Students from North America recently spent a day giving back to the community of Sderot during a two-week Hasbara Fellows trip to Israel to educate and train them to become pro-Israel advocates.
Sderot has been plagued emotionally, psychologically and economically by rocket attacks from neighbouring Gaza.
Carleton University student Hashem Hamdy, the citywide president for the Israel Awareness Committee in Ottawa, visited Israel for his first time on the Hasbara Fellows trip in June with 43 students.
Hamdy, who is not Jewish but is involved in the pro-Israel movement on campus in defence of the Jewish state’s democratic values, said that he was grateful to have travelled to Israel to learn more about the complexities of the region, “which you can’t really understand unless you see it with your own eyes.”
He said some of the activities on the itinerary “were very politically charged.
“We heard from both sides of the perspective. We heard from Gush Shalom, a non-partisan Israeli peace movement, and from the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions, but we also heard from JPost journalists, we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we went to the Knesset,” Hamdy said.
“We went all around the country from the Golan to the Hula Valley. We came up to the borders with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.”
But it was the time the group spent in Sderot that gave the students a better idea of the human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During a city tour led by the Sderot Media Center, the students visited the police station where hundreds of Qassam rocket shells are stored, as well as a local playground where concrete mazes doubled as bomb shelters.
“Even though there wasn’t a red colour alert while we were there, seeing a bomb shelter every hundred metres is really kind of surreal,” Hamdy said.
“It was always in the back of your head… When we stopped for lunch, [the guide] said, ‘There is a bunker across the street in the playground, there is one next to us at the bus station – you guys try and see if you can run there in 15 seconds.’ Imagine thinking like that every day,” he said.
He said there were no rocket attacks the day they visited Sderot, but the following day, a Qassam hit an empty field.
“I felt very relieved when we left. The thought of being stuck there, and not only stuck there, but literally economically trapped there, I can’t understand it,” he said.
“They’re economically trapped there because the property values are so low, no one wants to buy their houses and they can’t physically afford to leave.”
In addition to a city tour and a briefing on the situation facing Sderot residents on a daily basis, the group of student also took time out of their day to volunteer at the food distribution centre, which provides packages of fresh produce for more than 600 needy families.
“There are these 600 families who can’t afford to feed themselves, so this food distribution centre gives them an opportunity to eat properly in an economically depressed area,” Hamdy said.
Concordia University student Ehle Shachter, who was on a Hasbara Fellows trip from May 22 to June 7, was inspired to initiate a campaign to collect money from the trip participants for new carts for the Sderot residents to use to pick up their packages.
Shachter said she noticed the carts and bags were tattered and worn.
“My tour guide and I came up with the idea together and he thought it was a great idea, especially in a town that is so poor… I felt that we should really be doing something especially while we were in Israel. Everyone was really generous, and we raised more than $1,000.”
The money was enough to purchase 30 new carts.
Shachter’s initiative didn’t end with her group. Following her group’s lead, Hamdy’s group also raised money to buy carts for the families that rely on the food distribution centre.
Shachter, who said she now has a much better understanding of the challenges facing the people of Sderot, wants to use this knowledge to spread the word about their plight.
She said she hopes that through her position with the Hasbara Fellowship she’ll be able to organize campus events to raise awareness of the situation in Sderot.