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ND, Palestinian students confer

Janice Flynn | Thursday, September 29, 2005

In a pilot program sponsored by the State Department, nine Notre Dame students participated in an informal video conference with Palestinian university students early Wednesday morning, a conversation that focused on student life but quickly turned to a genial discussion about Jerusalem’s political climate and Western and Islamic perceptions of the other.

The Notre Dame students, whose majors and travel history reflect their keen interest in world affairs, are students in professor Alan Dowty’s class on the Arab-Israel conflict.

Their counterparts were from Al-quds University in Jerusalem, students who spoke excellent English and – dressed in jeans, T-shirts and sweaters – looked similar to themselves, notwithstanding several headscarves.

A general curiosity on each side begged the question: “What do you think of us?”

“[The State Department] is trying to find some way to get human contact into the context,” Dowty said. “They can’t just go into one of these universities in the Arab world; it’s just too controversial. The U.S. position is not strong enough.

“They want this to be very informal, student to student, just to break down stereotypes and create some good will.”

The conference was organized by Mark Rincon, a recent Notre Dame graduate who now works at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

Notre Dame students described a campus life of studying, football season, clubs, interhall sports, theater, service, bars and trips to Chicago.

The Palestinian students presented a much different reality, one of constant identification checks “even when you go to the bathroom,” a wall built to divide a people “both inside and outside” and a political situation that left uncertain tomorrows.

One Palestinian student said she should be able to get to class in 10 minutes, but with checkpoints it takes an hour. Others said that some days they are not able to get to class at all.

“We don’t have much to do after college [classes],” one female Palestinian said. “We go home and do homework, we sleep. There’s actually no place to hang out, we just sleep.

“We’re good sleepers,” she added, prompting laughter on both sides.

The Palestinian students insisted that they not be seen as terrorists – a label one student called offensive – but instead as victims of war.

“I watch CNN all the time, and the media doesn’t cover everything,” one female Palestinian student said. “Daily, Palestinians are dying. The other day 19 [Palestinians] were killed, just like that. You’d be lucky to see it on bottom of the screen.”

A Notre Dame student asked if the students felt optimistic that the situation would improve.

“Oh, that’s far, far away from us,” one Palestinian student said.

Another added, “We are imprisoned, but we are hanging in here – and we do smile a lot.”

The Palestinian students were interested to know that three of the Notre Dame students had been to the Middle East and a few study Arabic.

“How do you feel about us when you see us and hear us now?” one female Palestinian student asked. “Because we have envy about you.”

The Notre Dame students responded that they admired and respected such determination to education, and were grateful to be able to put faces on a people often misunderstood.

“What struck me was that everything we talked about was linked to the political climate,” junior Josh Hugo said after the conference. “It’s a stark contrast to our own education. We could do whatever we want, and they’re happy if they can get to school on time for a test. We’re happy if a test gets cancelled.”

Students from both sides said they believe the dialogue was an important yet small step in the direction of improved relations.

“I wonder how much that really helped,” said junior Meghan O’Connell. “We can go on and on about the things that we do … I hope that does not reinforce the negative ideas. I hope they know we don’t take anything for granted – especially now.”