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Samer Khalil thinks he was probably more eager than any other student to get back to classes this semester. After all, it had been more than six years since he’d last set foot on campus.
At 27-years-old, Samer is among the oldest undergraduate students at Bethlehem University. But it wasn’t his choice to postpone his education. He was taken prisoner by the Israelis in 2003 – just months before he was supposed to graduate from Bethlehem University – and he was only released late last year.
“Finally I am back,” said Samer earlier this semester as he entered the Social Cultural Building at the Bethlehem campus with a wide grin across his wise face. “I feel like a regular student. I have a university notebook and textbooks. I can ask and answer questions freely. I can communicate openly with students, professors, and staff. It’s a real life, an authentic life.”
Having once been a normal student at Bethlehem University, Samer has had to travel a long and arduous road to being a normal student once again. He first enrolled at Bethlehem University in September 1999. In the early spring of 2003, months before he was to graduate from Bethlehem University, he was taken into prison by the Israeli military – where he was denied access to a lawyer for 55 days and ended up being moved from one Israeli prison to another for more than six years.
When Samer speaks of the time he was held in prison, he describes being tortured on numerous occasions: being regularly interrogated for eight hours a day in just a t-shirt, squatting on the cold ground with his hands tied behind his back and an air conditioner pointed at his back sometimes for four to five days. He describes being held in solitary confinement for more than one year and being verbally abused on a number of occasions.
As he recalls these painful memories, a slight smile comes across his face and he shakes his head in disbelief at what he’s gone through, especially the pain of being away from his loved ones while being held by a foreign government, an occupying force, in their prison for more than six years.
“It’s really impacted me and my family,” he says, reflecting on the long-term effects of his incarceration. “Both my parents have suffered because of the stress.”
Samer is also suffering these effects after six years in prison. He said he is often tired without reason, stressed, jittery, depressed, sad and restless. At times he feels as if he has lost all hope and that his life is pointless. “It’s like a ghost,” he said of his years in prison and the memories of them which still affect his day to day life.
Samer’s story is like that of hundreds of Palestinian students who are political prisoners. It is widely reported that many of these students languish in Israeli jails, denied their basic rights to due process, a fair trial and legal representation. Some are held waiting to be charged for up to two years, others are charged under a military law that does not meet the standards of international law. Membership in a student group in Palestine is outlawed under this Israeli military law. Thus, students who engage in student politics or join campus groups during their time at a Palestinian university are at risk of being taken prisoner by the Israeli army – an army from another country coming into Palestine to take students prisoner.
The Palestinian Prisoner’s Society currently counts seven Bethlehem University students among those in Israeli prisons – and reports that they were all arrested because they took part in “student activities.” One student, Mahmoud Al-Ali (N.B., the name is changed in an effort to protect the student), is being held under administrative detention – which means he has yet to be charged or sentenced for any crime because the Israeli military claims it has secret evidence, which is shown only to a military judge. This practice is often used to justify incarceration without legal representation or recourse for release for a period of up to six months, which can be renewed for additional six month periods. Mahmoud’s incarceration was recently renewed for a second six-month period. This practice is often used for students accused of being involved in “student senate activities.”
For Samer, being back at Bethlehem University has been among the sources of hope in his life since being released from prison. Although he’s had some initial problems communicating with other students, many of whom are much younger than him, he’s thankful for the opportunity to finish the degree which he started almost 10 years ago.
“I see Samer as a success story in the sense that he hasn’t lost hope,” said Mai Nassar, a Bethlehem University English professor who also taught Samer during his first years at the University. “He came back and so much wanted to continue his education. He’s doing well, considering everything he has been through.”
Ms. Nassar said Samer regularly kept in touch from prison, writing letters and sending messages through his family. “It was tough for him,” she said, “but Samer did it. He survived with his personhood intact.”
Dr. Jeanne Kattan, one of Samer’s current professors, remembers Samer from six years ago. “There is a definite measure of maturity in Samer now,” she remarked. “He’s proud of being at Bethlehem University and he knows of the value of education. Samer doesn’t miss classes, he’s very regular and dependable.”
“Six years of a gap in his education – and six rather difficult years – is not something that everyone can overcome. Samer’s pursuing his education once again because he wants to improve himself – and his classmates see and admire this,” noted Dr. Kattan.
Samer knows it won’t be easy and he knows his years in prison will haunt him for a long time, but he’s taking this second chance offered him by Bethlehem University and doing everything he can to make it work. “I have to prove to myself I can do something new these days,” he said, a look of determination coming over his face. “I have to prove I can be here and do well. I have to prove I can continue and succeed – and I will!”