'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

Mohammed ‘Moha’ Alshawamreh grew up in a small village south of Hebron, without regular supply of electricity, has three degrees from three different countries. He’s happy at his IT job in Tel Aviv, even though it’s about a four-hour trip each way

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Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.
Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Shelly Kling
Shelly Kling

Introduce yourself.

“My name is Mohammed Alshawamreh, or Moha for short. I’m a Palestinian resident of the West Bank. I have three academic degrees, and I work as a customer success engineer at Syte, a company that develops product discovery platforms for retailers.”

Where did you grow up?

“I was born in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem. Due to the difficult situation there, when I was two years old, my family moved to a small village in southern Hebron called Deir al-’Asal al-Fauqa. I’m the third of six children. My mother is a housewife, and my father works in Be’er Sheva as a gardener. There are no parks or coffee shops in the village, and there are only one or two grocery stores. After 6:00 in the evening there is no public transportation, and the nearest big city is Dura, which is about 25 minutes away.

“When I completed school, the common aspiration of most of the young people in the village was to get a permit to work in Israel. In order to get it, you had to be married and be over 21. Most of my friends, once they finished school, began to pass through the separation barrier through holes in the fence and worked illegally, and then, once they turned 21, they got married and submitted a request for a work permit. Out of my entire class, only three people continued on to higher education.

How do they treat you?

“My family is happy and was so proud of me once I completed my studies in Tel Aviv, and especially after I got a job. And the same holds true for nearly everyone in the village. But they do chide me for not being married, and for not having children.

And what do you think of that?

“There are a lot of things that you cannot do in the village. For example, you can’t wear shorts. There is electricity only intermittently, it is hard in the winter without regular heat. It is in Area C. We have a corrupt government, and nothing has improved since the days of Arafat. The village relies on help from the UN, for instance. A lot of people want to live a normal life, to work and to live. But there are parties, such as the Palestinian government, that stand to gain from the existing situation.”

What was it about you that differentiated you from your classmates?

“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was watch television. I wasn’t overly friendly, and I didn’t especially care about my studies. I did manage to learn English from books and from watching movies, and one of the books I read was “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. It had a powerful effect on me, and has stayed with me all through my life. Frankl wrote about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. He writes about our ability to choose, even in a difficult situation, how our life can be. And that’s what I learned from the book. It doesn’t matters how good or bad my life situation is. The thing that determines my situation is not other people, but rather my own choices. Influenced by the book, I tried to adopt a positive attitude toward life, in spite of the tough experiences I had gone through. I learned how to control my life regardless of the situation from that book.”

What, for example?

“My older brother studied medicine in Turkey, and my family wanted me to follow in his path, but I didn’t want to. Instead, through an advertisement in the newspaper that my mother found, I submitted an application to be accepted to computer science studies in Malaysia, through the program of a Palestinian organization that aids Palestinian students. I was one of five Palestinians accepted to the program.”

Tell me about studying there.

“When I arrived in Malaysia, I felt culture shock. I shared a room with a Chinese guy, a Korean and a Palestinian. That was also the first time that I did not live at home. And even though my mother had taught me how to prepare food, to clean and to be independent, I had a different mentality. I was close-minded and I had fixed opinions. It was really a shock to move from a little village where everyone is Muslim, with the same opinions and worldview, to a big open world, with people from different religions. It required a lot of courage to become the person I am today, but it was there that I began to understand that I could not continue to hold on to the close-minded mentality to which I was accustomed. I left my comfort zone.”

And from there you went on to further studies?

“I completed my bachelor’s degree in three years, and then received two other grants to study for a master’s degree in South Korea, at a university that is ranked among the top 100 in the world. In the first year I studied Korean, and economic sociology in the second. In the course of my studies I took part in two student exchange programs, in Singapore and in Japan. During school vacations and on weekends, I spent a lot of time in the library, to study and to listen to recordings of the classes, all of which were in Korean. Aside from that, I volunteered at the university hospital and an orphanage, working with children, and I also worked at a charitable organization called Heal the World, which was engaged in raising contributions.”

What sort of effect did living in these countries have on you?

“At the university in Malaysia, even though the student body came from all over the world, the majority was Muslim, and it is a conservative place. In South Korea, many of the students were Christian. I also studied with four Israelis; each of us had his religion and his God. I began to have a lot of questions about my own life, and about my past. I thought that it was a good thing and it was important to open up to other cultures and ways of thinking. It was a period of time in which I began asking a lot of questions about my life; I drank beer for the first time in my life, and I visited a church. I lived in a Buddhist monastery for six months.”

Tell me about that.

“The discipline was strict. You shave your head, you wake up at 5:00 in the morning, and you meditate all day long. It taught me patience.”

And then what did you do?

“In 2017, I returned to Israel. I had two degrees and I wanted to find work. But because I am a resident of the territories, it was very difficult. Then I applied to the Palestinian Internship Program – PIP – a program that helps Palestinians integrate into the workforce in Israel. It takes there months until you get an answer; during that time, I learned Japanese. Afterwards, I joined the Israeli startup company MobileODT as an intern. Meanwhile, I applied to the MBA program at Tel Aviv University.”

Tell me about that experience, from the point of view of a young Palestinian.

“There was a security guard at the entrance of Tel Aviv University who wouldn’t let me enter when it came time for me to receive the scholarship, and I had to ask the interviewer to collect me from the gate. I received a grant for one of the two semesters of the program. That was the toughest period of my life, because I wasn’t able to find housing in Tel Aviv. Each and every day I went to school in a sense of uncertainty – will I be able to get through the year at school? Where would I live? I was often late to class or was unable to complete my tasks on time, and I was stressed.

“Over the course of that year, I lived in 12 different places. One was a sublet in the apartment of a soldier in north Tel Aviv. I lived at his house from Sunday to Thursday. And on the weekends, when he’d come home, I’d travel to my parents or I’d sleep on his couch. When I didn’t have any money, he let me continue living at his place because he wanted me to complete my studies, and we are friends to this day. Once I was stopped by the police at the entrance to the building. Even though I showed them all of the legal certificates and residency permits, they wanted me to show them my phone, and they detained me until I agreed to do so. Aside from the physical thing, there’s also the emotional thing. I was constantly thinking about how to present myself in such a way that I would be accepted, that people would not be afraid of the fact that I was Palestinian.

How did you pay for your studies once the scholarship ended?

“It was very hard. The program costs 14,000 shekels a semester, and Tel Aviv University did not agree to increase the scholarship. I applied over and over again to organizations that provide assistance, without success, and at the end the singer David Broza responded to my email. He helped me pay the tuition, connected me with [philanthropist] Tzili Charney, who also helped out, and also allowed me to sleep at his house for a month.”

Once you finished your studies and your apprenticeship, did you find work?

“I got a job at the Leon Charney Resolution Center [at the Eastern Mediterranean International School in Ramat Hasharon] as a marketing director. I worked there for under a year, until Corona began. It took a long time for me to find my current job; it was very difficult. In Israel, they don’t seek contact with Palestinians –neither Arabs nor Jews. The person who helped me was Alon Metrikin-Gold, who was my team leader at MobileODT. Aside from the usual apprenticeship as a company employee, he also helped me find places to sleep during my studies, and helped me figure out how to work my way through the system. After my studies ended, with the help of PIP and with his help, I succeeded in finding my present job, which I like very much.”

What do you like about this company?

“They accepted me on the basis of my abilities, and they don’t care where I’m from. I like the atmosphere and the people. My manager is an Arab from Jerusalem, and the product that the company is developing has great potential, meaning that the company is constantly developing. I also feel that I, too, will be able to develop and grow here.”

Were you able to find an apartment in Tel Aviv?

“No. People, Jews as well as Arabs, don’t want to rent to a Palestinian. Right now, I am living in my parents’ home in south Hebron and traveling four hours or so each way. Every day, I cross through the checkpoint, take a shared taxi to Be’er Sheva, and then take the bus for two and a half hours to Tel Aviv.”

What’s your take on the route that you have traveled?

“Candidly, if you had asked me at any stage of my life if I would make it to this place, to the office of a company in Tel Aviv, and that I would be speaking with you and you would be interviewing me about my work – I would have never thought this could happen. I never thought that I would walk up to the border crossing with my case and that I would be working in Israel as a techie. I worked hard, but so many people helped me, and without them it would not have happened. It was unexpected, I encountered so many good people, I experienced the good, the bad and the ugly, and I am thankful for everything that has happened to me.”

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