Dan has a love for Middle Eastern cultures. As a teenager Dan was convinced he wanted to visit Palestine to understand its culture, faith and prevalent conflict. After finishing his studies he began looking for volunteers with previous experience in Palestine. “One village was recommended to me. I contacted the elder of the village, who did not speak English, but referred me to another volunteer.”
“At first I went with a tourist visa. It was difficult to constantly renew my visa, because it required a lot of traveling. All together I was in Palestine little over 3 years. In the spring of 2015 I returned to Estonia, but as a married man.
She was doing an internship at a kindergarten next to the school where I was teaching. I taught English to adults and asked if someone from the group could teach me Arabic, she did. At first everyone in the village did not think our relationship was possible. She told her father about me, so I met with her parents, siblings and other relatives. It was challenging as the village was rather conservative, but her family vouched for me. So in the end it all went well.
My wife teaches while I’m active in several local NGOs. I’m a support person to refugees through an NGO called ‘Johannes Mihkelsoni Keskus’. Having a direct contact with refugees inevitably destroys the stereotypes media portrays. Media has such a strong influence on how we understand things. In my work I find success stories most uplifting. It brings me so much joy when one of my clients starts speaking Estonian to me. I don’t know how or where he has learnt it, but the fact that he can say some basics shows self-motivation and initiation from his side. This type of positive cases are uplifting.
I also work with ‘Youth for Understanding’ student exchange programme. My experience shows that full cultural immersion helps with learning a language – students, who don’t know any Estonian when they first come here, speak it at a basic level few months later.
I also coordinate Arabic language courses at an NGO called ‘Ethical Links’. Our team has a substantial knowledge and experience of Arabic language and cultures. Among many activities we try to offer an alternative to mainstream media. You can read the news all you want, but real encounters are needed to overcome fears and misunderstandings. Last year we imitated an Arabic living room at a local event. We decorated our tent with cushions, carpets, offered Arabic food, taught name writing in Arabic and did henna decorations. We invited people to sit with us and discuss the questions they have. The problem with stereotypes is, they only show one side and amplify it. Fear of the other can be overcome through personal encounter.
My hope is Estonia will be a successful state and that common sense will win.”