Israeli, Palestinian roommates find peace despite differences

By Emma Sandler

On one side of the room, a Koran sits on Eman Elshrafi’s desk and on the other side, her roommate Nili Cohen, wears a hamsa around her neck, a religious amulet that is thought to bring good luck and happiness.

They did not know each other before receiving their living assignments in George Washington Tower in Southwest Residential Area this past fall, but they have formed a unique bond of friendship despite their differing backgrounds. Elshrafi is Islamic and was born in Amman, Jordan, while Cohen was raised in Israel under Conservative Judaism. They jokingly refer to themselves as the “United Nations.”

Elshrafi’s appearance is a blend of traditional Middle Eastern aesthetic with American flair. Elshrafi dons chunky gold necklaces, rings, and bangles that jangle when she moves her hands as she talks. Her nails are a bright, neon orange that is not unsuitable to her creamy tan skin tone, which has a hint of shimmer from a Jergens emollient she applies daily. Her hair is dark brown, which she keeps shoulder length.

Elshrafi’s parents are both of Palestinian descent, and her grandfather built a home in Palestine, but was displaced when the Israeli government made his family leave.

“My dad was born in a refugee camp in Jordan … in 1959,” she said. “My grandmother would say things when they forced them out of the house, like they wouldn’t even let her put clothes on they just kicked them out and put my grandfather in jail for refusing to leave.”

Cohen’s family on the other hand is entirely Jewish. Her grandparents are from Iraq and traveled by boat to Israel when it was declared a country after World War II. Her father was born in Israel and her mother was born in New York City. Though Cohen herself was born in the United States, she was raised in Israel, learning Hebrew and following the Jewish traditions.

When Cohen speaks, her speech has a slight Israeli lilt that grows stronger as she speaks more passionately and rapidly. Her long chestnut hair matches her hazel eyes and Cohen does not wear any makeup and wears very little jewelry.

Elshrafi and Cohen were raised with differing attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“My family hates Israelis, I’ve always been taught to hate Israelis,” Elshrafi said. “(But) … Nili, my roommate now, I love Nili so it kind of like I don’t hate all Israelis. I hate the government and I hate the situation.”

“I always disliked Palestine but I never hated them I always believed that there was a misunderstanding between the different cultures,” Cohen said.

When both girls found out who they were going to be living with they both felt a mixture of anxiety and anger.

“I pretty much screamed,” Elshrafi said, adding “I searched her on Facebook and literally everything coming up was being about Israel or from Israel. Of course this would only happen to me.”

Elshrafi and Cohen both had family and friends advising them to switch, while Elshrafi’s father told her to not disclose her background because of the likely tension.

“I don’t know though, I feel like it kind of brings us together in a way,” Elshrafi said.

Even though both girls are getting along with one another, tension still remains. Both girls feel it would be a strain if they both hung up flags of their various nations, though they both separately expressed a wish to do so.

There was a recent incident in which Cohen noticed the Palestinian keychain that Elshrafi keeps and questioned if it was the Jordanian flag. Elshrafi explained that it was Palestinian, and Cohen, according to Elshrafi, appeared to declare that Palestine was no longer in existence.

Elshrafi in particular said she finds quelling her feelings to be a hard task, especially when her roommate talks fondly of Israel and the Israelis she knows. She added that she often feels she is putting up a false front about her feelings, which makes her feel fake.

“She doesn’t know much,” Elshrafi said. “She thinks that I don’t really care about the issue and I just play it off like I don’t because I just don’t want to get into an argument about it.This is someone I’m going to be living with and I don’t want to create tension between us, especially about something this big. It’s hard.”

Elshrafi explained that the driving force behind her major in international relations and law is the conflict in the Middle East.

“I know this sounds bad, but I’ve always felt like it’s my destiny to take down Israel,” she said. “It sounds funny, but I feel like it is. It’s like every time I hear something it makes me angry … I can’t say I like politics, I can’t say that I care about other issues (but) this is the one issue that is getting me into it, because I do want to take down Israel.”

Cohen has a more moderate viewpoint.

“I feel that this conflict is only revolving around the extremists of both sides,” Cohen said. “I feel like if they calmed down and worked out their differences there would be a way to solve the problem. Once I met Eman and got to know her I realized that she is one of the many Palestinians that are not like the extremists.”

Cohen understands the issues that need to be worked out, but said that both girls refer to themselves as the United Nations, “because we both want peace and we both want both countries to get what they want.”

For Elshrafi, the unlikely roommate pairing has resulted in a friendship she had never thought possible.

“Just the fact that we are friends now, and she’s an Israeli, I never thought I’d be friends with an Israeli,” she said. “She’s one of my closest friends now. It’s nice, it really is. It shows you that we can get along, it’s just the government.”

Emma Sandler can be reached at [email protected].