The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

Follow us on Instagram

Belonging in crisis: A Palestinian student’s call for action at UK

Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

Is it the responsibility of an academic institution to create a sense of belonging among its students?

The University of Kentucky certainly believes so.

In my time at UK, President Eli Capilouto has shared many messages emphasizing our commitment to a community of belonging.

In June 2023, he said, “We will remain focused on our priority as an institution — to be a community of care, compassion and belonging for everyone, regardless of who they are and regardless of how someone defines their humanity and identity.”

Yet, as a Palestinian-American Muslim student, my sense of belonging has been deeply challenged in recent months. Despite the university’s proclaimed commitment to inclusivity, I have found myself defending my right to exist in this world, to inhabit my city and to belong on my campus.

What is a “community of care”? Is it not a space where every individual and every community feels valued, supported and respected?

If so, then the community of care at UK appears to be accessible only to certain identities, and mine does not seem to be one of them.

For the past six months, my family and community in Palestine have faced heavy bombardment and relentless attacks by the Israeli Occupation Forces, leading to mass devastation and loss. Entire lineages have been shattered, leaving us to mourn our loved ones and face uncertain futures.

While the violence in Palestine continues, its impact has long since spread to America, with Muslim, Palestinian and Arab Americans facing severe brutalization and hate crimes. In October 2023, in Illinois, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy was fatally stabbed and his mother was hospitalized in a hate crime by their landlord. In November 2023, in Vermont, three Palestinian students were shot while on a walk. In February, in Texas, a passerby attempted to rip away a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf hanging out of a car window and stabbed a Palestinian-American man.

As the university has expressed solidarity and offered support to other hurting communities in times of global crises, such as the war in Ukraine and human rights violations in Iran, I anxiously awaited similar acknowledgement and support for my community.

Despite lighting up the colors of the Ukrainian flag and Capilouto’s statement in March 2022 standing in solidarity with those affected by the violence, no such gestures or statements were made for us. Although Capilouto attended a vigil for Mahsa Amini hosted by the Iranian Student Association in September 2022, he offered the Muslim Student Association (MSA) no response to our invitation to the vigil we held in October 2023 for Wadea al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian boy in Chicago that was fatally stabbed.

I appreciate the university’s support for those communities, but it’s disheartening that similar gestures weren’t extended to the Palestinian community. This lack of acknowledgment and support makes me question the sincerity of the university’s commitment to inclusivity and support for all communities. Where is the community of care when I need them?

As the president of the MSA at UK, it is my responsibility to be an advocate and a voice for those in my community. This includes ensuring that our safety on campus is a priority when we are under threat.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 182% increase in reported incidents from Muslims across the U.S. in the 16-day period following Oct. 7, 2023, compared to any given 16-day stretch in the last year.

This dramatic rise in Islamophobia across America prompted the MSA to reach out to Capilouto in October 2023 with the hopes of beginning the conversation to proactively ensure the safety and well-being of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities on campus.

Specifically, we asked Capilouto about the measures he was taking to protect his students amidst high tensions and his plans for creating an inclusive, respectful atmosphere free from discrimination and harassment, especially regarding discussions related to the crisis.

Instead of addressing our concerns and questions, Capilouto redirected us to other administrators. Through this, we have developed relationships with the Office for Student Success and continued conversations about increasing the general belonging of Muslims within the university, including initiatives such as finding a permanent prayer space and ensuring halal food accommodations.

Despite these efforts, the needs of our community for support and safety remain unaddressed. Recent events have overshadowed progress for general belonging and underscored the urgent need for actionable support and safety measures on campus.

On Feb. 27, 2024, Turning Point USA’s chapter at UK hosted an event on campus titled “Conversations about Israel” with guest speaker and proud Zionist Ian Haworth. Students of color reported facing blatant discrimination by university employees at this event and have since submitted complaints to the office of IEEO.

Three weeks later, on March 20, 2024, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic and a former soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), was invited by the UK’s Office of Institutional Diversity to speak at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the integration of our institution, honoring the legacy of Lyman T. Johnson.

The MSA expressed concerns to administration and event organizers about inviting Goldberg, especially to an event celebrating the integration of an oppressed group, while many feel that he himself has had an active hand in the oppression of another group. Upon conversations with the university’s administration, we were informed that Goldberg was made aware of these concerns, which ultimately led to his decision not to attend.

However, I feel the university’s initial invitation to him demonstrated insensitivity and a lack of consideration for the Palestinian community on campus. This action, along with the widespread advertising of his invite across campus, caused harm which was then exacerbated by the lack of transparency provided to the public regarding his absence from the event.

Allowing Zionists to speak on campus while ignoring Palestinian voices in our campus community conflicts with the university’s stated goals of belonging and inclusivity.

These events have highlighted that true belonging of a community cannot be achieved without proactive and transparent measures to ensure their safety. The university cannot claim to protect its students and safeguard their well-being while failing to acknowledge the suffering and threats faced by a significant portion of the community.

So again, the MSA attempted to speak with Capilouto, seeking to start the conversation that should have begun six months earlier.

On March 27, 2024, Capilouto hosted the Muslim community at his residence on Maxwell Place for an Iftar dinner to celebrate the month of Ramadan. Throughout the evening, the president emphasized the importance of listening to diverse voices and valuing each individual’s perspective. He relayed to us the sentiment he’s shared in many of his campus messages of meeting with hundreds of members of the campus community in an effort to better our institution.

However, at the conclusion of the event, when other MSA leaders and I sought to schedule a meeting with Capilouto to discuss these matters further, he indicated he was busy and indirectly implied he would not meet with us. When we directly asked if we could schedule a meeting, he did not respond to the question and instead suggested continuing our conversations with others, redirecting us once again. He then excused himself, offering no further opportunity for discussion.

On March 29, 2024, we emailed Capilouto, expressing our disappointment in his dismissal of our concerns and urging him to reconsider our request for a direct conversation. While he may have listened to hundreds of voices across campus, not one of them was ours. We have yet to receive a response.

On March 31, 2024, Omar Shalash, a Palestinian-American Muslim man in my community, was out for dinner with his wife, elderly mother and newborn baby at a Cheddar’s restaurant in Lexington where he was violently harassed and had a gun pulled on him.

If there was any doubt about the violence reaching us in Lexington, it is gone now. So how could we assume our campus is immune?

Repeated instances of discrimination and harassment across the country, in our city and on campus, as detailed above, have unequivocally demonstrated its presence and underscored the need for proactive measures to ensure the safety and well-being of all members of our community.

Our administration must understand that failing to address hate and discrimination can only be perceived as complacency. If nothing is said or done, it inadvertently fosters an environment where individuals feel safe in perpetuating their hate, allowing such behaviors to thrive unchecked and paving the way for further intolerance and bigotry.

Urgent action is required. We need the university to make a strong statement denouncing current discrimination and violence in our community and to apologize for the harm caused by inviting a former IDF soldier to campus. This must be followed by face-to-face conversations with affected students to prevent further harm.

In a campus message sent out on March 8, 2024, Capilouto passionately captured a shared sentiment: “We all want the same thing — to work in a place where we are valued, and our voices are heard.”

Without accountability in acknowledging past wrongs, transparency in ongoing and future initiatives to ensure belonging, and engaging in face-to-face conversations, we, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim members of this campus, will not feel valued or heard.

While proactive measures were missed, it is not too late to react and take decisive action for the future of our university.

View Comments (4)
More to Discover

Comments (4)

All Kentucky Kernel Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • L

    LeeApr 20, 2024 at 10:13 pm

    Your comments are heard, and understandable. Nonetheless, it may do disservice to the position you express when your comments never mention, and put no distance between Hamas and the Palestinians. As long as any support for Hamas is not reckoned with, then innocent, peaceful Palestinians might be unfairly targeted.

  • L

    Lilyalaa AliApr 16, 2024 at 2:27 pm

    This is so saddening. Your experiences at the University of Kentucky, reflecting significant discrepancies in institutional support and solidarity, particularly strike a chord when you mention the lack of inclusivity felt by your community during global and local crises. The examples you shared, from ignored invitations to vigils to inadequate responses following hate crimes, underscore a troubling gap between the university’s commitments to diversity and its actions. As president of the MSA at UK, your advocacy is essential, highlighting the need for consistent, transparent efforts by the university to fulfill its promises of inclusivity. True community support would actively address and mitigate challenges faced by all student groups, ensuring every member feels valued and safe on campus. Your efforts are crucial in fostering the change needed for a genuinely inclusive academic environment.

  • A

    Arjumand BukhariApr 16, 2024 at 2:03 pm

    Deeply saddened by the attitude of the head of an institution. Who are expected to be supporting whats right in any matter concerning their students.

  • A

    Alaa ShehataApr 16, 2024 at 1:57 pm

    Your experience shows that there is a big gap between the ideals that your university promotes and how those ideals are actually used, especially in the case of the Palestinian group. It’s sad to hear that your community’s needs have been ignored despite multiple attempts to work with the government. This lack of recognition and the unfair treatment you’ve detailed go against what it means for a community to care for and belong to each other. It’s important that the university not only says what its ideals are, but also lives them out in every community, including yours. As you keep fighting for your safety and rights, remember that your opinion is very important in making the world a better place for everyone. It’s never too late for the university to fix these mistakes and work toward real support and inclusion. It’s great that you keep trying to have a conversation and make things better.