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In Iowa, Palestinians Focus on Palestine

Iyyad Rayyan is a Palestinian student studying business in Des Moines.
Iyyad Rayyan is a Palestinian student studying business at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Still acclimating to Iowa weather, Iyyad is eager to share his culture and stories. Photo: Kathleen McQuillen / AFSC

By Kathleen McQuilllen, AFSC Iowa Program Coordinator

An anthropology class at Central College in Iowa recently hosted an AFSC-supported panel discussion to learn what they could about one area of the world they had recently been studying: Palestine. Three Palestinians living in Iowa participated on the panel and were eager to shed some light on Palestinian history, culture, strengths and hopes for the future.

The speakers helped the students understand that the Palestine-Israel conflict is not “centuries old,” as is so often misunderstood. Luai Amro noted that the people of the land -- Muslim, Christians, and Jews -- had in fact lived together in a cooperative manner for centuries. This changed with the persecution of Jews in Europe and the establishment of the state of Israel on Palestinian land. This colonization of Palestine is much like the early US colonization and displacement of Native Americans.

In response to a student’s question about Hamas as a “terrorist” organization, Iyyad Rayyan emphasized that Israeli soldiers operate checkpoints and raid Palestinian villages on Palestinian lands. “Understand this is our land, our homes. Who would not defend their land?” With an impassioned voice, Iyyad continued, “Who would not try to stop an outside country from coming in and killing your people and taking your land?”  Noting that it is not well understood in the US that most of the violence is taking place on Palestinian land, Iyyad challenged students to look beyond mainstream media to find the truth about the conflict in his homeland.

Sari Kharrtoub recalled being in his home during the Spring 2002 Israeli siege on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a time during which the whole area was under curfew.  “No one could go out. You could not go to the market for food. Any movement on the street would bring down massive firepower from the military,” Sari said. “During one of the military assaults a part of our house was hit. It was my bedroom but there was so much noise from the bombs and rockets we did not even know it was hit until we saw the smoke coming from that part of our house.”

In conversation following the panel, Sari was asked how he survived such trauma without total bitterness. “When I was younger I thought my life was over – that nothing mattered,” Sari said. “I was sure I would die soon so I didn’t care about anything. I had heard about the killings in the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps.* I thought that was to be my fate too. I thought the Israeli military would just come and kill all of us – my family, my neighbors, myself.”

“I was fortunate, however, to go to a school where I learned about other parts of the world,” Sari said. “I learned what young people did in other places and I wanted that for myself. So I kept working for it. I think there are others who have not been as fortunate – others whose minds were hurt.”

Luai, Iyyad, and Sari each contribute to the work for a peace with justice in Palestine-Israel and a greater understanding in Iowa for that part of the world. Luai is the principal at New Horizon Academy, a project of the Islamic Center of Des Moines.  Iyyad is studying for a business degree at Grandview University and notes he is always eager to share the story of the Palestinian people -- “That is one reason I came here,” he says. Preparing for a career in engineering at Iowa State, Sari still finds time to display and sell olive wood crafts to help the Palestinian economy.

We in Iowa are all enriched by their presence among us.

* These attacks by Lebanese Phalangists, with protection and support from the Israeli military, killed hundreds of Palestinians.