It has been nearly two months of traveling in the footsteps of Jesus, waking up to the Muslim call to prayer, and eating endless pita with hummus. I set out for the Middle East through the Cross-Cultural program at EMU with the intention of studying the Israel/Palestine conflict and to hear stories from all stakeholders. The experience thus far has challenged me in countless ways, but perhaps the most surprising is my newfound struggle with understanding hope.

During an extended stay in Bethlehem, my fellow travelers and I were privileged to hear personal stories from a variety of Palestinian stakeholders. In addition to gaining awareness about the deep intricacies of the political and social stakes of the conflict, the hope expressed by each individual was astounding. Despite living in occupation for seventy years, the speakers expressed sustained hope for their country and for the future generation. Amazed and baffled, I asked many of them where their hope stemmed from. As an outsider looking into the conflict, I must admit that it is challenging to feel hopeful amidst the prolonged Palestinian struggle.

The hope of the Palestinians significantly come from the deep-rooted belief that justice will prevail in the end; whether that justice comes tomorrow or in another lifetime, it is worth hoping for. While this logic is agreeable, no logic in the world can explain the strength it takes to continue on with hope. The day to day reality of Gaza residents is discrimination, fear, and a lack of water and electricity, with no end in sight. I began to consider whether I truly am a peacebuilder if hope is so hard to come by.

And yet, perhaps it is more about finding things to live for in the present than it is about truly believing that the injustice will change anytime soon. The past week the group had been volunteering at the Tent of Nations, a Palestinian farm in Area C of the West Bank. For 25 years, the Nasser family has been fighting to keep their farmland which has been in their family since the Ottoman control of Palestine. Despite continued defeats in Israeli courts and the sporadic destruction of their olive groves, the Nasser family finds purpose in waking up and continuing to work the land. In this routine, hope is not the overwhelming belief of seeing an end in occupation, but instead the ability to find meaning through work, relationships, and the immediate future.

It’s become evident to me that my privilege has allowed me despair in the face of this conflict; because I come from a place of freedom and comfort, it is difficult for me to imagine hope in the face of occupation. However, through interactions with Palestinian and Israeli people, I’ve come to see that hope is not synonymous with optimism and justice can prevail through hopelessness.

Solving international conflicts requires years of mutual dialogue and strategic planning, but on the micro level, people need basic human rights and hope for getting through the day. As a peacebuilder, I see my calling to be for justice and the cultivation of hope enough to brace each new day. As Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Adrienne Derstine is a student in the Peacebuilding and Development (PXD) program at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). She wrote these reflections from Palestine-Israel, where she was studying as part of a semester-long EMU cross-cultural. The cross-cultural is a required part of earning a bachelor’s degree at EMU and ranges from three-week long to semester-long trips.