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Palestinian youth from the Diaspora arrived home in Palestine on Sunday, 15 June. The day was an emotional rollercoaster for most. The delegates had a small taste of the hardships local Palestinians face every day as they were detained for six hours at the bridge connecting Jordan to Palestine.

While this was the shortest amount of time any prior Know Thy Heritage (KTH) delegation has had to wait at the bridge, this was also the most brutal interrogation the program has seen since its inception. The best phrase delegates found to describe their experience was “terrorism by disorganization.” One of the delegates shared, “I hated seeing how Israelis treated Palestinians. I hate the hierarchy. How they made themselves hold all of the power and treat the Palestinians as if they are nothing.” Another delegate added that she had felt removed from the situation, she was shocked by the “basic cruelty of the Israeli officials who could see the suffering and misfortune of the Palestinians yet treated them as if they were nothing.”

The first stop in Palestine was the city of Jericho. One delegate said arriving in the city was “emotional after having just come from the border.” The border had been wrought with, “anger and disappointment,” but at Jericho “everyone was welcoming.” The delegates were told, “Welcome to our land, it is your land, we are all one. You cannot be told that you cannot come back to learn about your land, your heritage. You have a right to be here. You have the power to make the difference if you are given the opportunity.” This message was especially welcoming and comforting to hear after having undergone the trials at the bridge. “He was so glad to have us come,” she remembers.

After leaving Jericho the delegates finally arrived in Bethlehem where they were greeted by Salesian and De La Salle scouts and an entourage of Palestinians eager to welcome them home.

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Delegates dancing “dabke” and celebrating their arrival in Bethlehem with Palestinians from all over the country

After the welcoming ceremony, one of the delegates said, “Once we started to dance at the end [of the ceremony] I felt like we were all in this together. \ When we danced dabke that was the first time that I felt we were truly in solidarity with them. ” Youth Councils from around the country organized this welcoming reception and came to receive the delegates in spite of crackdowns and closures throughout several Palestinian towns and villages.

KTH is a leadership program developed to preserve Palestinian heritage by connecting youth in the Palestinian Diaspora with their roots in Palestine and empowering them to become Ambassadors of Peace. The delegation, visiting Jordan and Palestine June 13-29, 2014, consists of 40 young men and women of Palestinian descent, ages 18-30, from five continents and ten countries: Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, USA, Canada, UK, Spain, Italy, Jordan, and Australia. HCEF is delighted at the overwhelming success of KTH as the national leadership program expanded its outreach to recruit delegates from countries which were not represented in the three previous delegations. This year’s group consists of an exemplary and diverse set of youth, students and professionals from all walks of life who all share a passion for their Palestinian heritage and through their talents are capable of making a real difference for the future of Palestine.

Since their arrival on Sunday, the KTH delegation has explored five Palestinian cities, visiting a myriad of religious, cultural, historical, and political sites. In Bethlehem, on Monday, they passed between the polished limestone pillars of the Church of Nativity, reaching the site of Christ’s birth where they prayed and meditated on its significance. They also visited the Milk Grotto, a Franciscan chapel where many believe the Holy Family took refuge during the Slaughtering of the Innocents, as well as the fields where the shepherds learned of Christ’s birth. Then they entered the Mosque of Omar. One delegate remarked that “seeing Christians and Muslims worshipping in the same place together as one was particularly impactful.” She had never entered a mosque before and was touched when a fellow delegate taught her how Muslims pray.

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A KTH Delegate Prays at Christ’s Manger in the Nativity Church

The delegates were exposed to their history and culture at the Baituna Al-Talhami Museum of the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union (AWU). They learned about the art of embroidery and the role women play in preserving as well as developing Palestine’s rich culture.

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Delegates explore the AWU’s collection of traditional Palestinian dresses

After eating delicious Palestinian pastries prepared by AWU, the delegates were off to learn about Palestine’s contemporary political situation at the Bethlehem Youth Council. At the Youth Council building, Mr. Issa Qaraqe, heading the Prisoner Ministry and a former political prisoner, spoke about the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike and what the delegates could do to raise awareness about the inhumane conditions faced by Palestinians who are constantly incarcerated by Israel without due process.

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HCEF President and CEO, Sir Rateb Rabie, awards Mr. Issa Qaraqe with the symbolic “Key to Palestine”

The delegates continued their political education through a tour of the Segregation Wall that surrounds Palestine and constricts life in the already all too battered state.

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Delegates at the Segregation Wall

Afterwards, Mr. Salim Hodaly, Head of the Diaspora Department and the Bethlehem Branch of the Bank of Palestine, one of KTH’s main partners, graciously hosted the youth, teaching them about Palestine’s economy and business sector. The delegation was also treated to a tour of the private collection of Mr. George Lama, Curator and Researcher, full of Palestinian artifacts housed by the Bank.

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Sir Rateb Rabie with Mr. Salim Hodaly

On Tuesday the delegation spent their day in the Holy City of Jerusalem, beginning with a visit to Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, where the Blessed Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended into heaven. Then they explored the Old City, winding through narrow market streets and then walking the traditional Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow) path in emulation of Christ’s Passion, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which many traditions believe to be the location of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. The delegates were clearly moved by the holy sites, feeling a strong connection among themselves, whether Muslim or Christian, as they were proud of collectively calling such a venerated place “home” as Palestinians.

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Delegates in front of the Dome of the Rock – Can you tell who are the Christians and who are the Muslims? Neither can we, but what’s clear is that they are all Palestinians.

After touring the Old City of Jerusalem, the delegation visited the Yabous Cultural Center whose role is to preserve and develop the culture of Palestine in general, and Jerusalem specifically, paying special consideration to women empowerment (Yabous consistently maintains a staff that is at least 50% women). “Yabous helped me see that I am part of a community of culture. I am a young Palestinian and I have the power to make a difference. We have the power to make a difference. We can join with youth here to accomplish everything,” said one delegate.

Following the cultural center, the delegation went to a welcoming reception at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center where they were met by religious leaders and KTH advisory board members: Bishop William Shomaly, Auxillary Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate; Archbishop Attalah Hanna, the Archbishop of Sebastia of the Orthodox Patriarchate and Member of HCEF Advisory Board; Sheik Akrama Sabri, the Orator of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Chief of Islamic Supreme Committee; Fr. Humam Khzouz, General Director of the Latin Patriarchate; and Ms. Claudette Habesch, Member of HCEF Advisory Board and  Former Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem. One of the delegates said, “I loved the quote by the bishop, “Your passport is in your heart not the document you hold in your hand.” As well as what the other leader said, “Our blood has fallen on the same underground, mixed together as one.”

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Sir Rateb Rabie with Religious Leaders Bishop William Shomaly; Archbishop Attalah Hanna; and  Sheik Akrama Sabri

Regarding the occasion, HCEF’s President and CEO, Sir Rabie stated, “This event with religious leaders emphasizes the unity of Palestinians, the Christians and Muslims. We are one people who were together forced to leave our homeland, suffering equally and sharing the same aspirations.”

The following day, Wednesday, the delegates moved about Bethlehem again, stopping first at the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), which is committed to promoting sustainable development in the occupied Palestinian territories, through greater control of their natural resources. Dr. Jad Issac, the Institute’s General Director, gave a presentation on the facts of the Israeli occupation over the past sixty-six years.

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On behalf of KTH,  Farrah Agha Delegate provides Dr. Jad Issac with a certificate of gratitude for his accomplishments and for educating the delegation

Then the delegates visited Bethlehem University, where they had a discussion with several students, learning about the precariousness of going to school in Palestine, but also appreciating the positive impact the University has been able to make by educating Palestinian youth in spite of political and geographical restrictions. “I enjoyed seeing the University,” says one delegate. “I was born in the US and question what right I have to this land. Everyone keeps telling me, ‘It is yours.’ With what claim do I come? What role do I have to play in this situation? These people were my age, they looked and spoke like us. It helped me feel connected.”

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Each night the delegates take part in a debriefing to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the day

The delegates returned to HCEF and took part in a workshop on tourism in Palestine conducted by Sami Khoury, Tourism Consultant, Visit Palestine Co-founder & General Manager, Alternative Business Solutions. “I am very grateful because I got to know more about the situation going on, what is going on in tourism. I could touch and feel the opportunities offered by Palestine. This moves me and makes me want to work for [Palestine],” a delegate said.

The day closed with a bit of history and culture at Bethlehem’s Convention Palace, which stands adjacent to the millennia old Solomon’s Pools. The Delegates toured the Pools and the Murad Castle Museum, also located there, learning Palestinian folklore, ancient traditions and how Palestinians used to live over a hundred years ago.

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Delegates on the steps leading to one of Solomon’s Pools

On Thursday the delegates left early for Ramallah where they visited the tomb of Yasser Arafat, Palestine’s most iconic leader who spent his life fighting for the national aspirations of his people and their right to self-determination. Then they visited the Memorial & Museum of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s most beloved poet and author who expressed the identity of his people, their loves and struggles, through profound works of both poetry and prose.

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A delegate posing proudly in front of Ramallah’s skyline

Following Ramallah, the delegation left for Rawabi. Rawabi, “the first Palestinian planned city, is the largest private sector project ever carried out in Palestine,” and will ultimately be home to 40,000 residents. The delegates learned about the development project and afterwards planted trees to grow alongside the city, one of many ways the youth will leave their mark on Palestine.

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The Delegates Planting Trees at Rawabi

After appreciating the unprecedented project and the beautiful view of Palestine surrounding it, the delegates headed to HCEF’s Birzeit Senior Citizen Center to learn “dabke,” a traditional Palestinian folk dance, from a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe.

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Learning Dabke!

Following the tiring but fun dabke lesson, the delegates prepared for one of the most memorable and unique aspects of their trip – the homestays, where they each spend a night and day with a Palestinian family. For some, these families are direct relatives, but for all of them these gracious Palestinians represent the overarching Palestinian family to which they all belong. The delegates live a day in the life of a contemporary Palestinian in their native land, and through the experience they gain another home and another family who will forever welcome their future return.

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One of the delegates with her homestay

Friday evening the delegates returned from their homestays with stories of their experience and the inexpressible feelings of being welcomed as family to a land that was, for so long, far away, but is now beneath their feet and can truly be called home.

Although so much has happened over the past week, the delegates are only half way through their journey. They have many more things to look forward to, including a trip to the Dead Sea and a visit north to see the Palestinian cities of Nazareth, Haifa, and Acre. On Monday, 23 June, the delegates will take part in the Third International Palestinian Diaspora Youth Conference, through which they will continue meeting their brothers and sisters of Palestine and developing their knowledge and skills as Ambassadors of Peace.

For information about KTH and HCEF’s other many programs, please visit us at www.hcef.org