Before you know anything else, you should know that my mom served in Peace Corps, in Senegal. She’s the reason I’m here now in Peace Corps Ukraine. After her service, she went to work in Israel as an archeologist. She met my Palestinian dad in Jerusalem and they got married. I was born in Palestine.
We immigrated to the US when I was 11. I grew up with a seemingly irreconcilable duality in me. Palestinian and American. I was a child in Palestine, an adult in America. It’s complicated. I graduated in 2015 with a degree in international relations and I decided that going back home would help me figure out the direction of my life.
So, in September of 2015, I packed my life into one suitcase and jetted off to the Holy Land to work at an organization called the Tent of Nations, located on my family’s farm. I arrived in the midst of a dust storm that persisted for a few days before letting up. Then I headed to my farm where I proceeded to spend the majority of the next nine months.
The farm is the kind of place you never forget. At any point in time, there can be anywhere from two to fifteen volunteers working there. Volunteers come from all over the world and stay for different amounts of time (or as long as the visa allows). Everyone works together to get everything done. For example, one volunteer could help out in the kitchen while one volunteer waters trees and another feeds the animals. There is a pleasant communal environment and everyone gets along well. There are annual harvest camps for grapes, olives, apricots, and almonds, as well as an annual children’s summer camp (which is a lot of fun).
My family created Tent of Nations on our farm in 2001 in order to protect our land from confiscation. Long story short, we have been battling the Israeli courts for over 25 years to prove ownership of our land (bought in 1916 by my great-grandfather). Even though we have all the necessary ownership documents, the Israeli court hasn’t ruled in our favor and as a result, my family has taken on more than $170,000 of debt in court expenses. Thousands of visitors come to the farm every year and hear our story, and many go back home and raise funds to help us pay the court fees which, ultimately, allow us to hold on to our land. International support and solidarity is crucial for us to peacefully resist the occupation.
My official role on the farm was that of a communications coordinator. This means that I was in charge of coordinating volunteers and putting out various updates on the legal situation. Before it got cold and rainy, we slept in tents and took one three-minute shower every week. We woke up when the sun came up and made bonfires every night. Some volunteers would play their guitars around the fire and it was peaceful. Sometimes we heard not-so-distant gunshots but we knew that, for the most part, the farm was safe.
When the rainy season started, the flow of volunteers lessened considerably due to our lack of available indoor space (because Israel prohibits us from developing our farm). There were many cold days where I was the only one on the farm besides my uncle, who helped me pass the lonely minutes with stories of his childhood, our family, and the long years of occupation. The conditions on the farm in the winter were harsh; fierce winds, persistent rain, and no relief from the bone-chilling cold. In addition, there was an upsurge in violence between the Palestinians and Israelis, so security was tighter than ever and I oftentimes felt suffocated.
I began to wonder how I could continue to exist as this duality. If I showed my Palestinian passport at the checkpoint, I would be harassed and rejected from entering Jerusalem. If I showed my American passport (and the soldier didn’t look closely enough at my place of birth), I would be let through without a second thought. My passport might change but I don’t. I am still Mathilda. Does our passport define us? If so, which passport defines me? I still don’t know.
I have written, it seems, endless poetry about this conflict. As I get older, I’ve begun to wonder what I can do. Do we as people really have any power? Do I, as a Palestinian? Do I, as an American? I have to believe that I do, that we do, or else everything would be lost.