Palestine

Palestine is a land under occupation. It consists of two parts, Gaza and the Westbank, which have been occupied by Israel for more than 50 years. While the Palestinians are trying to have a normal life, this has proved to be difficult as the wages are low, unemployment is high, riots and clashes often happen, and a feeling of injustice is shared by many. I travelled to the West Bank to see for myself.

The story of Palestine is very rich and often bloody. After World War I, the British took control over certain areas that were formerly under the Ottoman Empire. They supported a policy of Zionism, enabling huge numbers of Jewish people to settle in the land that is now known as Israel. The aim of the Zionists was to create a Jewish state, in which they succeeded after the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The only parts left for the Palestinians were Gaza and the West Bank, which after the war of 1967, came under occupation by Israel as well, and the current borders were defined.

Because these borders are controlled by Israel, it is more difficult to enter Palestine. I visited Iran before—an enemy of Israel—and I was stopped at the airport. As I was questioned about my activities there, all of the names and phone numbers of everyone I met in Iran were written down. Luckily, the people at the border control were very friendly. They offered me a sandwich for the long wait and treated me with respect. Being honest proved to be the best approach, and after five hours I was allowed to enter.

In Palestine, I was working in a hotel together with Abed*, who studied Social Services but couldn’t find a job in this field. He told me that the salary he receives is very low, but he is working there to improve his English. He has to work six days a week, with only the Friday off. The hostel is run by Abed’s family (which consists of 2,500 members), and they frequently visit. Unfortunately, the owner has problems with keeping the place afloat. People barely come to the hostel because they feel scared to visit, partly due to the fact that the United States decided to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel and put the embassy there, which has sparked riots. Personally, I haven’t felt unsafe, not even once. Not to mention, all Palestinians I met were very friendly and helpful. Abed told me:

 "People have two sides: a positive and a negative. You can choose which side you want to grow yourself.”

When I met with Jamila*, a friend of mine who lives in Palestine, I was impressed with her work ethic. She's a psychologist who works long hours. She told me one specific case about a woman who came to her. The woman didn’t know what to do with her son. "When I had my baby, I didn't feel any love for him," the woman said to Jamila. She screams at her son and she even hits him, while the father is too lazy to help. When you struggle to make ends meet, and you couple this with a difficult situation at home, negative things are bound to happen. The woman and her son will both receive counseling,  and will hopefully find a workable solution.

After the war in 1967, the Israelis started building settlements in occupied territories. Orthodox Jews settled here in Palestine illegally but received protection from the army. After the Jews firmly set foot on the ground, they enticed other Jewish people to join by offering certain benefits and low housing prices.

These settlers also started to occupy houses in Hebron, a city deemed holy by both Jews and Muslims. When you walk in the old city you will see checkpoints, which are heavily secured iron gates to protect the settlers from the Palestinians. There were parts where both groups lived in the same building; Palestinians on the first floor, Israeli settlers on the upper floors. Because these settlers throw garbage and other stuff on the streets below them, iron fences have been constructed above the alleyways. We walked around an abandoned part of the city, with blown-up houses, closed shops, and people aimlessly wandering around. These are tragic results of Israel's occupation of Palestine.

The settlements led to an uprising (1st intifada) of the Palestinian people against their oppressor, Israel. Because of the violent way Israel handled the situation, Hamas — classified as a terrorist organisation — became increasingly popular. In 2000, there was another uprising (2nd intifada), which led to the construction of the Apartheid Wall. This wall stretches along the borders of the West Bank.

I visited the wall and a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a touristic city close to Jerusalem. Because the wall was built on Palestinian territory, many families have been cut off from each other and most of the Palestinian inhabitants of East-Jerusalem are unable to go back to the West Bank. In the refugee camp we saw a lot of children on the streets, in a bleak, grey and mostly concrete environment. A couple of kids showed us the way to a center for children, there I received a smiley sticker from a little girl. That little girl showed me that staying positive is important when you live in a refugee camp. At the center, children can go to language classes, practice dubka (Palestina's national dance), play music, and join art classes. The center even hosts their own radio show. Here, the children can find time to be a child.

Palestine has a sizable Christian minority. When I entered a church, a young man started a conversation with me. He talked about his life; that he has to work in a stone factory because there isn't anything else available for him; that he isn't allowed in Jerusalem and hasn't been there since he was a child; and that he has to go all the way to Jordan to catch a flight, which will last several hours because of all the checkpoints. These are just some examples of ordinary people who try to live a normal life, and have to face all these hurdles to accomplish it.

In Jerusalem I met with a girl of Jewish-Arabic descent. She told me that casualties have fallen on both sides, and neither side is without blame. True, the Israelis have committed many atrocities and are still ruling Palestine with iron fists. On the other hand, they have made several offers to the Palestinians in making peace, which have been rejected every time because the Palestinians hold a rhetoric of "all or nothing".

I do not know whether this conflict will end one day, or not. It doesn't matter. The people have to change and stop these crimes against humanity. Power has to be divided over many actors, so not one person can have such consequences for a whole population. We have to stop seeing how we are different from each other, and focus on everything we have in common as human beings. Only then will there be an end to this madness.

*Names are changed to honor the privacy of the people I met.

Social & Emotional Learning

The feeling of flying in the air is something completely different. You do not have solid ground beneath you, which feels strange at first, especially when you just jumped out of the plane. But when you make a free fall going 200 km per hour, and you feel the adrenaline rushing through your body, you feel like you are truly alive, truly living. However, we should be able to feel like this all the time, truly alive, truly living.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for a lot of people, loneliness and depression are common and many feel like they are missing out on something. I believe a lot of this is caused by our education system, which teaches us academic knowledge, but nothing about how to truly live a fulfilling life.

The goal of the education system should be to produce healthy and responsible individuals. Right now, it mainly focuses on theoretical knowledge, i.e. downloading as much relevant information in a student's head as possible. When a student finishes his education in business, for example, he knows everything about accounting, economics, finance and maybe some mathematics. However, he does not know how to avoid conflict with co-workers, how to manage stress effectively, how to maintain a healthy work-life balance and how to deal with colleagues and superiors. Basically, you acquire a lot of specific knowledge pertaining to the field you are studying, but you don't learn how to live a positive and rewarding life.

Luckily, people are waking up and initiatives are being taken. One of these is a project organized by SEALNet, which stands for South-East Asia Service Leadership Network. This organization was founded in 2004 as a cooperation between Stanford students and working professionals, all who wanted to invest in the young generation of South-East Asia. I take part in one of their latest projects, called Social and Emotional Learning, Mindfulness for Secondary and High School Students.

With this project we are looking to optimally prepare students for the real world, by improving emotional intelligence. This is done by focusing on three types of learning: social, emotional and academic. In the current system the emphasis is on academic learning, while with SEL (Social & Emotional Learning) the focus is on all three.

There are five keys to SEL, namely Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision-Making. This is further explained in the video below.


Self-Awareness is about becoming aware of your own emotions and the behaviors resulting from these emotions. By recognizing why you are engaging in negative behaviors and habits, you can prevent these by using Self-Management. For example, two students are sitting next to each other and disagree in their points of view. One student notices that he is becoming angry (self-awareness). Instead of getting into a fight with his classmate, he slows down his breathing, regains control over himself and tells the other kid to agree to disagree and move on (self-management). By becoming aware of a negative emotion and managing it constructively, you can prevent possible conflict with others and yourself.

Social Awareness is about being aware of the group, accepting diversity and being able to empathize with others, no matter their background. This is easier achieved when the classroom is more heterogenous; however, with roleplaying you can simulate this. Relationship skills are interpersonal, e.g. how do you communciate with others, listen to others, and maintain healthy relationships. This can be done by partnering children up in teams and making them work together.

Finally, Responsible Decision-Making is about making the right decisions that promote good health, positive relationships, a balanced life and all other decisions that are constructive in a student's life, even when faced with peer-pressure. You can simulate this by presenting students with a set of options to choose and letting them present their choices.

The most important thing for students is to connect with other people; classmates, friends, teachers, and others. When all the education that is given is purely academic, a student has to find out on himself how to behave socially and how to manage his emotions effectively. A little guidance from people that have more experience in life, wouldn't hurt so much. When proper education is given, everybody can learn how to fly!

Macedonia

This adventure to Macedonia has been a real surprise. The people here are very friendly and they have told me everything about the region and what is going on around here. It is a land of contrast, with beautiful nature unlike anywhere else but also corruption, unemployment and a lot of garbage on the streets. I met quite a few interesting people, and I would like to share what I have learned.

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It all started in the plane where I sat next to someone who offered me a ride from the airport to the centre, which saved me a lot of time. She works in The Netherlands as there is not many jobs and opportunities in Macedonia. She was complaining about how difficult it was for her to find a job abroad, as people are skeptical of people from East-Europe and it is hard to obtain a visa. This is unfortunately a story I have heard many times before.

I went with a guide to a near mountain with a beautiful canyon, called Vodno and Matka. He told me how Macedonia and the whole of the balkans have a lot of potential for eco-tourism, like hiking, biking, canooing, climbing etc. From the top of Vodno mountain you could see all the mountains in the near vicinity and it is an  absolutely gorgeous view. It is common for the Balkan countries to oppose each other in everything, but if they learn to work together I see a lot of potential.

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I spend the night with somebody at an appartment in the popular district Debar Maalo, and he told me about his view of all the recent developments in Skopje. The government made a lot of constructions in the last decennia, building a lot of statues and 'renovating' a lot of buildings in neoclassical style. It was said to cost around 500 million but he told me it was more likely to have costed between 700 million and 1 billion while the rest of the money has dissapeared in the pockets of government officials. The young people of course don't like this because the money could have been used for more useful projects, like education or infrastructure. The same story was repeated to me by a city guide I met the next day, which shows most of the people disagree with the project.

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I was supposed to meet someone in the lobby of a hotel, but when I arrived it turned out my facebook had been blocked. Someone hacked into my profile and I have been unable to restore it. As I had been thinking about deleting it anyway, I used this as a good opportunity to stop for good. I will focus on instagram as I believe using more than one social media tool is unnecessary.

Eventually I did meet the person I was supposed to meet and we went to a conference about waste management. It was inspiring to see that initiatives are organized in Skopje to try to reduce the waste problem that exist in Macedonia. As it is a habit for Macedonians to throw everything on the street, you have to change the habit, step by step.

After the conference we went to her house in Katlanovo, a little village close to Skopje. She has some land there and is planning to built an earth-house, turning it into a meditation centre. It is inspiring to spend time around such an energetic and joyful person. I could spend the whole weekend in her house together with two other people, we did little chores and spend time together. I believe that when you have a clear vision of what you want, you can achieve almost anything. I really have faith that the project will be succesful!

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RIght now I am back home again, another experience richer. Macedonia has certainly made an impression on me and I had a feeling of peace when I was there, something I don't feel often when I am back home. This summer I am planning to return to visit Lake Ohrid and the meditation centre, and from there I want to go biking across the Balkans. I can't wait to get started!

 

 

Qeshm

Qeshm is an island in the south of Iran, where I spent the last days of my stay before leaving to Dubai. This time was in hindsight very interesting and that's why I wanted to write about it a bit more.

I took a long bus ride from the mainland to the Island, and when I arrived I was utterly exhausted. It was about 5:00 am; I didn't have any plan of what to do, so I started to walk around. I went to the beach and saw a lot of strange animals, called Mudskippers. These are a species of fish that can live outside of the water. When I finished watching the scenery, I kept on walking to look for a hotel; unfortunately, I couldn't find any. I did find the taxi stand, and I took a taxi to the main city. Here I asked the driver to find me a hotel and he did.

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When I arrived in the hotel, I locked myself up the whole day. I have had to deal with some pretty heavy anxiety, and here on the island it was worse. I was alone in a place where I didn't know anybody, where I didn't speak the language and had no idea how to proceed. I stayed inside the whole day but I forced myself to get out in the evening to eat some food. One hour later I met a couple from Tehran, who offered me a ride in their car and found a restaurant for me. The next day, when I checked out of the hotel, I met a random guy, sitting in his car on the side of the street. He drove me to the destination I had in mind, and, subsequently, we made a deal and he spend the whole day with me, showing me all the major destinations on the island, arranging a cheaper hotel, helping me to buy a flight ticket to Dubai and the next day driving me to the airport.

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For me this shows that life never abandons you. Sometimes it may feel like you are alone, sometimes you may feel depressed and anxious; however, there are always ways to get out of this. I truly believe there are bigger things in life, things we cannot comprehend with our little minds. You can call it God or energy or whatever, I have had multiple experiences like this and you cannot tell me that all are coincidences. Coincidence in this universe doesn't exist, everything happens for a reason. The more shit you can handle, the more life will throw at you. And when you find a way to deal with it, you will emerge from it a stronger and improved person.

Adventure in Iran

     My adventure started in Sofia when I took the bus to Istanbul. At the border the guards were a bit difficult because of my intentions to go to Iran, my bag was searched and I was asked some questions, but eventually they gave me a visa for Turkey. In Istanbul I had some trouble finding the shuttle bus to Gokcen Airport because the road was under construction; however, eventually I found it by asking around a bit. In the airport I met a very nice girl, she helped me with my visa in Tehran and made sure I wasn't nervous anymore.
 

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      In the city I received a warm welcome from a friend of mine, we ate some persian food, smoked some shisha at the Darband area, and she invited me to stay at her home. The next day I met another very welcoming guy, and I spend the night at his dormitory. His friends arranged a bus ticket to the next city I had planned to go and escorted me to the bus station the next day. I got a warm welcome in Najafabad, the city I went, and spend the rest of the week there. I was working in a cafe and met so many amazing people, they really made an impression on me. I visited some schools, as my colleauge in the cafe was a teacher from Germany, and he invited me to come along. It was amazing to see all these kids and their teachers doing their best to work for a better future.
 

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      After this I volunteered at a guest house in a desert town called Varzaneh. I was taking care of the guests and doing the marketing, which gave me first hand experience in the busy life of a hotel (guesthouse) manager. After a week I had to leave for Shiraz, where I made a last minute request on Couchsurfing in the bus, and someone accepted it. I spend the night at a house party of his friends, and the next day I spend at his place. Here I met another amazing guy, he toured me around the city and again gave me a place to stay the night. I got a real experience of the daily life of Iranians in Shiraz, with all its positive and also more negative sides.
 

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       I proceeded my travel to Qeshm, an island in the south of Iran. Here I met a taxi driver who toured me around the island for two days, found a cheap homestay for me and helped me to buy a ticket for Dubai, one of my 'in the moment' decisions as Dubai was really close and I wanted to see it. Unfortunately my money, almost 1000 USD, got stolen at the airport, and I was left without cash. Again, a girl from couchsurfing saved my ass, let me stay at her place and even borrowed me some money. I am home now and this story is not yet over!

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     Time after time again I am amazed by the generosity, kindness and hospitality of all these amazing people. At their core, I believe people are full of love and you can always find like-minded souls to connect with. When you take the step into the unknown, life will guide you in the right direction and lead you where you  need to be. Life is meant to be experienced!

The People of Iran

How is life like when you live in a country where you cannot express yourself fully? When the leaders who have the power surpress their people with their ideology? Where sanctions and restrictions prevent you from being able to enjoy your life to the fullest? I went to Iran for a month and met many amazing people on the way. This is my account of what I saw there.

When I arrived in Teheran, the first person I met was a woman in her mid 20s. She explained to me that she wanted to travel to other places, but because of visa restrictions she was unable to do so. As such, she couldn´t leave.

When I traveled to Esfahan I worked in a cafe for a week and met a lot of young people. Almost everybody there wanted to study in Germany. They told me there are no chances in Iran, there is a lot of religious dogma and corruption, and no good jobs around. In their minds, Germany presented the solution. Here they would be able to study and find a good job. The ones that didn´t want to leave for Germany wanted to go to Teheran, the capital, as all the opportunities in Iran are there.

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I met with a gay person who expressed his frustration, as he had a boyfriend for six years but could not tell anybody, because when the government will find out they will kill him.

When I went to Shiraz I was invited to some house parties. I was told that it had to be in secret as alcohol is not allowed. People call a courier where they can get alcohol from. It is common practice to smoke shisha, in the house but also outside, where it is not legal but in some places it is condoned.

I took a taxi and had a conversation with the driver. He serves in the army where he gets paid a very low wage. Because of this he needs to supplement his income by using his car as a taxi. He works seven days a week. Moreover he seemed to hold a grudge against the women in the city, as he was convinced he is alone because he is a poor man and has no money.

What striked me the most was the seperation between boys and girls. Touching in public is not legal in most places, only a handshake. Boys and girls go to seperate schools, sit seperately in the bus and girls have to wear a headscarf in public. In my opinion this is one of the biggest issues in Iran, because you often see that in places where the gender gap is biggest that problems arise. If we want to make this a better world we have to focus on what we have in common, and not about what is different.

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Of course there are also a lot of positive things in Iran. Because clubs and bars do not exist, and many things on the internet like Facebook or computer games are forbidden and/or hard to come by, people have to find other activities to enjoy. Hiking is very popular, as well as mountainbiking and games like pantomime, backgammon and chess. This is a notable difference from people in the west where the most popular activities outside work or school are all online.

I truly hope (and believe) that the people of Iran, from whichever ethnicity, religion, race, gender, sexual preference etc. will find common ground and make the changes needed, as it is a very special place and Iran deserves a more positive image.