Words by Srushti Kamat, Photos by Kaylee Domzalski, Illustrations by Dorothy Hoeft
Take a moment to sit by Columbia Hall on 13th Avenue. Become immersed
in the ebb and flow of student life. Now pause. Zoom in. Two students share a unique connection. They grew up 40 minutes from each other. 40 minutes of rugged, dry landscape that separated two stark realities. Yaara Taal was born in a Kibbutz, a collective agriculture community, in the southern part of Israel. Mohammed Astal was born in Gaza Strip, Palestine.
Taal and Astal met at the University of Oregon just over a month ago. Brimming with curiosity, they were both keen to share and understand each other’s experiences. What followed is a conversation about parents and siblings, border police and bombing, remorse and resolution.
The baffling fact about their connection is that it took over 20 years for either to meet a person from the other side of the border. A fact that, once considered with the circumstances, should not baffle anyone at all. For a Palestinian to come to Israel, they would need a special permit, one which is difficult to obtain if not completely unheard of. On the other hand, it is illegal for an Israeli to cross over to Gaza.
Astal explains what crossing the border meant to him, what value it had, and continues to hold.
“Crossing over means opening your world,” he replies. “You see, in Gaza Strip, it’s like a big cage or an open prison.” The Gaza Strip is Hamas controlled territory. The Hamas are a political party who are considered by many to be a terrorist organization.
In the midst of dusty borders, flying rockets, and war, both Taal and Astal find life in the United States to be easier. In Israel, every 18-year-old hasto enroll in military service. Taal was a part of the field intelligence division and was posted at the Gaza border. She stayed up for nights on end, keeping close watch on the fringed edges of her country. The slow pace of Eugene is a big shift from this former lifestyle.
Since coming from such different countries, they describe what it has been like living in this town and being at the UO.
More than anything, it is the opportunities that are so readily available for Americans that stand out to the both of them. “I used to play soccer, and I only played with the boys because there was no girls team,” says Taal, adding, “If you play soccer, then you are labeled masculine and a lesbian.” But Taal was more than just an avid soccer fan. She also played on the Under 17 National Women’s soccer team. Gear, equipment, and team spirit are words that resonate with her. She recalls a time when getting to a regional game was a journey: a bus would pick her up at 4 a.m. and drive all over the country to get her teammates. Her soul would be filled with excitement. She fought to be there, and fighting, she would stay. It is that fighting spirit that pulses her every move. It brings her closer to people who echo the same sentiment. It brings her closer to people like Astal.
But having grown up in places where the media perpetuates their own agenda, it is an anomaly for the two of them to have this curiosity, and led to thinking about where it stems from.
“I had support from my family,” says Taal. Before the war, Palestinians were allowed to work in Israel and many worked at her Kibbutz. “I didn’t grow up to hate Arabs and think that they are all terrorists,” she says. “After Hamas took control, they couldn’t come back to Israel, so we all collected money and sent it to them. They were like family for us.”
Astal shakes his head. “See, I never heard those stories,” he says. “Yeah, that’s because the media doesn’t show it,” replies Taal, shrugging her shoulders.
During the course of this story, the 2016 election changed the opinion of many international students living in the U.S. There was an uncertainty about the future. A restlessness and questioning of whether those who were here would want to stay.
This uncertainty grew when faced with the recent U.S. election, both for them and their families back home.
“My dad called me, and it’s interesting. See in this case, I have a privilege to be able to go home,” says Taal. She points at Astal. “But other people can’t.”
“Yeah, my dad is giving me mixed messages,” Astal responds. “I know he wants me to stay. Thousands of people graduate and don’t have jobs or a future, and I wouldn’t be as accepted in my culture as before. Before two years ago, when I came to the States, it was not okay to express my thoughts. I was called a traitor; I was called weird. You carry the responsibility of being different. The last place I would go to is home. Not just because it’s a war zone and dangerous, but my social life is better here.”
The conversation shifts to be between just them two, as Taal turns to Astal.
“Do people back in Gaza criticize you for being in the States?” she asks.
“Yes of course,” Astal says, “but it depends on what types of people. My parents said ‘no, you’re not going.’ But I took the first test of the scholarship. Then I was a finalist for a scholarship. It was the day before going to Jerusalem to sign my visa that I told them. That changed their mind, I guess. My real friends supported me. But people who I see in the mosque, people who are my neighbors, they will say no. Literally, before leaving Gaza, there was a Hamas crossing point guard who sat me down and said ‘This is brainwashing. You should stay here. You will lose your values.’”
Somewhere in the midst of propaganda and war, two individuals found themselves thinking differently. Some people’s realities are shocking: They are complex and sometimes impossible to explain. But they exist and change can occur if seeds of peace and positivity are sown from an early stage. A purpose drives us all. At the end of the day, we set out into the big, bad world to fulfill that purpose. So Taal and Astal were posed one last question:
At the end of it all, what do you want the world to know?
“That people just want to live in peace,” says Astal. “What I meant by being locked in a cage is that people in Gaza have developed the ideal that all Jews are Zionists, and that is not true. They have been fed that information. So they go to Israel and target citizens, thinking they are doing something for their country.”
“Yeah, and I don’t think anyone should die just because of their religion,” says Taal. “What the media portrays about our country is that it is full of hate. And it’s really not the people’s choice you know, it’s the system.”
“We experienced both wars and we see a bigger picture that not everyone does,” Astal says.
The 40 minutes that separated Taal and Astal now acts as a conversation starter. A bridge to a divide. A place to build a new future. Where they go and what they make of this strange world may be unknown but, filled with an eagerness to learn, it is without question that a path to a brighter future will form.