At the time I really wanted to volunteer, immerse myself in a different culture and spend time living abroad. I had hopes and desires, but I had no idea what my experience would be like. Would I be able to make an impact in the neighborhood? How much of a difference can I make without knowing Hebrew and with my limited Amharic (the language spoken by most of the Ethiopian Jewish immigrants)? Would I make great friends? Questions flowed through my mind like a river slowly carving a canyon. But, I answered “yes” to each of these questions.
During the first two weeks of my time here, we were very busy learning. We had sessions about empowerment, Ethiopian Jewish culture and sustainability. I was eager to start mingling and meeting people in the neighborhood and volunteering, but I was grateful to be introduced to these important issues and not just thrown into my volunteering immediately. On my first day off I walked through the neighborhood alone. I brought a hacky sack and asked kids and teenagers if they wanted to play with me. I played with some kids and I also talked with some older folks who were sitting on benches. I greeted people with my limited Amharic. I had a nice talk with an older man and I told him I love injera (Ethiopian flatbread) in Amharic. After telling him this he invited me into his home. I was really surprised, and honored, at the invitation. I had never been invited into anybody’s home or fed right after being acquainted. He asked his wife to bring me some food and we ate together. I wasn’t able to communicate very well, but fortunately I knew how to say two of the most important things; thank you and the food is delicious.
I stayed for a little bit and while I was there, people came and left. I wasn’t sure whether these people were family members or friends and I wasn’t able to communicate very well. It was an interesting experience with the language barrier and at moments uncomfortable. However, I was grateful to be invited and happy that fears did not prevent me from accepting. From this point on I have been invited over by several people to eat and I haven’t turned anyone down.
The main reason I decided to stay here for 10 months instead of five is because of the relationships I have built. I have met many amazing, loving, generous and hospitable people. I realize in order to immerse oneself in the local culture, first and foremost it is necessary to experience it. I believe it is important to read and gain knowledge in this way, but the best ways to gain knowledge are by talking with people, listening astutely and being observant. By choosing not to stay in my home and do the things I can do in the U.S. with all of my free time, but rather simply walk through the neighborhood, talking, listening, and playing hacky sack with kids and teens, have made this the greatest and most life changing experience of my life. Early on I realized in order to make great friends and make a positive impact in the neighborhood, even with my limited time and language abilities, I need to step out of my comfort zone and take the first step. I’m happy I took the first step because ultimately, life is too short to sit back and wonder what if.