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a southern yankee abroad

Lyrical Justice

On Tuesday, I got to go on my first road trip across Uganda—north to the town of Lira. It was a rollercoaster 36 hours, in more ways than one.

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My reason for travel was professional. My organization was representing a journalist in the town of Lira—we will call him “J”—who had been arrested one fateful evening just before the presidential election last year during the airing of his radio political talk show, along with four other politicians. J and his co-defendants had been kept on trial for 16 straight months without the state producing a single witness for the “crime” of alleged defacement of political posters. The irony is that J could not have been involved with the defacement as he was on the air during the time the act occurred. Nevertheless, he was relentlessly prosecuted as part of an effort to chill political dissent and freedom of expression. Our client made 12 consecutive appearances before the court over this period, and each time the court would adjourn and require his presence at the next hearing, presumably until the state could produce witnesses.

 

Our client’s rights were being violated under both Ugandan law (Article 28(1) of the Constitution) and international customary law (the right to a fair and speedy trial). So, my organization sent my colleague K, an attorney on staff who focuses on litigation, and me north to Lira to argue for the dismissal of the charges.

 

K and I set off on our journey from the central bus station of Kampala. We had two options for bus travel—the GaaGaa Coach and the Baby Coach. Both were public buses without air conditioner that cost 20,000 shillings one way (about $5), yet the GaaGaa coach was known to be slightly more comfortable and organized. Of course, we missed the GaaGaa coach by 5 minutes, so we booked our tickets on the infamous Baby Coach.

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We weren’t the only ones who wanted to ride GaaGaa

After sitting on the bus for about 1.5 hours as they changed tires and continued to load more customers in, we started down the road out of Kampala north toward Lira. K and I were pretty cramped on the Baby Coach, as the tiny “baby-sized” seats were covered in plastic and super sticky. But once the bus started rolling, the fresh air made the circumstances more manageable. In accordance with what I am coming to realize of “Africa time,” the 4 hour drive took about 7 hours.

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A typical roadside stop for snacks…we made about 20 of these

One thing we were not lacking on this road trip was snacks! My favorite part of the trips to and from Lira was when the bus would pull over and local vendors would swarm up to our windows, selling their goods. Sometimes, if they spotted me, I would hear “Muzungu! Muzungu!” from down below. (Muzungu is Luganda for white person haha). At almost every stop, I tried to buy something new…I enjoyed the gonja (roasted banana-like fruit), g-nuts, and cassava (a roasted root that tastes like mashed potato). I didn’t try the meat on a stick (still vegetarian these days!), roasted corn, jackfruit (because I don’t like it), or Rolex (chapatti—a Ugandan bread—with egg wrapped inside), but they were selling all of these things as well. They also sold live chickens to any interested buyers!

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Want to buy a live chicken from your bus window? No problem! 

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We also passed over the Nile and saw several baboons about halfway along the journey, and spotted many obusisira, or traditional hut-style houses along the way.

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Crossing the Nile River near Murchison Falls

 

Once we finally arrived in Lira, our mission came into sharper focus. We first met with J and gave him our assessment of the facts and the applicable law. “I pray to God this is over with tomorrow and I can be a free man again,” he explained. It was clear the case had taken a toll on J physically and emotionally, as he seemed very tired and worn down.

 

Given the political nature of our case, our client warned us that he thought we were being “tracked” (this was later confirmed from sources both in Lira and Kampala), and he advised a certain secure hotel for K and me to spend the night. He led us to a small gated hotel just off a dirt road on the edge of town. While this was supposed to be the “safe” hotel, I instantly felt sketched out by this place. Trusting my feminine instincts, I discreetly asked K if we could keep looking, and he agreed.

 

We then asked if we could stay at the M Hotel, which looked much newer, cleaner, and more secure, but this immediately alarmed our clients. “This place is not safe and there have been many kidnappings here,” they stated. However, after visiting, I for some reason felt way safer in this place than the last place—it was much more well-lit and the staff seemed trustworthy. After finding his cousin was on security detail that night, our client finally acquiesced to allowing us to spend the night here, and allowed me to settle into my room only after thoroughly checking it for wiretaps and working locks. Even though my room “checked out,” I slept with the chair under the doorknob just in case as I was thoroughly freaked out. And it takes a lot to freak me out! Also, it made me feel better knowing K was just 2 doors down. I was so relieved to see we both survived the night to attend the trial the next day!

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The next morning, we arrived at the courthouse and met our client J, his brother, and his four co-defendants. Even though we were charged with defending J, K agreed to represent the other four at the request of the magistrate, as he preferred to keep the matters grouped together. Because K is a legal champ, he agreed. (Some judges are called “magistrate” here). We then proceeded to wait outside for 2.5 hours with all other defendants before we were called by the attendant into the chambers.

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Before our hearing, full of nerves and anticipation

We spent the time chatting about the case and life in general, and it passed surprisingly fast. I was particularly taken aback by the arrival of the 30 or so male inmates from the jail down the road. They arrived on foot, escorted by prison guards and handcuffed to one another. They then knelt on their knees before the 20 ft x 20 ft cinderblock “holding cell” for about 30 minutes, before they were allowed in.

 

Once inside the cell, the sound of voices drifted beyond the cinderblocks, harmonizing together to form a song in a language I couldn’t understand, but understood all the same.

 

“They sing to give themselves hope,” K explained to me.

 

Finally, it was our time to go before the magistrate. As we entered the chambers, the magistrate immediately looked to me. There is no doubt I stood out, as I was the only muzungu around and also one of very few women present on the premises.

 

“Are you with CNN or BBC?” he asked me. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or serious. I later found out he was serious.

 

“Neither, your honor,” I replied. “I am a law student at New York University, and am an intern with K this summer.”

 

“I see,” he replied. “You will see… we apply the law here in Uganda.”

 

“Yes, your honor,” I replied. But secretly, I wasn’t sure yet.

 

K opened with a clear and concise argument—this case had dragged on for 16 months, and our clients’ rights to a fair and speedy trial had been violated. This right is not only given in the Ugandan constitution and in international law, but is a bedrock of democracy. K argued for dismissal of the charges under the Magistrates Court Act Cap 16, Section 119(1) (want of prosecution). After a short response from the prosecution, the magistrate issued his ruling in favor of the defendants. Tears sprang into my eyes as I looked over at J and saw his eyes filling with tears as well. He is now free of the burden of being prosecuted for no reason, and can return to his family in a nearby village to rest and recover from the trauma.

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K and me giving J a high five! 

After some congratulatory high-fives and hugs, K and I jumped on some boda bodas to pick up our bags from the hotel, and then to board the bus back to Kampala. We were lucky to book the GaaGaa coach this time around! We had lunch with one defendant at the Divine Mercy café—matoke, dried fish, and rice—before boarding the bus for the 4 hour (lol…7 hour) journey back to Kampala.

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As the bus passed back through the beautiful rural countryside, I felt truly grateful that justice had been delivered for J and the four other men that day. However, I couldn’t help dwelling on the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” and feeling like a part of J will never be healed after being taken, beaten, imprisoned, and relentlessly prosecuted for expressing his political beliefs and performing his job as a journalist. I think the irony is that the more a government tries to suppress the freedom of expression, the louder those voices will rise from behind whatever temporary walls are places around them—much like the prisoners in the holding cell at the Lira court, singing their songs of pain and hope, reality and dreams of a better world.

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Uganda Be Kidding Me: Week #1 in Kampala

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Greetings from Kampala! I’ve only been here a week, but it’s starting to feel like home in a lot of ways.

Yes, I am in Uganda, and yes I am on an adventure, but this summer already feels quite different because I am living and working in one place instead of moving around constantly like a nomad with ADHD. Don’t get me wrong—I am definitely going on some weekend excursions (stay tuned!) but I am actually enjoying the feeling of settling in halfway across the world. Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite things about Kampala so far…some which I expected, and others which have taken me by surprise.

  1. Boda bodas

Every day, I ride a boda boda to and from work. (Mom, please don’t freak out!) Rain or shine. It’s the best feeling to be weaving through traffic with the wind in my hair. Beats the NYC subway (for now at least!) Seeing as my office is off a dirt road (yes, it’s in Kampala city limits), it can get a little muddy. It’s like mud-riding. As my boss D put it, “You Americans play in mud for fun, but we don’t have a choice here.” Makes you think, right?


I’ve also had some pretty interesting conversations with my boda drivers. A few people have recommended I get one driver and stick with him for the whole summer, but I’m just not ready for that level of commitment. Lol.

  1. Matoke and other foods

Matoke is similar to mashed potatoes but made from a banana-like plant that grows on trees. It is one of the main food staples of Uganda! I love it…which is a good thing because it is served everyday for lunch in my office.

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Some other Ugandan foods I like? Posho (like mashed potatoes that taste like grits because it’s made out of corn meal), nakati (a bitter and salty dark green), and ground nut stew (literally mashed up nuts made into stew).

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So delicious
Also, the garden behind our office has an avocado tree, so we get to eat fresh avocadoes every day for lunch!

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The garden behind my office…I’m obsessed ❤
My office is pretty cool for the fact that we have 2 cooks on staff who prepare a home-cooked meal everyday for lunch, using fresh ingredients from the garden, and serve us at our desk!

As much as I am loving Ugandan food everyday for lunch, I have a confession…we literally are served so much food, I cannot come close to finishing it everyday. I then get in trouble with D, the head of our legal department, who thinks I can do a better job of cleaning my plate! I guess she doesn’t realize if I did that, I would fall asleep at my desk from a food coma. All things considered, this is not a bad problem to have, and I am really enjoying the food!

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Also, drinks are super cheap here…this huge water + coke zero cost 4,000UGX (just over $1)…
Speaking of food, my roommate and I ordered pizza my first night in town. Yes, you can order pizza in Uganda. It was delivered on the back of a boda boda….

  1. My neighborhood bodega

Like any good New Yorker, I appreciate a good 24/7 neighborhood bodega. Imagine my surprise when I found one just around the corner from my house! It’s not open 24/7, but it’s open most nights until 11pm, and they sell potato chips, wine, and other important items. It kind of looks like a jail, and they hand you your items through the iron bars…you don’t even go inside. I love this place!

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My friend Dre outside the Ntinda All-In-One shop (aka my bodega!)
  1. So many people here have asked me if I’m British…having grown up in (very) rural Alabama, I am enjoying being mistaken for a British person so much! I have no idea why I’ve been asked this so many times, but I guess it means the Southern accent is nowhere to be found anymore. RIP 😦
  1. and when they find out I’m American, they ask about Trump. You can imagine how this goes…
  1. My apartment

I love my apartment here! I found it over Airbnb, and it’s very comfortable and already feels like home for the summer. The front yard is a little crazy…there’s a huge gate and a small house with a 24/7 security guard. It took a while to get used to this, but I’d say I am now. My favorite part of the house is the back patio ❤

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My bed has a giant mosquito net, which i’ve never used!
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My favorite place at home!
  1. My work

I will have a lot more to say about this as the summer goes on, but for now, I am working at a human rights organization here in Kampala focused on defending the freedom of expression, the free press, and journalists’ rights. I felt so welcomed by the team from day #1! Everyone in my office is a native Ugandan, except me of course haha.

I am working with the legal department, which consists of D, K, and I. D is a mom of 4 with a law degree, and she is going back for a master’s degree this fall. I have mad respect for this lady! She is also hilarious, even when she is getting on to me for not finishing my food at lunch. My desk is next to hers, which is so nice because we have so much to talk about over the course of the day. K is another attorney on staff, and I got to go to court with him on Wednesday (more about this in a later post). K has been great at explaining the ropes to me, and I get to travel with him to northern Uganda next week for a trial! I is probably my best friend at work so far…he is exactly 2 weeks older than me and just finished his first year of law school, like me. He knows so much about American politics…more than a lot of Americans I know!! We’ve had some interesting discussions.

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A sample of some of the issues we address daily
The 4 of us in the Legal Department share an office with four cubicles, and the days go by so quickly as we have a lot of work to do and stories to share. One thing I’ve enjoyed in particularly is comparing cases from law school with the team. Uganda has a common law system based on British law, just like the USA, seeing as both countries are former colonies of Great Britain (geez England, you thought you owned everything there for a while!) As a result, Ugandan law schools study many of the same cases we study in US law school that date back…I was particularly amused to learn we both studied the Raffles case (yes, I was laughing about the Peerless with my Ugandan officemates today! Nerdiness knows no nationality!) I’ve also enjoyed discussing the similarities and differences in Ugandan and American civil procedure and the structure of the court systems with the team…literally the only time I’ve ever enjoyed talking about Civ Pro lol.

The organization is much bigger than the legal department, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know all of my many other colleagues who work on other aspects of human rights work. There is too much to share about the work I am doing and the things I am learning in this post, and I want to write about these things thoughtfully in a future post. Just know it’s really been a great experience so far!

  1. New friends

#nonewfriends? Nah…I’ve made so many great, new friends here in Kampala! It all starts with my roommate J from Canada…we both randomly found this apartment on our own, but it was like fate. J has been looking out for me since day 0. Before my arrival, she even stocked up on water and groceries for me, and let me in the apartment at 4:30am when I arrived!

J also introduced me to a ton of other expats, and it was so fun to explore the Kampala night life with all of them last weekend. J also introduced me to N and J– a Canadian couple who permanently lives in Uganda now. They are both artists and some of the kindest and most interesting people…they made dinner for me and J and even taught us how to light a Ugandan stove! (It looks more dangerous than it is, I think…maybe J and I will be brave enough to try it on our own soon?! Until then I’m gonna keep eating popcorn for dinner…) I also made some friends on my flight over (who knew you could meet such interesting people at a Uganda airport at 3am?!) Not surprisingly, I’ve only met a few other Americans, but a ton of other Canadians, Brits, and Egyptians! 🙂

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  1. Wifi

Right?! I am surprised too. I freaking love the wifi here…it’s actually better than what I have in NYC. I am using Vodaphone, and it’s been so great so far. I carry this little box with me everywhere I go, meaning I have wifi wherever I am. Considering I wasn’t sure if I’d have wifi at all (lol), this is fantastic!

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This little box goes with me wherever I go.
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One funny thing about Uganda is everyone goes by their last name first…so my vodaphone calls me “Smith”!
 

10. The weather

It’s not nearly as hot here as I imagined it would be, and it even gets a little chilly at night. There’s also a nice rain about every other day. I can’t believe I am living on the Equator and the weather is so pleasant!

 

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This is just a preview of my first week in my new home! I know I will have so much more to share as the weeks pass…for now, Osiibye otya nno! (Good evening in Lugandan).

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A view of my neighborhood ❤
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Beautiful Kampala Sunset from N and J’s balcony
PS- For those who don’t know, Chelsea Handler came up with “Uganda Be Kidding Me.” I love her. Credit where credit is due…

Heart Like a Feather: 10 Hours in Cairo

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Spending the day exploring Cairo was the perfect beginning to my summer abroad in Uganda. When shopping for flights back in March, I was so excited to see the cheapest flight option from NYC would also give me a 10 hour layover in Cairo before I boarded a connection to Entebbe. Just enough time to explore the pyramids! I soon learned Cairo has so much more to offer…

I have to admit I was a bit nervous about exploring Cairo on my own, based on what I had seen and heard in the media about being a solo female in the city. Fortunately, my friend Richard from the UK whom I met last summer in Berlin, had the perfect solution for me. A few years back, he had explored Cairo with a fantastic guide named Hossam, and he connected me with Hossam over Facebook and WhatsApp. I arrived in Egypt with my (come to find out, unfounded) anxiety at bay and ready to explore! (TLDR summary): I felt very safe my entire time in Cairo, despite what you may see and hear in the media. I would encourage anyone I know to travel to Egypt!

Hossam and his driver met me at the airport once I arrived at 11am Cairo time. I had the whole row to myself on the 10.5 hour flight from NYC, so I was able to get some good sleep while catching up on some recent movies—Hidden Figures (I totally cried!) and Masterminds (I cried from laughing so much!) After purchasing my visa (25 USD) and making my way through security, I found Hossam just past the arrivals section, and we loaded up and began the 1.5 hour drive to Giza.

First impressions of Egypt? The traffic is insane! Even more insane than NYC x1000. Most main roads do not even have painted lanes, and it doesn’t make a difference on the ones that do as most drivers straddle the lines with their cars as they drive. Even though Cairo traffic was a true free-for-all, there were surprisingly no accidents, as all the drivers are super vigilant even as they drive crazily.

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The roads…No lanes or signs, and sometimes unpaved. Also, people walk directly into traffic without looking! Reminds me of NYC ❤

Pyramids on Pyramids

As we made our way toward Giza, Hossam drew diagrams for me as he explained the significance of the pyramids and ancient Egyptian history. Giza is located on the west bank of the Nile, while the main city of Cairo is on the east bank. This is for a reason—the ancient Egyptians believed that the side of the Nile where you lived represented your current life, while the opposite bank represented the afterlife. Therefore, the pharaohs constructed their burial sites on the west side to represent the “crossing over” that occurred after death.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Great Pyramid in person—it was breathtaking. According to Hossam, the pyramids change each time you view them, and are never the same twice. Do they have a mystical power? I’ll leave that for you, the reader, to decide.

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During the course of the visit, we walked around and took in the sites at various points. I paid 200 EGP (~11 USD) extra to climb to the burial room inside the Great Pyramid, and it was worth it. The climb is more like a 37 meter inclined crawl, and it was hot and cramped at times. It reminded me of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Once I reached the top, I found myself alone in the burial room where the body of the pharaoh Khufu was once sealed…super eerie!

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This is where Khufu was buried near the top of the Great Pyramid! The walls are made of rose granite. It was super creepy to be in here by myself!

After leaving Khufu’s Great Pyramid, we made our way toward the bank of the Nile, stopping along the way to visit the Queens’ pyramids and the burial temple of Khufu. Hossam was able to take me into a secret locked portion of the temple!

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We then drove around to take in the view of the complex from the other side of the pyramids away from the Nile bank. The Great Pyramid is accompanied by the pyramids of Khafre (Khufu’s son) and Menkaure. Out of respect, Khafre built his pyramid to be 3 meters shorter than his father’s pyramid. But poor Menkaure—his pyramid is so tiny compared to the other two! Hossam told me this was likely due to a poor economy during the time of its construction—when there was more abundance, the pyramids were bigger, and vice versa.

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Our last stop in the temple complex was a visit to the valley temple of Khufu and the Sphinx (my favorite!). Until 100 years ago, the Nile flowed just beneath the Sphinx and the valley temples. However, the river has since changed course. The purpose of the valley temples was to receive the bodies of the dead pharaohs from the “other side” in preparation for the afterlife. Each pyramid has a valley temple and a causeway leading to the burial temple, which is connected to the pyramid.

The Sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion, was built to guard the pyramid complex by the pharaoh Khafre along the banks of the Nile. Like seeing the Great Pyramid, seeing the Sphinx in person for the first time was truly breathtaking…it’s like he popped out of nowhere as I scanned my eyes across the horizon, and I was definitely caught off guard!

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Me and Hossam at the Sphinx!
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Guarding the pyramids. I love how big the “paws” are!

A Heart Like a Feather

After leaving the pyramids, Hossam took me to a papyrus art gallery. I knew papyrus was used as paper, but I had no idea the spiritual significance of the plant to ancient Egyptians. The papyrus and the lotus flowers are the two sacred plants—the lotus flower represents love, and the woman gives a lotus to the man she wants to marry (yes, the women proposed to men in ancient Egypt! Holla at that feminism!) If he accepted the lotus, they were engaged. If not, then she could move on! The papyrus was also sacred because of its form (its shape represents the sun god Ra, as the head of the stalk looks like the sun’s rays shooting out), and because of its function (used to make boats and as paper).

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As a law student, the mythology of the weighing of the heart struck me in particular, and is my favorite story I am taking away from my time here. After a person dies, he goes before Osiris, the judge of the afterlife. The heart of the deceased is placed on a pair of scales and weighed against a feather, held by Maat, the goddess of justice. If the feather outweighs the heart, he had a light heart, meaning he spent his life peacefully doing good for others. However, if the heart outweighs the feather, he had a heavy heart, meaning he had lived his life in anger and not doing right by other people. I love this story and all it represents—what a great reminder to keep a light heart every day!

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I purchased this papyrus painting of the weighing of the heart. Maat, the goddess of justice, is on the left (you can see the feather on her head!), and the heart is in the jar on the right.

Khan el-Khalili, the Old Islamic Market 

We finished out our busy day with a visit to the souk (marketplace) in the Islamic district of Cairo called Khan el-Khalili. The market was full of both modern and traditional vendors, and it seemed every other building was a mosque featuring the most beautiful architecture.

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I learned that all mosques have domed shapes because of the acoustic requirements before the age of electricity and loudspeakers—the domes would amplify the call to prayer five times daily. Today, the calls to prayer are simply played over loudspeakers, but the domed shape has remained a part of Islamic tradition and culture.

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Another interesting architectural find? These window screens, called mashrabiya. As women must be covered in public, and not viewed by anyone but her husband and family, these screens allow women to look from their windows and not be viewed from the street, thus maintaining their privacy and modesty.

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Besides the beautiful architecture, my favorite part of the souk was our stop at El Feshawy, the oldest coffee shop in Khan el-Khalili. Here, we enjoyed Turkish coffee and shisha while people stopped at our table and tried to sell me trinkets, henna, and souvenirs every 5 seconds (a firm “no thank you” usually did the trick). After relaxing for a bit, we wound our way back through the market and through the gate, where our driver was waiting to take me back to the airport… 😦

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A long time ago, these iron windows were “water stations” where anyone could stop by and be served clean and fresh water for free, no questions asked.

Sadly, the very next day after my visit, a shooting attack by ISIS on a bus carrying Coptic Christians killed 29 people just outside of Cairo. I received several messages asking if I was ok—I am ok, and we should keep the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers. This terrible tragedy is a reminder that nowhere in the world is safe, but I want to reemphasize that I never felt in danger during my time in Cairo. America is not the safest place either–it has been almost a year since a shooting attack in Florida killed 50 people. The truth is we all have to stay vigilant no matter where we are in the world.

At the end of the day, I was not ready to leave Cairo! It was such a beautiful city and I feel like I developed a deeper appreciation for Egyptian heritage and culture. I hope to go back and visit sometime in the future.

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Travel and the “P” Word

Jambo from Kampala! I can’t tell you how excited and amazed I am to be continuing a second summer of blogging. At this point last summer, I was in Southeast Asia and had no idea what the following year, much less the following summer, held for me. I feel very fortunate to be living in Uganda for the next 10 weeks after finishing my first year in law school, and to have the opportunity to pursue my academic interests while exploring another corner of the world.

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Getting my own wifi hotspot in Uganda for the summer…a beautiful moment! 
After a bit of self-reflection, I realize my blog posts from last summer were a bit on the fluffy and introspective side. Don’t get me wrong—that’s not a bad side to be on! I greatly enjoy being fluffy and introspective as a favorite pastime, and don’t worry—there will be plenty of those posts this summer. 🙂  However, after traveling for exactly one day in Egypt, I was confronted (actually, more like slapped in the face…) by a serious issue—the issue of travel privilege.

 

I actually hesitate to use the term “privilege”—I feel it carries such a heavy political connotation these days, and many people instantly tune out when they hear or read the word “privilege.” (I.e. asking someone to “check your privilege” will sometimes result in that person deciding he doesn’t have to listen to what you’re saying instead of continuing to engage…a hard reality for those who argue privilege is something that should be recognized and checked (myself included), but a reality nonetheless).

 

But I have to use the term privilege here, because it precisely describes my situation and the situation of millions of other Americans. Any American can spin a globe, put her finger down, say “I’m travelling here!” and make it happen. (This is apart and separate from financial ability to travel, which I’ve discussed in a previous post, and will revisit again in a later post this summer). It’s humbling to admit the “point, pick, and go” strategy is more or less what I did when I planned my around-the-world trip last summer. What I failed to fully realize then, and what I realize more now, is not every person enjoys the right of freedom of movement and travel like Americans do.

 

I met and spoke with several Egyptians during my 10 hours in Cairo who made me realize how much of a problem this is. My guide for the day in Cairo was by far one of the best, smartest, and most genuinely kind guides I’ve ever met when traveling. I casually asked him if he had ever been to the USA. “No, it’s almost impossible to get a visa there for leisure travel if you’re from the Middle East,” he replied. And this policy predates Donald Trump.

 

I can get a visa instantly to his country upon arrival, but he can’t do the same for my country. How do I get this very benefit that he is denied simply due to our differing national origins? I happened to be born in the USA, and he happened to be born in Egypt, and yet this luck of the draw dictates the destinations on this planet where he and I are each free to travel.  I am no more deserving than he is of the benefits that come from traveling for personal pleasure and learning, yet I face far fewer barriers in far fewer countries than others face. This is example #1 of the definition of travel privilege.

 

Another privilege? Strength of currency. As Americans, we enjoy a relatively strong US dollar. While we may complain how “expensive” it is for us to travel to Europe or the UK, the truth is we can afford to travel pretty much anywhere when it comes to currency exchange rates. However, Egypt has seen its currency fall from 7 EGP to 1 USD to 18 EGP to 1 USD over the last decade. Not only is this prohibitive to leisure travel, but it’s prohibitive to parents being able to put food on the table for their families. A currency decline of this magnitude, coupled with the decline of a major industry (in the case of Egypt, tourism) means it’s harder for many families to make ends meet, and more kids are going hungry. I’ve met others over the years from different countries (including South Africa, Hungary, and Thailand) who have told me how the strength of the US dollar make it nearly impossible for them to visit the US. Meanwhile, Americans who choose to travel at all do so and complain about currency exchange rates. Shame on us.

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Cairo, Egypt
What about immigration? Trump only opposes illegal immigrants, right? Well, think of the scenarios I just described above. Many families who want to leave everything they have ever known and try to make a better life for themselves and their children in America must enter a lottery. That’s right—the US federal government still sets a quota for each country (this is 2017, not 1887) , and then each country draws numbers for who gets to leave. I had always known this was the case generally, yet I had no idea the impact that this policy ritual of a scheduled “lottery” with a hard cut-off number has on people’s daily lives.  My waiter in the Cairo airport told me the U.S. lottery for Egypt is next month—he is already counting down the days. He has a friend who “won” the lottery a few years ago, and was able to move to America. I would wager that most Americans are not even aware such lotteries still exist–I have to admit I didn’t know there was still an actual lottery–yet people like my waiter in Egypt literally count down to the day when these lottery drawings happen.

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It isn’t like all Egyptians are looking to immigrate permanently—in fact, most Egyptians I met have an immense amount of national pride, and were very hospitable, welcoming, excited to share their country, and not looking to leave anytime soon. Yet the fact is that the economic downturn and political instability have hit the country hard in recent years. Permanent immigration concerns aside, the ability to travel freely in the world remains severely restricted for many citizens of Egypt and other countries. Many simply want to visit the USA for the same reason many Americans would want to visit Egypt– to experience a different culture, learn a rich history, and take in the sites and stories for themselves.  Immigration and border control is one thing. But restricting travel visas completely? That’s a different issue entirely.

 

What can we Americans who value the freedom of movement and the benefits of travel do about it? As I alluded to above, once you realize how you’ve benefited from travel privilege, it’s hard not to feel some degree of guilt for the undeserved advantages you’ve received from a characteristic beyond your control (i.e. national origin). Yet there isn’t really anything you can do about your national origin. I think the first thing to do is maintain self-awareness of the travel privilege you experience, and then translate this into empathy for those you meet along your journeys. At the end of the day, we all share this earth together, and we are all equally curious to learn and explore. Next, work to translate this empathy into more humane visa and immigration policies through legislation and executive action on the federal level.

 

Privilege is when you don’t have to worry about something because it doesn’t affect you directly. But whatever “it” is always affects someone directly.  So let’s act now by being conscious of what other travelers are facing, and by building empathy and pushing for governmental action to make the world a more equitable place for all.

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A person’s ability to travel the world shouldn’t hinge simply on what passport he or she holds. 

 

Top Ten Posts from A Summer Around the World

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Prague. We are all just walking each other home. You are what you love, not who loves you. 

Happy May! Even as I am buried in outlining for final exams, recovering from strep throat, and preparing for a summer abroad in Uganda (!), I find myself reminiscing hard about this week last year–when I left NYC for 3.5 months backpacking around the world!

As part of my frolic down memory lane (and exam procrastination…) I’ve put together my top ten list of A Southern Yankee Abroad posts from last summer. Enjoy! ❤

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#10 – Who knew three days without wifi or a shower with friends in Bolivia could be such an amazing and freeing experience! Girls Gone Wild: Three Days in the Bolivian Wilderness

#9 – Vietnam has unlimited hidden treasures. I’m Hueee Up (I Feel Blessed) + Halong Bay

#8 – Traveling isn’t always rainbows and butterflies… Kutna Hora and a Train Ride with Franz Kafka (Czech Republic)

#7 – Cambodia remains my favorite country I’ve ever visited — deep sadness and deep beauty. Siem Reap: Temples and Countryside

#6 –  I did some soul searching in the most beautiful city — Paris, the City of Light. Questions in Paris

#5 – An encounter with a Buddhist monk in Chiang Mai reminded me that kindness transcends nationality, language, and religion. Wat’s Up?! Monks, Cooking, and River Cruises in Chiang Mai

#4 – I truly felt at home during a week-long visit in Provence, thanks to the generosity of some amazing people I met along my journey. Provence: Lavender Fields and Lost Luggage

#3 – Craic abounds in Ireland, especially if you’re friends with Michael! Ireland Part 1: Brexit, Dublin Pride, and Irish Football

#2- Being lost on the back of a motorcycle in the rain surrounded by people who don’t speak English in Ho Chi Minh City is a memory I could never have planned, but will always treasure. Adventures in Saigon

#1 – I turned 27 years old on top of a rainbow in Peru…literally! This trek up Vinicunca Mountain with Sarah, Rachele, our guide Abel, and Rainbow the dog was the highlight of the entire summer. A Birthday Trek to Vinicunca Mountain 

 

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Tel Aviv: The Old and the New

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The view from my hotel room ❤ 

Ezekiel 3:15: “Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel Aviv, that lived by the river Chebar, and to where they lived; and I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days.”

Tel Aviv, meaning “hill of spring,” is the second largest metropolitan area in Israel, and encompasses the energy and future of the modern state of Israel. The “hill” represents the old, and the “spring” represents the new, and the Father of Zionism Theodor Herzl wrote about this metaphor in his book Altneuland. Tel Aviv is only 108 years old–brand new compared to the rest of the country.

Our trip began and ended in Tel Aviv, yet I was only truly able to appreciate what Tel Aviv symbolizes after our visit to Jerusalem. The energy of Tel Aviv represents the energy and optimism of the Israeli people, and moving forward into the future with hope. It is also a very fun city, and I throughly enjoyed it despite the sad fact my phone was stolen here on the last night (I am grateful I was able to at least recover my pictures!)

Here’s an overview of our last few days in Tel Aviv:

1- Talk with Gadi Ezra. Gadi is currently Legal Counsel for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel, and he is an LLM alum from NYU (!) Gadi spoke with us about his experience serving in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and the difficult decisions he faced while serving in Gaza in 2008. Gadi emphasized how moral obligations to humanity call for higher standards than those laid out by the Geneva Convention rules of armed conflict. After sharing several anecdotes and asking us to think critically and honestly about what we would have done in his shoes, Gadi asked us to 1-question everything,  2-fight the urge to become cynical, and 3- remain hopeful as we continue to learn and engage with these issues as law students and future lawyers.

2-  Visit to Independence Hall. Here, we were able to learn the story of the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. On this day, the words of Theodor Herzl, the Father of the Zionist movement, played out– “If you will it, it is no dream.” We also listened to a recording of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (who ironically was Buddhist) declaring independence. Independence Hall is located in the first house in Tel Aviv which had been converted to an art gallery. Celebrations of independence were cut short the very next day, as the brand new state was invaded by its 5 Arab neighbors, marking the beginning of a perpetual state of war and unrest. Sadly, many Holocaust survivors died defending the new state.

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David Ben-Gurion

3- Beit Ambousa. In 1991, the state of Israel airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who were in danger because of their faith from Africa to safety in Israel. Since that time, the Ethiopian Jews have formed a special part of communities within Israel. We were able to visit an Ethiopian Jewish community outside of Tel Aviv called Beit Ambousa, where we learned about the history of the Ethiopian Jews as well as their modern struggles for racial equality within Israel. My favorite part of this visit was 1-learning about how Judaism came to Ethiopia in the first place (a love affair between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba involving a series of riddles and a son named Menelik, who visited his father back in Jerusalem and returned to Ethiopia to rule) and 2-the delicious Ethiopian lunch we enjoyed inside the home of our gracious host, complete with dabo, teff, and injera.

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Dabo and roasted chickpeas on the table…Blessing our host as she roasts coffee beans
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Components of injera- teff, cabbage, lentil, potato. So delicious!

4-Graffiti tour of Tel Aviv. As a resident of Bushwick, I have developed an affinity for well-done graffiti, and Tel Aviv is rich with a modern graffiti scene. Below are some of my favorites from our walking tour:

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This graffiti is done in braille–those who can see don’t understand it, and those who can understand it can’t see it. So many layers of meaning…
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These cartoon figures represent Israeli and Palestinian brothers. They embrace each other out of optimism, yet their backs are turned to represent the conflict.

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This graffiti depicts a security camera depiction of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It has remained in place without being painted over since 1995, a rarity in the graffiti world.
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“If I forget Jerusalem, it is because of New York”
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Every person in this mural died at the age of 27. (Being 27 myself, this was a bit unsettling…!). Each person also died of drug addictions fueled by depression, and the artist has placed an uncompleted version of himself at the end–signifying his own personal struggles yet alluding to the fact that he has found his way out of the darkness and does not belong in this group.
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Zim, our guide, explaining the message directed to us on the wall behind him. He explained there are “no hard feelings,” but Tel Avivians get annoyed with tourists in the same way New Yorkers get annoyed with tourists (haha).

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5- My favorite dinner of the entire trip was at Racha, a Georgian (the country not the state!) restaurant in Tel Aviv. The owner explained the tradition of the Georgian blessing to us, which we conducted as a group and involved our NYU leader Mitch drinking an entire horn of wine! She was so fun and hospitable! Dinner ended in a dance party!

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Sarah and me with Lili, the fabulous owner of Racha!

Just as the verse in Ezekiel describes, I was overwhelmed (in every sense) for 7 days by all Israel has to offer. With its vibrant energy and focus on the future, Tel Aviv was the perfect place to begin and end this “mas’a” (Hebrew for trek). I am so grateful to iTrek and our tireless student leaders Mitch and Hannah for allowing me and my fellow law students to experience and learn about the rich culture and history of Israel and Palestine. I am also so grateful for the friendships I am taking away from this trip, which I know will shape the rest of my law school experience in a positive way.

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Bhargavi, Shreya, and me with Doron our amazing guide on our last night…I will miss these good people!
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I learned an incredible amount from Daniel, an Israeli law student who served in the Gaza war and traveled with us over the week
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We visited the Israeli law firm Meitar, where we learned a good deal about private law practice in Israel. Imagine my surprise when I saw this photograph in the conference room…I met this exact same couple while in Hoi An, Vietnam, last summer! The world felt like such a small place to me in this moment.
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Independence Hall, Tel Aviv

Jerusalem, Part 2: Yad Vashem and the Israeli Supreme Court

While our first day in Jerusalem had centered mostly on the ancient and religious history, our second day focused on the modern history and secular governance of Israel.

**Warning: This post contains some graphic descriptions that may be upsetting.

Yad Vashem

“For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness”- Elie Wiesel

Our day began with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The museum is built as a prism penetrating a mountain. Before descending into the museum (the darkness inside the mountain), we passed along a row of trees called the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. These trees symbolize non-Jews who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors hide and flee Europe during the Holocaust. We saw the tree commemorating Oskar and Emilie Schindler, and were reminded of their story. Still, the trees represented 23,000 known helpers, and 6 million Jews were murdered. I couldn’t help but think of how many chose to look the other way as these humans were slaughtered, and feel deeply disturbed.

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Once we were inside, we began to learn about the Holocaust through movies, photos, and our guide. I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in 2009, and the images, films, and piles of clothing of victims I saw there are still emblazoned in my mind. To be honest, I was nervous to visit Yad Vashem for this reason. But we can’t turn away and forget what happened–it’s our job to know and prevent this from happening again, even though we as humankind have failed so many times since then to prevent the crime against humanity of genocide (Cambodia, Rwanda, Armenia, Darfur, Syria).

Yad Vashem presents the story of the Holocaust differently than the DC museum by focusing more on telling individual stories, and by maintaining a record of over 4.5 million victims as well as a database with the names of survivors. Our guide told us the story of a survivor who had not spoken about her experience in a death camp for over 50 years, because she was so traumatized. Yet once she told her story at Yad Vashem, she was told about her brother, who had also survived, and they were reunited after all this time.

The last stop within Yad Vashem is the Hall of Names, where thousands of binders contain the names in print. Yad Vashem is returning the dignity of identity to the memories of the victims, yet over 1.5 million victims remain unidentified.

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There was so much to take in and so much I cannot put into words. Below is my attempt to share a few personal takeaways from Yad Vashem:

1-Many times, entire villages were wiped out in a single instance. In one village in Estonia, men were forced to dig their own graves before being forced to run into the grave and shot, and we saw footage of this. Because entire communities were wiped out, this means entire cultures and traditions unique within the Jewish faith and a particular region are gone forever. Because there were often no survivors, this means the world will never know the identity of all the victims of these atrocities.

2-We were able to see several artifacts that were found among the clothing remains of victims, signifying the last things they grabbed and put in their pockets as they were forced from their homes. Our guide asked us to think of these items as what the victim wished to be remembered by. I focused on a picture of a man, around 25-30 years in age, with his dog sitting beneath a shade tree. His humanity was stripped from him, but Yad Vashem is working to make sure is memory is honored and his dignity is returned to him.

3-One photograph stood out in particular to me–a young Nazi soldier laughing as he cut the long beard of a Jewish rabbi in Poland. I can’t describe the look in the young soldier’s eyes as he laughed–it was almost like there wasn’t a soul within his body. The sadness in the Polish Jewish man’s eyes stung. It made me wonder how humans can ever justify treating other humans this way and stripping them of their identity and dignity. I don’t understand.

4-One story that stood out to me in particular is the story of Petr Ginz, a young boy from Prague who died at Auschwitz. When I first learned he was from Prague, I thought back to my visit there and pictured him playing in the streets of the Jewish Quarter, where I had visited. Petr was born in 1928 and died in 1944 at age 16.

Petr was an extremely gifted kid, and wrote 5 novels before his death. He also wrote for a local magazine and conducted interviews of people in the concentration camp, and he is known to have continued pursuing his studies by accessing confiscated books. He had a deep love of science. He was also an extremely talented artist, and he produced several drawings that have been recovered. Petr loved Jules Verne and dreamed of traveling to the moon–Petr would have been 41 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Given what we know of his aptitude, I can only imagine how he could have changed the world. But we will never know.

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Petr Ginz

In 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took Petr’s drawing of the Earth seen from the moon with him on the space shuttle Columbia. In this way, Petr’s memory was honored as a piece of his living memory was able to fulfill his dream. Sadly, Columbia broke apart on reentry and all the astronauts perished on the very same day that would have been Petr’s 75th birthday.

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Petr Ginz, Earth Seen from the Moon

5-While I had made the connection before to a certain extent, I now fully understand the role of Israel as a modern homeland for the Jewish people. Yad Vashem articulates how the European Jews had nowhere to go during WW2, and were turned away and rejected from many countries where they sought refugee status (including the USA, which we have been painfully reminded of given the rhetoric around the current Syrian refugee crisis). Israel is a place that the Jewish people can always call home. One example of this is when the state of Israel air evacuated over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in danger because of their faith from Africa to Israel in 1991 (Operation Solomon).

6- We were able to meet with a Holocaust survivor and hear her personal story. She was taken from her mother first at age 6 when they took all women and children from her village in Poland, then lived as a boy with her father to escape being taken by working in a forced-labor factory. She was then eventually separated from her father, and placed in a camp. She said the primary thing she remembers is how cold it was, and to this day the feeling of coldness brings back that horrible memory. She also described how she would eat dirty snow for water. However, this lovely lady with bright pink fingernails talked happily about her many children and grandchildren, and the wonderful life she has been able to lead. She even took a call from one grandchild in London on her iPhone as she met with us. Her positivity despite all odds was so inspiring. It also made me realize how many young women never had the opportunity to lead such a life.

**Disclaimer: All Yad Vashem pictures above were taken from online, because I did not bring my phone into the museum.

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Israeli Supreme Court

After a very heavy and emotional morning at Yad Vashem, we visited the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. I found it hard to concentrate after all I had taken in that morning, but nevertheless it was interesting and informative to visit such an important building in modern Israel.

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After a tour and Q&A session, we had the opportunity to meet with Justice Hanan Melcer. The Israeli Supreme Court has 15 justices, and 3 justices hear a case at a time. Because Israel is so small, the SC often has original jurisdiction meaning its annual docket often reaches ~10,000 cases (as compared to ~90 cases for the US Supreme Court).

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I thought the most interesting point Justice Melcer made was about how the Israeli Supreme Court is the part of the Israeli government most trusted by the Palestinians, as compared to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) which often passes anti-Palestinian laws. For example, the SC has ruled against the legality of some Israeli West Bank settlements, and the SC ruled in 1991 that Palestinians, as well as Israelis, were entitled to free gas mask kits being distributed by the government to defend against chemical weapon attacks. To me, this speaks to the fact that the judicial branch of any country is tasked with being apolitical and seeking justice for all.

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We were supposed to finish out the day at the Machane Yehuda Market, but I decided to take this time to decompress in my hotel room and make some Turkish coffee. There was just so much to take in on this day, and it was particularly draining. Yet it was very necessary to learn and witness all that we did.

Jerusalem, Part 1: A Holy City

John 12:23-25: “Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

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After our morning at Masada, we loaded up our bus and hit the road towards Jerusalem, one of the most anticipated stops of our trip. The city holds holy sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and contains literal layers of history dating back millennia. King David designated Jerusalem as the capital city of the ancient state of Israel 1000 years before the birth of Christ.

My new Israeli friend described what Jerusalem meant to him this way–“I am not even a religious person, but everytime I visit Jerusalem, I feel the holiness.”

As we drove through an underground tunnel, I saw the famous skyline with the old city walls and Dome of the Rock appear as we exited the other side. I immediately understood my friend’s feelings–the holiness and oldness of the city will move you.

We entered the Old City walls (which aren’t that “old” considering they were built about 500 years ago by the Ottoman empire) through the Jaffa Gate. During our time in the Old City, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa and the stations of the Cross, and the Wailing Wall. Unfortunately, our time in Old Jerusalem was cut short due to the faulty cable car at Masada and a packed schedule, but I am still absorbing all we took in during our time there.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is built upon the place traditionally regarded as Calvary/Golgatha (the hill where Jesus was crucified) and the nearby location of his tomb.

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Three of my trip friends and I came directly here as our first stop during our 2 hours of free time before the group tour. Even though we would be visiting it later with the larger group, we wanted to ensure we had time to wait in line to be able to step inside the empty tomb.

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The tomb is located within a smaller chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

After waiting about an hour and 15 minutes, we were able to enter the empty tomb of Jesus. We first stood in a small foyer (maybe only 5×5 feet) where we were able to gather around a piece of the stone that was rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. Then, we stooped to enter into a small cave which was the actual tomb, and were able to kneel before a small alter located where his body had laid. The tomb was much smaller than I had always imagined.

As we knelt together, it was difficult to form any thoughts, as I was completely overwhelmed by the moment. I did not take any pictures.

Luke 24:1-8: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.”

Later in the afternoon, we were able to visit the Church again with our larger group and climb the short but steep stairs to the top of Calvary/Golgatha. Here, an alter rests atop the actual stones of Calvary, which are visible in glass below. Many people shuffled on their knees to the alter to kiss where the cross is believed to have stood. I was overwhelmed with awe, and words can’t really describe what it was like to be here.

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The bottom floor of the Church has many cutaway glass areas where you can view the rocks of Calvary

Before leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the last time, I was able to touch the stone upon which Jesus’s body had laid inside the tomb. The stone is anointed with oil, and visitors are invited to rub cloth or another relic upon the stone. As I said a prayer, I touched the small stone from my time in the Judean desert the night before to this stone. Again, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. In this moment I felt grateful for how the story of Christ’s teachings and sacrifice transcends geography, time, and seasons of doubt, and can be both universal and personal in every sense.

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Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa is the street along which tradition holds Jesus carried his cross to Calvary. In that time, the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside the main city center of Jerusalem, even though they are now within the “Old” City walls. We were a bit rushed as we moved along the road from station to station, given our time and schedule constraints. This was the only moment on the entire trip I wished I had traveled here alone–so I could take in the gravity of this place without feeling like I was running down the street. Nevertheless, it was a meaningful experience, and Doron did a great job explaining each of the “stations”–places along the street where various things happened as Jesus carried the cross (for example, the three times Jesus fell with the cross are represented by three different stations).

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The Church of the Flagellation, where Jesus was beaten
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The station marking where Veronica wiped Jesus’ brow–an act of kindness

Wailing Wall. Our last stop in the Old City was the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. This is a holy site in the Jewish faith, as it is the only remaining part of the temple built by King David and King Solomon. The wall represents the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, with the holiest place of the faith (the Temple Mount) located just beyond (where the current Dome of the Rock – the mosque marking the place where it is believed the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in the Muslim faith – stands).

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Men must enter and remain on the left side of the wall, while women must enter and remain on the right side. The left side is about twice as long as the right, so the side I visited was relatively crowded. Before entering, we each washed our hands 3 times at the basin just outside the gate while Hannah recited the traditional Jewish blessing for us.

Upon entering, I was immediately humbled by the devotion and reverence I felt around me of those women praying and reciting the Torah. Some were moved to tears. I found a small piece of paper in my bag and wrote my prayer to God, then worked my way slowly through the crowd so I could touch the wall and leave my paper with the thousands of others.

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To leave the wall, you must walk backwards without turning your back to the wall out of respect and reverence. As I walked backwards, I saw a young man who looked like a lost tourist enter on the women’s side and take a seat at one of the many lawn chairs scattered across the way. It took him about 30 seconds to realize his mistake, at which point he jumped up and left with a bewildered look on his face. I couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

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After an extremely long and fulfilling day, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Chakra and a night out before gearing up for our second day in Jerusalem (next blog…Yad Vashem and the Israeli Supreme Court). I regretted we did not visit any of the Muslim sites and that I didn’t have a chance to visit the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives, but hopefully I will be able to travel here again someday!

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My sweet Israeli friend Mor, a fellow law student who traveled with us for the week
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I found an unexpected piece of home in the Old City!

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Seeking to Understand the Palestinian Conflict

Our checkpoint on the way back to Jerusalem from Ramallah

“You should seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”

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Palestine. What do you think of when you read this name? Violence? A nation that has been shunned and forgotten by the modern world? Checkpoints and walls? Terror?

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Nothing stirs strong, visceral emotions and reactions from both sides quite like a discussion about the Palestinian conflict. Before I got off Facebook a few months ago, I would consistently see Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine opinions pop up on my newsfeed. And I would grow frustrated. We as Americans tend to be misinformed and underinformed about this conflict. One reason I wanted to visit Israel with NYU Law iTrek was to look at this issue for myself, with my own two eyes, and further understand before I sought to be understood.


After spending a day visiting Ramallah in the West Bank and meeting with Palestinian Authority leaders and some locals, I understand a little more about this complex issue.

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But I now realize I’ll never fully understand.


Early Wednesday morning, we loaded our bus for the drive from Jerusalem to Ramallah. We arrived in the West Bank after passing through the checkpoint. My first impression–entering the West Bank definitely felt like leaving Israel. Palestinian flags and Arabic replaced Israeli flags and Hebrew. Our first stop was at eZone, a tech startup space supporting local entrepreneurs in Ramallah. Our local Palestinian speaker shared with us about how the tech industry is working to lower the 42% unemployment rate in the West Bank.

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I found out after the talk he had spent a year as an exchange student in Alabama! In his words, “I couldn’t stand it there at first, but then I grew to love it. I go back to visit every year now!”

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So why is the unemployment rate so high in the West Bank? And what is the West Bank exactly? The West Bank is the area of land just west of the Jordan River that was not included in Israel’s original 1948 boundaries, but has been occupied since Israel seized the land from Jordan in 1967.

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Israel occupies this land inhabited by Muslim Arabs known as Palestinians, and these Palestinians are literally trapped in their homeland. They must pass through checkpoints to leave the area, and have no voting rights. Not exactly good for attracting business and industry for economic development…

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In 1993, the Oslo agreement divided the West Bank into 3 parts- A territory (cities like Ramallah governed by the Palestinian Authority), B territory (areas outside cities that are governed by both PA and Israel), and C territory (all other areas outside the cities governed by Israel).

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This means a map of the West Bank looks like Swiss cheese, with the holes being Palestine and the cheese being Israel. Despite the agreement, the land continues to be disputed. To add to the tension, Israelis continue to move into the West Bank to establish “settlements,” pushing the Palestinians further into their “holes” and often confiscating property of Palestinians in the process. Since Oslo, the number of settlers has increased from 160,000 to 670,000.


Some settlements have been ruled illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court and have been condemned by the UN, yet some Israelis continue to move in for three key reasons–1) to claim the West Bank as part of the land promised to them by God, 2) to make a two-state solution less realistic by making the political map even more splotchy and pushing Palestinians away, and 3)to take advantage of the cheaper real estate prices and close proximity to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.



We met with 3 high-ranking members of the Palestinian Authority, who shared their frustration with the settlements and on not being able to reach a two-state solution with Netanyahu. They lamented that Israel does not recognize the rights of Palestinians, and regard them as sub-human. One official told a story about an Israeli fighter pilot who was asked, “What did it feel like when you dropped a one ton bomb on the Palestinians?” His reply was, “The wing shook a little.”

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The Fateh party we met with is not to be confused with Hamas, the terrorist group elected to power in the Gaza Strip, which is another disputed Palestinian territory located in a different part of Israel. Hamas uses the anger and frustration many Palestinians feel about their sub-citizen status to fuel hatred and violence.


The leaders today shared that they were happy we could visit for ourselves and see that they were not the violent, irrational figures the media so often portrays. The people I met today seem concerned about protecting their people’s human rights and building better opportunities for Palestinian upward mobility in their homeland.

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Yet several of the locals we spoke with did not hold back in sharing their frustrations with the Palestinian Authority and its failures to adequately represent their interests. Corruption also continues to be an issue within the Palestinian government, adding to the perfect storm of Palestinian troubles.


The activist we met with over lunch shared her frustrations with us as well. A Palestinian cannot leave the territory without going through a checkpoint and risking losing their citizenship if they travel for too long or if their travel is not pre-approved. (“Every day I leave my house, I have to waste 45 minutes at a checkpoint, putting my life in the hands of an 18 year old soldier,” she lamented.) Palestinians have no voting rights, and the Israeli army is a frequent presence throughout all areas of the territory. Yet this activist said maintaining optimism is her primary tool to stay strong.

There is no easy solution.

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After the U.S.’s recent vote in the UN regarding the settlements (which was seen by many as not “standing with Israel”), Secretary of State John Kerry said Israel–under a single state solution–could either be a Jewish state or a democratic state, but not both. I was horrified to see on Facebook that someone I know called him and all Obama voters “anti-Semitic” for this rational comment. Here are my takeaways and why I agree with Kerry’s statement.

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Israel was formed to be a Jewish state. Considering the tragic and horrible history of the Jewish people, I believe it is appropriate and justified for the Jewish people to have a homeland where they will always be welcome. This is the beautiful country of Israel.

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But Israel is not now truly democratic– it rules the Palestinian people, yet does not give them voting rights. If Israel gives the Palestinians voting rights, then Israel will not be a Jewish state anymore, as Arab Muslim voters would then dilute and possibly outnumber Jewish voters. This is a catch-22, and rhetoric that typecasts those who try look at the issue realistically and rationally is extremely harmful.


I’m not ready to seek to be understood yet, as I’m still seeking to understand. But today, I did realize you can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. Every people has a right to self-determination. Every human has a right to freedom of movement and control of their own property.

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I hope a peaceful solution can be reached. In the meantime, I’m holding on to hope that we all learn to treat each other better here on earth.

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