Nineteen-year-old Francesca Anstey is half Italian and half British. However, Francesca considers herself more Uzbek as she lived in Uzbekistan for 13 years. She now lives in Geneva, Switzerland with her family. This is where she finished her high school education at the International School of Geneva. Amazingly she speaks 4 languages: Italian, English, French and Russian. Languages are one of her passions and that’s one of the reasons why she decided to come to Al Khalil as Arabic has always been a part of her life but she has never had an opportunity to learn it and that’s why coming to Palestine was such an important step in her life.
Francesca’s good friend Adel is Palestinian from Ramallah. They studied and lived together in Geneva and he would tell her stories of Palestine that left her with curiosity and the need to explore this beautiful yet troubled country.
Francesca says that:
“One of my fondest memories in Khalil was on the last day of Ramadan. We had dinner all together and one of my friends and I walked by Duar Almanara and Duar Seha celebrating with hundreds of people on the streets. Music was playing loudly and every one was out drinking “Loz” and dancing in the middle of the roads. Just being a part of this event made me feel so accepted and a part of Palestine. We walked up and down the street stopping to dance briefly or buy some juice. For some reason this scene really stuck with me thanks to the company I had and my surroundings. Ramadan was definitely a difficult but most beautiful experience during my 3-month stay in Khalil”.
A large part of Francesca’s time was spent with her host family. She considers that, as a girl living with a host family was truly a blessing but at the same time a real struggle for her. She learned many important things by staying with the Seyouri family (the most caring, loving, respectful and most important open minded family) and they provided her with great knowledge about the culture, traditions and language as well as the great food. However the difficulty she faced was purely based on her gender. As a girl it is important to understand that when in Palestine you have to expect things that most Westerner’s are not accustomed to, it is just the way it is. Francesca says that:
“I was expected to stay at home and spend numerous hours with them (host family). What I loved most about my host family was the freedom that they provided me within the house. Being open minded and accepting of others was what I loved the most about them. We discussed different issues freely and joked and laughed about others. One thing that I know I will definitely miss is the closeness and lovingness of a Palestinian home. “You Welcome in my home” was one of the only sentences Alaa my host family father (who I genuinely feel is a dad to me now after 3 months of living together) knew in English. The big smiles on their faces and the genuine curiosity of my life they had left such a big impression on me. The language barrier we had never stopped us from bonding, never made me feel uncomfortable and never made me feel like I was never welcome. Sanaa the mother and “boss” of the family is a sister to me. Words cannot describe how much love I hold for this women and she genuinely helped me through some of the hardest times here in Palestine. She is a strong independent woman who always stood out as a strong figure. Something that in Al Khalil is hard to come by, as women and men are not treated and viewed at the same level. I can easily say that the best thing about my 3 months here was my host family. Without them I would have not half the same experience. I love and will always keep the Seyouri family in my heart for the kindness and generosity they blessed me with”.
Francesca’s life in Al Khalil for 3 months was a challenge. While she felt that she was prepared for this challenge there were many unexpected experiences. According to her the biggest challenge she faced was of course the gender one. Her advice is that one should always keep in mind that being foreign in a very religious and conservative place like Khalil will result in you being asked many questions. Her favourite being “are you married” or “what religion are you?”
She says that:
“Sometimes being honest was difficult as these questions would lead to more and you would find yourself in a full on discussions. The biggest issue I had being the fact that men and women are separated in a lot of events. One day there was an invitation sent out by the chamber of commerce for an Iftar (dinner) in which none of the females of the Centre were allowed to attend. This raised a massive discussion amongst the staff and volunteers. Which continues to show the alienation and divide in sexes in a conservative and religious city”.
What about safety in Palestine? According to Francesca there are many misconceptions about Palestine but there was never a moment where she felt unsafe or insecure. However, witnessing the conflict first hand was a very traumatising and eye opening experience for her. While spending time in h2 and the rest of the affected areas in Palestine plus witnessing what she refers to as “the horrific acts imposed by the IDF and mainly illegal settlers” she came to realise the gravity of the situation and the issue was not about her safety but the safety of the Palestinians.
Francesca considers that her experience at the Excellence Centre was a very dear one to her. She met people from all over the world and they created an unimaginable bond.
Like her friend Mari put it: “we are one big family that sticks together”. Couldn’t be truer. My Arabic teacher, Shayma Habibti, taught me not only her language but also about her culture, traditions and life as a Palestinian in an occupied land. Her laugh, enthusiasm and beautiful charisma are what kept me sane at the centre. I didn’t see her as a teacher I saw her as a friend that helped me learn. Being a teacher myself I realised the same thing. In order to fully connect with your students you have to be their friend. My students are open minded, strong willed, intelligent people that I know will go far in life. The Excellence Centre definitely provided me with skills that I will carry with me throughout my life, that of independence, speaking out when it is needed, sharing your opinions and experiences.
My time in Al Khalil was exceptional. I will never forget the kindness and the generosity of everyone I met. I will miss the simplest of things like spending time with Munir, the owner of one of the gift shops near the Ibrahimi Mosque. His wise words will remain with me forever. I will never forget the best tea I’ve ever had that Abu Jihad, my neighbour, made for me every night. I will also not forget that all these experiences were made for me thanks to the Excellence Centre. I couldn’t express my gratitude to all the staff and volunteers here. Inshallah I’ll be back soon. And Inshallah I will get to meet everyone again wherever in the world it may be.