I’ve solo traveled to over two dozen countries and been to over 50. I’ve camped in deserts, been lost at sea, and hitchhiked across countries. Every one of those experiences paled in comparison to my time in Palestine, and the perspective that a Palestinian family gave me on my own country.

In 2014, I studied abroad in Nicosia, Cyprus. I got to meet an incredible group of people that helped me understand the world in new ways.

I quickly fell in with a group of friends from all over the Middle East, but primarily Palestine. One night, a few friends were enjoying hookah and drinks at a local restaurant.

As the conversation flowed, I commented on how Cyprus is occupied by Turkey and that I didn’t understand the gravity of what another country’s occupation was on its citizens. Since several of my friends were from Palestine, they had a much different understanding of what ‘occupation’ meant and began to tell me what it was like being from an occupied country.

mural on wall in palestine

As I listened to their stories about growing up in Palestine, I realized just how little I knew about the Palestinian occupation from their perspective. I was left with more questions than answers, wondering why I never heard about their stories in the American media.  

As the drinks flowed and hookahs were passed, I checked a flight website and booked a flight to Tel Aviv. I wanted to better understand my friends and the world, and I was going to do it firsthand.

Two weeks later, I arrived in Tel Aviv. I stepped out of the airport eager to start asking questions and exploring the holy lands. I spent my time riding rented bikes around the city, doing my best to go to meetups and chat with the vendors in the Carmel market. But I didn’t get a very warm reception when I asked the questions on my mind, so I decided to change course. 

After two days, I got on a bus and headed toward Jerusalem.

When I arrived in Jerusalem, I took a smaller bus headed toward Bethlehem, Palestine – my friends’ hometown. When I got to Bethlehem, I felt the chance for a fresh start, eager again to simply hang out and observe.

A friend of mine in Cyprus had connected me with a friend of his. This friend immediately took me in, introduced me to friends, and helped me find fun things to do around the area. In a very short time, I felt like I’d come home.

My Palestinian friend in Cyprus had asked one favor when I decided to visit his hometown – that I stop by and meet his grandparents.

women embracing

One afternoon during my week in Bethlehem, my host and I went to visit the grandparents. While I’d been comfortable in the homes and businesses that I’d visited so far, his grandparents were especially welcoming. Their warmly lit living room was filled with faded designs and his grandma immediately offered me tea — or was it Arabic coffee?  The TV was on in the corner but muted, and his grandfather sat in what was clearly ‘his’ chair. Except for a few details, I could’ve been sitting in my own grandparents’ living room.

Using my host as a translator, we made polite small talk. I told them that I’m from just outside of Chicago, how I knew their grandson, and what I was studying. They listened and told me stories about their grandson and recommended places to visit in the area.  We sipped our drinks and enjoyed the pause-translate-and-go conversation.

These moments are what make a place for me. At that time, I’d been to about a dozen countries. I’ve been to 40 more since, and to this day, the kindness of the locals in Palestine surpasses anywhere I’ve ever been.

However, what happened next changed my life.

Before I tell you what happened, you have to understand that I was in Palestine in April of 2014. Tensions were escalating to what would eventually become the 2014 Gaza War and Operation Protective Edge. Gaza and the West Bank were in the American news every day, and my parents were terrified that I was there. My mom made sure that I checked in no less than every 12 hours, and even insisted that she add my host on Facebook.

Meanwhile, I was having a quiet afternoon of tea in the living room of two of the sweetest people on the planet.

We had reached a lull in the conversation, and I glanced over at the TV. I recognized the Chicago skyline and said, ‘Oh! That’s my home!’ My host translated, and the grandparents looked at me, horrified.

I realized at that moment that the TV was showing that Chicago had experienced more deaths by gun violence so far that year than they had in all of 2013 — a number far higher than the number of Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers that year.

Then, the part that shook me happened. My friend’s grandma leaned towards me, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Honey, you can stay here as long as you need to.”.

My parents were freaking out that I was in Palestine. This woman was concerned about me leaving.

In Palestine, people were caring. They wanted to bring me into their homes, have coffee, and break bread together. Seriously, I learned how to make manna in the holy lands. They wanted to show me their beautiful country and float with me in the Dead Sea. They would rather me stay there than go back to my so obviously dangerous home.

Six years and over 40 countries later, I still maintain that I learned more about the world in my week in Palestine than I have anywhere else.

Before going to Israel and Palestine, I didn’t tell anyone but my friends in Cyprus. I didn’t want people to tell me all the reasons I shouldn’t go. I’d be willing to bet that had my friend tried to visit Chicago, his family would have tried to convince him otherwise, too.

It is 2020. We’re living in divisive times. The lines that define left, right, black, white, them, and us seem to turn into walls overnight. It is more important than ever to recognize our similarities while also celebrating our differences. 

When we watch the world from the lens of the overzealous media, it seems like a scary place. However, when we see it from the conversations that we have with people from different backgrounds, the world feels safe.

mural reading the golden rule
“The golden rule knows no walls — but all races and religions.”

So, have a cup of tea (or maybe Arabic coffee) and have a conversation. When we understand our differences, rather than define ourselves by them, it creates an opportunity to find our place in the world by connecting with others.

Shared experiences help us to create a smaller, happier, more well-connected world.

Have you ever been surprised about perceptions of your country while traveling abroad? Let us know on Twitter!