Young Australian Jewish woman Shifra Waks experienced something that most Australians probably just dream about. The 23 year old lived on-and-off in both Syria and Palestine for 4 years with Arab families, experiencing their cultures and way of life. At age 18 Shifra decided that she wanted to learn Arabic, which she calls an exotic language, to add to her language base of English, French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. Her mother, Sheree, encouraged her to move to the Middle East to learn the language first hand as well as experiencing the culture – what better way than living with the people.
Her adventure began in Syria in 2009 at the University in Damascus, but she soon based herself in Saraqib, north Syria, near the ancient site of Elba, where she remained for 7 months living with two different families. And although she shared her Jewish background with some friends, she found no bitterness towards her. She found the Syrian people accepting of different religions and very open to having guests from other belief systems. She always shared a room with the sisters and was treated as part of the family. Regarding the food, she commented “The Syrian food is amongst the best in the Arab world!”
Shifra also spent some time travelling Syria and was most impressed with the coastal area of Lattakia (Al-Ladhiqiyah). She also visited Aleppo and Homs – “they have the best cakes there” she says. Shifra is still in contact with many Syrians and is very concerned for her friends’ safety.
After a break from the Middle East she returned and went to Palestine in 2011. Basing herself with families in Hebron, Shifra started working with Partners for Sustainable Development (www.psdpal.org) with the women’s centre in the branch in Dura and then in Hebron. Her volunteer work there included teaching English to kids, as well as translating documents and emails from Arabic.
Shifra found wearing the different Arabic clothing very comfortable with the Hijab with Niqab covering and the Thoba dress in Syria, to more casual western clothing in Hebron. “I felt safe and protected with the convenience of wearing the Hijab, Niqab and Thoba when outside of the home” she stated.
The following year her next visit to Palestine took her to Ramallah, renowned for its religiously relaxed atmosphere and known as the New York of the Middle East. Shifra found the many clubs and other social places quite an eye-opener. This time round she volunteered to work for the organisation One Voice Palestine (www.onevoicemovement.org/mission) which promotes the two-state solution. During her time in Ramallah she stayed in various housing situations including renting from Sulaiman Khatib, a well-known personality who came to Australia as part of the ‘Peace Team’ to play AFL Aussie Rules for the Palestine-Israel team in August 2011.
The third and last trip for Shifra in 2013 led her to East Jerusalem, where she was working as a volunteer for Grassroots Jerusalem (www.grassrootsalquds.net).
She stayed at an Arabic hostel and again mainly associated with Arab friends as she was keen to practice her Arabic – they all knew that she was Jewish. Shifra was closely connected with the Project Tiyul-Rihla group (www.tiyul-rihla.org), a joint initiative to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for travel and other events.
“There was often great dialogue in this group which made it a good learning curve for everyone concerned” she said. “But I do feel that very little has really changed from my first visit until now, which is a great shame. I believe that the politicians on both sides need to wake up – the blame game does not work.”
When quizzed about her future after everything that she had experienced, Shifra said: “I can definitely see myself working in the Middle East where I can make good use of my current studies in International Public Health. I particularly want to work with Palestinian women and children, or with refugees”.
FOOTNOTE: Shifra has a sister Miriam who sings in various languages including Arabic. Miriam visited her sister in Hebron and tested her Arabic singing with local people.
She was received with great acclaim. Miriam is currently based in New York.