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Palestinian interning in Yakima hoping for peace in homeland


From: Yakima Herald

Posted on July 5, 2014


By Jane Gargas / Yakima Herald-Republic


Dana Shatleh laughs as she answers a question during a presentation to her co-workers about her Palastenian homeland July 1, 2014 in Yakima, Wash. Shatleh, 20, has been working in Yakima for six weeks as an intern with Catholic Charities. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic)

As a Greek Orthodox young woman attending a Roman Catholic university in a predominantly Muslim land surrounded by Jews, she’s used to contrasts. Now she’s come to Yakima to learn about the American way of life and talk about her own life.

Dana Al-Shatleh, 20, is a Palestinian living in the West Bank, the territory flanking Jordan and Israel. A junior studying business administration and marketing at Bethlehem University, also in the West Bank, she’s spending six weeks in Yakima interning in the Catholic Charities office, which oversees a variety of programs in the Yakima Diocese to help the underprivileged.

She’s one of 10 students from the university interning in Catholic Charities offices in the U.S. this summer. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the charity has roughly 150 local agencies around the country. Although this is the second year that Bethlehem University, whose student body is 75 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian, has sent summer interns to the states, this is the first time one has been placed in Yakima.

“I’m very happy to be here,” said Al-Shatleh, who is on her first trip outside the Middle East. “My dream is to travel, see the world and see how people are different.”

Al-Shatleh is working in the charity’s development and human resources departments as well as writing and producing content for social media. “I’m grabbing every chance to learn more and improve my English,” she said. Although her first language is Arabic, she also speaks French and flawless English, which she began studying in kindergarten.

She said she’s keen to learn about how a nonprofit operates, noting that Catholic Charities is “giving hope to needy people.”

She explained that in Palestine, a few nonprofits and nongovernmental agencies provide some relief efforts, but they don’t impact the overall situation. “Here, they change lives,” she said.

Calling her “a wonderful addition” to the agency, Steve Wilmes, development director at Catholic Charities, said Al-Shatleh has been intrigued with seeing how the agency puts its core values to work in the community.

Staff at the charity are learning from Al-Shatleh as well, he said. As an ambassador from her school and country, she’s given a presentation to fellow employees about life in Palestine and the tense situation between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, who consider the West Bank their ancestral land.

“She’s definitely changed our ideas about what it’s like to live in an oppressed situation,” Wilmes said.

Of the 2.7 million people in the West Bank, more than 80 percent are Palestinian Arabs, but they manage less than one quarter of the land. The rest is controlled by Israel.

Historically, the lands have been a hodgepodge, claimed by opposing groups and containing sacred sites revered by several religions. The area was part of Jordan until Israel took possession after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Peace talks between Palestinians and Israel have dragged on for decades, which discourages Al-Shatleh. She described West Bank conditions as stark, riddled with high unemployment and a poor economy, under constant surveillance by the Israeli military, with few avenues for advancement.

“Life is very complicated,” she said.

One reason, in her view, is that everyone is required to have a permit, which makes traveling to various cities cumbersome and sometimes impossible. For example, in order for Al-Shatleh’s sister, who is married and living in nearby Jerusalem, to visit the family home in Beitjala, close to Bethlehem, with her young child, the trip involves being questioned at multiple checkpoints, encountering delays and, occasionally, being denied access altogether.

“It’s very humiliating, like a prison,” Al-Shatleh said. Still, people can’t stay home and be scared, she added. “We have to live life; God will be with us.”

Much of the friction in the area comes from Palestinian resentment toward the settlement of West Bank land by Israel; some 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank. Al-Shatleh said she’s surprised when some Americans tell her they didn’t realize there was conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Wilmes described getting a much clearer view of the West Bank controversy when he traveled to the Middle East in 2000. “The Israelis see it as taking back their land, but from the Palestinian perspective it’s stealing their land.”

There’s also hostility toward the wall that Israel has been building through the West Bank since 2002 to protect its settlers. According to Al-Shatleh, half of her grandfather’s land in Beitjala, handed down in the family for many generations, was excised when the wall was erected through his olive and fruit trees and grape vineyard.

“We have no problem with the people and their religion; our fight is with the (Israeli) government,” Al-Shatleh noted.

Regardless of how difficult living conditions are, her people haven’t given up, she said. “All Palestinians have hope for education and to travel and to build families. We’re suffering every day, but people still have hope.”

During her time in Yakima, she’s noticed how different everyday life is from her country. “The biggest thing I feel here is freedom. You can drive wherever you want, you don’t have to show an ID, you don’t need a permit; it’s a good feeling.”

She longs for food like her mother’s grape leaves, but she recently cooked a traditional Palestinian dish — “msakhan,” olive oil, spices, onions and chicken on pita bread — for her host family, John Young, CEO of Catholic Charities, and his wife, Celia.

She also misses her family’s Sunday ritual of attending church in Bethlehem, where they pray on the site where Jesus was said to be born.

Al-Shatleh has been saddened by the ongoing violence in Syria, “such a beautiful country,” which she visited as a child. Ending the conflict there, as well as the turmoil in the West Bank, would be a boon to the whole region.

“I hope in my life to see peace,”she said. That’s one of my dreams before I die. I don’t want my (future) children to live this way.”

• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or

Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine