GOSHEN, Ind. — When Sam Carlson walked to work in the morning, he stepped over hundreds of tear gas canisters, stun grenades and smoke bombs. Sometimes he could feel tear gas lingering in the air.
Carlson, a junior peace, justice and conflict studies major at Goshen College, served at the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center (Wi’am) in Bethlehem this summer. After deciding to spend the summer in Palestine, he was accepted into the college’s Service Inquiry Program, which offers students the opportunity to serve with a church-related service or mission agency.
Carlson, of Goshen, served in Bethlehem with Jessica Davila, a junior from Goshen, and Kiernan Wright, a junior from Orrville, Ohio. 2013 graduate Clare Maxwell also served with them until her return in June.
Bethlehem is in the West Bank, a territory east of Israel that is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. The West Bank is occupied by Israel and enclosed by a separation barrier that restricts Palestinian movement.
The West Bank is separate from Gaza, a strip of land west of Israel where there has been heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas this summer.
The students arrived during a period of relative calm before tensions escalated in June.
Witnessing the conflict
Carlson, who lived in the heart of Bethlehem since the end of May, witnessed nonviolent protests broken up by tear gas and stun grenades. The conflict became increasingly violent during his time in the West Bank.
Carlson worked as a children’s camp counselor at Wi’am, which works to resolve disputes within the Palestinian community through traditional Arab mediation as well as Western models of conflict resolution.
During his first week at the camp, two days were cut short by nearby fighting.
“The first day, there was a loud gun-firing on the street of the center,” he said. “The children were rushed into the building, seeking safety behind closed doors. The second occurrence came when a cloud of tear gas migrated over the center’s facilities. Again, the children were rushed inside.”
Carlson had never encountered tear gas before.
“It completely debilitates a person, rendering them short of breath and without sight,” Carlson said. “It’s a terrible, terrible feeling.”
Davila said it was transformative to see the Palestinians’ frustration, pain and sadness.
“I think the most life-changing experience I had in Palestine was witnessing the occupation,” she said. “I cannot help feeling a moral responsibility to try to do something about the horrible things I have witnessed.”
Service in Palestine
Carlson decided to visit Palestine with the Service Inquiry Program to gain experience in two of his passions: nonviolent social change and the Arabic language.
Carlson, Davila and Wright are among about a dozen Goshen students who have come to Palestine in the last few summers at the encouragement of Marcelle Zoughbi, a 2013 Goshen graduate and a Christian from Bethlehem, whose father is founder and director at Wi’am.
Carlson and Wright worked at Wi’am’s summer camp as children’s counselors. This involves planning and facilitating daily activities, which include arts and crafts, singing, organized sports and dabkeh — a traditional Palestinian dance. When the camp is not in session, the students write grant proposals for Wi’am.
Davila has volunteered at Le Crèche, a Christian orphanage, and served on the medical team at Caritas Baby Hospital, which provides medical assistance to about 35,000 children.
Carlson learned a lot about the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as trauma and recovery.
He expressed frustration with the U.S. role in the conflict and the amount of news that goes unreported. Walking down the street, he often saw tear gas canisters with labels that read, “Made in Jamestown, PA.”
“The United States is providing billions of dollars of weapons to the Israeli military,” he said. “As an American, I feel partially responsible.”
He feels his privilege as a U.S. citizen shaped many of his experiences in Palestine.
“If my safety is threatened, I have the option of fleeing home,” he said. “My Palestinian community, however, cannot flee.”
Carlson said it was difficult to see the people around him being denied basic rights.
“I hope to continue work with Palestine in whatever capacity I can,” he said.
Hope for the future
As Carlson came to love Palestine and its culture, his experiences allowed him to see Palestine beyond the conflict.
The morning after he arrived in Bethlehem, his neighbors hosted a feast. They opened up their home, serving him plate after plate of lemony olives, warm pita and crisp cucumbers.
“I’ve seen this sort of genuine compassion and hospitality for the past two months,” he said, “and every day I’m humbled.”
One powerful moment gave Carlson hope. After a particularly violent night, he attended a morning worship service next to the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem.
“As we concluded the meditative worship, a small child said a prayer aloud,” Carlson said. “At 8 years old, she prayed for the safety of all the children in Gaza. She prayed for peace in their minds and hearts.”