Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Interview by Tom Rainey-Smith. All photography by Rebecca Fudala.

* The views and opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily state or reflect those of Amnesty International.

Rebecca Fudala is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2005, she graduated from American University, Washington D.C. with a B.A. from the School of International Service. In 2007, she moved to the Czech Republic to teach English, and then moved to Korea in February of 2009. She loves to travel and her passion is photography. Currently, she volunteers for an online human rights newspaper called Palestine Monitor, located in Ramallah, West Bank. In the future, she hopes to pursue a Masters and PhD in International Studies with a focus on Human Rights and Development. You can see her photography here and visit her personal blog here.

Michael Carpenter is 32 years old and hails from Regina, Canada. He has a master’s degree in Social and Political Thought from the University of Regina, and will be going to the University of Victoria this fall for PhD studies in Cultural, Social, and Political Thought (an interdisciplinary program offered through the department of Political Science).  He’s always been interested in international politics, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He came to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in May and volunteered for one month with Project Hope in Nablus, teaching English and internet skills to Palestinian youth, including some in the Balata refugee camp.  For the last six weeks he has been writing for Palestine Monitor, based in Ramallah.  He has about three weeks left in Palestine. You can read his work by visiting his personal blog.

For those newer members, please tell us a little bit about your experience as Amnesty G48 members in Korea.

Rebecca: My job in Korea didn’t demand too much time from me, so I decided to do some volunteering.  In August of 2009, I was matched up with Amnesty G48 and immediately became an active member. Besides going to monthly meetings, I worked on the Butterfly Campaign, helped with Little Travellers, and more.

Michael: I was a member of G48 for my last 6 months or so in Korea.  The experience exposed me to a lot of important human rights issues around the world and gave me the opportunity to get involved as an activist. Through the Asian Pacific Youth Network, I distributed information and collected photos and signatures for the Butterfly Campaign, putting pressure on the Japanese government to formally recognize its crimes against women during the war years. I helped a little with the [Little Travellers] Rubber Seoul event, distributing condoms and information about AIDS.  Just as importantly, I met some really great people who will probably be friends for life.

What was your motivation for visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

Rebecca: I had always wanted to work/volunteer in the Middle East. I had hesitations going into a conflict zone, like the West Bank, by myself. I was lucky enough to find Michael, who shared the same interests, and we decided to make the transition together.

Amnesty International played a huge role in the work I am doing now.  Before Amnesty, I really wasn’t sure what direction of International Studies to pursue. In fact, the whole reason for teaching English abroad was to help me figure out what I wanted to do.  Through meeting people like Tom and his wife and other volunteers who were active in the human rights community, I really found a path that I felt passionate about.

Michael: I’ve wanted to come here for over ten years.  Between the blockade and the occupation, the human rights situation is terrible, yet my country and my tax dollars support it.  As a concerned citizen, I feel personally obligated to show my support for the Palestinian people and my opposition to the policies of Israel.

Through what you have seen and experienced, can you paint a picture for us of what life is like for the average person in the West Bank?

Rebecca: To be frank, economic life here is hard.  The problems the people face here on a daily life are many but their will to survive is strong.

First, there are check points and road blocks which slow down and sometimes stop the flow of goods and services. The Wall has blocked off villages from farmlands. The right to move freely from village to village is sometimes denied.

Second, there are roads in which only Israeli’s can drive and Palestinians must take dangerous, dilapidated back roads that can take up to 4 of 5 times as long as the Israeli only roads. By the time produce makes it from the country side to city centers for sale, the gas costs have exceeded the profits of the produce.

Third, a lot of Palestinian farm land has been usurped to make room for new Israel roads or settlements.  The taking of land has left many unemployed and sometimes forces Palestinians into working construction for settlements or crocheting yarmulkes (the cap worn by observant Jews: see my latest article, Occupation forces Palestinians into making the Kippah).

Forth, intellectual property rights here are ignored (like in the case of the keffiyah) and cheaper imports are ruining the domestic industry.

Fifth, access to electricity and water can be difficult so factories and the remaining farmlands are left unworked.

As you can see, Palestinians face a lot of economic problems. These are just a few of the main ones I have personally encountered through conversations with people I have met.

Michael: Of course, it’s impossible to generalize and I still can’t fully comprehend it, but I am struck by the inhuman and unnecessary complexity of daily life here.  Palestinians are required to carry ID cards that define where they can and can’t go.  Travelling from city to city requires exiting the vehicle at military checkpoints and walking through metal turnstiles under Israeli gunpoint.  Also, Palestinians are confined to a limited number of roads, which often double or triple travel time between cities.  To give an example, from the hills of Nablus, you can see Tel Aviv on the western horizon.  But to travel there takes five hours and three separate buses as the journey arks unnecessarily south through Ramallah, Jerusalem, and at least one major checkpoint.

And while East Jerusalem is the heart of the West Bank, Palestinians who don’t already live there are forbidden to go unless they obtain special permits that are nearly impossible to get.  Many people don’t understand the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinian society and psyche.  All the major cities in the West Bank connect to Jerusalem like the spokes of a wheel, and the beautiful old city contains the holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. One of the most common questions I get from Palestinians is “Have you been to Jerusalem?” They dream of seeing it themselves, but are forced to experience it only vicariously through internationals like me.

Despite these comments, I have been struck and sometimes drawn into an alluring façade of normalcy.  On the surface, politics and occupation do not always dominate life here.  Markets are crowded with smiling faces, streets and shops are busy, and now World Cup fever is in the air.  One can almost forget about the occupation.  Of course, unlike myself, I know that every Palestinian carries personal stories of travesty and loss that never go away.  And every time I travel, or speak to a Palestinian about travel, the reality of occupation hits me like a cement wall.

The one Palestinian trait that cannot be overstated is their kindness and generosity.  The people are always smiling, laughing, and willing to talk to strangers and invite them into their homes.  Someone here coined a term, hostagetality.  After saying hello to a stranger, you will have to fight every step of the way to break free first from the conversation, then the deliciously sweet tea, and finally the meal in their home.  How can people with so little to give be so generous?

Michael, you witnessed and documented an assault by armed Israeli settlers on the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. How common are these kinds of armed assaults and what is the reason for these attacks?

Michael: I didn’t witness the assault, but I saw its aftermath and spoke with many people involved.  The attack came from an Israeli outpost (a settlement that’s illegal even under Israeli law).  The outposts are run by radical Jews, in some cases wanted terrorists and terrorist organisations, yet Israel does not have the political will to confront them.  Sadly, the attacks like the one I wrote about are not uncommon.  Across the West Bank, I would guess there’s been dozens of similar attacks (often not as severe) just this year.   Why do they attack the Palestinian villages?  I don’t know.  I think it they do it because they are radical, religious, and uneducated.  Also, because they can.

Many of our members are English teachers here in Korea. In light of your brief teaching experience in the West Bank, what observations can you make on the difference between teaching in Korea and teaching in the West Bank? Would you recommend this experience to others?

Rebecca: Teaching here is a pleasure. I have to be honest. The kids here are more willing to learn and soak up everything you have to say. They are fast learners and they can’t wait to show you what they learned.  Unlike Korean kids, the children here have a limited access to education and, in my opinion, are under stimulated. They have so much to offer, but no one to give to.  So, when they are given a chance to learn they really take advantage of it. Even the adults here impress me. It is not uncommon to meet someone here who speaks English. While most of them have never left the West Bank, some have never traveled more than a few kilometers outside of their village or city, there English is impeccable! On top of English, some can also speak French, Hebrew and even German.

I would recommend anyone to come here. Most jobs are volunteer. While there are a few paying jobs, don’t expect to land these unless you are already living in the West Bank. Many teachers come here to volunteer, start running low on cash, and then find paying jobs. I would also suggest to bring twice as much cash as someone advises you to bring. While you can live quite cheap here, you will want some extra cash to be able to travel in the West Bank, and for your own peace of mind, to get away once in awhile. Living here is stressful. That’s a fact (but I love it here).

Michael: I recommend it 100% – as long as you are aware of the conditions and some of the history here.  The difference between teaching here in the West Bank and there in Korea is that here its humanitarian work and there it’s a job.  Even if you find paid work, don’t expect to be able to save any money.  I recommend it as a valuable life experience and as a chance to show a little solidarity with the Palestinian people (who repay you a thousand-fold with kindness and love).

Be quite certain, though, because it can be difficult.  You need a support network (and there are plenty here), and you need breaks and releases.  Being here for a prolonged period of time can actually induce post-traumatic stress syndrome, but as long as you are aware of these things, you will benefit greatly from the experience, as nearly all internationals do.

Was there a strong sense of hope for a better future amongst the children you taught? What lessons did your students teach you?

Rebecca: When I was in the classroom, I didn’t focus on teaching them grammar or writing, etc. I wanted to teach them, through English, to have fun. If just for an hour each day, they could laugh and learn and forget about theirtroubles outside of the classroom, then I taught them well.

Michael: Kids are kids, as anywhere, and love to play and have fun.  But here, undoubtedly, many are troubled.  At the UN girl’s school in Nablus where I taught, there is a constant visible confusion about their situation behind even the brightest eyes (maybe especially behind the brightest eyes).  And in Balata refugee camp, children are quick to anger and often resort to hitting each other.  To some extent, violence and stone throwing is their second language.

Amnesty International along with the United Nations is calling for an immediate and complete end to the blockade of Gaza. In response to international pressure, the blockade has been eased to allow the inflow of some goods, but it impossible to calculate the devastating impact this has had already. As there are many familial, economic and other connections between Gaza and the West Bank, how have the effects of the blockade been visible where you have been based?

Michael: The Gaza strip is about 30 KM from the West Bank, but seems like the other side of the world.  Here, I have no better sense of Gaza than you do in Seoul.  I’m sure it’s different, and infinitely more frustrating, for West Bank Palestinians who have friends and family there.  I just wrote a short article about the so-called easing of the blockade.  You can read it here.

Of course, I was not able to go there, but I conducted phone interviews with Gaza residents and aid workers.

Michael, in one of your articles you cover the planned demolition of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem in order to expand an archeological site. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently spoke out against this expansion saying that it was in contravention of international law. Amnesty G48 recently discussed the extent of displacement of communities in Seoul for the purpose of “urban development” and what this has meant for former inhabitants. Is this likely to go ahead and what will be the immediate and long-term effects of these house demolitions on displaced residents?

Michael: It’s not hard to imagine domestic and international pressure preventing these particular cases of violent eviction, but I am not optimistic.  It will take more intense news coverage and activist solidarity than we currently have, and sustained over time.  Yet even if these families are saved, there is still the larger and more ominous problem of the Israeli takeover of East Jerusalem.

Was there much coverage of the recent flotilla attack where you are based and how did the local community react to hearing the news?

Michael: There was wall-to-wall coverage of the flotilla attack.  Palestinians share a deep excitement and profound appreciation for any show of solidarity from the outside world, and the aid convoy was massive.  It literally means the world to Palestinians.

This is such a large and complex topic, which makes it impossible to cover everything I want to ask, so I want to end here by asking you one last question. What is the single most important lesson this experience has taught you both that you will be taking home with you?

Rebecca: There are so many things I am going to take away from my experience here, and since I am still here, I assume I will learn more.

I will never forget the Palestinian hospitality, or as the internationals here like to call it “hostage-tality”. Despite having so little, when Palestinians meet you it is not uncommon for them to invite you back to their house for tea or coffee.  And then tea and coffee turns into fruit or cake and then before you know it they are offering dinner and a placeto sleep. I hope to learn from their generosity and start practicing it more myself.

I know I already appreciate water 100 times more than I did back in Korea or the US. Thinking… do I take a shower? or wash my clothes? because there might not be enough water for both.

I know I will appreciate being able to hop into a car and drive down any road I please without having to stop and wait for some soldier to check my passport to see if it is ok or not to proceed.

I will undoubtedly take a way a greater sense and appreciation for all the rights that I have: access to education, health care, and water, the ability to move freely, the rights to assert myself as a women, the ability to criticize my government, to vote, to protest or make my voice heard, the security of a place to live, and more.

Michael: I don’t know yet.  Perhaps the importance of small things.  Even when peace and justice are out of reach, we should remember that these are just idealised concepts.  What really matters is making a bad situation a little less bad, to reduce injustice if we cannot eliminate it, to make things a little more bearable even for a small number of people in small ways.  This is what makes real differences in people’s lives, and the moral power of the effort is its own reward.