Jim Kenyon: Refugee shares personal story to bridge Israeli-Palestinian divide (Part 2)

  • Mohsen Mahdawi, of Hartford, sings in a ritual of appreciation he performs each time he arrives at the 21 acres of land he purchased last October in West Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Mahdawi grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank and is the first member of his family in three generations to own land since his great-grandfather’s vineyards were lost when the State of Israel was created in 1948. “I honor the memories and relationships of previous owners with the land, and the original ownership of the Abenakis,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alerted by the sound of wing beats overhead, Mohsen Mahdawi, left, and his girlfriend, Nadine Clopton, right, stop to watch a raven fly past while walking their dog, Sage, on trails near his home in Hartford, Vt., Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Clopton, who met Mahdawi while he was studying computer engineering and she was completing a master's degree in environmental policy at Lehigh University, was preparing to leave the Upper Valley to visit family in Pennsylvania for the holidays. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mohsen Mahdawi looks out over his land after singing a song in meditation in West Fairlee, Vt., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. “Slowly, step by step, I am revisiting painful memories and beautiful ones as well and trying to document that,” he said of his intention to write a book of his experiences as a boy in a Palestinian refugee camp. “It’s not only my story, it’s the story of millions of other kids.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sage, Mohsen Mahdawi’s English Setter, leans into him as he plays his harmonica in West Fairlee, Vt., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. When searching the internet for a puppy, he came across an ad for an English Setter from a breeder in East Palestine, Ohio. “I always look for signs,” he said. “I’ve been this way since I was a boy.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mohsen Mahdawi photographs a grove of tall oaks growing on his land, part of a former sheep farm, in West Fairlee, Vt., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mohsen Mahdawi leans into a dying beech tree while walking his land in West Fairlee, Vt., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. After growing up in the crowded man-made space of a Palestinian refugee camp, he is learning all he can about the natural world, and takes a special interest in the stories and knowledge of Native Americans. Mahdawi said he learned from a Cherokee woman that when he feels strong emotions to lean on, and communicate them to a tree. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/27/2020 12:22:30 PM
Modified: 12/27/2020 12:35:48 PM

When David Bisno walked into Ledyard National Bank in downtown Hanover on an early November day in 2015, an unfamiliar face greeted him from behind the teller’s counter.

The twenty-something man with dark skin and short black hair had a warm smile and spoke with a thick accent. Bisno, a retired ophthalmologist, also took note of the man’s well-tailored suit.

Not shy about striking up conversations with strangers, Bisno asked, “Where are you from?”

“I’m from the most troubled land in the Middle East,” Mohsen Mahdawi replied. “Where do you at think that is?”

Bisno thought for a moment. Iraq? Syria? Lebanon?

“Palestine,” the man answered.

From that brief exchange, a friendship was born.

The octogenarian that he calls Dr. David has “opened so many doors for me,” Mahdawi said. “He inspired me to tell my story.”

At the time of their first encounter, Bisno was teaching a class at Dartmouth’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that delved into the life of Theodor Herzl. The Viennese journalist was among the first people to see that with the rise of the Nazis, Jews weren’t safe in much of Europe.

Bisno, who lives in Hanover, asked Mahdawi if he’d speak to the class. Mahdawi hesitated. “I didn’t know if I could deliver my thoughts and feelings in English,” he said.

The Osher program tends to attract an older, intellectual crowd. A hundred or so people had signed up for Bisno’s class, which met at the Wilder Center, a refurbished church in Hartford.

On Nov. 11, 2015, the final day of the class, Mahdawi slid into a seat at the back of the large room. As he listened to the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Jewish perspective, he was torn. “I didn’t know if I should stay or leave,” he said.

But it was too late. Bisno was a step ahead of him. “In order to understand what life is really like in Palestine, I’d like to introduce you to someone who is from there,” Bisno announced to the class.

Mahdawi, dressed in a coat and tie, made his way to the front of the room. During his short time in the U.S., he’d learned that Americans often only hear about one side of the conflict — the Palestinian terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Israeli markets and buses.

“I’m going to share with you the half of the story that I know,” Mahdawi told his audience.

For 40 minutes, he talked about growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. The al-Far’a camp, in the foothills of the Jordan Valley, is a “concrete jungle” where cinder block houses are cheek by jowl. A water tank on the flat roof of his family’s house gets filled once a week. “The one day a week for showers is the day after the tank is filled,” he said.

Mahdawi brought up his great-grandfather who was driven from his vineyard near the Mediterranean Sea in the fighting that surrounded the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. He told the class about his 13-year-old best friend who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.

“Mohsen wasn’t as proficient in English as he is now, but people were spellbound by his story,” Bisno said. “You could hear a pin drop.”

Steve Flanders, a former member of the Norwich Selectboard, was in the audience that day. “As Americans, our exposure to Palestinians in the past has been basically how angry they are about the Israeli occupation,” Flanders said. “Mohsen’s whole story was through the eyes of a little boy. I was in tears just hearing him talk about it.”

When Mahdawi, now 30, spoke in public for the first time about his upbringing, he’d lived in the Upper Valley for 16 months.

He came with a young American woman he’d met — and later married — while they both studied at Birzeit University in the West Bank. In the fall of 2014, Meagan Dechen started her first year at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

The couple bought a fixer-upper in downtown Windsor. While waiting for his green card, a permit that allows a foreign national to live and work permanently in the U.S., Mahdawi sanded the house’s floors, painted walls and rebuilt the hearth to the fireplace.

After his green card arrived, Mahdawi found a customer service job at Ledyard. It didn’t pay a lot, but it was a chance to practice his English.

Later, he worked at downtown Hanover’s Dirt Cowboy Cafe, where he met Don Foster, a retired diplomat who helped with international students at Dartmouth. “We had an immediate connection,” Foster said. “That’s the way Mohsen is with everyone.”

Mahdawi shared with Foster his dream of attending Dartmouth. To help Mahdawi improve his English, Foster gave him a word-of-the-day calendar. When he visited Mahdawi in Windsor, Foster found the daily words plastered on walls throughout the house.

In January 2016, Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich hired Mahdawi to update its computer system. (He was a computer science major at Birzeit.)

Through Dan Fraser, the store’s co-owner, he met David DeLucia, CEO at ImmuNext, a Lebanon-based company which develops compounds to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.

DeLucia learned that Mahdawi was interested in going to Dartmouth, but his initial application was deferred. “My SATs weren’t that good,” Mahdawi said.

DeLucia and his partner, Lisa Gardner, offered to pay for SAT tutoring. Mahdawi declined, but DeLucia insisted.

“We’ve all heard about what’s happened in the Middle East, but not many of us have met someone who has gone through it and come out the other side,” DeLucia said.

Three times, Mahdawi sent his application to Dartmouth with no success. “I was shattered, but I wasn’t going to give up,” he told me. “I’d been through much worse.”

And not just in the refugee camp. In 2016, Mahdawi and Dechen were divorced. Although several of Mahdawi’s friends told me that he’s too hard on himself, he accepts much of the blame for the break-up. “There were issues of control and misunderstanding,” he said. “I wasn’t mature enough to see it.”

Mahdawi, who currently lives in Hartford, said he’s lost touch with Dechen, who graduated from Geisel this year. (I tried reaching her through Geisel, but a spokesman said the school doesn’t share alumni contact information.)

After he was rejected at Dartmouth, Mahdawi was encouraged by Foster, the retired diplomat, and others to widen his college search.

In 2018, he enrolled at Lehigh University, but it was more than just its computer engineering program that attracted him to the Bethlehem, Pa., school.

Jewish students make up about 20% of Lehigh’s 5,000 undergraduates. “I wanted to interact with Jewish students and learn about Jewish life,” he said.

The feeling was mutual. He received frequent invitations to speak on and off campus about his upbringing. “Mahdawi’s perspective as a Palestinian refugee has helped to build bridges between Palestinians and Jews on Lehigh’s campus and in the local community,” wrote Southsider, an online magazine that covers Bethlehem, a former steel mill town, 50 miles north of Philadelphia.

Mahdawi made it a point to connect with people on their own turf, starting with the Jewish Center on campus. Before Mahdawi, “Lehigh had never had a Palestinian attend Shabbat or go to Chabad,” the Southsider wrote.

In March 2019, Mahdawi spoke at a campus vigil that followed the killing of 51 Muslim worshippers at a mosque in New Zealand. He drew a parallel between the New Zealand massacre and the mass shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, five months earlier.

“My experience says we are all similar and the enemy is fear,” Mahdawi said. “The enemy is segregation. The enemy is ignorance. And we won’t be able to break through the enemy unless we have open hearts.”

The next day, and after his remarks were reprinted on Lehigh’s website, Mahdawi received an Instagram friend request from Nadine Clopton, a Jewish student. In looking her up on social media, he discovered a clip of Clopton singing Karen O’s The Moon Song, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2014.

Mahdawi wrote back about how much he enjoyed her singing. (Clopton was a member of a Lehigh a cappella group and also sang in the school’s choir.)

“He seemed very sweet and thoughtful,” Clopton said.

Or put another way, she joked, “he wasn’t a creep.”

They later met by accident at a campus party. He was getting ready to leave when she walked into the room. “I can stay another 10 minutes,” he offered.

They stayed out until 4 a.m. “I thought he was interesting,” Clopton said. “I wanted to get to know him.”

Now, nearly two years into their relationship, the 23-year-old Clopton, who has a master’s degree in environmental policy, said their story’s headline writes itself: “A Jew and Palestinian who met in Bethlehem.”

In 2016, Rabbi Dov Taylor, of Woodstock, led an interfaith group of two dozen people on a two-week trip to Israel. Taylor lived in Israel for two years but had never been inside the West Bank. “In fact, that’s true for most Israelis,” Taylor said.

Taylor acknowledges that he is “sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” which doesn’t always play well in pro-Israel circles. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict there is “plenty of blame to go around,” he said. “On both sides there are people who want peace and there are people who are filled with hate.”

Mahdawi, whom Taylor had met through a friend, arranged for the visitors to meet Palestinian families in their West Bank homes.

Anne Macksoud, a Woodstock filmmaker, chronicled the trip, which resulted in her hour-long documentary Seeing Through the Wall. (It’s available on Amazon.) In the film, several travelers describe how visiting the West Bank had made them see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new light.

After the film was shown the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre, Taylor invited Mahdawi to join him and Macksoud on stage.

During the Q&A session, Mahdawi turned to his host. “Rabbi Taylor,” he began. “I have to apologize to you and I must apologize to the audience.

“When I was growing up, I cursed the Israelis. I cursed the Americans. Now I see there are American Jews who understand.”

After the film was shown (in pre-COVID days) in churches and community centers, Mahdawi was often asked to speak. “It almost sounds sappy to say it, but he’s so sincere that he wins everyone’s heart,” Taylor said.

How does Mahdawi capture people’s attention so quickly?

“First of all, he’s very good looking, so that helps,” joked Flanders, who has gotten to know Mahdawi through canoeing and other outdoor excursions since the Osher class. “He’s very charismatic, but he doesn’t impose himself on others.

“He’s a transcendent thinker. He has an ability to step back from the injustice that was right in front of him for so many years. But he doesn’t pretend that he’s never been angry about it.”

Sue Buckholz, a Hartford attorney and former state legislator, met Mahdawi at Hartland’s Unitarian Universalist church, where both attend services. Buckholz told me that she’s become “one of his many mothers” in the Upper Valley. “With all the things that he went through when he was young, it’s amazing how determined he is to make life better not only for his people, but Jewish people as well,” she said.

In 2018, Mahdawi returned to the West Bank for a month. He spent part of the time with his mother, who left the refugee camp when he was 7. “Our reunion had a feeling that I had never experienced before,” he said. “Having empathy and understanding for my mother’s decision brought me to a point of forgiveness.”

After two years at Lehigh, Mahdawi’s career plans have changed. He wants to become a lawyer, focusing on international law.

With that in mind, he applied to Columbia University as a transfer student. In its School of General Studies, Columbia looks for students who have had “real-world experiences,” said Diana O’Donnell, associate director of admissions at the Ivy League school.

Mahdawi was a natural fit. “Mohsen is truly an excellent student and he has a really strong sense of purpose,” O’Donnell told me.

Columbia offers scholarships to a select few who are often the first in their families to attend college and have shown a “commitment to service,” she said. With that in mind, Mahdawi was awarded a scholarship that covers his tuition and fees —roughly $65,000 a year — for the remainder of his undergraduate studies.

Mahdawi will start at Columbia in the fall.

In the meantime, he’ll continue to work and explore the 21 acres that he bought in October in West Fairlee, where he’s building a cabin. “I find peace in the quietness of the forest,” he said. “When I look out at the hills, I realize how small we are, yet I can see that we are all connected.”

The cabin will be his “anchor” to the Upper Valley and a place to collect his thoughts. He’s started working on a memoir that he hopes will in part serve as a “guide for those interested in deepening their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Not since his great-grandfather had a grape vineyard on “land that is Israel’s now” has anyone in his family owned land, he said.

But he tries not to think of the West Fairlee property as a possession. “I am only the caretaker,” he said.

For that reason, he’s made sure that Chris and Kate Clark, who owned the land previously, always feel welcome to hike and hunt on the property. (A portable metal tree stand that Chris put up years ago for deer hunting remains in place.)

Mahdawi was partially drawn to the land by its history. Four hundred years ago, Western Abenaki Native Americans were hunting and fishing in West Fairlee and surrounding communities. They built settlements up and down the Connecticut River valley, only to be driven out by European settlers.

His family’s story isn’t much different.

“We lost our land, too,” he said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@ vnews.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy