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Strife and Stigma: Studying Abroad in the Middle East

Riley Verner walked down Derech Shua’fat at nighttime, the street that leads into Shua’fat, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. On July 2, three Israeli men captured Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, on this street. His body was found in the Jerusalem forest later that day, scarred from fire, proof that his captors burned him alive. That evening the riots started, Palestinians clashing with Israeli police. It was on July 3 when Riley walked toward Shua’fat.

The walk from his apartment near Hebrew University in East Jerusalem to Shua’fat was not long, but when he did reach the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, caution tape, two Israeli armored police cars and men holding machine guns blocked his path.

Residents of Shua’fat were allowed in, but with Riley’s red hair and blue eyes, the blockade was a wall shielding Riley and the rest of Jerusalem from the riot’s chaos and aftermath. Most would have turned around. Riley turned right.

In a short time he and a friend, who was studying Arabic alongside Riley at the university, found a back stairway in a fenced-off field that led them into Shua’fat. What they found when they emerged on the other side was physical proof of people in pain.

The light rail station, a public transit system in Israel, lay in disarray: its glass walls smashed and computers ripped out from their docks. Bright spray paint offset the dull destruction.

Outside the station and into the street, sawn off street signs littered the ground, joining hundreds of rocks resolutely waiting to be picked up again by Palestinian hands and thrown at Israeli police. These rocks were the weapons of choice for a people battling against a force armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. Further down the street fire poured out of dumpsters and thick black smoke billowed off inflamed tires.

“It looked like a war zone and it took me five minutes to walk there,” said Riley. “As I was walking down [the street], all of the people started looking at us. I was praying, ‘Jesus, I trust you.’ Maybe I was being stupid, but I wanted to see this.”

Soon two Palestinian men approached Riley and his friend. Riley greeted them in Arabic, introducing himself and asking for their names. One of the men spoke English well and told Riley that he and his friend weren’t safe walking in Shua’fat alone, and offered to accompany them. Together, the four men made their way deeper into Shua’fat.

In half a mile, the Palestinian men led Riley to the site where Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped. There, people were milling about, all older and younger men, and Riley was introduced to some of the boy’s family. The place was inactive; no one was eating or drinking, it was during the holy holiday of Ramadan, and the fasting breaks after the last prayer watch at 9 o’clock.

“The last prayer watch just ended and we’re about to start the riots back up again,” said the Palestinian man who led Riley into Shua’fat.

“Is it safe for me to stay here?” Riley replied.

“You either need to leave now and get out before we start or you are going to have to stay back and hang out for a couple of hours.”

Riley wanted to stay; he was curious. His friend, however, was not, and Riley didn’t feel right leaving him to walk back half a mile by himself during the riots. They left as fires were relit, barricades reassembled and men wrapped towels and shirts around their heads to protect against tear gas.

This is but one example of an adventure Riley went through during his time studying abroad in the Middle East. Not only was he present in Jerusalem for the Palestinian riots, but he also heard the first rocket alert sirens sounded in Jerusalem on July 8.

Before July 8, Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist political organization and militant group situated in the Gaza Strip, has never possessed rockets powerful enough to reach Israel’s capital, a highly populated city of 693,000 people. The U.S., Israel, Britain and the European Union all consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

From inside his apartment’s bomb shelter, Riley skyped his friend in Orange County and together using his friend’s TV, they watched CNN’s live coverage of the event – Riley sitting among the ambient noise of the sirens’ wails and his friend sitting 7,500 miles away in Southern California.

Riley Verner is a junior international studies major with a concentration in the Middle East. Graduation requirements brought him to study Arabic in Jerusalem last summer when rockets fired between Israel and the Gaza strip.

Though the conflict made international headlines and even sparked a ban on all flights to and from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on July 22, Riley was never fearful during his time there.

“I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve lived in a village in Africa by myself, I’ve been in places where the average person would have gotten a little scared, but I kind of throw off those things,” said Riley.

“I love being in situations that maybe aren’t the safest. I kind of enjoy it in a weird way.”

After an Israeli policeman shot dead a 32-year-old Palestinian man suspected of trying to kill a Jewish far-right extremist on Oct. 30, clashes erupted once again between Palestinians and Israeli police in East Jerusalem.

During his stay in Jerusalem, Riley worked at a 24/7 prayer house that rose 15 stories into the air – one of the taller buildings – and had panoramic views looking out over Israel. It gave him a purpose that drove out fear.

“In Isaiah it talks about how God plays the watchman on the walls of Jerusalem and he won’t sleep or slumber until Jerusalem is back to glory,” said Riley. “I found it to be an opportunity to think, ‘Man, rockets are flying here but what an opportunity I have to literally intercede over Jerusalem as I’m looking out over [it].’ So I was looking at it through different eyes. Not eyes of fear, but rather asking why am I here right now?”

Through PLNU’s study abroad office, only Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Oman have available programs through which to study. Riley applied to the Hebrew University of his own accord.

Clint Betkey, a senior political science major and history minor, studied abroad in Amman, Jordan in the spring of 2013 and Rabat, Morocco this past summer. His extended travel during these times includes Beirut, Lebanon, Jerusalem in the West Bank and Istanbul, Turkey. He, much like Riley, felt safe during his travels.

“Arab culture is known for its hospitality, and so being a stranger in a foreign land, I was always welcomed with open arms,” said Clint via email. “People were curious about me and always wanted to talk – I can’t even count how many people offered to tutor me in Arabic for free! With that said, people do need to take precautions, and my experience as a male was very different than my female colleagues. Street harassment was a problem in both countries, and both programs I went on discouraged women staying out late at night without a male counterpart.”

Other precautions Clint would take included him telling people he was Canadian if he didn’t feel safe, a situation that arose in Lebanon, the only country Clint said he experienced anti-Americanism. However, most of the time, Clint said he felt just as safe in Jordan and Morocco as he would in San Diego.

Rosco Williamson, the history and political science department chair, concurs in the necessity for smart travel.

“This is my opinion on a lot of these things. As long as you’re smart when you go to these places and you’re not an ignorant American running around waving your money, but you’re smart and living within the context, you can go to war zones and live,” said Rosco.

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