In a café in Jerusalem’s Cinema City complex, over plates of Israeli breakfast, shakshuka and a communal bowl of fries, a group of seven young Taiwanese volunteers share their experiences during their time in Israel and recount with humor the similarities and differences between the two cultures.
“I still remember Independence Day, there was supposed to be a celebration party in Gilo Park, and originally they told me it started at 8 o’clock and I was there until 9, maybe a little later, and they finally started and I thought, ‘Okay, this kind of reminds me of home,’” recounts Cindy, with a lighthearted chuckle, a volunteer who has been spending the past five months at the Gilo branch of ILAN, the Israel foundation for handicapped children.
Cindy then adds: “Transportation is really different here; when you cross the street, the cars stop.”
She along with six other volunteers are taking time off from their studies or their current careers to explore Israel and to serve some of its most needy citizens, working with organizations like ILAN, the Israeli society for autistic children ALUT, and Elwyn, which is an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities.
Both Israeli and Taiwanese cultures put a strong emphasis on the family and when asked about how their families took the news that their children would be spending an extended period of time in the Middle East, one volunteer explained: “Our parents tried to stop us from coming, but I take a lot of pictures and send them so they feel better about me being here.” This comment was met with emphatic head nods and hand-overmouth laughter from the rest of the group.
For the second year in a row, the Taiwanese economic and cultural office in Israel has successfully recruited a handful of eager volunteers to spend a few months in Israel exploring a land they all expressed a strong desire to experience for themselves.
According to the Labor and Social Services Ministry, some 1,200 people from abroad come to volunteer in Israel every year. Su Yu Ping, the first secretary of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv, doesn’t think there are enough visitors coming from Asia. “most of them are coming from Europe, so we in Taiwan took the initiative to bring more volunteers from our country to Israel,” he says.
Ping explains the Taiwanese desire to create stronger bonds between the countries. Through this initiative, he hopes this will open the doors for Israel and Taiwan to deepen their relationship.
“Last year 7,500 Taiwanese came to Israel and pretty much the same in reverse, and we want more,” he says. “And volunteering is a great opportunity to give back and to see Israel and to see it’s not all the balagan [disorder] from the news. I hope that in the future they will come back to work or study or even to build a corporation or to open a business here in Israel.”
Another way Israel and Taiwan are making progress in this area is with their visa waiver program.
Since 2011, citizens of either country can visit visa-free for up to 90 days.
Although they are working for free, the volunteers must provide their own airfare and travelers insurance, the volunteers assured us that they get plenty of free time – two days off a week – to travel.
The volunteers have all explored Jerusalem, Haifa, Lake Kinneret, and some have taken day trips to Bethlehem. Accommodations, food and a small stipend are also included in exchange for their work.
All of the volunteers noted that they all sleep in the same places where they work and live alongside volunteers from all over Europe and a few from South Africa.
Yu Ting (Debbie) and Shi Yu (Eddie) are both 19 years old, study in Taipei and in their third month of volunteering for ALUT where they work with autistic people.
Debbie sees this as a learning experience not only with the people she cares for but also with her fellow volunteers. She said her English has improved a lot since she arrived and is now considering returning to Israel after she finishes her studies.
Eddie had no real specific reason to sign up for this program, just that he “wanted to try a different way of a life and to contribute to the society and coming here makes me learn to love a people.”
He explains that the initial impression of his experience was “very intense and depressing, it’s not a very easy situation, you cannot speak Hebrew and you do not know how to help. Before I came here, I did not know a lot about autistic people, but after a week, I feel like these people are my friends.”
Jacqui Guerber, director of the Beit Or ALUT Home for Life in Jerusalem agrees: “Eddie’s and Debbie’s work, as well as [that of] the rest of the volunteers, is very important and helpful. It is amazing to see how in such a short period they connect to friends [tenants] and become part of the staff in all matters relating to the care and accompaniment of our residents.
“Despite the differences in culture and language, these volunteers communicate with the residents without words, and that is the beauty in this relationship,” he says. “They bring themselves, and their open heart – and that’s a lot.”