Against all odds

For our second CIEE excursion of the semester, Martha took us on a diverse tour throughout Jaffa and Tel Aviv.

We met in the morning for shakshuka and ate at a hip cafe before heading to a grocery store to pick up food to donate to our next destination: Kuchinate. From there, we walked through southern Tel Aviv and entered a nondescript warehouse-style building. Climbing up the stairs, we passed empty hallways and closed doors before turning the corner to find an open door and a room full of color and laughter! We sat on brightly patterned sofas among piles of crocheted bowls as Dr. Kahn spoke with us about Kuchinate and her role as co-founder of the organization.

The collective centers around African asylum-seekers creating crocheted home goods. It was obvious from the moment we walked in that Kuchinate has a positive impact on the women who work there. Many of them have suffered incredible trauma – trafficking, sexual violence, torture – and need psychological support. Luckily, Dr. Kahn has vast experience in clinical psychology as a trauma specialist in humanitarian aid and intervention. However, introducing western psychological treatment to people unaccustomed to the concept can be tricky, she explained. Mental health is not a topic of conversation in many of their cultures, so Dr. Kahn relies on other, less foreign forms of support: fostering a safe friendly environment, encouraging the women to share their culture and traditions through crochet and coffee ceremonies, and the ability to bring their children in while they work. The ease and casualness with which she discussed this philosophy completely glossed over the significance of their project; it’s unbelievable that women can have economic stability, celebrate their culture, cultivate friendships, receive psychological support, and more all within one organization!

From Kuchinate we walked to Bialik Rogozin School which is also located in south Tel Aviv. Eli Nechama, the school’s principal for several years, gave us a tour of the school. Having grown up with both parents working in education at one time or another, I have a natural interest in schools, so I was eager to learn more about a school that Martha had only described as in a “complex and highly discussed neighborhood.”

One of the first things Nechama told us is that the students at Bialik Rogozin come from 51 countries – they have no common language, culture, or religion to unite them. Despite this challenge, as well as the challenge of many being immigrants, refugees, undocumented, or asylum-seeking students, the students have higher rates of academic success than almost anywhere else in Israel. The national rate of eligibility for the matriculation certificate is 51% and 92% of Bialik Rogozin students were eligible last year! Aside from the standardized tests and statistics, the students are also extremely talented musicians, dancers, athletes, and more!

Nechama attributes this success to many factors: the huge network of volunteers that help run the school, the dedication of teachers who work there, and most important – the school’s philosophy. He listed five factors – excellence, continuity principle, current pedagogy, international campus, involvement and contribution to the community – as well as the sense of stability students have in a K-12 school and the lessons they offer parents in parenthood, economics, and Hebrew. Such programming and principles are instrumental in the school’s success, but I was struck most by the atmosphere of love and care for the students. The principal addressed every student by name as they passed us, he hugged them, and then told us a little about their accomplishments or story. It was obvious that the high level of affection for and devotion to the students makes the difference.

The “Black City” photograph exhibition stands out to me as the perfect example of this love. Tel Aviv is often referred to as the White City because of its many Bauhaus and modernist buildings, but this project adapted the city’s nickname to flip the narrative about the city and its residents. “Nobody tells them they are excellent,” Nechama told us, “but they are succeeding against all odds.” He explained the significance of portraying the residents of the area – immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers – in a positive light, so that students could see role models with cultures, languages, appearances, and religions similar to their own. This exhibit was just one example of how the school strives to affirm the worth of the students and support them in every way they can.

Our next stop was to Neve Sheanan – a neighborhood in south Tel Aviv that is known for its population of immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. Martha explained to us that there is an intense fear of this area and its inhabitants – taxi drivers often refuse to take people there at night. At first glance, you can understand their hesitation; it’s a scene I’m familiar with in the South, where many residents are poor and unable to work. The streets are unclean and there are many young men of color who seem to be “loitering” – images that often spur a perception of danger in many cities across the world.

As with anywhere, it’s important to understand the context and underlying factors that have created this environment and the subsequent fear of it. This is where Taj, a brilliant, soft-spoken refugee and activist from Darfur, came in. He greeted us with a wide smile and ushered us into an Eritrean restaurant where we ordered three injera dishes. While we scooped up meat, lentils, and veggies with the spongy flatbread, Taj told us the heart-wrenching story of how he escaped the genocide in Darfur.

As a young man in the middle of the conflict zone, he was in danger of being kidnapped and enslaved, so his family urged him to flee. He escaped to Egypt but was arrested multiple times and brutally tortured before weighing his options and leaving for Israel with the help of smugglers. Since 2008, Taj has lived in Israel on a temporary visa that must be renewed every two months – an incredibly uncertain and stressful condition to live in. Because Israel has no clear policy on refugees, particularly Sudanese/Darfurian refugees, the visas available to asylum-seekers like Taj are extremely and deliberately vague. For example, the limits on working are unclear, so most companies avoid hiring people with them, which in turn relegates many asylum-seekers to extremely low-paying jobs or involuntary unemployment. Even though Taj himself has a bachelor’s degree in counterterrorism and conflict resolution, as well as a master’s degree in political science (both from Israeli institutions), he has found himself working exploitative service jobs to make money. His anger and frustration on behalf of the refugee population is clear, and it’s easy to understand why. Refugees and asylum-seekers have a right to stability; it’s a violation of their dignity to live in a legal limbo with the additional pressure of difficult renewal processes that aim to encourage refugees to leave voluntarily but sometimes lead people to commit suicide.

He passed his visa around the table, well-creased but protected in a plastic wallet, and we found it hard to believe that his existence (and that of many, many others) is defined by a single slip of paper. It reminded me of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card” poem – the frustration of having your entire life, family, and identity distilled into a few bureaucratic words on paper. Despite the limbo that Taj and many others have experienced for the past 10 years, he received news just this week that he is one of five people to be given permanent resident status in Israel! Because of this, he will be able to leave Israel and see his family for the first time in 14 years.

Leaving Neve Sheanan, we felt disheartened and disappointed, but it was certainly thought-provoking to consider why a nation so profoundly influenced by the Holocaust would choose to treat refugees and asylum-seekers the way it does. Since we’ve visited Taj in Neve Sheanan, some of Israel’s policies on African migrants (mostly from Sudan and Eritrea) have changed – just this morning, the Israeli court suspended its plan to deport African migrants!

We took taxis towards Jaffa, and it was immediately clear that we were in a completely different neighborhood. We were let into a large private home by a well-dressed, charismatic woman named Doris. She served us baklava and coffee from her family business and explained how coffee culture is a sort of politics – an extremely important and nuanced form of social etiquette.

Learning from Doris about her life and family

She then jumped right into her story. Doris is an Arab-Christian-Palestinian-Israeli former beauty queen, which was definitely a combination of identities we had not yet encountered! When she was 15, her parents accepted a marriage proposal from a prominent family in Jaffa on her behalf, and she was married at 16. Since then she has lived as a housewife, taking care of her husband and children. Several years ago, a local tour guide approached her about opening her house to guests and telling them about the family coffee business and her life. Having lived in a relatively insulated community until this point, she cited this opportunity to interact with tourists from all over the world as incredibly eye-opening! Although she retains some traditional, conservative beliefs about intermarriage between religions, she told us that she would never arrange marriages for her children the way her parents did for her and her sisters: “You have to give your daughter an education first. Then you also have to give your daughter the opportunity to feel love, to be loved.”

After meeting Doris, we walked through Jaffa towards the port, where we spent a while taking in the beautiful views of Tel Aviv and wandering through the market before it closed. Because life with Martha is never boring, we had one last unusual cultural experience in store…dinner at the Nalaga’at Center, where blind servers guide guests through a meal entirely in the dark. The restaurant is part of a larger project that employs deaf, blind, and deaf-blind individuals in its theater group, restaurant, and workshops.

When Martha’s name was called, we were led to the entrance of the restaurant – a dark hallway where we were told to stand in line and place our hands on each others’ shoulders. Our server then led us in, told us where to stop, and helped each of us sit at the table. The most unsettling moment of the entire evening for me was being the last person standing in the middle of the dark room when everyone else had taken their seat – I felt so alone and vulnerable! This moment made me understand why the organization is called “please touch” in Hebrew; without the comfort or guidance from the touch of someone else, I was completely lost.

We had selected our dishes before entering the restaurant (I chose “Surprise Fish”), so all that was left to do was wait for our food and pour our own water – a task that took a lot of coordination and concentration. Our food arrived, and those of us with “surprise” dishes reached across the table (accidentally stabbing each other with our forks), tasted each others’ food, and tried to figure out what we were eating! As I ate, I was strangely aware how much we rely on seeing others’ body language, gestures, and facial expressions in social interactions. We were all a little quieter because of it.

My favorite part of the dinner was hearing from our waiter about his experience as a person with limited sight. He spent many years of his life angry, resenting his lack of sight, but started working for Nalaga’at and began to appreciate his other abilities. He told us that many of the servers act in the theater, others help guide other workshops within the organization, and some even run marathons! Nalaga’at is the only “blackout” restaurant in Israel, so it was an incredibly special opportunity – there are so few places that raise awareness about individuals with different vision and hearing abilities in such an immersive, personal way.

Our time in Tel Aviv and Jaffa with Martha was a whirlwind! We spent the entire day learning about projects and people challenging the preconceptions people have about them. Obviously, not every day studying in Israel is full of this many new people, opinions, and beliefs, but I feel that it’s representative of our semester here as a whole. For being “the Jewish nation,” there are so many people here that aren’t Jewish or Israeli, so I constantly encounter narratives and stories that change my perception of Judaism, Israel, its inhabitants, and its role in the larger Middle East region.

SaveSave

SaveSave

Categories: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Against all odds

The land of milk and honey…

…and jasmine, falafel, lavender, musky incense, coffee, cardamom, oranges, za’atar…

Living in Haifa is a constant sensory experience. Since arriving on campus at the University of Haifa

a week ago, I’ve been overwhelmed with the colors, scents, and textures of the city.
Mornings on the mountain are hazy and everything’s coated in a golden glow. While walking to class it’s impossible not to stop and admire the view of Haifa and the harbor below. On a good day, you can see across the water past Acre or across the mountains towards Lebanon. Campus buildings have a chalky, dusty quality in a range of ochres, and the blue sky melting into the sea is the best view to wake up to.

A trip downtown is even more breathtaking. Many streets buzz with locals buying falafel or bargaining in the markets. There are fresh juice stands on every corner, groups of older men chatting and sipping Turkish coffee. Flowers line the sidewalks in old coffee tins. Restaurant owners call out their daily specials and shopkeepers offer handfuls of dates, grapes, and persimmons to taste before you buy. Turn the corner and you find quieter streets leading through mazes of terraces shaded by lemon trees and decorated with rugs hanging on walls. Artichokes sit in wine glasses as table centerpieces in alleyway cafes. Incense drifts out of open windows and lavender springs through cracks in the walls of old apartments.

Categories: Uncategorized | Comments Off on The land of milk and honey…

Shalom y’all!

Shalom!

Since finishing my fall semester in Paris, I’ve been with my family in Savannah, Georgia, preparing for the next leg of my year-long adventure: my spring semester in Haifa, Israel.

Haifa is a small city on the Mediterranean coast famed for its coexisting Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i populations. It’s about forty minutes from Nazareth, an hour from Tel Aviv, and around an hour and forty minutes from Jerusalem which makes for plenty of interesting day trips!

I’ll be studying at the University of Haifa’s International School (which is on top of Mt. Carmel) and was lucky enough to be accepted to the university’s Honors Program in Peace and Conflict Studies! I’ll be taking an honors seminar in peace and conflict, a language class, a couple of electives, and will likely complete an internship with a local NGO. The variety of subjects and opportunities available with this CIEE program really excite me – I can’t wait to arrive in Israel in mid-February to get started! Until then, I’ll be packing my bags and making a pit stop in the UK to visit family before flying to Israel.

 

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

UNESCO in Paris

Last week, I visited United Nations Day at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris thanks to some networking suggestions from family friends!

I reached out to the Assistant Director of the Division for Gender Equality to ask for an informational interview, and she quickly responded with another suggestion – an invitation to UN Day and lunch with previous UNESCO interns. Luckily, my IES professors and administrators were more than willing to accommodate this opportunity and helped me reschedule my last mid-term exam so I could go.

On Tuesday morning I arrived at UNESCO, made it through security, and met with the Assistant Director. She showed me around the UN Day activities, which included an interest fair for the various UN departments/goals/projects, and some speakers. After exploring for a while, we went to lunch with two of her former interns. This was a great chance for me to ask questions about UNESCO and the experience of interning with an IGO!

Visiting UNESCO was awesome and incredibly educational – I learned more about the organisation and had the opportunity to network with professionals in fields that interest me. It was also useful for practicing my French in a professional/work-based environment.

If you have the chance, attend a career fair, interest fair, or a company’s open day for a unique and very different experience abroad!

The office view of my dreams!

The networking never stops! (shoutout to The Space!)

Morning at UNESCO

SaveSave

Categories: Uncategorized | Comments Off on UNESCO in Paris

A day in the life

Now that I’m comfortably situated in a new homestay, I’ve been able to get into the swing of things and find a daily routine! Below is a description of a typical weekday for me.

7:00am (or 7h00 as the French say) : I get up, get dressed, and pack my bags.

7h30 : Breakfast (le petit-déjeuner). My host family provides breakfast every day.

At my first homestay, breakfast looked like this

 

Now my breakfast is brioche toast with homemade jam and a yogurt and whatever fruit I buy for myself that week

8h00 : I leave for class. I now live on the west side of Paris, and my commute is about 45 minutes long on the metro.

9h00 : First class of the day! In the mornings, I have French or History of Francophone Africa.

“Midi” : For lunch, I either bring something or pick something up from one of the many fantastic cafés and restaurants on Rue Daguerre.

A student favorite is a boulangerie on the corner with fresh sandwiches and pastries!

A student favorite is a boulangerie on the corner with fresh sandwiches and pastries!

 

Afternoon class : In the afternoons, I have Poetics and Politics of Gender in France or Immigration and Diversity in Paris.

Afternoon pick me up : sometimes I desperately need coffee in the afternoon, so I’ll stop by somewhere for an espresso or café crème and a viennoiserie (pastry) if I’m feeling indulgent!

Cafe crème

Espresso with viennoiserie (roule aux raisins)

Ballet : Twice a week, I take evening ballet classes in the Marais for course credit!

19h45 : Dinner. My host family provides dinner three nights a week – usually Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

29h30 : sleep! After a long day of commuting and speaking, listening, and thinking in French, I’m always exhausted.

 

Other aspects of daily life in Paris:

Weekly groceries for lunches and dinners!

I love walking around the fresh market every Saturday in my quartier.

The view from my living room

 

SaveSave

Categories: Uncategorized | Comments Off on A day in the life

Living in Paris

This week, Kyle asked us to reflect on our living situations and aspects of our everyday lives, which was perfect – I had already started writing about this!

In general, there are two housing options for students study abroad: homestays and apartments. I chose a homestay for many reasons, including the prospect of improving my French, interacting with real life French people, and learning more about cultural customs. Based on a recommendation from another Wofford student, I requested a specific family and, luckily, was placed with them! From what I’ve seen, there are many traditional and non-traditional families that choose to host international students. The family I selected is composed of a retired mother, her adopted 20-ish year old son, a 30-ish year old family friend, and her niece.

For the first couple of weeks, another international student and I got used to a breakfast of fresh baguettes with butter and jam, heightened awareness of the length of our showers, and not eating too much at dinner (because it’s always followed by a cheese course and a dessert!). All of this was a little new and a little weird, but fun nonetheless! However, I’m here to update you on the nitty gritty as well as the fun and games…

During my second week in Paris, I woke up with bug bites all over my body. When they became too numerous to dismiss, I notified the housing director, who placed me in a hotel, organized dry cleaning, and booked me a doctor’s appointment. Since then, I’ve been living out of my suitcase in various hotels while a new housing option is arranged for me, wearing the same clothes for a week and a half and backpacking across the city with my belongings every day. This is my not-so-glamorous real life in Paris – very different to what I’ve chosen to showcase on my social media sites.

Final reflection: we all know that studying abroad is difficult because of language barriers, new experiences, and cultural differences every day. However, studying abroad can sometimes become infinitely more difficult than expected! For me, these past two weeks have been a lesson in discovering differences between French and American standards of hostel/hotel cleanliness, adapting to new situations, and expressing frustration and anger in a different language.

À bientôt!

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Belleville, Street Art, and Coexistence

Living in the 1st arrondissement, I’ve had a privileged experience of Paris so far. My house overlooks the Seine, backs onto Rue Rivoli, and is within walking distance of the Louvre, Saint Chapelle, and Notre Dame. Because of this, my daily commute and neighborhood exploration rarely features decaying buildings, graffiti, or social housing. This is one of the many reasons I was interested in going on a walking street art tour around Belleville, an area that covers parts of the 11th, 12th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements.

Belleville has a distinct history of revolution and has long been a multi-ethnic and working class neighborhood – evident immediately after I exited the metro. Before meeting the rest of the group, I accidentally walked through the Saturday morning marché en plein air, situated between Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Pakistani restaurants and featuring Antillean, Lebanese, and North African vendors. The combination of different smells, products, and languages was incredible – and so different to my “historic heart” of Paris! Belleville hosts an incredible number of different cultures, which is something that began in the 1920s with Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, and has since been inhabited by many North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, and Chinese immigrants.

The first stop of the walking tour was a statue of Albert Camus. This unassuming sculpture turned out to be the perfect way to contextualize the area’s street art. Situated opposite the French Communist Party’s headquarters and made from metal and stone (earthy materials), it embodies the area’s working class population. Scrawled on the statue’s pedestal is the phrase “je t’aime, Clémentine,” which appears often throughout Belleville. This first stop was the perfect introduction to the area’s history and character and it also perfectly juxtaposed commissioned public art (of a famous French philosopher, no less) with new, illegal street art.

Since visiting museums with my parents as a young child, I’ve loved art and art history. However, I recognize that some of the fields’ many shortcomings are the cost of materials and visiting museums, as well as the education needed to analyze and produce art. Street art and graffiti, however, are perhaps the most accessible types of art out there, which is why they’re so prevalent in areas such as Belleville. Such art is accessible in terms of the materials needed, but it’s also accessible for anyone who wants to create it. Our guide mentioned male and female artists from France, USA, Turkey, and Portugal, as young as teenagers and as old as mid-sixties.

As we continued the tour, our guide emphasized the link between art and resistance. Street art is intrinsically subversive, due to its illegal and destructive nature, challenging the idea of public spaces and encouraging viewers to reconsider how they view their surroundings. Is creating art on an abandoned building morally wrong? Can street art be educational? Does street art help beautify an area? Can street art be more than graffiti tags? If the public likes the art, should the city leave it there?

I loved seeing pieces of art in unexpected places, then hearing about their context and background from our guide. Some were commentaries on consumerism, some on sexism or politics or culture. However, my favorite stories were those about Paris’s attitude towards street art. For an immensely beautiful, historic, and picturesque city, Paris loves to preserve street art and support artists. From prosecuting an artist and only charging one euro in damages to donating walls for more art to erasing tags but keeping larger murals intact, local government actively supports the city’s legacy of resistance and incredibly talented artists.

Categories: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Belleville, Street Art, and Coexistence

Bonjour!

Bonjour!

My name is Meghan Curran and I’m a junior at Wofford. I’m majoring in French and Intercultural Studies and I recently completed the Middle Eastern and North African Studies program as well.

This fall, I’ll be studying with IES in Paris, France. While there, I’ll be taking classes about French culture, immigration and diversity, and gender studies. Stay tuned to hear more about my experience!

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment