Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Workshop of Babel

You may not know this, but this year PBI (Peace Brigades International) - not to be confused, Mom, with IBP (Iowa Beef Packers) - is celebrating its 30th Anniversary.

30 years of accompaniment. 30 years of protection. 30 years of making space for peace.

In honor of the occasion, several of PBI's national branches hosted conferences to bring together the European politicians and public with some of the human rights defenders we accompany.

Check out what one Guardian journalist had to say after attending the London conference here.

The conference we held in Berlin was also regarded as a success. After morning panel discussions featuring German politicians and human rights defenders from six different countries, the afternoon was split into workshops.

PBI is an international organization based on adaptation and flexibility, and the workshop I attended testified to this. The room quickly proved to be too small, providing no more space for the overcrowded circle to expand.  But no matter -  the floor's as good a place to sit as any.

And who needs fancy headsets and simultaneous translations to overcome a language barrier?

The moderator will conduct the workshop in German.

The guest from Chad will speak through a French-language interpreter.

The Indonesian guest will speak through a Bahasa-Indonesia interpreter.

The guest from Colombia will speak through a Spanish-language interpreter.

And I will desperately try to keep up in a parallel, whispered interpretation of German to English for our Australian guest.

I firmly believe that such a potential chaos and cacophony of languages was worth it.

Because I'm convinced that when one human rights defender told of his situation and struggles, there was something that resonated with the others, despite it having gone through two lingual translations. There were stories with which they could identify, even though they took place on a continent worlds away.  There was, before their very eyes and (indirectly) in their own ears, the affirmation that they are not alone in this struggle for peace and justice.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

You're not as brave as you were at the start

Last night as I was heading into the grocery store, I passed by a Hinz & Kunzt (the local 'street magazine' that covers homelessness and other social issues and which is sold by those without a permanent residence) salesman. I didn't yet have the December edition, so I made a mental note to  save the correct change to buy one on the way out.

 As I passed by the store's bakery, the Brötchen looked too good to pass by, and so I decided that I would, for once, offer the salesman some food instead of just buying the magazine.

By the time I left the store, however, the salesman had left his post to smoke and chat with a friend/acquaintance.

And that was all it took to lose my nerve.

After buying my magazine, I lost the courage to offer him a snack. Simply because there were now two potentially homeless men instead of one.

And the question is why?

Why is it for me even a question of courage or boldness to offer someone something that he did not ask for but might appreciate?  Why is it a question of shyness rather than cost that prevents me from making this offering to others I pass on the street?

It's not the fear that something would happen to me but rather the fear that if I were to get a glimpse of her worries or burdens, I might walk away leaving us both the worse because I can't do anything go help. The fear that, because it's not within the setting of a soup kitchen or something similar but rather on 'their turf', the offering to share a bite to eat or a bit of conversation would be unwelcome, would be seen as intrusive. The fear that I'll be rejected.

Do good intentions need an invitation?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

And lead us not into temptation

A few weeks back, I started helping out at the local fair trade store. Perhaps not the most logical decision, seeing as how my time here is coming to an end. But it sounded like fun, it's a very important initiative, and, unlike the other efforts I attempted to establish contact with over the past year and a half, it was simple to arrange.

Plus, I know these cashier skills will come in handy once my student loan debts have reached such epic proportions that I have to ditch these volunteer gigs and get a job at McDonald's.

The problem, however, is that I spend multiple three-hour shifts a week stocking, selling, and otherwise staring in the face of temptation.

Do you know how hard frugality is in the face of fair trade and a good cause? Do you???

And oh the abundance! There's no corner in which I can direct my eyes that isn't filled with some item of seduction - be it the scarf whose prettiness outweighs the rational fact that I already have several or the handbag who preys on my particular weakness or the multitude of other items who whisper to me what great Christmas gifts they would make....anyone want some free trade underwear?

Yet, wonder of wonders, I have so far managed to avoid falling into the hands of these tempters. The food department, however, is another story.

There are the very sensible items like rice and tea. And there are the solidarity purchases like the couscous from Palestine. And then there are the wild and crazy things like manioc chips and mango-coconut balls that I buy just because they are fun and exotic. And I'll tell you this: you haven't had salad until you've had it with a Philippinian mango vinaigrette.

Consequently, I think I have yet to leave a shift at the store without having purchased some overly fairly priced good.

Who would have thought that volunteering could be so expensive?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Take all the courage you have left

In a book I read a while back, I stumbled upon the following lines:
That's the thing about activism. It isn't a members-only club. We don't get to choose who is, and who isn't, an activist. The ability to stand up, to do the right thing - to be active - is in every human being.

I found this idea to be quite motivating, and while that hasn't changed, I now question to what extent it is true.

What if we in fact don't all have what it takes to be an activist?

These doubts come after my experience in the Tel Aviv airport a few months ago. I think I was doomed from the start. Several people had told me that as a young woman traveling alone, I would be one of the top profiling targets and warned me not to bring along clothing with the word 'peace' on it or anything that would mark me as an 'activist.' This only increased my natural tendency to worry. Besides this, I am really bad at lying and have a rather irrational fear of 'getting in trouble.' On top of it all, I stepped off the plane at 4:30am after spending all night traveling.

True to prediction, I had barely taken my place in line for passport control before I was approached by a security employee who asked if I had been to the country before and what my plans for the visit were. Upon reaching the counter, these questions were repeated as well as inquiries about where and with whom I was staying. Apparently, my answers were unsatisfactory, as the woman behind the counter conferred with a second woman (in Hebrew, of course) before the second woman took my passport and led me to another room.

Here I faced an intimidating man who repeated the same questions and added ones about what I do in Germany (try explaining an organization called "Peace Brigades" without using words like peace and human rights!), if I knew anyone in Israel, what I knew about the conflict, and if I had any ties with Palestinian groups or plans to go to Palestine. He then moved on to his problems with the American pastor (who previously attended the same church as my parents)that I was planning to stay with because 'why would someone who doesn't even know you invite you to stay with him?'

Despite the fact that it was not yet 5:00am, he then proceeded to call Pastor Fred, question him about his alleged guest, chide him for inviting others to Israel when he himself was a guest in the country, promising to make remarks in his passport, and threatening trouble if anything suspicious were to turn up. Perhaps the most absurd element was his suspicion caused by Fred's and my shared connection to a church called Bethlehem Lutheran.
Read Fred's account of it here:

The security officer then demanded my cell phone and proceeded to search through its contents. It was all I could do to conceal my fear, as I had repeatedly claimed not to know anyone else in Israel and there were in fact two ICAHD contact numbers in my phone. Luckily, security man only found the most recent calls (bonus points for German-language phone!), though he even seemed suspicious of these German contacts ("Who's Gaby? A friend in German, really?")

As he then led me across the hall to a waiting room, I quickly pulled out my phone and deleted the two Israeli contacts as secretly and subtly as I could. But of course, just as I was flipping the phone closed, security man turned around and saw me: "What are you doing?! Why are you deleting messages?! Give me that phone!" And so my phone went off to join my passport in the land of confiscation.

The make-shift waiting room to which I was taken was quite surreal. In it were about a dozen security workers and soldiers who appeared to be on break: some were dozing, some were eating, and some were playing games on their phones. Besides me there were two young women who, if I were to make a guess based solely on appearance and attire, were part of some sort of prostitution/trafficking ring. Above the vending machine, a TV was playing without sound and appeared to be showcasing some sort of 80's workout video with three leotard-clad people doing sit-ups on some mountaintop with a sea or ocean in the background. This would later switch to them doing jumping jacks on a cruise ship, with the instructor wearing a captain's hat. If the officials were trying to play mind games with their detainees, it was definitely working.

After a second round of answering the same questions (from a different official in a different room) and another wait in the jazzercise break-room, I was taken to a third room, where I was greeted by yet two more security officials and told that:
"We are going to ask you some questions that we already know the answers to so that we can see if you are cooperating."
Security man then proceeded to tell me that they had spoken with Fred five minutes before and he had no idea who I was. Further, Fred's letter of welcome was something I could have typed up myself and after he brought up the internet on his computer came the following exchange:
"Please sign into your email and show us your conversations with Fred."
No, I won't do that.
"Why not?"
Because I don't show my email to people.
"We are not people - we are the authorities."
I don't have to show you my email.
"You don't have to enter Israel...What are you hiding?"
I'm not hiding anything - I have the right to privacy.
"You have no rights in this room." (It was this statement that just about did me in). "So you are refusing to cooperate - you know this will prevent you from entering Israel. We are also friends with the USA, so if you don't cooperate with us, you will be in trouble there."

And with this, they sent me back to the waiting room, but not before asking exactly how much money I had, having me take out my cash, and keeping my wallet and the rest of its contents.

So there I sat. Fighting tears. Expecting to be sent back to Germany. Hoping that nothing worse happened, that somehow they would find proof of something and arrest me.

After a while, I was approached by yet another anonymous official who informed me that they knew I was lying and if I continued not cooperating, I would not enter Israel.

I was then led into another screening room, only to be taken out again so they could Fred again, this time without me being able to hear what they said to him. When I returned, security lady told me they were willing to let me into the country if I signed an an agreement that I would not enter areas under control of the Palestinian Authority and if I left a monetary deposit as a safeguard that I would do as promised.

In my somewhat-altered decision-making capacity, I agreed to the conditions, even though it's quite possible that the monetary sum (which I can no longer remember) was more than I even had available. But at this point, after having repeatedly denied any intention to go to Palestine, I figured it would be unwise to turn down the agreement.

I was sent once more to the waiting room and upon return was greeted with the ever-so-gracious announcement that "We now believe you, so you don't have to leave a deposit."

They, however, did not believe me enough to forget about the agreement, which threatened deportation, a fine, and a 10-year ban on Israel if I were to enter PA-controlled zones.

And so, four hours later, I received my passport, complete with stamp, and continued on my way.

There were many true activists headed for Palestine that day. More than 300 were on blacklists sent from the Israeli government to European airports and were thus not allowed to board their planes.

Others arrived and, unlike me, boldly and purposefully stated their intentions to visit the Territories. As a result, they were arrested and imprisoned for four days, some of whom were harassed or beaten (

And this is of course is nothing in comparison to the threats and violence that face Palestinians and activists around the world on a daily basis.

Yet, against the background of a safe, spoiled, and secure life, my airport experience was one that shook me to the core.

And this begs the question: if I am so troubled by a few uncomfortable hours and some intimidating questions in an airport, how can I hope to handle facing soldiers at a checkpoint or settlers on an accompaniment? If such a minor incident affects me so greatly, how can I believe I have what it takes to take part in these actions of solidarity that so interest me?

I know, of course, that there are many ways to take action that involve neither threat nor risk nor fear. But somehow, to me, it's not the same.

And what if activism, this kind of activism, truly is a members-only club? And I don't belong?

Monday, October 31, 2011

May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along.
May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about.
And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins.

- Rob Bell

Friday, August 26, 2011

Because my dad told me to...

Last month I took a trip to Palestine, or more accurately, the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I have much to write about the experience, but due to the very real danger that I will never get around to it, for now I am posting, at my father's suggestion, a few words I wrote for the organisation's donors:

It has been about a month since returning from ICAHD's summer rebuilding camp, and in that time countless people have posed the same question: 'How was Palestine?'

And the first word that comes to my mind (as if you could describe the experience in a word) is hard. The physical work in the heat and sun was hard, of course, but so much more so was witnessing injustice at a magnitude I had never yet encountered. As the camp came to a close, I couldn't escape the feelings of anger and despair that weighed me down.

Yet, in those two weeks, I also encountered so much courage, perseverance, and sheer goodness that I couldn't help but leave that place inspired.

I was inspired by my fellow international volunteers, who came from all around the world to join in this common goal. Being united in communal work and life with them was refreshing, and hearing of their steadfast efforts in their respective homelands was motivating.

I was inspired by our Israeli leaders, who have the insight and vision to see beyond the system in which they are living. I can't imagine what it is like to work not only against the policies and practices of your own government but also against the values and prejudices of your own community, yet the Israeli activists we got to know engage in this effort tirelessly, some at the cost of relationships to friends and family.

And, most of all, I was inspired by the many Palestinians we met and worked with, who, simply by remaining in their homes and continuing their daily lives in peace, are exemplifying resistance. Despite being denied both rights and basic needs by a regime bent on getting them to quit and leave, they refuse to give in.

Beyond this, I was touched by the generosity and hospitality which
our various Palestinian hosts bestowed upon us, be it welcoming us into their homes, sharing delicious meals with us, or inviting us, strangers who neither spoke the language nor really knew the culture, to take part in a family's wedding festivities.

One moment I found particularly touching was when one of our hosts returned from the hospital with her newborn daughter. Even amidst the occupation, the joy of new life continues, and we were fortunate enough to welcome it.

When we weren't busy meeting and being inspired by people, we were of course building a house.

And it was this aspect that drew me into the camp from the moment I heard about it. I currently work in the office of a human rights organisation, and when sitting at a desk day after day, busying myself with translations and grant reports, it is difficult to feel like, much less see that, I am making any sort of contribution toward the fight for peace and justice. At the camp, it was different. There, when I left the work-site each evening, my eyes could see what we had accomplished that day, and my tired muscles could attest that I had done my part, however small it may be.

The way I see it, ICAHD's Summer Rebuilding Experience allows volunteers to do three great things. First, it provides people from various countries the chance to witness the occupation firsthand: to see the demolished houses and uprooted olive trees and to hear the personal stories, and thus equip us to share our experiences with others upon our return. Secondly, the camp provides a home to a family who had been robbed of one, a fact that, amidst all the politics and symbolism, should not be overshadowed. Finally, the camp provides the chance to take action in peaceful resistance, the chance to set a sign that, ultimately, injustice cannot win.

I consider myself honored to have been given the chance to take part in this amazing experience, and I sincerely thank all those who made it possible for me as well as those who enable the participation of others in the future.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Man teou!

Several months ago (yes, I am rather far behind in my documentation efforts), I visited a friend in his hometown of Bad Driburg, a quaint destination known for its spas, scenery, and men on benches.

Yet, the real highlight of the weekend was experiencing a true German Karneval celebration. Karneval precedes Lent and is the German equivalent of Mardi Gras, with the same level of public intoxication but with costumes instead of beads and nudity. Case in point: monkeys distributing bananas and booze.

The most interesting/amusing/disturbing part of the experience was the evening event, which consisted of countless middle-aged, small-town Germans clad in a wide assortment of costumes and gathered in an explosion of flower power.
If you can't imagine what that looks like, let me show you (bonus point for finding the gnomes, my personal favorite of the evening):

Once all had gathered and admired each other's apparel, the program began. This consisted of various groups marching to the stage (accompanied by the band's marching song) as we all stood up and clapped, the group presenting some sort of dance/skit/speech, and then marching from the stage (accompanied by the same song) as we yet again stood up and clapped.

And if this wasn't enough slightly creepy ritual, I found myself joining in (I'd like to see you resist this type of group conformity and peer pressure)on the battle cry cheer 'Man teou!' with accompanying arm wave that was passed back and forth roughly 500 times throughout the evening.

This fanfare continued for more than four hours.

This may all seem rather excessive and ridiculous, but there were some very important persons to honor:

George Washington wanna-bes

The Shriner-types who organised the whole event

More majorettes that I've seen in my lifetime

The Karneval King and Queen!

The women drumming on giant exercise balls

The lingerie-clad, pole-dancing crowd pleasers

The teen girls disturbingly clad in hooker outfits and performing virtual strip-teases

The teen girls even more disturbingly clad in matching wigs and ruffled underpants and performing the can-can.

There was, of course, much more to see, but my camera couldn't handle all the excitement.

While the whole event was quite bizarre and left me with burning eyes and smoke-scented clothing, I am grateful for the rare glimpse of instinctive German behavior in its natural habitat.