Following the Regional Community Coordinators’ meeting in Jordan at FoEME’s SHE Eco-Park, and after weeks of careful planning, this year’s Good Water Neighbours Youth Camps were launched into existence on the weekend of January 16, 2014. The community groups travelled and divided into three locations: Beit Alpha (in the Spring Valley region), Baqa-Gharbia-Jat (near Wadi Ara), and Neve Shalom (close to Jerusalem). Here is one intern’s account of her experience in the Youth Camp in Beit Alpha…
The early drive from Tel Aviv to the North is like a full-body stretch after being cramped in the same position for too long: once you break free of the dense smoggy morning traffic and shoot out past the coast into the sprawling, vibrant green fields and mountains of the Jordan Valley, your whole being takes a deep breath of fresh air. We arrived to meet one of the Israeli groups at their school, and waited for the bus carrying the Jordanians across the border to join us—all are Good Water Neighbours communities located in the Northern part of the Jordan Valley, and the Beit Alpha camp included two Israeli and two Jordanian community groups. After a moment of trepidation and more than a few curious stares, we boarded and settled on the bus, smiling awkwardly at our new companions for the coming days.
A short drive later and we were in “Ee HaShalom”, or the “Naharayim/Baqoura Peace Park” (http://foeme.org/www/?module=projects&record_id=123), where our first collective experience was fighting the fierce winds that kept ripping our lunch bags out of our grasp and sending them flying across the grounds. It was a sight to see: colourful scarves and wild hair blowing about as the kids scurried around, scrambling to retrieve the bags or huddling together to ward off the cold gusts. We heard a brief history of the old hydro-electric plant whose remains rest at the site where the Yarmouk river meets the Jordan, and managed to eat sandwiches and fruit while perched atop the “island” that serves as a passport-free, accessible meeting point between the Jordan-Israel border.
Our next stop was Tiberias, where the Jordanians in particular excitedly strolled along the boardwalk, watching the dozens of seagulls clustered overhead in a feeding frenzy, and laughing as the waves of the Kinneret crashed over the railing, spraying unwitting passers-by. The short visit ended when it came time to pick up the second Israeli group at their school grounds, where they would lead us on a tour of their classroom and environmental projects (such as a vertical wall garden, and a grey-water recycling system). Up until this point, no real group introductions had been made, and everyone stuck to their comfort zones within their cliques—despite being such close geographical neighbours, none had previously interacted with anyone beyond their cultural and language borders; it was time to head over to Beit Alpha, where we would finally start getting to know one another.
After a hot lunch, we divided into two classrooms in which the Israeli coordinators led the mixed groups in introduction games: most were nervous to speak up at first, but through our patient translators we were able to communicate, and start understanding who lay behind the mask of the mysterious “other”. With a little help from each other, we wrote our names in Hebrew and Arabic. We discussed our backgrounds and our communities, the environmental problems we face, our impressions of each other’s situation. We talked about respect, and how to better listen. We played games in which shared hobbies and interests were revealed and applauded—it turns out that a passion for music, or a favourite soccer team, knows no borders. After an hour or so, everyone seemed a bit more relaxed with one another, a bit more open…and then it was time to eat. Again.
With full bellies we dispersed among the grounds, to enjoy some spare time playing in hammocks, chatting, and listening to the sounds of the quiet night under a starry moonlit sky. There still wasn’t too much mixing between the groups, especially since the translators were off on a coffee break and language seemed too difficult a barrier to overcome after such a long day, but I somehow managed to get drawn into the group of teenage Jordanian girls who, frustrated by the limitations of English, quickly took it upon themselves to teach me Arabic. As I knew only one word before (shukran, “thank you”), I am happy to report that my Arabic improved by a factor of 20, since by the end of the night they had expanded my vocabulary by twenty new words. This game of “teach-the-hapless-Canadian” entertained us until our final surprise activity: a basket-weaving workshop down the road, past the tractors and cows, to the warm Salima studio where we would sit all together, sip hot drinks, and learn an ancient craft.
Although traditionally a female practice, most of the boys took to it with as much gusto as the girls, overcoming their initial “I can’t do it” instinct and trying to best one another with their dexterous creations. The coordinators and translators got really into it too, and everyone enjoyed the comfortable, fun atmosphere of the studio. After we had spent ourselves on our efforts, it was finally time to crawl into bed and rest up for another big day.
With breakfast consumed and the sun shining, we set out to the Springs Park on the local FoEME Neighbours Path and in two separate groups took off on scavenger-hunt type missions, tracking down specific sites and at each point discussing a different environmental issue. The walk took about 2 hours and culminated at a beautiful shady pool into which the boys immediately jumped while the girls looked on. Part of the group played a circle game requiring cooperation and teamwork, and once the second half of the group caught up to us, we all headed back to Beit Alpha to eat and wrap things up with our final summarizing activities.
This time, the kids were quick to volunteer to speak, to recount their experiences and tell what they liked and had learned. Everyone sat side-by-side, mixed—the boundaries that had existed just a day before in the same circle had dissipated. They knew each other’s names; the boys slapped each other on the backs while the girls took pictures on their phones for posterity. One activity required them to write their reflections on pieces of paper tied to a long string, binding them together through their shared but unique personal experience of the youth camp. One final group game was played, which involved a heavy rope everyone had to hold while maintaining the circle, moving in unison with the pushes and pulls of the others. The transformation within the kids was palpable: in just two days, nervous reticence gave way to laughter and hugs, and we bid our farewells with the deepening knowledge that despite our differences, we are all more alike than we’d ever thought.
This post is contributed by Alexandra Clermont, FoEMEs Intern at the Tel Aviv Office.