Abiola has profound Mideast experience

St. John’s distance runner Rakibat Abiola spent her winter break in an unconventional

Rather than go home and pat herself on the back for her hard work during the fall season and academic semester, Abiola went to Israel, a nation torn by war over the Gaza strip, for community service work.

“It gave me a broader and more profound sense of the world,” Abiola said.

“It also showed me a glimpse of what it is like to live somewhere, not knowing if you are totally safe at home. It made me feel privileged that I actually live in a country where there is no war in my backyard or soldiers going up and down the streets readily on duty.”

She and other students from New York-area colleges painted apartments in the city of Netanya, a largely Ethiopian community. According to Abiola, the students worked for several hours over the course of four or five days.

“We would occasionally get a chance to interact with local residents of this neighborhood,” Abiola said. “A few of the residents even worked alongside us to help with the painting. Also, we went to various schools to work with children in the local community. We helped out with arts and crafts and taught them American songs.”

When their work was completed in Netanya, the students traveled to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, to work in a secondhand clothing store. Abiola and her peers packed clothing into bags and loaded them onto trucks to be washed. In return, they would receive clothing that had already been washed to set out for purchase.

The students stayed in a local hotel out of harm’s way, and though some of their parents worried about their safety in the wartorn areas, Abiola’s group remained poised and focused toward their service goals.

“We didn’t encounter danger, but every time we’d turn on the news in the morning we’d hear about things going on, and it wasn’t a very safe time to be there,” Abiola said.

“But we were there on a mission, nobody was thinking about leaving. We wanted to do what we wanted to get done.”

Abiola was able to stay in touch with her family throughout her journey in the Middle East, even though the seven-hour time zone difference separating Israel and the United States took some getting used to. She is even open to the possibility of making the trip again.

“It was a great time to volunteer with the local communities in Israel. It showed them that other people are there to support them even during such rough times,” Abiola said. “Showing our support for the Israeli people at such difficult times is what America is all about: working for justice throughout the world.”