The end of the year is often synonymous with reflection, gratitude, how far we’ve come, and how far we aim to go in the following year. At UNRWA USA, we are reflecting upon some of the incredible supporters that went the extra mile (literally) to show their solidarity with UNRWA and the Palestine refugees it serves.
One such supporter was James Crosby, who ran the Palestine Marathon in March of this year. To run 26.2 miles is an incredible feat on its own, but James chose to add on an extra challenge by making the race a part of a campaign to raise funds and awareness to work in the Middle East.
James is not the only one who hit the pavement as an act of solidarity. George Zeidan, the co-founder of the Palestine Marathon (the very race James ran in 2018) ran the NYC Marathon in response to the current US administration cutting all funding to UNRWA, and Udi Pladdott ran the NYC Marathon and the NYC Gaza 5K to raise money for UNRWA’s mental health programming for refugee kids in the Gaza Strip.
We caught up with James to see why he ran the race as a fundraiser, what he learned while being in Palestine, and how the experience of changed him.
[UNRWA USA] : What made you decide to run the Palestine Marathon?
[James]: For a long time, I've had an interest in the Middle East and particularly Palestine. The people there have suffered such terrible injustices for so long. So when I started looking for a marathon to take part in and saw this event happening on a running website I immediately started putting the wheels in motion to make it happen. I had always considered Palestine off-limits and not a place that I could just visit for tourism purposes, particularly as I had read that Israel make it very difficult to enter the West Bank and Gaza. But seeing the Palestine marathon event made me realize that it is possible after all. So all this pent-up, somewhat subconscious desire to go suddenly erupted into my consciousness. And once I get an idea into my head, there is little that can detract me from it!
[UNRWA USA] : Why did you decide to make it a fundraiser for UNRWA?
Once I had decided to take part in the marathon, my next thought was to raise money whilst doing it. I do quite a few events but with the Palestine marathon I really wanted to raise money for a cause that was relevant. So I started to look up refugee organizations involved in the region and of course quickly came across UNRWA. I read up about the history of the organization, and then started to see how I could actually raise funds for them. The US National Committee’s website was particularly well geared up towards fundraising, which made the process very easy.
[UNRWA USA]: What did you learn in your experience running the race?
[James]: I learned that the Palestinians, despite all their troubled past and often negative portrayal in the media, are incredibly open, hospitable and welcoming. They have had to endure such unimaginable horrors, and yet open their arms to visitors from around the world. I also learned how much freedom I enjoy in my own life, freedom of movement, freedom of enterprise, freedom to live my life as I please and provide for my family. This is something I have completely taken for granted until now. Palestinians have so little freedom, due to checkpoints, permit systems, restrictions on travel, detention with no charges, and so on. I have now witnessed this with my own eyes and will be spreading the message about what they have to go through.
Highlights from James’ trip
[UNRWA USA]: Do you have any interesting stories or anecdotes that you'd like to share from your conversations with Palestine refugees and/or your observations/experiences while visiting Aida Camp?
[James]: Our guide Mohamed, who led us on a tour of the Aida refugee camp, was such an inspiring person. He had lived almost his entire life in the refugee camp, and despite his meager surroundings and lack of resources available to him, managed to keep focused on his education. He is studying to become a lawyer, and hopes to complete his education in the UK. He shared with us a harrowing tale which gave a very moving insight into daily life as a Palestinian. In order to get from the refugee camp to his school, he has to pass through a cemetery. Many of the members of his family are buried there, and so it holds a very special place in his heart. Unfortunately, the cemetery also adjoins the separation wall which passes through and divides Palestinian neighborhoods of Bethlehem. From one of the intimidating watchtowers along the wall, gun-toting Israeli soldiers regularly throw their rubbish into the cemetery, including bottles filled with urine. To see this beautiful cemetery defiled with these piles of rubbish and yellow bottles honestly brought a tear to my eye. This utter lack of respect towards fellow humans I found absolutely shocking.
[UNRWA USA]: What message would you like to share with the world about Palestine and/or Palestine refugees after participating in this incredible event?
[James]: Book your flight today! It is such a wonderful part of the world, so rich in history and culture. The food, the people, the architecture, the religious sites, the museums - Palestine has everything and I felt completely safe the entire time. I am so glad I got the chance to go there myself and at the same time hopefully bring some awareness of the situation to my friends and family through the fundraising. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
Thank you to James and all the other fundraisers who helped fill UNRWA’s massive funding gap left by the US government’s funding freeze. Make sure to keep an eye out for others running and fundraising for Palestine refugees in 2019!