By Cetera Jacobs

MARHABA (HELLO) FROM PALESTINE! This past year, I was one of seven ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) volunteers who served in Jerusalem and The West Bank this past year—a beautiful, eye-opening experience.

Palestinians are the most hospitable people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. From the day I arrived in the Holy Land, I was cared for, welcomed and invited to participate in Palestinian traditions such as family dinners, olive picking, birthday parties, and my favorite, Bingo! The genuine friendships I’ve made with local people and their families will last beyond my time here.

My experience as a YAGM volunteer has been a unique one. My friends here often tell me that I feel like one of them; that I fit in so well at times it’s like I belong here. I agree. We’ve had many vulnerable and open conversations about the commonalities around oppression that Palestinians and Black Americans share, while also recognizing the differences. We see each other, which creates a deep feeling of empathy, understanding and comfort.

As an African American woman, I have experienced and witnessed oppression all my life. I’ve studied the stories of many people of African descent who came before me, including my own grandparents. But the experience of serving here as a YAGM showed me oppression from the other side. My blue American passport was all I needed to move freely throughout the occupied land of Palestine. For the first time, I was seen as someone of “privilege.”

I’m a photographer. I want to use my art to speak up and fight against the injustices of the world. I was prepared to use my skills to raise awareness about the violence and mistreatment Palestinians have endured since 1948, when the State of Israel was created. After I was advised for safety reasons to stay away from protests, funeral processions and more, I feared I wouldn’t be able to support people in the best way I could.

Then one day I was talking with some good friends who are Palestinian about where I could go to take a vacation. Because I often felt guilty visiting places that have been occupied, places that Palestinian people are blocked from accessing, I was only suggesting vacation possibilities within the West Bank. One of my friends noticed this and said: “I know you want to show your solidarity with us, but I really think you should consider seeing the beauty of occupied Palestine.”

This was both surprising and freeing. As we went on to discuss the beauty of their land, they shared that even though they can’t go to many places yet, that didn’t mean they didn’t want me or others to do so. Even though the occupation has stolen their land, and even though it tries to keep them out, this does not change the fact that this was, is and always will be their home. Instead of seeing my visit as a burden or internalizing guilt, I learned to take time to visit beautiful, holy places in my friends’ land. I could pay my respects on their behalf.

This article is from the September/October 2023 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.