February 7, 2011
Charlie Parker (B.A. ’07, M.A. ’10) loves being the foreign person in the room. “It brings a different perspective,” he says. “I know that I belong overseas.”
His jet-setting tendencies led him to work in European embassies constructing security systems (think high-tech alarms) after high school, and it’s also what led him to study political science and international relations at St. Mary’s. But while he was always eager to live abroad, he wasn’t always as quick to see things through other people’s eyes.
“I was definitely a ‘hoorah, bomb everybody’ kind of guy before my education,” he admits. But now he sees foreign cultures and our country’s presence abroad in a different light. “I still support our military, but now I look at things … from who we call our enemy’s point of view. I think we’re supposed to do that in order to make the right foreign policy decisions.”
After graduating with his master’s last summer, he followed Larry Hufford, Ph.D., professor of International Relations, on a St. Mary’s group trip to Israel where they studied conflict resolution.
The weeklong stay included one night in the West Bank. “It was a very emotional trip,” he says. “We saw blatant racism that probably none of us have ever seen before. Our bus driver wasn’t allowed to get off the bus in certain places. It affected me.”
Seeing the bus driver’s life first-hand, seeing bullet holes in United Nations-run schools, and meeting volunteers committed to nonviolent resolution compelled him to return to the Middle East last fall. Only this time, he would stay for three months and live alone in the West Bank.
Revisiting the West Bank, Charlie teamed up with a Bethlehem-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Holy Land Trust that teaches nonviolence.
“I really needed to come back and see it first hand, live in Palestine, work with Palestinians, have a better perspective on the Arab culture.”
He certainly accomplished that goal. When he compares his first night in the West Bank with other St. Mary’s students during the Hufford-led trip, to his perception after having lived there for three months, he laughs. “We were all really nervous about it,” he recalls, “but we had the totally wrong perception. You could walk around at three or four in the morning and you’re never going to have a problem with anyone there.”
Living day-to-day, side-by-side with Palestinians, he began to put other cultural differences into perspective, as well.
“The guy who ran the shop were I ate falafel lunch every day was a member of Hamas – nicest guy I know,” says Charlie. “Hamas is a political organization, and he is a member because he was tired of the corruption in Fatah. But now there’s a corruption of Hamas, too. It’s just like our politics. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, there’s corruption and scandals in both. It’s the same thing over there.”
Living there, he realized that more unites us than divides us. He describes the reality by saying that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are “every day people just like you and me who don’t like what’s going on.” But working as a volunteer journalist, he observed how those divisions lead to many of the daily conflicts we hear about on the news.
His main duties volunteering with Holy Land Trust were producing news stories with the NGO’s news network – Palestine’s second largest news outlet – called the Palestinian News Network. In this role, he witnessed conflicts most Americans only learn about on television.
“The only time Palestinians see an Israeli is in a soldier’s uniform, and it’s always a bad situation,” Charlie says while recalling stories of confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. “There’s a very big disconnect between Arabs and Jewish people. They may live next door to one another for 20 years and never talk. As long as they stay ignorant of each other, it’s easier to hate one another. There are a lot of people there working to bring them together, but it’s difficult.”
His experiences in Israel and the West Bank inspired him to keep the dialogue going now that he’s back in the United States, regardless of what post-graduate school path he chooses. “If we want to defeat the war on terrorism, then we need to solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.”
While politics is still on the table along with other career goals, he knows one thing for sure: “I’ll never stop traveling. I may always work in the States, but I’ll never stop going back and forth overseas. Whether it’s a few weeks here and there to volunteer, I’ll always continue to go back.”