There have been a few times in my life when the kindness shown to me from a stranger has humbled me deeply. The immense feeling of gratitude served to restore my faith in humanity, when ‘life’ happened and I had forgotten.
One such moment occurred during my time as a volunteer activist in Ramallah, Palestine. Visiting the territories had become an obvious next step after having dedicated a year of my life to the Palestine cause in Australia where I volunteered with three organizations spanning media, the refugee issue and advocacy. Prior to going to Palestine, I had been living in Egypt and had just finished a three month scholarship I had been awarded from university to study Arabic in Cairo.
My prior two and half year life in Dubai and extensive travel around the region had enriched me with an experiential based perspective from an Arab point of view. I was well versed in the conflict and had experienced the Palestinian narrative from my close relationships with Palestinians and Arabs that had befriended me over the years. The Arab Middle East was home to me, and in many ways still is, but as a result my perceptions were biased having never actually had a conversation with an Israeli.
My initial entry into Israel through the Egyptian border and consequent six-hour interrogation left me entering with a one-week visa when it should have been three-months. Defiant in my cause, I carried on with my plans to the West Bank where I met with some organizations. The Palestinian Non-Governmental Organization Network (PNGO) would later become my work place.
As my one-week visa was about to expire, the 2008/2009 Gaza war erupted. After discussing with some fellow activists about the best plan of action, we decided I should leave through Egypt and come back through Jordan’s border, which was renowned amongst activists to be more lenient with visas. I headed to Jerusalem on my way to the Egyptian border but because of the war everything was closed and there were no buses. A taxi fair to Egypt was very expensive and much more than I had but a Palestinian taxi driver with an Israeli I.D. offered to take me for free. My suspicions were aroused but I continued nonetheless feeling at that moment that I had little other option.
As we drove through Israel with the Dead Sea to my left and desert to my right, the driver pulled over and began to put his hand on my legs. I started crying and screaming telling him to stop it and take me to the border like he’d agreed. My demands proved futile, so I left from the taxi. The driver responded by removing my backpack before speeding off back to Jerusalem.
I was in shock. I had been assaulted, my trust completely betrayed and I was in the middle of the desert with little money and a war. I walked a while, found a bus stop and paced back and forth in tears wondering what I was going to do.
After some 20 minutes a car stopped with two Israeli guys who asked if I was ok. Clearly shocked and upset I explained that I wasn’t and I told them what had happened.
They offered to take me to Be’er Sheva, an Israeli town close to where I was going where they said I could find a bus to the border. This was the best they could offer as they were heading in a different direction. I quickly made a judgement and found them to be genuine before graciously accepting their offer. In the car I explained to them what I was doing in Israel and Palestine and how I was a volunteer activist. This didn’t seem to bother them at all which to me was very surprising.
And then, as they dropped me off in Be’er Sheva he wrote a number down, gave it to me and uttered a sentence that altered my perception of the conflict forever.
“This is my sister’s number, when you get to Eilat call her and go and stay with her for the night.”
I was speechless. The kindness of this complete stranger, willing to invite me into his sister’s home knowing full well what I was doing in his country after having picked me up in the middle of the desert just two hours before.
Of course, I declined his generous offer as once I made it to Eilat, I was at the Egyptian border which I considered to be my home at that time.
But I’ll never forget how I felt as I floated through the border back into Egypt knowing that I was safe and processing all that had passed. Blissfully high on life and the love I had encountered in what I believed then to be the most unlikely place.
Society has a way of dividing us with religion, politics, history or race and I too had fallen victim to this lie. Until then I had only understood the conflict in terms of Israeli government aggression and Palestinian suffering. I had failed to see Israel in terms of the people as peace-loving human beings, like many of the Palestinians I had met over the years. But most importantly I had forgotten our common humanity, our universal struggle for peace.
But at that moment in that foreign land, deeply in the unknown, I realized that the divisions don’t really exist. There is only humanity and we are all connected, despite our imperfections.