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Berkeley Plays Host to Middle East Students

Friday July 09, 2004

Dana Rassas has done her fair share of traveling, but when the 24-year-old Jordanian decided her latest adventure would take her to Israel for a masters program in environmental studies, she was hesitant to spread the news. 

“There are still a lot of people I haven’t told,” she said. Those she has confided in have offered mixed views. “Some people said ‘How can you do that?’, but after I explained it to them they said ‘OK.’” 

Rassas says her rationale is simple. Because her field of study—the dire water shortage in the Middle East—ignores political and cultural boundaries, she needs to do so as well. 

The school Rassas selected, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located in rural southern Israel, sees as its mission not only to teach ecology, but to expose students from the Middle East and across the world to differing cultures, religions, and political perspectives. 

This summer, Rassas is among six Arava students—two Jordanian Muslims and four Israeli Jews—living with host families in Berkeley and interning with Bay Area environmental organizations as part of the school’s Environmental Leadership Exchange funded by a State Department grant.  

Last week they, along with 18 classmates interning elsewhere in the U.S., visited Capitol Hill to explain their exchange program to government officials and lobby for continued funding. They were to be joined by three Palestinian Arava alumni from Gaza, but an Israeli military blocade kept the students from attending their scheduled visa interview at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. 

The Arava institute is located on Kibbutz Ketura, a communal farm in the southern part of Israel’s Negev Desert, near the Jordanian border. The school, founded in 1986 to introduce students from across the Middle East to the region’s ecology as well as to each other, strives for a diverse student body, with students coming from the Middle East, the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

Michael Cohen, Arava’s North American Coordinator, said the marriage of environment and politics allows students the latitude to share perspectives.  

“Their concern for the environment acts as the glue and gives them a playing field to let them deal with the political issues,” he said.  

Wednesday night, five of the six students staying in Berkeley seemed like old relaxed chums as they discussed their experiences before about 40 guests at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. They admitted that in contrast, upon their first arrival at the kibbutz they were a bundle of nerves. 

“We didn’t sleep at the beginning,” said Ilana Malleam, a 26-year-old British-born Israeli working to provide sewage and other services to Israel’s desert tent dwellers, known as Beduins. “We were so interested to learn about each other’s cultures and what life was like on the other side.” 

Their initial conversations focused on culture and the environment, and nobody was particularly eager to throw politics into the mix. 

“I was afraid it would destroy the friendship we had made through our daily lives,” said Noa Milman, a 25-year-old Israeli. 

But avoiding politics is not an option at Arava. The program includes a mandatory weekly peace building seminar, which the students said was valuable, though not always a highlight. 

“They had to drag me to it,” Rassas said. “It was emotionally draining. Not only do you have to talk about your views, but you have to try to understand other people and keep an open mind. That is too much for me.” 

Rassas said her biggest shock was to learn that her Israeli classmates had little religious faith. “I thought, well at least we have one belief in common, but they were like, ‘God? What’s that?’” 

Mohammed Taher, a Jordanian studying sustainable agriculture, said the students, both Arabs and Israelis, still disagreed on much, but that despite their struggles the dialogue was necessary. 

“We have to talk because we are environmentalists. The air and the water don’t know borders,” he said. “A good environment needs a stable political situation and turning our backs on what is happening will not change anything.” 

Now nearly half a world away, the three students from Gaza provide a constant reminder of the turmoil and violence that continues to plague their homes. 

“They honestly believe in co-existence and the environment and the only problem they had is that they were from Gaza,” Taher said. “They are with us emotionally.” 

Had his classmates been able to enter the U.S., they likely would have had to go through the same grueling airport interrogation that Taher faced upon arrival in New York City. 

“It was a very horrible experience,” he said. During a four-hour internment, customs officers ordered him to empty his suitcase and reload it and register with federal authorities. In addition, he was asked a series of questions including “Are you a terrorist?” and “Have you dealt with terrorist organizations?” 

Taher has to alert federal authorities of all the addresses he plans to stay at, a tough chore considering next week he and Malleam are set to drive from Seattle to San Diego in a hybrid car as part of a Sierra Club program to promote fuel-efficient vehicles. 

The students hope to work for international environmental organizations when they graduate. Rassas said that perhaps one day she would like to work for the Jordanian Ministry of Municipal, Rural and Environmental Affairs, but at the moment she’s been told she’s “too [environmentally minded] for them to feel comfortable hiring me”. 

For now, however, the students are happy to take their friendships to Berkeley. When Wednesday’s event wound down the five students began their latest round of negotiations: Where to hit the town. The Israelis wanted beer and the Jordanians don’t drink. It’s not an uncommon dilemma, Rassas said. “I’m going to have to make sure we go someplace where they have dinner.”?