Juan Diaz is a Colombian-born, Miami native who is currently a student at Florida International University. Juan is majoring in Economics and National Security Studies. He works at The Office Of Residential Life on campus where he assists the Residential Life Coordinator and facilitates Resident Assistant Programs for the dormitory halls. Juan is Vice-President of the Young Americans for Liberty Chapter on campus, a member of PorColombia. Juan has played college rugby for FIU for the past 2 years. He participated on Israel Uncovered in January 2015. I was born in a small town next to the Magdalene River, Colombia. My family and I immigrated to the United States when I was just a child. Growing up, I attended over a dozen schools all over Florida. I was always faced with making new friends every time we would move cities to make ends meet, never truly having a strong central communal support. However, through the prioritization of education and a little hard work, we settled down in Miami where I now attend Florida International University as a senior majoring in Economics and National Security Studies. I am currently Vice-President of our Young Americans for Liberty chapter on campus and am involved with philanthropic/humanitarian organizations. I also work with the Office of Residential Life where last summer I met and worked with a first-year RA and intern for The David Project, Juan Gilces. Our friendship grew as he mentored me in Israel Advocacy, discussing common goals such as “Tikkun Olam” (“repairing the world.") This is the story of my personal connection to Israel, and how it all began in my friendship with Juan Gilces.
As I boarded on the 2:00 AM flight departing from Miami’s International Airport on January 1st 2015 to New York City, I had an eerie feeling that somehow my life was about to change forever. Fast forward a few hours and several extensive security checkpoints, I sat on the first floor of a Boeing airplane equipped with a Missile Deferment System en-route to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport. I would later come to know much more about Mr. Ben-Gurion and the many people whose passion for Zionism made Eretz-Israel a reality. What is it about this tiny country, the size of New Jersey, which entails such substantial safety measures? Would I feel safe? More importantly, would I BE safe? I had always heard stories on the news and from friends about the Middle East, many depicting the unstable nature of the region. I grasped my hold on reality again and began to write on my travel journal: “Today I travel to Israel for the first time with other campus leaders from across America who are equally as dedicated to the betterment of society. We embark together on this journey for knowledge. To experience for ourselves the multitude of controversies surrounding this dynamic country. This is what I have been waiting for. I will take advantage of this. I will learn as much as possible.”
When I first arrived in Israel, I felt like a young child again. Carelessly wandering, as I curiously observed how strangely similar Israeli society was to that back home. Most buildings were equipped with solar panels, many taxis were Mercedes-Benzes’ and there were people of all lifestyles speaking a mixture of Hebrew and English. I felt safe, as if all the stories of rockets and wars were based on some other distant land, not the Israel I was currently present in. For the next few days we explored Tel Aviv, a modern central hub for innovation and technology start-ups that also welcomes people of all walks of life. We climbed the Golan Heights to witness Syria’s borders from a mountainous peak as we listened to an IDF Colonel explain how the building we saw in the distance housed UN peacekeepers, guarding the gate only to let wounded Syrian civilians injured in Syria's civil war into Israel to receive medical attention. We visited Jaffa, a port so ancient that Egyptian hieroglyphs still remain after thousands of years and yet Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and electronic devices permeate the same city. We tracked off-road on Jeeps through mine fields as we approached the Israeli-Jordan border, defined by the Jordan River known to be just a few feet wide in a few locations. We even ventured into the West Bank to gain insight into the lives of Palestinians. All these experiences are just some examples of the eye opening, educational, and unique experiences on Israel Uncovered which showcased different perspectives of this beautiful country.
The last city on our list was Jerusalem. I will never forget how we raced to reach the gates of this magnificent city just ahead of an incoming snow storm. Minutes after we arrived at the hotel for our first night, I dropped off my bags in my assigned room and stepped outside to see the city welcome me with snowfall. Snow in Jerusalem is rare, and it was also my first time seeing snow. Jerusalem, a city of high importance to so many different cultures around the world. An ancient place so dedicated to its moral convictions that the entire community literally shuts down on Shabbat. Where families open their doors for Shabbat dinner and welcome you with a feast, as they did with us on the last Saturday in Israel. A region so diverse that even within the walls of the old city, there are distinct sections for various ethnic groups, The Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian quarters. As we walked through the many sections of the old city, you notice the lack of personal space. As you travel in the crowded markets, you find people paying no mind to accidentally shrugging against each other. Minding their own business, mindful not to disrupt the flow of peace. Walls surround the entire city, a grim reminder of its past.
After the longest 10 days of my life, it was finally time to return to the States. I eagerly planned how I could bring back a little piece of Israel and share what I have learned with my community. Alongside the University of Miami and Florida International campus leaders who participated on the trip, we hosted our very own Shabbat dinner here on campus with about 100 people that attended including our very own current SGA President and Vice President. Through our personal stories, we passed along to our communities the importance of relationships, how our daily lives are directly correlated with Israel’s existence and what this tiny democratic country is doing for the world. Most were surprised when they found out about how we visited Shevet Achim, a free hospital for Arab refugee children that need open heart surgery. How Israel is the #1 export country in intellectual property, #1 in number of patents per capita, or #2 in number of start-up companies, venture capital funds, and biotech patents per capita. How the overwhelming majority of citizens of Israel have a vested interest in peace, given that nearly every person, man or woman, joins the Israel Defense Forces. How the government will subsidize free in-vitro fertility treatment for citizens for up to the first 2 children simply because they truly value life. How every soldier carries with them a moral handbook during combat to remind them of their integral values. How many more scientific papers per capita are produced in Israel than any other nation. Our communities learned all this while sitting together in unity for dinner, sharing the bread that was set on the table. At the end of the dinner we handed out hand-made picture collages of our trip to keep alive the memory of what was spoken about that night.
I can’t say it wasn’t a challenge to remain unbiased as I searched to understand. There will always be different narratives to every story, just as there are a variety of perspective to the issues faced by Israel. This is simply the story of how Israel has impacted my own life, even before I was aware of the many influences that Israel has had in our society. To think that this journey started with a simple exchange of "hellos" between Juan Gilces and myself. Another simple reminder of the importance of building close friendships, growing our relationships and collaborating towards a common cause can change many more lives than our own. Just like Juan first sought to understand my deeply held beliefs before he asked me to understand his own narrative, we too must go forth and listen to understand. We never know where it may lead us.