An inspirational story from Palestine: from a refugee to one of the best Arabic teachers in the region

Disclaimer: I wrote this article for the Swiss magazine «Das Magazin». Since many friends asked me for an English version, I decided to publish a translation on my blog. Here you can find the PDF of the original article, the copyright belongs to «Das Magazin».

Arabic teacher Basil Zboun from Palestine

A day in the life of Basil Zboun

Growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, Basil Zboun (28) worked his way up to become one of the most successful Arabic teachers in the region. Today, he lives in his own house together with his wife and his children – and yet he misses the camp sometimes.

«The refugee camp in Bethlehem looks very different to how people in Europe probably imagine. There are no more tents – camp Aida has existed since 1950; two years after the declaration of independence of Israel and the expulsion of around 700,000 Palestinians from the former British mandated territory. Since then, real houses with kitchens and bathrooms were created and it has become a normal neighbourhood. But life here isn’t normal. Again and again, there are clashes with Israeli soldiers. Palestinians throw rocks over the wall, Israelis respond with tear gas, and it repeats. I can tell which type of tear gas they used just by the simple smell of it. Four times, I almost got killed – sometimes instead of tear gas, the soldiers shoot munition blindly in the crowds. The permanent mortal danger is part of growing up here.

My grandfather fled from a nearby village which became occupied by Israelis. My parents were born in the camp, the same as me. I lived here for 24 years. This refugee camp, which receives support from the UN, holds a youth center as well. When I was 13 years old, they were looking for volunteers for an exchange project with Europeans, and they were looking for an Arabic teacher for beginners. As I was back then, full of energy and zest for action, I raised my hand immediately. The project was a success and I was proud that I, the small boy, got to teach some Arabic to adults. Apparently, I was doing a good job because from then on, I was asked every year to give the Arabic classes. Suddenly, even employees from NGOs contacted me and asked for private lessons. When I was 16 years old, I founded my own company as an Arabic teacher. Today, I have students from 15 different countries from all over the world – thanks to Skype I can teach people in Japan or the United States.

Later, I studied engineering and I still work in this field next to my job as an Arabic teacher. I work very hard – I have always been like this. It is normal for me to work twelve hours a day. As a result, I ended up with earning enough money to be able to buy a piece of land outside the camp and to build my own house. At first sight, it might look a bit ostentatious, but I wanted to treat myself with everything I wasn’t able to have in the camp: a spacious garden with fruit trees, a nice balcony, big windows. But the first thing I bought for the house was something completely else: a huge water tank that carries 100,000 litres of water – in the camp, we only received a small water delivery once a month, it was never sufficient! Now I finally have enough water.

I live here together with my wife, we have two children. Yet, I still go back to the camp regularly, once a week at least. It is my home; two cousins and many friends still live there. I’m thankful that I grew up in the camp. I acquired skills which I would never have learned in a sheltered childhood. Above all, it taught me to work hard and to set goals. I’m convinced that we can achieve anything if we just try hard enough – no matter in which conditions we grew up. One shouldn’t remain in the passive role of a victim. Because even though I live in Bethlehem – the city which is sealed off from the rest of the country by tall walls, the city where soldiers control at checkpoints who is going in and out – my impact still reaches the whole world. Thanks to my work, hundreds of people in different countries learned Arabic, and this fills me with pride.»