While the Bethlehem Marching Band’s music echoed in the narrow streets of the town’s Old City, forty young Palestinians made their way to Manger Square. None of them grew up in Palestine, and most of them were seeing the country for the first time. On Sunday the 15 June they where welcomed to their homeland with speeches, music and dance, all with the Church of the Nativity in the background.
The Know Thy Heritage Leadership Program is an annual event aimed at acquainting young Palestinians from the Diaspora with their homeland. Many of the participants have been disconnected from the land because generations of their families grew up abroad. During their visit to Palestine, they see the sights, meet the people and learn about Palestinian culture. After their return to the countries they grew up in, they do voluntary work and try to teach people around the world about Palestinian culture and the struggle of the Palestinian people.
For Noelle Salah from Chili that means setting up an Arab council at her university. She wants to teach her fellow students about the Arab world, and Palestine in particular. Originally her family is from Beit Jalla, but four generations ago they moved away. “Before I came here, I didn’t have enough information to set up something at my university. Now that I have been here, now that I have seen for myself, I can.”
All forty participants have hopes and wishes for when they go back, they would not have been selected for the program if they didn’t. The selection process is exhaustive. Applicants are interviewed, either in person or via Skype, then they must write an essay detailing their commitment to the program. After that, a special committee chooses 40 applicants out of approximately 160. They aim to select twenty Muslims and twenty Christians, twenty boys and twenty girls, evenly divided over the ten countries the applicants are from.
Most of the selected group wants to reconnect with other young Palestinians from the Diaspora to Palestine. In a passionate speech at the Third Palestinian Diaspora Youth Convention, Mohammed Saleh, one of the participants in the program, describes his feelings when he first entered Palestine, after a six-hour interrogation at the border. “After our cousins at the border finished giving us a hard time, we saw Jericho, we saw the land, and we finally felt at home.” He wants as many other young Palestinians as possible to share this feeling. “We must show them the land, and make this intangible dream into a tangible reality,” he said.
Although it seems nearly impossible to see and do everything in Palestine in 16 days, the organizers of the trip have certainly tried to fit most of it in. Sir Rateb Rabie, CEO of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation that organizes the KTH leadership program, sums up the itinerary, “They visit every district of Palestine - Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem. They go to the Galilee, Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth. We show them the economic structure of Palestine and the political situation. They have to come to the offices of the Palestinian Authority themselves and talk to the officials. Then we go on cultural activities. We visit museums, but we also do cooking and dabke. It is a leadership program, but we want to show them the fun as well. At the end we have a three day conference, with panels and discussions.”
For one night the group of 40 stayed with Palestinian families. While some of them spent the night with a family selected by KTH, many stayed with their own family who they had never met before. Gina Kawas from Honduras was amazed by her family’s hospitality. “They had a very nice, but basic home. No extra bedroom. My uncle insisted he would sleep on the couch, and I would take the bed. And there was so much food.”
Kawas was most affected by the reality on the ground in Hebron. “It was the peak of a rollercoaster of emotions. We saw soldiers chasing the little kids that were trying to sell us things, and we had to cross a checkpoint to get into the mosque, can you imagine! We saw the reality there, and all I could think was, if our families hadn’t migrated, that could have been us.”