Back home, they only know about each other from checkpoints and through the media. At the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, students from the Middle East can talk to each other in person about culture, politics, and peace. Antje Hollunder reports
Hava is standing by the stove in the common kitchen of a university dormitory in Düsseldorf. Her fellow student, Mohamad, had asked her to prepare a traditional meal for his mother. There is nothing particularly unusual in seeing foreign students together preparing a meal from their native land. However, Mohamad is a Palestinian and Hava is an Israeli. Back home, they would never be standing next to each other in a kitchen. Yet, what they previously never thought was possible, has become a reality in Germany.
"The most important thing for me is that we all live together in one building," explained the 23-year-old Hava. She is enrolled in a one-year European Studies Masters program at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf. Hava hopes that she may one day contribute to establishing in her homeland the sort of peaceful relations that European countries enjoy. This is exactly what also brought Khozama, a Jordanian student, to Düsseldorf.
Discovering the other culture
"I wanted to know more about the conflict in the Middle East. Most of all, I wanted to meet Palestinians and Israelis, because we have absolutely no contact with each other back home," she said.
Thirty students from the European Studies program live together in the same dormitory – fifteen students on each floor, with the young men and women separated out of respect for conservative Muslims. The students often get together in their rooms or meet in the two common kitchens.
"Mohamad has now introduced me to Arab food and Arab songs," gladly remarks Hava. The young Israeli woman has responded in kind by explaining everything there is to know about Israeli politics and by giving him Hebrew lessons.
And he, in turn, explains to her the political views of Palestinians. "This way I get to learn about the other side of the conflict. And this has truly given me something. When I return to my country, I will be able to consider the conflict from a different perspective," says Hava.
Discussion with respect
As the conflict in the Gaza Strip once again flared up last November, the students were concerned about their families in their respective homelands. Tensions broke out among the students. Some of them published commentaries on the Internet which provoked their student friends from the other nationality.
"We argued between ourselves without having to face each other – everyone was at their own computer in their rooms," recalls the 23-year-old Khozama. "But then we all sat down together and discussed the problem. This calmed us down and everything was all right again."
They had all realized that they should show more consideration for each other when facing sensitive situations, added the Israeli Hava. "When we discuss an issue, we can't allow ourselves to attack the other side."
Friends despite differing viewpoints
After having lived together for a good four months, the students in Düsseldorf have come to terms with the fact that although their political opinions may not always concur, they can still remain friends.
Together, Hava and Mohamad go swimming and have travelled to different cities such as Berlin and Luxembourg. They also plan to meet up in Jerusalem after completing their studies. "I live there," explains Mohamad, "and her father works there, so it isn't a problem."
At the University of Düsseldorf, they learn about European politics and how its institutions function. The students are so busy learning the material in their seminars that the conflict back home is rarely discussed between the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, stresses Guido Quetsch, the director of the European Studies MA program.
"We see them first and foremost as normal students and not as ambassadors of their countries," he continues.
Study without stereotypes
The 23-year-old Mohamad describes working on projects in small groups, each made up of one Israeli, one Palestinian, and one Jordanian, as an exciting challenge. "Everyone can express his or her opinion and suggest how to proceed with the work. This is something completely new for me and it has been a good experience," he emphasises.
His fellow student Khozama from Jordan also feels enriched by her study time in Düsseldorf. All of the students from the Middle East have made developments, stresses Khozama. "When we came here, we only had stereotypes in our heads and now, I have to admit, our views have changed."
© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2013
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de