By Audrey Barrett
The fourth annual Middle East Studies Symposium, entitled “History & Movement: Transition in the Middle East,” kicked off on Feb. 19. Unfortunately, only the keynote speaker event went on as scheduled, since the campus shut down due to snow days. The coordinators have tentatively rescheduled the events for March 14 and 15 but are not certain.
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Program Director of Middle East and North African Studies Oren Kosansky helped organize the event. This is the first school year for the Middle East Studies minor at Lewis & Clark, and he is also the Program Director of Middle East and North African Studies. The resources given to a minor department open up new opportunities for coordination with LC’s Arabic program, the Morocco study abroad program and similar departments at surrounding schools.
“One of the really key developments at LC that led to the Middle East and North African Studies program and minor was the symposium itself,” Kosanky said. “We’re really happy to now be part of that larger international focus of Lewis & Clark.”
The symposium is a student-organized event. This year’s co-coordinators are Sema Hasan ’18 and Caroline Lawrence ’19. Lawrence has participated in the Arabic language program and also studied abroad in Morocco. She said that the symposium has grown and changed this year compared to what she had seen in the past.
“We had the musical performance, and in terms of turnout it was pretty good even though we only had the one event and the dinner,” Lawrence said. “I think the minor is a main reason there was more interest, because people were kind of attuned to that situation happening on campus. I think the Morocco study abroad program contributed, too.”
At the keynote speaker event on Feb. 19, Dr. Omar Reda from the Oregon Health and Science University spoke about his own experience with trauma and how it inspired him to work with children in his war-torn home country, Libya.
“Young people in Libya don’t have much of a voice or power, and there are these dark ideologies like ISIS that very easily target them and can make them go away from their family, religion or culture,” Reda said. “I’m going to work with the children and try not to repeat the cycle of violence and abuse.”
Reda’s desire to help others stems in part from the adversity he experienced.
“One day my dad told me, ‘Omar, you have to flee the country immediately,’” Reda said. “For some reason Muammar Gaddafi decided my name should be on the list of physicians to be jailed, tortured or executed. I don’t know why.”
After having his application for refuge in the UK rejected, Reda moved to the US with the woman who is now his wife. This was just a few weeks after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was a young Arab Muslim male coming into the country, so I was looked at with suspicion,” Reda said. “People linked me with the same ugly ideologies I was running away from.”
With many of his loved ones left behind in Libya, Reda never knew whether they were safe. Two of his cousins and a nephew were executed by Gaddafi’s forces.
“I remember on March 19, 2011, Gaddafi said, ‘I don’t want to see Benghazi (Reda’s home) anymore, I want you to wipe that city completely out,’” Reda said. “I called my mom that morning and she said ‘Hey, don’t forget me, I’ll see you in paradise.’ That gave me nightmares. What kind of son should be hearing these words from his mom? And, thank God, the city of Benghazi was saved.”
Kosansky believes that this symposium, like the Asian Studies and Latin American Studies programs, will help students analyze this region and understand the personal stories behind the bigger trends.
“These places in the world that we think of in terms of big global processes are also home to millions of people who go about leading their lives like you and I,” Kosansky said. “There’s a certain kind of humanizing that’s really important, that the headlines sometimes betray by thinking of these people as only defined by the situation of warfare or conflict.”
Reda is not alone in his story. Millions of others in this war-torn region have gone through similar atrocities. Kosansky believes that to truly understand the big picture, we have to look at the individuals.
“(Lewis and Clark is) an institution that understands that everything local is global and everything global is local, and in order to understand the world as it exists today, one has to engage in learning about these parts of the world,” Kosansky said.
Lawrence believes the symposium helps inform the student body about a topic it is curious about.
“The Middle East is a big pop-up word, you hear about it all the time, it is something students are interested in,” Lawrence said. “I think having events like these are contributing to greater knowledge and awareness and exposure.”
Reda hopes that through acceptance and empathy, the people of the Middle East can navigate these conflicts.
“As long as we don’t kill one another, I think we will find a way to grieve together and heal together,” Reda said.