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Student believes communication is way to peace between Israelis and Palestinians

Jad Zoughbi talks about life in occupied Palestine. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Jad Zoughbi is a Palestinian Christian who believes communication is the way to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Zoughbi, a counselor at Green Lake Bible Camp's Shores of St. Andrew near Sibley Park, graduated from Bethlehem University with a degree in occupational therapy.

He was an occupational therapist for seven years in Bethlehem and organized a wheelchair basketball team of Palestinian youth.

Once a month, Zoughbi's team played in Tel Aviv with an Israeli team. The goal was to meet Israeli youth with the same disability and allow sports to break down social barriers between the two groups.

"We mingled the children together so there's one group divided into two teams and played against each other. No Israeli or Palestinian wins. It's everyone wins,'' he said.

"For me, who brings all this problem (between Israelis and Palestinians) is the government, not the people. If we build bridges instead of checkpoints and walls between people, that would be a great thing,'' Zoughbi said during a recent interview.

"That is what I tried doing in my wheelchair basketball team for children and young adults from 12 to 18,'' he said.

Zoughbi's project lasted three years. Last year, he took six Israeli children and six Palestinian children as a peace team to a competition in Belgium.

"We played, ate together. It was wonderful,'' Zoughbi recalls. "When the children wanted to talk to each other, we used interpreters. It was awesome because there were children who talked really good to each other and wanted to know more about the others and now they are friends on Facebook and everything's just a wonderful experience.''

Zoughbi came to the United States in January and began studying for a master's degree in children, youth and family ministries at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. His vision is to combine the occupational therapy degree with the master's degree "to work with families in a Christian way wherever God just leads me to.''

Zoughbi, 28, is a sincere and serious young man who willingly responds to the oft-asked question about what is life like in occupied Palestine. He says going to work or traveling is difficult.

"I usually tell them to imagine Palestine and Israel as a cereal bowl: that the flakes of cereal are Palestine and the milk is Israel. You can't go from piece of cereal to another in the bowl because the pieces of cereal are separated by the milk unless you go through checkpoints and a lot of security, and that's what the situation is right now,'' Zoughbi says.

For example, a 10-mile drive from Bethlehem to Jerusalem could take two or more hours depending on the number of people going through the checkpoints and whether security people decide to let people go or not go.

Zoughbi has a friend who lives in Bethlehem and works in Jerusalem. He has to leave around 3 a.m. and might get to work by 8 or later. Palestinians who want to go to Jerusalem or Israel need a permit, and permits are not easy to obtain, he says.

"To apply for one you need a reason why you need it and they might give it to you for days or one day and sometimes only a few hours,'' he says. "Most of the time they tell you where exactly you can go.''

The permit and paperwork process even affects love and marriage. Zoughbi says his mother is originally a resident of Jerusalem and his father originally a resident of Bethlehem.

"With that marriage comes the conflict of trying to get from one place to another and be a married couple,'' says Zoughbi.

"You cannot just love whoever you want. A lot of people right now have to think before they love. If two people are Palestinian, that is fine. If one is Israeli and one is Palestinian, that could be a conflict because we cannot live together.''

Zoughbi's hometown of Bethlehem has about 25,000 inhabitants, much the same as lived there before the founding of Israel in 1948. He says the chief difference is that the 80 percent Christian Palestinian population is now about 8 percent due to emigration, he says caused by lack of jobs brought on by Israeli occupation limiting movement and being surrounded by a 26-foot-high concrete wall.

Zoughbi believes people would understand one another if they would talk to one another.

"It's not that the other person is bad. We had a lot of Palestinians who never met Israelis. They know them by face but they never really talked to them, or we have Israelis who saw Palestinians but never talked to them. They just know that this is a terrorist person,'' he says.

"But they never talk to them. They never met with them. When we do that like meeting each other, we know the stories of each other and we just feel that we need to make peace instead of war.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150