I was chosen with my friend Dima from the AFSC Palestine Youth Program in Palestine to do a three week apprenticeship in AFSC's Chicago office. One of the purposes of the apprenticeship was to share my experiences working with youth in Palestine and share with an American audience experiences of life under Israeli occupation. The other purpose was to have the opportunity to learn as much as possible from U.S. organizations, including the AFSC and other non-governmental organizations’ methods of organizing youth, media work outreach, and civil rights programs.
Coming to the USA was much harder than expected, not only because of the long distance across the Atlantic, but also because Palestine under occupation has no airport and is not allowed to control its borders. Because I am Palestinian, my journey was difficult from the start.
I live in the northern West Bank city of Jenin. In order to get to Jordan, from which I had to depart, I had to make the journey from Jenin to Ramallah. Jenin is surrounded on all sides by the Israeli army checkpoints. Freedom of movement is extremely difficult. The trip from Jenin to Ramallah normally takes one and a half hours, but because of numerous Israeli checkpoints located between Palestinian cities, I had to wake up at 3 am to begin my journey to Ramallah, which lasted four hours because the unending checkpoints forced us to avoid the roads and travel through the hills. I met my friend Dima, who is also a youth coach, in Ramallah and slept at her house. From there, we traveled together to Jordan.
Our journey was from Jordan to Paris as (transit), then to Philadelphia's airport. When we arrived in Philadelphia, inspectors met us and an officer immediately began to ask us numerous questions. He asked us repeatedly where Palestine was located and told us provocatively that it was nowhere to be found on a map. He also repeatedly asked us what we thought of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
After that round of questioning, we were treated to yet another interrogation and never told why we had to go through all these inspections. A second officer questioned us about politics in Palestine. The first officer then came to the secondary inspection where we were being held and asked Dima about a necklace she wore around her neck. She replied that it was an olive tree, which is a beautiful tree prevalent throughout Palestine. Then the first officer asked again, provocatively: "Where's Palestine again?" At that moment I had enough, so I said, "You can't see it on the map because you don't want to see it." He seemed shocked by my reply. To soothe his anger, Dima extended to him an invitation to visit Palestine.
After over two hours, the second officer finished questioning us and inspecting our documents. Finally, we left the room and the airport and found a woman from the AFSC waiting for us.
God knows what will happen when we go back to our country PALESTINE
Mai Mahmoud Staiti is an apprentice with the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and a visiting Volunteer with CAIR-Chicago. She is in her third year studying marketing at the Arab American University in Jenin. She is a coach of the Popular Achievement program in Palestine, an AFSC initiative in Jenin. She instructs youth on many concepts including democracy, effective communication, team work, and non-violence. Mai encourages the youth that she instructs to implement what they have learned in their communities in order that they may themselves guide others in the future. Members of her group have gone on to contribute to their communities by opening a library, planting trees, and imparting the values they have learned to their peers. Her group known as Watanna – meaning our home – also produced and performed a play in order to work toward the revival of the arts and culture community of Jenin, due to the city’s decline during the Intifada, in which all entrances to the town were closed by the Israeli army. Mai is here visiting organizations in several cities of the U.S. to share her experiences and learn more in the way of activism to better serve her work in Palestine