by Kelley Hernley
On Wednesday, Nov. 1, UMW held a community forum on the conflict in the Middle East, which was called “The Middle East Crisis: Extending Compassion and Recognizing Grief in Our Own Community.” The forum was held in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium and was open to the public.
The forum began with opening remarks given by Ranjit Singh, an associate professor in the department of political science and international affairs. Singh teaches a course titled “Politics of the Middle East,” and he came up with the idea for the forum.
“Our job tonight is to nurture and honor our diverse community,” said Singh.
After Singh gave the opening remarks, Mary Beth Mathews, a professor of religious studies and director of the Khatib Program in Religion and Dialogue, outlined the ground rules of the event: to listen actively, to respect humanity and to disagree respectfully. As moderator, she also introduced the four speakers and explained that the purpose of the forum was not to discuss politics but rather to focus on compassion and processing grief at the community level.
The first speaker was Melissa Palguta, a therapist at UMW’s Talley Center who has an interest in working with trauma survivors and dealing with social justice and diversity issues. She addressed the mental health aspects of the conflict and defined grief as a natural response to loss and the emotional suffering felt when losing someone or something.
“Grief is your body’s way of telling you that you are going through something difficult,” said Palguta. “Grief can last longer for some people than others.”
Palguta also emphasized finding support within the community. She urged students to take advantage of the resources available on campus, such as the Talley Center or the TimelyCare app, if they need support in dealing with trauma. In the context of the conflict and how people may have differing opinions, Palguta urged finding common ground and having compassion for others.
“Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you hate them,” she said.
The next speaker was Rabbi Ronda Young, a retired Jewish educator and a member of Fredericksburg’s Jewish community. Young has been a Jewish educator for over 18 years and has traveled to study in Israel eight times.
Young spoke on her experiences with grief, as she grew up hearing testimonies from Holocaust survivors on her mother’s side. From this and due to her faith, Young discussed how she believes that people should unite in the midst of trauma.
“At our core, we are all equal,” she said. “We should seek out the divine spark in everyone we encounter.”
The third speaker was Imam Sherif Shehata, who leads the Masjid Aliya Islamic Center in Stafford County. Shehata is also the chaplain for the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office and Stafford County Fire and Rescue.
Regarding the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Shehata emphasized that he wants to see peace.
“We are not searching for a solution, we are searching to live in peace,” said Shehata. “If we start to love ourselves and love our neighbor, then we will live in peace.”
The fourth and final speaker was Reverend Ethan Lowery, who is a campus and young adult missioner at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg. Lowery’s church focuses on connecting with college students whom the church has faced difficulty in reaching, such as people who have not been traditionally accepted by the church. Lowery discussed how Christianity ranges across sectors, and he explained that in order to find compassion, we need to find common ground among each other and love each other, even those with different viewpoints.
“The work of love is how we treat the most oppressed among us,” said Lowery.
Lowery discussed two main questions of Christianity: who is deserving of being cared for and who is our neighbor? He answered these questions by mentioning several groups of people: people who are like us, people who are invisible to us and our enemies.
“There are many people that try to reduce the teachings of Christianity to individual acts of kindness, but instead there should be a comprehensive orientation towards reconciliation,” he said.
After Lowery finished, Mathews addressed the speakers asking where common ground could be found in each other’s statements.
Young commented that all the speakers came to the same general conclusions, specifically in how their religions intersect, believing that everyone is a creation of God and how they see that in others.
“We have to look for what we have in common to bring people together,” said Young.
Mathews asked the panel to give their best advice to students who are watching the events unfold and how to start a dialogue with someone of a different religious faith.
“It is easy to put people in categories when you don’t know them as individuals,” said Palguta. “Wanting to know their perspective opens a dialogue.”
Lowery emphasized building connections with others and making friends with people who show similar interests and curiosities. He mentioned that it is important to cultivate empathy while finding hope, whether that hope comes from activism, religion or friends. Lowery expressed his vision for the future where there is less conflict and more peace.
“I hope that there is a future where everyone has what they need not just to survive but to thrive,” said Lowery.
The speakers who attended the forum mentioned throughout the event that they were apprehensive about discussing politics but that they agreed to speak at the forum because the event was focused on trauma and grief, not history and politics. However, some people believe that politics should have been discussed at the forum.
Junior political science major and the President of UMW Students for Justice in Palestine Amirah Ahmed spoke on why politics should have been covered at the event.
“The intentional exclusion of all historical context and politics is a blatant effort to undermine the severity of the genocide that is taking place in Gaza and the illegal occupation of Palestine for the past 75 years,” said Ahmed. “In order to respect academic and community integrity, these aspects should have been covered at the event, if anything as a preface to the dangerous rhetoric allowed at the event.”