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Bethlehem University students describe struggle to learn
Catholic News Service photo
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., greets Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane during a Jan. 9 visit to Bethlehem University in the West Bank. 
Catholic News Service photo
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., greets Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane during a Jan. 9 visit to Bethlehem University in the West Bank. 
Catholic News Service

Two recent graduates of Bethlehem University, along with a school official, detailed the challenges involved in getting an education — and in daily life — in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Lubna Alzaroo, now a Fulbright scholar attending the University of Washington, said that while it is required that English be taught in Palestinian schools, there is a severe shortage of English-language books for students, including storybooks for children.

Christian Brother Peter Bray, the New Zealand-born vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, said he would love to have professors worldwide use sabbatical time to be guest faculty at the school, but that Israeli visa laws make it next to impossible.

"Bethlehem's almost completely surrounded by the separation wall," the Israeli-built series of cement slabs, barbed wire fences and security roads dividing Palestinians from the growing number of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, said Nagib Kasbary, who graduated in June with a business degree. "Bethlehem is becoming like a prison," he added.

The Bethlehem University contingent made their remarks Sept. 9 during a conference, "Religious Freedom & Human Rights: Path to Peace in the Holy Land -- That All May Be Free," held at The Catholic University of America in Washington. It was co-sponsored by Catholic University, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.

Brother Bray said he would like for some of the 3,000 students at Bethlehem University to take field trips to explore the Holy Land to augment their mandatory coursework in religious studies. However, the Israeli government can deny travel permits to anyone deemed a "security risk."

Kasbary recalled how, on one Palm Sunday, he could not travel with his family because he was labeled a security risk. A week later, on Easter Sunday, Kasbary received a travel permit, but not his family, the rest of whom had been listed as a security risk.

"I find it embarrassing that I'm from New Zealand and I can go anywhere in the Holy Land, and we have students born in Bethlehem ... and they can't go to Galilee."

Bethlehem University is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It was founded in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, a three-week conflict in 1973 between Israel and several Arab states meant to take back territory claimed by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War.

The university keeps its student population at 3,000 -- split roughly 70-30 Muslim-Christian -- on an entirely enclosed campus with no student housing. Students often travel from their homes in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem to attend classes, but must endure fickle Israeli soldiers staffing security checkpoints between home and school.

Alzaroo said during her four years at Bethlehem University, Israeli soldiers' security response to Palestinians at checkpoints ranged from wave-throughs to strip searches. She added she nearly missed taking the university's entrance exam because of a checkpoint. Against the advice of her traveling companions, she walked through the checkpoint, flagged down a taxi and made it to the exam in time.

She recalled her five years of schooling in England while her parents were furthering their own education. The schedule was consistent, field trips were common, and supplies and resources were never an issue. Class sizes ranged from 15 to 20 students; in Palestine, her classrooms held 48-58 students.

"Public schools in Palestine don't have a budget for extracurricular activities," Alzaroo said. "It also doesn't help that teachers go on strike every year because they aren't paid enough -- or, in some cases, they aren't paid at all."

Brother Bray also must stitch together the funds to keep the school running each year, and the faculty to teach the students. The Palestinian Authority had promised $1.25 million to Bethlehem University this year, but as it starts its own university system "virtually from scratch," Brother Bray said, it has given Bethlehem University only $76,000.

Faculty members, tired of putting up with checkpoints, often leave to find better opportunities, he added. He's even had trouble convincing Bethlehem University alumni to return to teach.

"The Palestinian people don't want to put up with this anymore," Kasbary said of the indignities that accompany the occupation. "So that means those who can leave do leave."

"I was born under occupation," Alzaroo said, and with the exception of her schooling abroad, "I've lived my entire life under occupation."

"Sixty-five years of occupation," said Kasbary, "and it's still going on."

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