By Lilian Zerihun
(This piece is a nominated entry to "Who Am I/Who Are They" Multimedia Essay Contest)
This photo was taken at the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine in December 2015. This photograph was taken of one Duke student walking arm-in-arm with a third-generation Palestinian man living in the Aida Refugee Camp. They spoke and engaged as close friends, as if they had known each other for years. When we align ourselves as advocates, the oppressed can often become the "other". The representation in this photo, and the core of social justice, is the act of being with people to understand their pain, before reconciling ourselves to the inherently privileged label of an ally.
Aida camp was constructed in 1950 by new Palestinian refugees. Since then, multiple generations have grown up living as refugees in their own homeland.
In December 2015 a team of interfaith Duke Students visited the West Bank and Israel to understand ethnic, religious, and political tensions that have led to conflict in this region.
The man in the photo led us, complete strangers, to his home where his family showered us with unmatched hospitality. As we sipped on Palestinian black tea, he shared his joys and struggles with us. For two hours we heard stories that made us laugh, and others that made us sit in a mournful quiescence.
We were late getting back to our class group for the nightly debrief meeting. I was worried because this meeting was a big component of our participation grade. But then I stopped to think just about why I was here. The heart of social justice comes from being with people as human beings. Being with someone, simply sharing presence with someone, is to understand the heart of their pain. A pain that is removed, if only for a moment, from the politics of Israel-Palestine. A pain that is not commodified or invalidated for the sake of a participation grade. A human's pain is valid in their experience; it does not need justification.
I learned that justice and advocacy comes from humanizing those we deem as the oppressor, and those we deem to be oppressed. Hearing the pain that comes from Israelis and Palestinians can help us understand their perspective, their beliefs, and their actions.
The core of advocacy is in the act of removing ourselves from the position of the savior. There will not be an easy solution for Israelis and Palestinians. There will not be an easy solution for these refugees to return to their homes. We are not the solution; it is selfish and arrogant to believe ourselves as such. This solution will require multiple collaborators, multiple inputs, and people dedicated to the alleviation of human pain.