Pitt group hosts Middle East conference

By Amy Friedenberger

For Pitt student Shafeek Jamous, the “I <3 the Middle East” conference demonstrated that... For Pitt student Shafeek Jamous, the “I <3 the Middle East” conference demonstrated that people still care about peace and  that goodness still exists in a world that sometimes seems too radicalized.

“I see hope,” he said during the weekend-long event. “If we here can’t make the change, we can at least make the hope for change.”

One Life One World One Peace, a human-rights advocacy group at Pitt, hosted the three-day “I <3 the Middle East” conference over the weekend at various locations around campus.

During a series of workshops, students from Pitt, SUNY Geneseo, Allegheny College and Carnegie Mellon University relayed personal experiences from the Middle East and shared research projects in the hopes of educating those who attended about a region that is often surrounded by stereotypes.

Topics ranged from “terror” rhetoric to Palestinian refugee rights in Lebanon.

Eric Reidy, the director of One Life One World One Peace, was inspired to present the series at Pitt after he attended the first “I <3 the Middle East” conference at SUNY Geneseo.

Reidy said he was drawn to the conference’s title not only because it was controversial, but because it could promote discussion about some of the negative and limited Middle East coverage prominent in the mainstream media.

“There has been a profoundly disturbing sentiment unleashed upon the Middle Eastern community,” Reidy said. “We want to move beyond that simplistic view.”

Reidy’s group had been planning the conference since February.

Allegheny College student Annie Krol did a presentation on birth-control policy and options in modern Iran. She gained an interest in the Middle East when she took an introductory course on the subject. Her professor for Gender and Sexuality in the Islamic World suggested that she take her interest to the conference.

Pitt student Jonas Moffat conducted a presentation called, “Queer and Loathing in the Middle East.” He talked about his year-and-a-half experience traveling through Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories.

Moffat also spoke about his experiences at the 2006 Tel Aviv “Queeruption,” an annual festival and gathering of queer and gay men that has been held in various cities around the world.

During his travels, Moffate interviewed gay fashion designers in Cairo for a women’s interest magazine and worked at extravagant parties for one of Egypt’s biggest party planners.

SUNY Geneseo student Brent Siegel talked about his time as a camp counselor at Seeds of Peace, a nonpartisan, secular organization based in Maine that seeks to connect people from regions in conflict.

“It creates this experience of living with people they no longer consider enemies,” Siegel said. “You have Palestinians living in bunks with Israelies.”

But Siegel said that the summer camp has its difficult moments: A young camper from Israel once walked up to Siegel and told him that she didn’t want her friends in Gaza to die.

The conference began Friday night with an opening discussion in the Cathedral of Learning and a trip to the Waffle Shop on South Highland Avenue in East Liberty. Some attendees ate Iranian sandwiches from the Conflict Kitchen, which operates next door.

The Conflict Kitchen serves cuisine from countries in conflict with the United States. It began serving Iranian food four months ago and is currently making the transition to Afghani food.

Kubideh, the Conflict Kitchen’s only dish, is served in freshly baked barbari bread with onion, mint and basil. The food is wrapped in paper printed with personal interviews with Iranian people about their experiences with different aspects of Iranian life.

“The Conflict Kitchen has a greater agenda than providing dialogue,” said Dawn Weleski, one of the founders of the kitchen. “It’s more political.”

Reidy said that going to the Waffle Shop and Conflict Kitchen was a good introduction to the rest of the conference because it presented the idea of a country that is misunderstood in an educational format.

The first “I <3” conference took place at SUNY Geneseo in the fall of 2009 through the efforts of Geneseo junior Nick LaGrassa and his work as the president of another Geneseo campus group, Invisible Children.

LaGrassa said he realized the importance of student engagement in humanitarian conflicts occurring  in the Middle East and other troubled areas of the world after a sleepless trip to Washington, D.C., for a conference on violence in Uganda.

After almost two days without sleep and traveling home in a car, LaGrassa realized the magnitude of these issues and how others like him had the ability to initiate change.

“We are in school to absorb knowledge and use those resources provided to take action,” LaGrassa said.

By the fall of that same year, Invisible Children started the first “I <3 Africa” conference at SUNY Geneseo.

“I <3 the Middle East” is the second in the “I  <3” series.

The conferences are entirely student planned and presented. LaGrassa said that the format allows for the dialogue to match the younger generation and for students to develop a confidence in providing their own resources to create a change.

“What I would like people to take away is for them to move away from the textbook and toward the podium,” LaGrassa said.