Nidal al-Ayasa is a Palestinian international student at Swarthmore and one of three international McCabe scholars in the class of 2011. In this interview, al-Ayasa recounts memorable experiences from Palestine and thoughts on his first year at Swarthmore.
DG: Can you tell me about your personal background?
NA: My family was driven out of a village inside Israel in 1948. My village was destroyed among 500 other villages, and 700 refugees were killed. My parents relocated in Bethlehem. My father was an activist in the student senate in Bethlehem university. When the first Intifada started, he was arrested and detained. The Palestinians called him “Prisoner of
Opinion”. [This meant he] doesn’t go to court, and just is detained by military order. He was detained for 5 years.
I lived in refugee camp all my life, Deheisha. [The camp has] 13,000 people living there in 1 km square. Campus is basically a big community, all from different villages but all refugees, all been through the same things. It gets very overpopulated.
DG: What was one of the most influential experiences?
NA: In 2001, my parents decided to make a house. Around 8 am shooting starting. It was almost a year into the Intifada so we had gotten used to it. What we didn’t realize was that it was the first invasion of Bethlehem. We stayed in the house, until, at 10:37, a bomb hit and destroyed the top floor.
It was definitely the most life changing experience. My dad at the time, when I was 10 and half years old, was superman. The most courageous, important man I’ve ever met. The guy could protect me, protect everyone I know, he’s everything. But for a split second, sitting in the staircase, and there was a bullet that hit the window right behind us…I realized that my dad was incredibly frightened, my dad can’t protect me this time. I learned that I am not worth a bullet that is 23 cents on the market.
That’s probably why I’m here, pushed me do something else. I cooled off later, my biggest incentive. After that, I didn’t go up to the second house for about 3 months. The reality just changed.
DG: How did you end up at Swat?
NA: I graduated in 2006, I wanted to come here and get out of Palestine. I learned about Swarthmore through an organization called Amideast. The organization introduced me to another Palestinian-American who has a fund called the Hope Fund for Palestinians. But I applied too late and I spent a year in Bethlehem University.
DG: How would you compare your experience in University of Bethlehem to your experience at Swarthmore?
NA: Swarthmore is definitely the place for me, this acceptance of the other that you don’t find in the rest of the world. As much as the American public is blinded, in Swarthmore, 99% of Swatties are accepting of new things. Learn, want to learn. It can be one of the most diverse places I’ve ever been. I know I am the only Palestinian on campus, but just a very diverse spot of the world. Everyone who is a Swattie brings something unique and different to the table.
University of Bethlehem reminds me of a high school. Everyone is Palestinians and 90% are from Jerusalem or Bethlehem. All have the same burdens, kind of the same situations. Have a very diverse social background; we have both Muslims and Christians. Aside from that, it’s very limited as a place. And Swarthmore, the states in general, is a land of opportunity.
DG: How hard was it to adjust?
NA: It wasn’t hard, it was really easy. In Swat, you either fit in or you don’t. I think I do. I do play soccer but I still have a little Swattie weirdness. Swatties are really welcoming, really hospital community and really smart, which make everything easier.
DG: What have you learned from America?
NA: I am, in general, very not politically correct; my language relationship is not good. Swat is a very PC community, and I learned how to be sensitive. Being who I am, I didn’t grow up in a society where you have to be PC to fit in. We don’t throw f-bombs at homosexuals, although we are a pretty homophobic society in Palestine. Here, you have to be overly sensitive. But I realized that these people have suffered so much from these things and I really hate it when people call me [names like] camel-dump.
DG: What has struck you most in the last year?
NA: I like the different aspects of being free. The simple things like you can drive your car for five minutes before reaching a checkpoint and being stopped. Also the ability to say whatever you want and no one will tell you to shut up. People hear you, have extremists and liberals like everybody else, but Israel just doesn’t let everything go by. Well here, it’s a “free” country. Democracy is very biased idea in America.
What I also really like is that you can stay past 12 pm and there’s still life, you can still get a ride somewhere. For example, in Bethlehem, people don’t have anywhere to go. Entertainment is of least importance. Late at night, the whole city dies, goes to sleep. It depresses me, but that’s how it is. In Philly, I like that the city has things to offer.
DG: Are you going back to Palestine this summer?
NA: I am going back on May 20th. I cannot wait. Palestine just gives you this incentive all the time; it just pushes you forward. Whenever you go back, you see how bad it is, and it pushes you to be stronger. The people are great, the smell of the earth…it’s not something you can see anywhere else. You can take a Palestinan outside of the home, but cannot take Palestine out of a person.
DG: Anything else?
NA: I have never tasted any pizza better than in Mundo in Bethlehem run by Palestinians. Best pizza I have ever tasted, better than Renato’s and 10 times better than pizza ever tasted in Italy. It has the crisp, still soft, has too much cheese, a lot of veggies that are really veggies, and a hint of clean meat.