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w couchsurfing broadened my horizon

- by Miriam Blanchette, Sweden -  

We had just got out of the store when I experienced the chilling sounds of the air raid sirens. One minute later I heard explosions from the rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. My stomach dropped and I felt like crying.
 Imagine you go on a vacation and already on the second day a war breaks out. That’s what happened to my friend and I during our first trip to Israel back in 2014. On one occasion we couldn’t find a bomb shelter on time and we threw ourselves on the ground with our hands over our heads trying to protect ourselves as best we could.  People might think that an experience like that would make you not want to ever come back again. For me it was the opposite; I have been back almost 10 times. It's become my happy place - some people go to Greece, Spain or Thailand - I go to Israel and Palestine. I call it home. Home is where the heart is and my heart is definitely here, with the people, different culture and also in the religions.

I grew up in a very pro-Israel home and I realized later that my mother’s version of the conflict was one-sided and biased.  When I came home after my first trip I joined Swedish PRO Israel Facebook groups but they all turned out to be full of people with opinions that made me feel uncomfortable. I asked myself: does being PRO the state of Israel mean I am AGAINST the State of Palestine? Do I need to hate because I love?

 I decided to leave the groups. Instead I joined Couchsurfing. This gave me opportunity to stay with families in both Israel and Palestine. My last host family was Christian Palestinian, owners of and organic farm and restaurant. They took me in with open arms and made me feel like a part of their family. With them I ate the most delicious Arabic food, saw breathtaking sunsets behind the hills of Al Makrour and felt how the nature and air brought total peace to my body and soul.  Tears ran down my cheeks as I left Beit Jala. I have also stayed with Jewish families on settlements. My host in Har Bracha showed me where the nation of Israel was constituted. The Torah coming alive in front of my eyes was absolutely incredible! I visited a winery and talked with the owner. He told me he is fulfilling the following words of Jeremiah: Yet again shall you plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria.

After this experience I stayed with another Palestinian family. I didn’t tell them where I had been. My first day with them I was still wearing my Star of David together with my Hamsa. The next day I took it off and later I was asked why I was wearing the sign of the occupation. I listened carefully as my new friend explained to me what he meant. I hadn't really listened with a desire of actually understanding what the occupation means for someone who feels he is being a victim of it. During my last trip I spent almost all of my 20 days in Palestine.

Long gone are the days when I’m lying on a crowded beach in Tel Aviv working on my suntan. Something has changed within me. I’m more open-minded. I’ve meet people from different communities and I’ve heard their stories and what they believe in. I’ve seen the land being used to bless the people living there - I’ve seen where the desert truly bloom - on both sides! I’ve asked a million questions, I have listened, I have shared my thoughts, I have cried, laughed, and also gotten annoyed. I have eaten with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Samaritans, Messianic Jews, Bedouins and a Druze. Some people talked about occupation, others about liberation. So many want peace. Most people here are REALLY GOOD people. The stories and narratives I’ve heard, the kindness and goodness I’ve seen, the heartbreak and love I’ve felt often keeps me awake at night. I’ll linger away and for a second I’m back in the Old City and sitting on the Dream Bench eating a delicious falafel. The story and adventure doesn’t end here. Now I’m thinking of how to share my meetings, experiences and feelings with those who want to listen. Be’ezrat Hashem (with G-d’s help) and Inshallah (G-d willing) I will find ways.


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