Omar Khoury: Ibrahim Alumni 2017, U. Pennsylvania
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
In his own words:
When I reflect on the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Program, I maintain that what I witnessed, what I examined, and what I noticed during our travels remains one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As a Middle Eastern immigrant to the United States, I felt as if I had considerable engagement with Middle Eastern culture and a comprehensive understanding of the current state of affairs in the region—be them political or social. However, it wasn’t until I was able to travel to the Middle East with ILDME, engage with political, social, and entrepreneurial leaders there, discuss and debate with my peer ambassadors, and witness discrimination first-hand when I realized that my understanding of the Middle East and its complexities was less nuanced than it should have been and that seldom had my assumptions of it matched with my observations.
In many ways, I had grown disillusioned on this trip with the commitment Middle Eastern entities had to achieving a sustained peace and equal societies. The first thing we saw exiting the Dubai Airport was not the Burj Khalifa, but rather, it was rows upon rows of South Asian migrants sleeping outside on the street waiting for an employer to hail them. Oman’s beauty was indeed captivating, as I had known it to be, but we had learned that its fragile stability could only define the country for so long before outside forces would attempt to interfere with domestic affairs. Jordan, being where I was born, reminded me of its profound richness in its culture and history, and its liberal-minded attitude towards education inspired me when I had otherwise felt that hyper-conservative interpretations of religion were an impediment to the region. Israel and Palestine were both difficult for me, especially as a descendent of Palestinian refugees; my first experience in Israel on this trip was four of us getting detained and almost deported as a result of our Palestinian and Arab identities. Navigating through institutions (and through checkpoints) that ostensibly objected to my presence there was emotionally taxing, but my peers’ solidarity and understanding was moving. Though my pride in being Palestinian was reiterated after visiting the country, I was forced to recognize the privilege I had as a Palestinian-American when others like me are far less fortunate in their political and economic statuses.
From these experiences and their consequences upon me, ILDME has taught me the value and importance of the diversity of perspective. It was particularly moving to see the underside of the allure of the United Arab Emirates—one where a great many people did not own Ferraris nor were princes/princesses but instead were immigrants to the country trying to make ends meet. Israel/Palestine demonstrated to me the danger of absolutism, where one’s own narrative trumps everything else. This concept manifested itself to me in the forms of our group’s discussions with government officials that blamed the protracted conflict entirely on the other side. Perspective maintains a wealth of knowledge that is otherwise hidden from those who are ignorant or absolutist.
With this wisdom, I challenged myself to take several courses in the following semester that dealt with studying and scrutinizing perspectives which, until then, I was unfamiliar with. I enrolled in 3 courses at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London that specifically concentrated on Israeli history, historical Jewish attachment to the Holy Land and Jerusalem, and Israeli nationalist ideology, the former two of which were taught by an Israeli professor. My rising up to challenge myself to recognize and study a different narrative was inspired by the nuance of opinion and belief presented to us on this trip which dealt, in many ways, with dialogue and diversity.
One of the more impactful experiences to me was our visit to the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, which attempts through education to empower students and their families who are most vulnerable in Israeli society. I never forgot how noble this mission was—one where those with many found their purpose in assisting those with few. In the same spirit, I, along with two other group members, developed a comprehensive 80-page proposal to connect my university artistic and educational resources with under-funded schools in West Philadelphia. After all, I found that the greatest agent of change is through charity, activism, and empowerment—themes which were inescapably present in many of the experiences during the ILDME trip.
Fundamentally, ILDME taught me the importance of open-mindedness and activism—two things that I know will accompany me for the rest of my life. While I wish to have the opportunity to assist more, I recognize that rushed action is almost as detrimental as no action at all. As I complete my studies, I will be looking for new experiences to which I can apply the knowledge and wisdom gained from IDLME to leave the world a better place than when I found it.