When I was first diagnosed with coeliac, the aspect of the health problem that concerned me the most was travelling. And not only travelling but being able to participate in volunteer work abroad because I see no better way to experience a different culture and country than to get involved hands on.
This summer I volunteered at An-Najah University in Nablus, Palestine, with an organisation called Zajel. The International volunteers worked alongside local volunteers to lead classes with the students, such as English Conversation. Zajel is the Arabic word for dove, a bird of peace, as the volunteer work I participated in was a form of non-violent resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
So, how would I manage not only to stay gluten free but to avoid cross-contamination?! First and foremost, one has to be very clear about dietary requirements from the word go so of course I informed the organisation of my needs in the application process. Upon arrival, I made sure all the other volunteers in my flat were filled in on the do’s and don’ts – mainly no dipping bread in the communal houmous! Luckily for me, a fellow volunteer was gluten-free too so we were very relieved to have each other for moral support.
Breakfast consisted of fruit from the local market in Nablus, or boiled eggs. I also was sure to bring plenty of emergency gluten free snack bars in my backpack just in case. Lunch was provided at the university, and was usually rice and vegetables which was a relief because it meant I wasn’t the odd one out for once as we were all eating the same. For evening meals, we ate out and the local volunteers would help us out by translating etc. One time we were served up with a grain we weren’t sure about and it all got a little lost in translation so in the end we opted for salad and falafel. I would say, if in doubt then stick with what you know.
When kindly invited to eat dinner at a welcoming host’s house, they would bring out lots of bowls and dips with bread. I’d always go into slight panic mode and very quickly ask for a plate and spoon then in super speed, dish myself up some houmous, foul, falafel, baba ganoush and salad before any bread went near it! Everyone was very understanding and kind about it. Although no one there had heard of Coeliac before, and sometimes I’d have to explain in a few different ways, people adapted quickly and easily to what it meant.
I managed to stay completely gluten-free safe the entire trip, not only that but I thoroughly enjoyed my food! This is actually really important because sometimes it can feel like travelling/volunteering as a coeliac will mean eating whatever is available that is gluten free, in a kind of beggars can’t be chooser’s way. But my concerns were completely unnecessary because I discovered a whole new cuisine which was simply delicious. Houmous has always been my consolation prize for being gluten-free but my goodness, you have not tasted houmous until you have been to Palestine!
Something which was very touching was when my new friend that I met there, who lives in a refugee camp and has faced many hardships, told me he felt very sad for me that I couldn’t eat bread or many of the Palestinian sweets. Everyone was amazing at accommodating my gluten-free needs, so thanks goes out to Zajel.
I’d love to hear other people’s stories about volunteering or travelling gluten-free. Or if you have any questions and want to know more then feel free to ask in the comments below 🙂