In the West Bank, Losing Hope and Freedom


When I was a law student backpacking through the Middle East in 1982, I met two Palestinian university students on a local bus in the West Bank. We got to chatting and they invited me to their homes, so I jumped off the bus and spent a day with them in the jumbled alleys of the densely populated Dheisheh Refugee Camp.

We had a good time together, for they told me about their Arabic studies at Bethlehem University, and I was then hatching a scheme to study Arabic myself in Cairo. We were all excited by education and full of youth and dreams. I wrote their names in my address book, but we never made contact again — until now.

After 41 years, I dug up my old address book and found their names. I wondered: Are they still alive? Have they moved abroad? At this grim moment, what do they think of Israel, Hamas and America?

With the help of a local reporter who called around at the Dheisheh camp, I was able to locate them: Saleh Molhem, now 63 and graying, and Mahmoud Qaraqei, now 60. One reason it was possible to track them down is that Palestinian refugees aren’t very mobile. Both were still living in the same refugee camp. They remembered me and invited me to pay another visit.

Photographs of two men showing only a small part of their faces.
Saleh Molhem and Mahmoud Qaraqei.William Keo for The New York Times

It was wonderful to see them again, but our reunion was also a window into Palestinian frustrations: The world has changed so much in four decades, but while I’ve traveled the world and had a fulfilling career, they remain stateless, stuck in a refugee camp and fearful of Israeli settlers and soldiers. Worse, they have much less freedom today than when I met them in 1982.


Leave a Reply