The following post was written by Kyle Cruz, a student intern at the University of Haifa International School in 2012. This piece was written following an interview with Bilha Calderon, a student in the MA Program in Peace and Conflict Management in the 2011-2012 cohort. Following completion of the program, Bilha moved to Jerusalem where she currently works as a journalist. This piece highlights the diverse student body we have at the University of Haifa International School, and the great things our students go on to do following their studies.
In the Book of Genesis, Rachel’s handmaiden was named Bilha (בילהה), which literally translates to “timid.” Bilha Calderon is anything but what her first name implies. At 5’5, Bilha’s modest frame conceals much of the determination, warmth and liveliness that people come to associate with her. On most school days, one can spot her speed walking to class, bundled up, head down, and espresso in hand, fervently trying to recall the contents of the previous days’ lessons. On one hand, the frantic pace of Bilha’s life sometimes teeters on the brink of disorder – just take a look at her desk. On the other, it also tells the story of a person doing her best to take life by the reigns and make the most out of it.
Bilha was born in the small town of Cholula two hours east of Mexico City, Mexico. Cholula is known for housing the Great Pyramid erected centuries ago by allies of the Aztecs. Bilha’s parents still live in Cholula. Her mother is an historian with a focus on Sixteenth Century Latin American Indians while her father is a physicist who specializes in nano-electronics at the National Observatory of Mexico. Bilha’s younger brother, Adrian, hopes to become a doctor while her older sister handles orders at a shipping port in Barcelona, Spain. Bilha says that the most intriguing quality about Cholula is its proximity to a number of active volcanoes, namely the Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl (don’t ask me how to pronounce these). Now and again, it is common to see plumes of black smoke and streams of lava pouring out of them.
At heart, Bilha is a journalist. When she was 15 years old, she already knew that she wanted to make a career out of writing stories. “Telling stories,” she says, “has been my life.” Bilha attributes her interest in journalism to the frequent displacement she experienced while growing up. “I grew up in many different places because my parents are academics and that made it necessary to rely on stories to keep track of what was going on.” Surprisingly, Bilha completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Humanities – not Journalism – at the Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla. Her decision, she says, was prompted by a desire to sharpen her philosophical, literary and historical knowledge.
Shortly after graduating, Bilha began working as a columnist and photographer for various local newspapers such as La Jornada de Oriente, Revista Cupula and Revista Emet. One of her columns was called “Retratos de Tina,” (Portraits of Tina). Bilha emphasizes that she was very lucky. “I got to do what I wanted to do.” She would probably still be working as a journalist in Mexico today if not for the sudden rise of narco-violence that has claimed the lives of many journalists. After weighing her options, Bilha decided last year that it was time to pursue a master’s degree. In any case, she jokingly remarks, “I needed to get my mother off my case.”
Bilha chose to apply to the Masters Program in Peace & Conflict Management at the University of Haifa for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has been a long time goal of hers to come to the Middle East. Secondly, studying in Israel presented an opportunity to re-evaluate her preconceived notions about the various social cleavages, namely between Arabs and Jews, that characterize tensions in the region. She believes that it is unhealthy to formulate conclusions about the Middle East based solely on reports from mainstream media.
Now well into the middle of her program, Bilha concludes that her time has been well spent. Her professors, she says, are top-notch scholars who are not only experts in their field but also great teachers. Bilha has taken a particular liking to Dr. As’ad Ghanem who took his students to the Golan Heights near the border of Syria and also to Bedouin encampments in the Negev Desert and the Old City in Jerusalem. The trip to the Mount of Cries in the Golan was particularly memorable. According to Bilha, Arab families sometimes stand atop this summit and cry out with megaphones to their loved ones living across the border in Syria. Bilha also fondly reminisces about a trip she took with a friend to Nazareth. Although heavy rains in the afternoon caused her boots to soak through, it was worth it when the bells of the Church of Annunciation began clanging at sundown, followed by the buzz of prayers emanating from Mosques nearby. The sound they produced wasn’t exactly harmony, but it wasn’t conflict either.
After Haifa, Bilha hopes to stay in the Middle East to work as an international journalist. She believes that the MA Program has made her more informed and prepared to take on this demanding line of work. Although she has witnessed her fair share of intolerance and discrimination in Israel, as is to be expected in any country around the world, Bilha has thoroughly enjoyed her time thus far at the University of Haifa. The people, she says, are surprisingly hospitable; it just takes time to get to know them. Bilha’s dream is to one day rent or own a second-floor apartment in Wadi Nisnas (the Arab section of Haifa) bedecked on the outside with “green-colored shutters” that open into the cobbled streets below.