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Ohio University student Alena Klimas rides a camel on a study abroad trip to Jordan last summer.

Ohio University student Alena Klimas rides a camel on a study abroad trip to Jordan last summer.

Ohio University students Alena Klimas and Seth Covert take a photo during their study abroad trip to Jordan last summer.

Ohio University students Alena Klimas and Seth Covert take a photo during their study abroad trip to Jordan last summer.

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OHIO students' Middle East study abroad trip includes visit to Bethlehem, West Bank

Ohio University students Seth Covert and Alena Klimas spent six weeks last summer studying abroad in Jordan and traveling to surrounding areas. Like most students’ study abroad trips, it was an eye-opening experience. However, not many students take time to visit Bethlehem and the West Bank.

Covert and Klimas, both seniors who major in global studies – war and peace, participated in the Arabic Language and Middle Eastern Studies program through International Studies Abroad. They stayed in apartments in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and would travel about 40 minutes by bus to get to class.

Klimas chose to study abroad in Jordan because she studied Arabic and it was important to her to pick a country that would help her improve her skills.

For Covert, it was more about timing. As a specialist in the Ohio Army National Guard, he needed to attend training during the summer. He was interested in traveling to the Middle East and considered Israel and the United Arab Emirates as well, but it turned out that Jordan was the best fit.

The program had planned trips to places in Jordan, such as As Salt and Madaba, but many weekends and evenings were free for Covert and Klimas to use as they wished.

Most evenings they explored Amman, visiting the local hang out spots.

“I was always interested in exploring coffee shops,” Klimas said. “Jordan had these little hole in the wall Turkish style coffee shops where you could go and read books and listen to live music. That’s where I spent most of my time.”

Klimas explained that a difference between Jordan and U.S. culture is that people of different genders were not allowed in each other’s apartments, so any time Covert and Klimas wanted to study together or hang out they had to find a place to meet. Coffee shops were a frequent destination.

Covert also wanted to stay active during his trip, so he and his roommates would often go running and would explore Amman on foot.

During the weekends, Covert and Klimas took the opportunity to take their own trips around the country. One weekend they decided to travel to Jerusalem. For Klimas, it was an important trip because she was raised in a Christian household and religion had always been a large part of her life. Covert also wanted to visit Jerusalem for religious reasons.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get to go [to Jerusalem]. It was really cool seeing the religious sites and to see where everything actually happened,” Covert said.

Their first day in Jerusalem they walked 11 miles simply exploring, sightseeing and finding their hostel.

“We actually slept on the roof of our hostel,” Klimas said. “You could see everything: Temple Mount, the Tower of David, the Western Wall, everything.”

However, neither Covert nor Klimas were satisfied with just seeing Jerusalem. They decided to extend their trip two days in order to visit Bethlehem, which meant that they would have to cross the border of Israel and enter the West Bank.

“It was a gut call,” Klimas said. “I think more than anyone else on the trip we both wanted to see [Bethlehem].”

As expected, it was not a simple process to enter the West Bank. First they had to travel by bus from Jerusalem to the Israel border, cross the border, get on another bus to cross the border into the West Bank, and finally get through the security to enter the West Bank. Plus, the fees that they had to pay in order to enter Israel were high. It was a complicated and expensive process, but because they were American, it was not difficult to enter the West Bank.

“They just automatically assumed we were tourists,” Covert said.

Once they arrived in Bethlehem they met with one of Klimas’ friends and began to explore the city.

“My favorite part of the West Bank was the tour of the Banksy graffiti in Bethlehem,” Klimas said. “It was something I thought I would never be able to see in my life. They had these amazing murals on the apartheid wall.”

“I was ignorant about that,” Covert said. “I just wanted to be there for the sake of the religious sites. But getting to see [the graffiti] was eye opening. It made me realize that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict wasn’t just about neighbors not getting along. Obviously someone [Banksy] halfway across the world traveled to Bethlehem and made those pieces of art because the conflict is a big deal.”

Covert and Klimas explained that their taxi driver in Bethlehem was very passionate about the conflict. He showed them his old village and spoke to them about how he and his people were being affected by the conflict.

While in the area, Covert and Klimas took a bus to Ramallah and organized a small Bobcat reunion and met with two alumni and a student who is currently doing an internship in the West Bank. They ate ice cream together and visited the nearby historic sites, such as Yasser Arafat’s grave.

Covert and Klimas’ trip to Jordan, and their subsequent trips to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, changed them. One thing Covert realized was that many of the ways that the media portrays the Middle East are incorrect.

“The media typically portrays everyone [in the Middle East] as being Muslim,” Covert said. “But there are Christians there, too. Christianity started [in the Middle East], it isn’t foreign to them. It’s foreign to the U.S. because it didn’t start here, it started there. That’s a thought that we don’t really have in the U.S.: they are as much Christian as we are, and they are as much Muslim as we are.”

Klimas related a particular story where in the north of Jordan she and Covert went on a tour of the Roman Ruins. Afterward they met a shop owner who spoke with them about many things in the region.

“He pointed up to a hill and said ‘You see that church?’” Klimas said. “Then he pointed to the building next to it and said ‘and you see that mosque?’ He said ‘They were built together, and they have always practiced together, and the community is together.’”

Both Covert and Klimas expressed their interest in going back to Jordan and the West Bank. They met many friends, traveled to important religious sites, and learned more about the world than they originally thought they would.

“The thing is,” Covert said, “the only reason we had these experiences was because we wanted to. You think that the entire trip is planned and you won’t get to do your own things, but we did. I had a roommate that just stayed in our apartment and never experienced anything. He would just go to clubs with his friends. That was his entire experience. You can go on these trips and have an awesome experience that will change your life, or you can go on them and do the same things you do in Athens.”