Students describe "sense of hopelessness" in the Middle East during tense protests

Students describe "sense of hopelessness" in the Middle East during tense protests
Photos of the Union Presbyterian Seminary's trip to the Middle East (Source: Mike Frontiero)

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Amidst the chaotic scene along the Gaza strip, students from Richmond traveled through Israel and Palestinian territories for a travel seminar.

A group of 20 students, faculty, alumni and staff from Union Presbyterian Seminary spent three weeks in the Middle East from April 23-May 11 living and talking to people on both sides.

They said they heard from people of all religions who live there and add they all share something in common – a sense of hopelessness.

"My heart just breaks for the violence that is caused by this hopelessness that we can't understand," said student Linda Kurtz. "Is so real there and we got to feel a little bit of that while we were there."

As the group traveled through Jordan into Israel and through the Palestinian territories they visited Biblical sites, and learned about the tense political climate involving Israel and Palestine. Those tensions because of a fighter for Israeli security and Palestinian independence.

Kurtz said on the flight to the Middle East she sat next to a Palestinian woman who shared her story.

"I asked her what she thought of the protests in Gaza, and she basically said think about what it would be like to live there," Kurtz said. "What are the reasons these predominantly young men are approaching the fence? They know what's going to happen... it's because they have nothing else to look for or to hope for."

"We talk a lot in America about how we see hope in the next generation and we asked Palestinians and Israelis if they see hope in the next generation and they said no," said another student Kelley Connelly. "[They said] because our next generation, our youth, don't know hope. They don't know stability in their homes, they don't know peace."

Connelly and Kurtz had those conversations with many people while visiting landmarks like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Galilee, and even at some checkpoints between countries.

"Going through out first checkpoint the bus stopped and you have to wait for the guards to come on," Connelly said. "Two or three guards come on and they have huge machine rifles and they walk through the bus. There was never any danger, but it was a sobering experience to realize this is what's expected of you in order to go from point 'A' to point 'B'."

Kurtz said the Palestinian woman who she chatted with on the flight also shed light to the reality of traveling through the Middle East. In a blog she wrote:

"I had seen her Jordanian passport, so was surprised when she was primarily interested in hearing about the Palestinian parts of our itinerary. And that's when I learned that she is Palestinian, and Palestinians can only obtain Jordanian documentation. I was also reminded that you, as an American, simply cannot commiserate with a Palestinian about how long it takes to get from the east coast of the United States to the Middle East. This woman was visiting friends in New York City and flew from there to Vienna like we did. But because it is nearly impossible for her to get through security etc. in the Tel Aviv airport, she flies to Amman and then gets on a bus to cross the border into Israel, a two-hour drive. She told us this process can take hours depending on the day, number of people present, and other impossible-to-predict factors. So while our journey was nearing its end for the day, hers is nowhere near over yet."

Perhaps the more eye-opening conversations were with an organization called "Roots" where Palestinians and Israelis openly shared their stories, and had a dialogue.

"They had these conversations in hopes that learning more about who your supposed enemy is, you might have a little more of an appreciation for them and not be so willing to cause them harm," Kurtz said.

"We have to be real that these are people's lives and this is more than a real estate deal," Connelly said. "This is deeper than any divide we have ever experienced."

"No matter how entrenched someone is, there are still possibilities to build connections across the aisle, as we would say here, but across different populations there," Kurtz added.

While there were tense scenes happening while the group was in the Middle East, they said they were never put in harms way, however realize what they could have seen.

"It was right after we left the Galilee, which is Israel, and we stayed in a Jewish, that Israel and Iran started exchanging missiles in the Golan Heights, which is right where we were," Kurtz said. "Had we still been there we would have heard it."

Another students wrote:

"If we were still in Tiberias, we would have heard the exchange. All is calm here in Jerusalem as we wrap up our final day in Israel, but please pray for peace for those who don't have the luxury of flying elsewhere tomorrow like we do. Innocent citizens are caught in the crossfire. I can't even imagine what that feels like."

During the dialogue with the Roots group Connelly said she realized that amidst all the fighting, these people of different religion do have some things in common.

"There is not a lot of hope right there which is hard to see, but you also hear people wanting clarity," she said. "Wanting peace to a certain extent. I don't think there's a lot of hope for peace, but you are hearing that people want an answer and an end to the violence."

For more information and to read on the blog from the trip, click here.

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