Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2021, undergraduate student Katherine Woodard (SFS’22) interviewed a recent graduate of Bethlehem University (BU) in West Bank, Palestine. In this interview, the former student discusses how his time at BU informed his decision to enter the nonprofit sector and reflects on the human rights education he received at BU.
In our prior correspondence, you mentioned that attending Bethlehem University has greatly impacted your career path. Could you tell me about what you’re doing now that you have graduated?
I work for a human rights-focused nonprofit now. Many [Israeli] settlers are trying to take over more places in the Old City [of Jerusalem]. So, we are here trying to show the other people around the world that we are here presenting them [the settlers] with non-violent methods to communicate with one another. We are covering demonstrations, doing interviews, writing reports. And also, one of the main projects that we are doing is checking in on the young school students when they are passing checkpoints.
So, what have you found in speaking with those students going through the checkpoints? Can you talk about their experiences a little bit? And maybe what that's like for you as well?
Of course, let me begin with my experience. For me, I didn't… I didn't know this wasn't normal. I couldn't physically go to the Old City because of the settlers and soldiers, but I was used to this. The whole situation is really devastating when you're seeing it every day. When [I] started this job, I got a lot of support because witnessing all of this is very overwhelming. For example, one of the students that I met was extremely traumatized by the soldiers. Every day that he was in school, the soldiers would wait for the students to come out of the classroom. The soldiers were waiting for the students to throw rocks at them and attack them, so then they could arrest the students and take them away. I saw these kinds of experiences every day.
Your work sounds incredibly difficult. You're doing work to help give back to the people who are in the same situation you were in when you were younger, and I think that's very admirable of you. So now that we've talked about your work experience, maybe we could talk about your university experience as well. Before we get more into the topic of human rights, will you tell me a little bit about why you decided to go to Bethlehem University?
My sister helped me to Bethlehem University because she went there. Her teacher in school told her, “You have to go to Bethlehem University; the education is very good.” So, she got advice from her teacher, and I got advice from her. And BU offers what I consider to be the best education, at least in the south. Of course, not the best education in the whole world, but compared with others in the south of the West Bank, they are the best university. And the most important thing is that we have different religions, different backgrounds, and people from different areas throughout the south: Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron.
So, is there a mix of people from all different places and all different religions in most of the classes you take?
Of course. Like for me in the Hebron, we are 100% Muslim, right? So, we don't have experience contacting with different people. But when I got to the university I met, for example, Christians. Now, I have a lot of Christian Palestinian friends. More than even Muslims. BU is a way to meet other people.
When you live under systematic oppression, you aren’t allowed to be exposed to certain things that might shape your identity or way of thinking. So, I’m happy I went to Bethlehem University, where we are encouraged to think new things. There are so many different points of view at the university.
Do these different points of view ever conflict with one another?
Well, yeah, we have disagreements in class sometimes. We have discussed, like, the peaceful agreements between the UN and many countries about protecting children, women, [the] elderly, and innocent people. We also discussed how a hostile situation might occur. For example, if there’s two countries at war, each country has the right to defend themselves, but the soldiers cannot kill innocent children and citizens. So, yes, we discuss all the different aspects of that.
Do you feel like there's one piece of information that you learned that has remained important to you? Is there something that stuck out from your classes?
I still think about the thing that I was most shocked to learn. We talked in class about how certain human rights rules permit for people to kill one another if they are both soldiers in the war. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right? Essentially, if there are two countries at war, because both of them have the right to defend themselves, soldiers can kill one another, and it is allowed. This was shocking to me because I wondered then, what is the point in these human rights rules?
What specifically shocked you about that?
The allowing of the killing of another human being. I was surprised this is considered permissible, even in times of war.
I understand. It can be really devastating to hear about things like this, but I’m glad your teachers are providing you with important information. Do you feel empowered by any of the knowledge you've gained in your classes?
Kind of. I especially use what I’ve learned when I'm in my field in the world. When there is a possibility that I might be arrested, I remember that there is an agreement that if there is a war or something, or if there is a country and they want to oppress a people group, there is still no right to torture a person who is in a prison. And if the person has done something wrong, they have to send the person to their own country's jail, rather than keep them in the country where they got in trouble.
I think that's extremely important, especially if you are going to places where that might be a possibility. So, knowing the things that you've learned in class, have you approached situations differently? How has your understanding of human rights changed after attending Bethlehem University?
In my space, I wasn't aware of a lot of human rights things. When I selected my major, I chose to be a business student. When I had the chance to pick a minor, there was a variety of choices. I chose psychology. From psychology, I got exposed to new readings and different things. And then, of course, we have the human rights course, and every student has to take it. And I was taking in all the human rights information from a psychological perspective and all the psychology from a human rights perspective. All my studies informed one another, and it changed and shaped me as a person.
For example, in my work, we are doing human rights activities and things like observing the students. Sometimes when we are in the field, we go to visit houses and check on them. Especially the houses that are close to the settlements, right? During one of the visits I had, we talked to a child, and then we talked to his family. The family told us that the child had been taken by the soldiers. He was only 8 or 10 years old, but they took him and arrested him. Eventually, they let him go, and he ran back home. So, when [the family] told us this, it wasn’t surprising to see the yellow look on his face and his reaction. I had already begun to put together that perhaps he was traumatized by the accident. So, I took their phone and started connecting them with partner organizations who are working in this kind of problem.
I’m sorry to hear that the child went through such a traumatizing event, but I'm glad that you were able to provide them with resources.
These are things that we experience quite often, like every day at work and in life.
How do you take care of yourself after witnessing those situations?
Well, in our organization, we are taking this matter very seriously. So, we have a person or a care coordinator, and her responsibilities are to provide therapy for anyone who needs it inside Palestine. Our organization is really good at providing support to those who need it.
Do you feel like you had that at university? Were there people that you could talk to if there was something hard going on while you were a student?
Yeah, yeah, we had one person who was responsible for that. And actually, I think that I have something that’s critical for Bethlehem University. They have one therapist for 3,000 students? They need more. Yeah, we had one. But she's always there, like, if needed. You only just, like, you can contact her, and she will always be around. But the problem is not just that; it’s also an issue between Palestinians and [the field of] psychology. It's not something that is important to a lot of students, so the university isn’t going to provide the service.
What makes you believe that psychology is not important to people where you are?
I think because [of the] older generation. They are totally traumatized. And they are not aware of that. And sometimes they are taking this trauma and repeating it on younger Palestinians and their children. If you look at the Palestinians when they are in the Israeli jails, after they [are] released from the jail, they don't have a way out of their depression or trauma. There’s no psychologist or therapist going with a person who was imprisoned to help him out of the disorders he might have. And without that support, it's not going to get any better. They will just be holding that trauma for so long.
Hey, maybe you can become the psychologist.
A psychologist for BU? Ha. I'm not seeing myself in this role, but maybe I will be a psychologist for people who get out of prison. Now that would be really awesome. What I'm thinking is that I have a business and management background with a minor in gender studies. I can lead an organization in the field of gender diversity, and I can change the world. Also, for example, here in Palestine we still consider homosexuality to be a big issue. There are many taboos that we must talk about and fix. The best thing I can do when I want to see change is just to begin. I think that's the best thing we can do when we want to start some changes, to just begin.
Do you have any more ideas for Bethlehem University, specifically about their human rights class? Is there anything that you wish you learned about? Or things that you think should be changed going forward?
Yes, let me give you an example. If you and I are in a class together, and I express that women should only be seen as objects, or brides, etc., then my opinion is in favor of oppressing your rights. When I say this, I’m speaking my opinion, yes, but I’m also pressuring you to believe that this is right for you, right for women.
Things like this would happen in my human rights course, and we would just act like it was normal. And this should not be acceptable in a course based on human rights. If we want to change things, we have to be aware of our words and how we are talking about situations. There's things that we have to discuss because they are pressing, but we cannot allow our conversations to normalize oppression. I think we must focus on the dynamics between each other and focus more deeply on interpersonal human rights, not the international perspective.
But in terms of introducing the person-to-person perspective, I like Dr. [Lina] Khamis. She’s doing a great job. The only thing I would consider changing is turning some of the exams into essays. That way, each person could read about something they’re interested in and write about that. Or maybe more group projects. If we formed study groups of people who have similar opinions on certain issues then we could each discuss our perspectives in front of the class and we could start resolving some of our issues from there.
In your class, were most of the discussions in large groups?
There were no smaller group discussions, it was a big thing. I don't like how we are usually between 30 to 40 students in a class. For a class like human rights, I think a better number is between 13 to 14. I wish my classes were smaller.
Now that you have graduated, how do you feel about Bethlehem University?
Many students, when they graduate from Palestinian universities, they are like, “Okay, I got my degree, but now I’m unemployed.” This is their reality. But holding a degree from Bethlehem University means a lot in our community. If you graduate from this university, you have more advantages than students from other universities. We are more educated, chances are we are more diverse, and we have been taught to respect structure, rules, and systems.
I really appreciate all that you have shared with me, told me. You have provided me with so much context that will improve my interviews going forward.