A Conversation with a Recent Graduate, Arabic Translator, Bethlehem University, West Bank, Palestine

June 1, 2021

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2021, undergraduate student Katherine Woodard (SFS’22) interviewed her Arabic translator for the project, Kate, who is also a recent graduate of Bethlehem University (BU) in West Bank, Palestine. In this interview, Kate delves into her personal experience taking a human rights course during the pandemic, discussing how her understanding of the Palestinian cause evolved over the course of the class.

Would you please begin by sharing a little bit about yourself and how you ended up at Bethlehem University? 

I'm 22 years old, soon I'm going to be 23. I graduated recently from Bethlehem University. I applied to Bethlehem University, and I was planning to apply to one other university. But the application window was closed for the other university, so I ended up here at Bethlehem. When I got here, I asked some people what to study and what to do because I didn’t know what to do after graduating from school. When you graduate from school here in Palestine, you don’t know what to do unless you already, you know, have a future vision or something, which many people don't have, including myself. So, I studied English literature here, which was a good choice. I'm grateful for taking that major in the university. It was actually very educational for me; my mind opened and I learned many more things from the university than from anywhere else. My university years improved me and really developed me. And the English literature major was very great. 

You mention how transformative your years at BU were. Is there anything specific from your time that affects how you see things now? 

Yes, from my major to the extracurricular activities I participated in, they were all very improving for my personality, for my scope of knowledge and information. Even political information and things about Palestine that I just was very ignorant about. And the bad thing is that at school, you don't learn much about your case, about the Palestinian cause, about your country, and this is so bad. And actually, the school curriculum here: the Israeli authority also has a hand in it. So, it's very bad. Like, you know, they control everything, even the curriculum that we study. But after university, it's different.

In my first semester, I took a history course, the Palestinian history course. This really opened my eyes a lot about Palestine. I was a Palestinian, and I didn't know much about Palestine until university. 

And of course, our focus within the English literature major was the English informative and educational [perspective] about Palestine. We took literary criticism courses that talked about different approaches to the Palestinian cause amongst other things. All of that improved me in a lot of ways. To be clear, our focus was not just about Palestine, but about the entire world. We looked at literary criticism from the entire world. From this part of my education, I got introduced to the debate. As my debate journey started, it led to the other activities that I did there. So, I mean, that’s it basically.

Can you tell me a little bit more about those extracurriculars? 

Well, I participated in the debate club here, and it was actually the first time I heard about this thing called “debate.” When I was a first-year university student, we did trainings and went to competitions. I even went on an exchange program to Sweden, and I was trained at the debate society there, and I participated in competitions. We actually also won a competition between Palestinian universities! Our team, from Bethlehem University! That was awesome. 

Right now, we don't debate [in person] because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything is closed. I was the organizer of the debate club at the university. And, you know, we had to stop ever since the coronavirus. But we participated in a couple of online debate competitions with Erasmus+. And yeah, right now I'm trying to revive the debate spirit here in my town with our and in the university when they go back to studying. 

I was involved in a diverse array of activities. Another one that’s really important to me is the ambassador's program. In this program, we got to discuss issues with foreign visitors [that came] to the university, and we got to introduce them to our country, our university, and everything in our life. It was really great to talk to international people, to communicate, to get to know each other better, and to learn the way that everyone thinks. I'm trying to remember other activities that I did, but basically, those were the big ones. It was a great time.

I met with BU’s guest relations officer the other day, and she described the ambassadors program as a place for students to be able to express their opinions in a way that is much safer than maybe sharing something online. 

Yes, it gives students a chance to share their own perspective, which I think is really important to be able to do. 

Do you feel like while you're at university, you could share your perspective and opinions on things outside of the ambassadors’ program? 

The political climate made that a bit difficult, but yeah, we could share our opinions. Actually, in our studies, especially English literature, we criticize everything. We apply critical theories to everything, even issues that are considered very controversial. In Palestine, that ranges from politics, to feminism, to LGBT and queer theory, to everything. I think the English literature students, I'm not being, you know, boastful, but the English students are the ones who have the most open minds in the university.

Our studies were very practical; they taught us to be open-minded. We didn’t hold tightly to any beliefs. When you write an assignment or a research paper, you can't put your belief in it. You have to use theories, you have to use criticism, you have to just let go of your conceptions and beliefs. They reopened our minds. We saw the world from different perspectives, and I think that this is something that every student would like to learn.

Do you still apply the theories and principles you learned now, in your everyday life after graduating?

Of course, yeah. Now I look at everything from the human rights perspective or a political lens. I recently took a human rights course outside the university, in my hometown. And now I'm taking other training courses outside the university, and I'm doing a lot of things with young people. It's great to have friends around here who are open-minded. Unlike a lot of people in the society, my friends hold societal values that are very different from the ones we grew up on. 

Tell me more about the human rights course you’re taking in your community. How is it different from the human rights course you took at Bethlehem University?

First of all, the language. The course was entirely in English at the university and this one is in Arabic. The university class was also much longer, of course. The other course is only three days, five hours each day, so like 15 hours. 

I'm trying to remember that human rights course at university. The course at Bethlehem University was more international, and the one I’m taking right now in my community is more focused on Palestine. The course at BU taught us a lot about the UN, and how [to] internationally report violations of rights. Also, we talked a lot [about] human rights organizations and how they work. Everything that you would need to know in a basic introduction to human rights. But of course, we talked about violations in the Palestinian situation and stuff like that.

I didn't realize the human rights course at BU was also teaching you about how to report violations, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

It was all very introductory, like just teaching us how to communicate with the local human rights organizations. And then if it doesn't work, you go to the government. If the government doesn't work, you go international, and you can make a claim to international institutions. Yeah, just the basic things we need to know, like when we wanted to report to whom we report. But it's been a while since I took a human rights course at Bethlehem.

When did you take a human rights course? In 2019? 2020? 

The semester when the corona[virus] started. Yes. 2020.

What was that experience like? Did your class change when switching to a virtual format?

Switching to virtual was difficult, of course, but we coped with it. There’s nothing you can do about this kind of situation; you have to just accept it and cope with it. But, I was happy with the course anyway. Because before the course, I was ignorant in terms of [knowing] human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights even, I never heard about it. So, I was ashamed. But this problem reflects the situation here in Palestine; we have a serious lack of human rights education, especially in schools. In school, you take five religion courses a week, but you don't take human rights education at all. And that creates the problem we have here. 

Coming in [to BU], I didn't know a lot of things about human rights, especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but even the basic things that the UN does. These are things that every citizen of the world should know. And I didn't know. The course was mind-opening for me, even at the late age of 21. That was bad, but I'm not blaming the situation. I also should blame myself for not wanting to learn earlier.

Are there any readings or activities from the human rights course that were particularly impactful for you? 

I remember a couple of things. First, we had a critical research paper on whether religion guarantees women's rights. Of course, my paper and my partner’s paper [were] critical. Although it was a bit boring and tedious to hear about all the UN organizations, and the Security Council, and the states that are there and everything, it was something that I think everyone should learn about and hear about.

Also, we did an activity at the end of the course. It was like, one of the final assignments or something like that. We were each assigned an Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we had to create an activity explaining about it. We created an online brochure. We chose to write about how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated in Palestine. We talked about the right of land, women’s rights, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and even LGBT rights. All the types of rights that are undermined here, and we posted it on the student Facebook page for all the university students. I’ll always remember that activity.

Reflecting on your human rights education at BU, is there anything you feel needs improvement?

No, I think the human rights class I took was very great. My teacher was great, but it depends on the teacher. My class was completely in English. Here, at Bethlehem University, a lot of students complain about the teachers, but we shouldn’t compare teachers from different fields of study because some fields of study are great at the university and others are not as great. I think your experience with the human rights course also depends on the major you took. I believe that I'm lucky because I took the English Literature major, and it was one of the best majors in the university. Other majors are not as great as they might be at other universities. Computer programming, for example, might be better at another university in Palestine. 

So what do I recommend? Let's think about that. Bethlehem could benefit from better teacher-student interactions. By that, I mean building better relationships between students and teachers. But once again, it depends on the specific teacher. We have some teachers that are not very friendly with the students, and others [who] are friendly only with some students. They are picky about who they are friends with. And then the curriculum. I don't know about other majors, but some of my classes… they should have been better, you know? 

Is there a way for you to provide feedback to your university about your class experiences?

At the end of every semester, they give all of us a survey. We can put our opinions and our evaluation, if we were given the grade expected. But I also heard from some of my teachers that these don’t do anything. Yeah, some teachers read them and others don't. And I believe that every teacher should read them seriously. That survey should be taken more seriously, by both the students and the teachers. Some students just fill it in very quickly, like it, you know, very quick like, “Let me finish it as soon as possible, and get the hell out of here.” And on the other side, it feels like maybe some teachers just skim it very quickly, and are like, “Leave me alone.” So yeah, I think we could be doing this better. 

Thank you so much for taking the time with me today.

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