Ashley Virgin
Ashley Virgin
Israel/Palestine 2016
Merhaba! My name is Ashley Virgin, and I am going to live in beautiful Bethlehem, Israel for six months. While in Bethlehem, I will work with WI’AM Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center where I will teach English and arts classes to children. I will also take part in other areas of community development in the city through WI’AM. I am excited to participate in the city and culture of Bethlehem and learn more about the nonviolent conflict resolution and social justice programs that WI’AM sponsors. Read More About Ashley →

“What have I gotten myself into?”

“If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.” – Roland Gau

This is a comforting sentiment because I’ve had this thought nearly a dozen times over the past three weeks. The first time I thought this was when I turned away from my parents and walked through the first TSA line. Suddenly, waves of uncertainty and doubt washed over me. Without anyone beside me (for the first time in weeks – when you’re about to leave the country for six months, everyone wants a piece of you before you go), life seemed quieter. At first, this silence jarred me, but as I settled into it, I realized that being without anyone I knew allowed me freedom from distractions. I could adequately observe my surroundings for what felt like the first time in my life. The hustling of people catching planes, talking on phones and to others in English and other languages. The bored expressions on terminal employees’ faces. The smell of overpriced lobster rolls and other airport food. All of these details that had I been with someone, I would have missed completely, suddenly seemed so vital.

I remember one moment from my first few hours of travel distinctly. When I got off the plane in Newark and caught a shuttle to the other terminal for my Tel Aviv flight, I sat in a seat pointed inward on the bus. I caught my reflection in the window across from me, it was a girl with one overstuffed carry on bag and a fully packed backpack slung on her shoulders, sitting alone. And instead of being uncertain or scared, she actually looked like she knew what she was doing, this whole ‘traveling’ thing. I saw a person in that window that I hadn’t encountered before in myself, but she was me, alright. It was in that moment that my faith in where I was and what I was doing was restored. I liked seeing that new person in the reflection; she was alone but she wasn’t really alone because her companions were her observations and the people, places, and objects around her.

I met the true spirit of traveling on that shuttle. That is not to say that there haven’t been moments when I’ve lost track of the spirit, times when I’ve asked, “What have I gotten myself into?” and “What am I doing here?” The thing they don’t tell you about traveling is that as you experience new sights, sounds, and people, you simultaneously grow a newfound appreciation and perspective on your familiar sights, sounds, and people. Traveling is missing things you never used to think were special, like going to Grimey’s, a show in East Nashville, or walking around Hillsboro Village. More than that, it is missing the people you used to do those things with. It is craving a Poptart, even though you really never wanted them when you had access to them back in the States. Above all, it is wishing you could share every bit of what you are experiencing now with your loved ones back home. Telling them about it just doesn’t do it justice; you wish they could see what you are seeing in real time.

But traveling is also waking to a beautiful view of Beit Sahour’s* hills in the distance. It is walking up a nearly vertical hill in the already blazing morning sun to arrive next to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, and you’re only ¼ of the way to work. It is the smell of baking pita and shrak along the square. It is saying “Sabah al khair” to people you pass on Star Street. It is meeting new friends from Finland, Germany, and Bethlehem. It is refilling paint for your kids and swapping Arabic and English words with them as you watch them paint over cement blocks in the garden. It is picking figs and eating them right off the tree. It is the taste of fresh labaneh, olive oil, and thyme. It is listening to your Bethlehem friends talk about their experiences with the second Intifada and the 40 day siege on Bethlehem during their childhoods, about losing family members and friends, about how they used to hide from bombs and tear gas, about how all of this still affects them, and you go home and cry yourself to sleep because you don’t know what it all means. It is participating in an Arabic wedding, holding lit candles with the other women and watching men with canes and tarbooshes celebrate on the dance floor. It is walking home against the chilly night breeze, carrying Chinese leftovers, and laughing with your new friend group, some of whom you only just met the day before. It is sitting on top of the monkey bars on Wi’am’s playground at dusk, sipping luisa (lemon grass) tea while watching the last pink glow of the sun as it sets over the refugee camp next door.

Traveling doesn’t feel perfect all of the time; it is rarely comfortable. But it is rewarding to the soul. It stretches you to your capacity and makes you grow in places you didn’t know you needed expansion in. I feel that I cannot describe it quite adequately yet, and I haven’t got the tightest grip on it either. But I’m figuring it out.


Here’s some pictures from this week:



*Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour are three towns that pretty much blend into one another.


The Separation Barrier

In my last entry, I mentioned crossing the checkpoints into Bethlehem. I’m going to talk more about that in this post.

In June of 2002, Israel began construction on what is referred to as a separation barrier (which I will refer to, as most Palestinians refer to it, as “the wall”). This wall runs mainly along what is known as the Green Line, or the line agreed upon during the 1949 Armistice that set a territorial boundary between Israel and the West Bank. However, in some areas, the wall extends past the Green Line into Palestinian territory in order to enclose around Israeli settlements.* This is the case in Bethlehem, where the wall was built farther into  Bethlehem in order to encapsulate a settlement. Upon doing so, that part of Bethlehem was on the other side of the wall, cut off from the rest of the city (seen in the picture below taken from Wi’am’s rooftop patio. Examples of this are also in this map from B’Tselem:

*Settlements will be explained in a later post, but for now, a simple definition will suffice. “Settlements” are groups of Israelis who build housing on territory in the West Bank and Golan Heights areas, land that is not a part of Israel, but de facto becomes a part of Israel after established by residents. The military protects these areas. To get started, Huffington post has a great article on settlements here:


It isn’t visible in the picture above, but the wall takes a sharp turn right where it looks like it abruptly ends. It runs up and directly behind those first few buildings in the circle. All of the green you see (olive tree grove) and the building farther in the distance (Gilo Settlement) are on the other side of the wall. Everything in the circle used to be a part of Bethlehem.

B’Tselem estimates that upon the barrier’s completion (it is still under construction in some areas, including here in Bethlehem), 9.5% of the West Bank will become Israeli territory (B’Tselem 2011).

In addition to illegally annexing land, this wall imposes a host of other social and economic complications on life in the West Bank. The wall has severely affected Bethlehem’s economy. It has cut off farmers from their olive groves and other agricultural land. To access their land, farmers must then obtain permits to cross checkpoints (or points of entrance in the wall monitored by Israeli military personnel). In order for any person with Palestinian nationality to enter into Israel, they must have a permit issued from the Israeli government. Once a person obtains a permit, checkpoints can have long wait times during certain times of the day and Israeli military may choose to shut them down intermittently and sometimes without notice. For these reasons, it is more difficult for a Palestinian to work in Israel today than before the wall was in place. Since the wall’s construction in Bethlehem, Bethlehemite’s also feel that tourism has fallen. The wall deters many tourists from visiting Bethlehem because its presence implies that the area is unsafe. Many businesses have left the area in response to the fall in tourism, which makes for less employment in the city. As of latest data in 2014, Bethlehem’s unemployment rate is the highest in all of the West Bank (Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics 2014).

The social and psychological impacts of the wall are heavier than any of its physical burdens to travel or tourism. The wall makes for an imposing, militaristic air when you stand next to it. Its 30 foot tall concrete slabs topped with barbed wire and spotlights give you the feeling that you are inside of a large, open air prison. The wall is also covered in graffiti, beautiful pieces of political and social artwork protesting the wall. (Most of this graffiti is done by Bethlehemites, but British artist Banksy created a few pieces on the wall when he visited the city, one of which is very close to Wi’am).
I see the wall every day. Many people have homes, run businesses, and go about their lives alongside it, as well.

As you can tell from the picture, a portion of the wall towers right next to Wi’am. The first time I truly felt its impact was on Friday when I had my first day with the kids. When I arrived at work that morning, one little girl was sitting alone on the bench in our courtyard. I sat next to her and asked her where the other kids were. She said they went to get ice cream at a market down the road. I asked her why she didn’t go with them. With brown eyes cast down to her feet, she said that she was “afraid the soldier in the watchtower would shoot” her. I was stunned by the matter of fact tone with which she said this statement. There was no active fear in her voice. Instead, what I gathered was that she was bummed about not getting ice cream, but that she was used to it, that it was just the way things were. I decided to tell her that I wanted ice cream and that I was going to go get some and wondered if she would like to walk with me. After a pause, she looked me in the eyes for the first time and agreed to go. We walked together down the street to the market, and I watched her as she hopped over cracks in the sidewalk and balanced on curbsides, chatting about her school and her favorite music. She was suddenly a much different child, happy and carefree, than the slumped child I met just minutes before. She is seven years old, I thought to myself. No seven year old should be kept from getting ice cream because she believes that to walk on the street with her friends would mean she were in danger of being harassed or shot.

I’m beginning to see the multifaceted nature of the wall and what it symbolizes, beyond the reports of B’Tselem and the UN, beyond the unemployment rates, the checkpoints, and so on. I’m witnessing how it seeps deeply into the psyches of all who call this region home. It is always on their minds – and now on mine, too – whether or not we are actively seeing or talking about it. I am seeing the Palestinian side of this, but there is no doubt that Israelis are also affected by its presence. It’s a physical manifestation of mistrust, fear, and hostility. It affects the way people move and live here, even in the most subtle of ways, like deterring a child from getting ice cream. But that day, we all got ice cream, despite the soldiers, the wall, and the conflict.

I realize this post is heavy, so I leave you guys on a more positive note. Later that afternoon, the kids painted clay houses.
We continue work on the Youth Garden this week, and (hopefully) will have big enough paintbrushes by Friday to let the kids paint the concrete bricks outlining the beds.
Here are some pictures.



Until next time, habibis,

B’tselem. 2011. “The Separation Barrier.”

Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics. 2014. “The Labour Force Survey Second Quarter.”


Welcome to Bethlehem!: Five (and a Half) Days

Where to begin? I arrived in Bethlehem nearly six days ago, and yet it feels like I’ve been here for much, much longer. But I mean that in a positive way. I feel so different already from the girl who landed in Tel Aviv on Saturday morning, jet lagged, hair unkempt, face oily, feet swollen. I took a sherut from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem where I met my program director’s son, Tarek, at a partner organization of Wi’am. From there, we passed through one of the three checkpoints in the separation barrier (more on this subject in posts to come) and finally, after what felt like days of travel, I was in Bethlehem.

View from my patio, taken on Saturday when I arrived

View from my patio, taken on Saturday when I arrived

The following five and a half days (it is only 1 PM here today, on my sixth day!) have been comprised mainly of taking in information about the culture, about Wi’am and my roles there, of learning some essential Arabic phrases (“Shukran” meaning “Thank you” and “Kahweh” meaning “coffee” are my two go-to’s thus far), and beginning to hear from others about how the conflict affects their lives.
My program director and his family have welcomed me into their home and their family. I live downstairs from them, but I’m in their home every day. We’ve made meals together and played board games. They’ve shown me around town, including the best grocery stores and restaurants. They have also introduced me to locals in the community. I’m amazed at how quickly they have become like family to me.

Salmon, potatoes, onions, and garlic. We made this for lunch on Sunday!

Salmon, potatoes, onions, and garlic. We made this for lunch on Sunday!

My first day at Wi’am was only this past Monday, so I am still getting into the swing of things and finding exactly where I fit in the organization. Unfortunately, the Summer Camp I was going to help with ended the Friday before I arrived. The kids now come to Wi’am on Friday’s only. That means I will work in other areas of the center during the other weekdays. My first day with the kids will be this Friday!

This is Wi'am!

This is Wi’am!

One of the first big projects I am involved in is the set-up of the Youth Garden. We have made five raised beds where we will help the kids plant vegetables. Our hope is that the garden will encourage an appreciation for the environment and healthful eating. The benefits of this garden are also psychological, as we hope that by working in the garden, the children will feel both responsible for and proud of something they have created and helped sustain, leading to boosts in both self-esteem and autonomy.

Fellow volunteer, Steve, working in the garden. It was tough because the soil is very rocky.

Fellow volunteer, Steve, working in the garden. It was tough because the soil is very rocky.

Another initial project of mine is to create a new welcome video showcasing some of Wi’am’s programs for their website and Facebook profile. I’m so glad I can put my skills in video editing, developed during my time at my arts high school, Nashville School of the Arts, to use at Wi’am!

That is all for now. I have only been here for five (and a half!) days so it isn’t much. I’m sure by this time next week I will have more to say about my work and my life in Bethlehem.

Salaam xoxo



“Preparation” for Bethlehem

Hello, everyone! Welcome to my Lumos blog and the start of my travel and internship experience in Bethlehem, Palestine working with WI’AM Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center.

My adventure will officially begin July 15th at 8:00 AM when I will board a plane to Newark, NJ and then hop on another to Tel Aviv, Israel. From Tel Aviv, I will take a shared taxi (or a sherut, as it is known in Israel) for the hour and thirty-minute drive to Jerusalem. I will go to the bus station at the Damascus Gate in the northwest quarter of the Old City and board a bus that will take me six miles south of Jerusalem to the city of Bethlehem, my new home for the next six months! There, I will be working with WI’AM, a community center that serves the residents of Bethlehem. When I arrive, my first project will be assisting in the annual summer camp for kids!

Picture of the summer camp taken from WI’AM’s website

Picture of the summer camp taken from WI’AM’s website

When I think about the word preparation, it seems too small a word to adequately encompass the months of thought, time, and energy I have directed toward my desire to work in Bethlehem. I think the preparation phase of my travels started over two years ago. I’ve been preparing in some form for this trip since the end of May 2014, after I returned from a Maymester Study Abroad trip to Turkey, Greece, and Israel. My first visit to Bethlehem left me stunned, mainly by my ignorance to the situation in the West Bank and my former indifference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an indifference shared by most Americans. My first visit left me wanting to learn more about the situation, the culture, and the people of Bethlehem.

My first round of “preparation” probably occurred as we boarded the bus to leave the city that day. Sitting down in my seat and staring out of the bus window at the cream and tan buildings in the city’s skyline, I knew that I wanted to come back. I felt a tugging, a need to stay longer in the city, to talk to more of its citizens, to amass their stories and try to make sense of the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians, the checkpoints, the separation barrier, the curfews and permits, etc. That day, we heard the stories of those in the town, how the conflict affected their lives, and what others, like WI’AM, were doing to assist their fellow citizens. But I knew that what we heard had not even scratched the surface. I was not done here. There was more to see and more to do.

My second round of preparation came when I decided to apply for the Lumos grant. This sort of preparation, of locating a project, reaching out to contacts in Bethlehem and former residents, to past Lumos travelers, and to my professors, makes up preparation in the more traditional sense of the word. I found out about WI’AM, what I would be doing, where I would be staying, what I would need, safety considerations, and how much it would all cost. This four-month stretch was exhausting, nerve-racking, but exhilarating nonetheless. I was preparing a project to go to Bethlehem, and if I got the committee to believe in me and to believe in my project, I could actually go back. Luckily for me, the committee did believe in me. I was funded. I was going to Bethlehem.

Flash forward some seven months, and I’ve finished my last semester of college, graduated with a degree in Sociology, turned 22 years old, took a few amazing trips to Florida, Chicago, and experienced my first Bonnaroo. I have barely taken a breath since graduation, and now here I am, sixteen days left until my adventure begins. The adventure I’ve talked about and longed for over the past two years is finally here. And as I round out my third and final stage of preparation for my trip, I finally realize that all of my “preparation” is not enough, would never be enough, to fully prepare me for my time in Bethlehem. One cannot prepare for an adventure of this magnitude, of the life changing experiences and encounters that will hit them, redirect them, make them grow, and irrevocably alter their worldview and view of themselves. One can only prepare physically, buying new shoes for walking, pricing plane tickets, converting US dollars to Israeli shekels, packing bags, planning out which buses to take, and saying goodbye to the US and their familiar way of life in this culture. It’s funny because I already knew this based on my first experience abroad. In the same way that I was not prepared to fall in love with Bethlehem like I did on May 9th, 2014, I know that I am not prepared for what awaits me when I get off the plane in Tel Aviv and finally make it to Bethlehem. I know I’ll take a sherut, but I don’t know what I’ll see on that drive or who I might meet in the cab. I know I’ll be working for WI’AM, but I am not prepared for what the children I work with will teach me. I know I’ll be living in Bethlehem, but there is no way I can prepare for the stretching and growth I will undertake and the things I will find within myself during my first trip abroad on my own.

I have wanted to go to Bethlehem for two years, and it is beyond surreal to say that I will do just that in two weeks. Just like the word “preparation” does not do justice to the experience I’ve had leading up to this point, the word “excitement” does not come close to my thoughts and feelings as I sit on my parents’ back deck writing this now. Maybe I will find a better word to describe this emotion after I live in Bethlehem for a while.

For now, I can only say that I am beyond grateful for this once in a lifetime opportunity and for the ability to share what I will learn with you all.


Picture of the separation barrier from inside Bethlehem, taken on my first trip in May 2014.

Until next time,

XOXO Ashley