We're all the beneficiaries

West Bank and Gaza, November 21, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Seth Rue for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A sunset view of Jerusalem's Old City — with the gold-topped Dome of the Rock near the left center of the photo — from Mercy Corps' office on the Mount of Olives. Photo: Seth Rue for Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps' offices in Jerusalem rest at the very top of the Mount of Olives, in a grove of olive trees that are hundreds of years old. Looking to the west, you can see all of the Old City and beyond and, at dusk, the sky is flooded with vibrant oranges and deep purples. The Dome of the Rock, in that light, seems to glow quietly from within.

When you enter the Mercy Corps office, you're greeted by a huge painted tile mural of an olive tree and a message below that reads, "Dedicated to Landrum Bolling — In recognition of a lifetime of work on behalf of peace and justice for the people of Palestine." It's a building filled with natural light that seems to pour in from every facade.

I was excited to finally meet the people I'd communicated with over the previous ten months, putting faces to email tone and style. That way, the next time I received a last-minute request for an executive's signature on an agreement or for a review and edit of a 70-page report to be submitted six hours later, I could picture — in vivid detail — the target of that day's silent grumpiness. Unfortunately, the staff were all charming and quite friendly, which made it frustratingly difficult to even set aside a bit of grumpiness for the future.

I settled in quickly and got right to work. My first task was to assist in the coordination of a major conference during which the aforementioned 70-page report would be presented. In the West Bank, Mercy Corps has been making use of funding from the United Kingdom and the European Community to spur development in the Palestinian information and communications technology (ICT) sector. The "Investing in Peace" program helps to stimulate economic growth in Palestine by facilitating partnerships between Palestinian ICT companies and those across borders.

In preparation for the event, I was able to travel into the West Bank — for the first time — to the city of Ramallah. I found there some relief from the weight of the tension I felt between people in Jerusalem. Edges softened and defensiveness eased. I met enthusiastic IT executives and entrepreneurs, undeniable cutting-edge experts in their field, eager to engage in new partnerships with other companies. The spirit at the conference was surprising for me. There are so many external factors that have acted as impediments to the growth of the Palestinian ICT sector in the West Bank and Gaza, yet the people in attendance were anything but resigned to that. The questions they asked were challenging and rooted in optimism, and the responses — honest and direct — only affirmed their hope.

This was the first time I'd met any of our "beneficiaries" or actually seen where your donations go. Sometimes, at headquarters, it's hard for me to understand how the support of a generous public and the work of our dedicated staff end up actually helping anyone in need when all I see are numbers, statistics and stories about strangers.

On this day, something in my head clicked. Our "beneficiaries" have names and faces and pasts and futures on their own, and we're not responsible for any of that. What we are responsible for is listening to them when they teach us how to help them level the playing field.

Whatever injustice it is that has prevented them from being able to live in security or contribute productively to their communities, they've already identified and made steps to address. We can only offer certain resources and experience in similar situations and ask if they might be a good fit in moving forward.

I realized then that we're all the beneficiaries. But the IT executives here, the fishermen in Gaza, the young women applying for university in Iraq — they're our mentors.