-oriented initiative and the economic development of the village by its residents is at the heart of the project. We hold dear as a principle the branching of The Zarqa Pallet Project to pre-existing initiatives aiming at developing the village socially and/or economically, whenever possible. The project also encourages new initiatives to benefit the locals.
During the first week of my practicum, we brainstormed for ways to start the Zarqa Pallet Project, discussing our needs in equipment and how to spark community involvement to bring the project to success. We met with environmentalist Eran Ben Yemini who recently worked with children in the village to create signs for the Jesr path, part of the Israel National Trail. Our first project would lead us to build a vertical garden pallet workshop to present during the first Jesr-az-Zarqa Festival initiated by Eran. The unprecedented event took place on April 3rd and brought much hope to the village: Minister of Environment Amir Peretz made the trip to Jesr and spoke before an enthusiastic and moved crowd.
Neta later introduced me to Salha Heir, a young sport teacher with a rare enthusiasm. Salha and I discussed our partnership before The Zarqa Pallet Project entered Jesr’s Middle School to work on The Green School initiative and build with the children a nicer and greener environment. Together we already built several pieces of outdoor furniture made out of recycled pallets: a picnic table and two benches built in a two week time.
The project teaches us not only how to build items but first and foremost how to develop and manage interactions between outsiders and young residents of a village known for its poverty and infamous for its violence. Interactions involve first a trust-building approach and the careful choice of kids to involve who are most likely to cooperate with a stranger. Many other factors are important and some of them we learn as the project unfold such as working with different personalities and staying inclusive of even the most disruptive children.
The Juha’s Guesthouse has already brought undeniable changes to Jesr-az-Zarqa and as Neta built the project from successful crowd-funding to the opening of the hostel, I felt compelled to join in and to learn from her. The road to Jesr, now so familiar, has brought its share of priceless moments: moving rounds of applause and accomplice looks marking a successful creation with the children; the welcome hugs of Ahmad and his family when I step in; Mussa’s smile when I arrive for coffee by his fisherman hut turned into an open-air restaurant; the young seller at the grocery store who finally responds to my smile after weeks of steeping in his store… Building trust is not an easy step on either side; I have to overcome my own fears to relate to people as people and in the process there are disappointing and discouraging moments. But I would not trade these weeks in Jesr-az-Zarqa for anything as I found a place in which to blossom, a place in which I feel useful. Week after week, I find the meaning of the Arabic “Jesr-az-Zarqa” more relevant to my own experience: a “bridge over the blue” I hope will soon link the village to Israel’s society in a most meaningful way.