Dreams in the desert: Three students’ journeys

three students playing instruments
Fall 2023 students playing music in the desert

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies is located at the heart of the Arava desert, where the sunsets turn the sky into a canvas of oranges and pinks. It’s not a typical academic institution, but rather a crossroads of cultures, ideas, and big dreams. This is where Rachel, Shai, and Mahmoud* meet at the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester in September, each bringing their own vibe and story. 

Rachel’s journey from the US to the Institute is like stepping into a new world. She’s been living in a safe, cozy bubble, but now she is ready to shake things up. She came here to get her hands dirty with the real-deal environmental issues and the tangled Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For her, the Institute isn’t just about learning; it’s about transforming herself and broadening her horizons. 

Shai from Jerusalem came to the Institute with a mission. His parents, who are all about peace and activism, have passed on this fire to him. He is here to find ways to live sustainably, and make some peace in the world. He dreams of taking all this eco-friendly knowledge and spreading it in his life, family, and especially in his army unit. 

Mahmoud from Hebron adds his own flavor to the mix. An alum of the Institute, he returned this semester to focus on in-depth climate research. He’s got his dreams and goals, and the Institute is the perfect place for him to chase them.   

Rachel quickly falls in love with the simple things at the Institute. The desert walks are her escape, and the international potluck dinners are like a mini world tour. Each dish at these meals is a journey to a new place, a new story. It’s not just about food; it’s about sharing cultures, sharing pieces of themselves. Shai is building more than just friendships. These connections are deep, tied together with shared dreams and respect. He’s learning about living green, but more than that, he’s living it every day. He’s planning to take all this back to his army unit, to his community. Mahmoud is soaking up every moment, every lesson, every laugh. For him, the Institute is more than a school; it’s a beacon in a world that often seems divided and confusing; it’s where he is finding his path, his purpose. 

But then, out of the blue, war breaks out on October 7th. Everything gets turned on its head. Rachel’s away from campus during the weekend, and when she hears the news, it’s like a punch in the stomach. Her university in the US requires her to leave the country, she worries about her friends, about what’s going to happen to their little oasis of peace and learning.

Shai is torn up inside. He’s a reserve soldier who has been called up to serve, yes, but he also believes in peace, in understanding. Leaving the Institute feels like he’s leaving a piece of himself behind. 

Saying goodbye is tough. For Rachel, it’s a storm of emotions. There’s this huge uncertainty in the air. Will she ever come back? Will this family she is part of stay together? Back in the US, Rachel is struggling. She’s there, but her heart still wanders the halls of the Institute. She misses the diversity, the unity, the feeling of being part of something bigger. 

Shai, serving in an Iron Dome unit in the IDF, keeps having these moments where his mind drifts back to the Institute. The difference between his life as a soldier and his time at the Institute is not conflicted; both are part of passion: the passion to ensure and bring peace to his country. He misses the debates, the learning, the friendships. Mahmoud, stuck in the West Bank since his visit home the weekend the war began, keeps the memories close. The dreams and hopes that the Institute sparked in him remain alive, guiding him and reminding him of what he’s striving for. 

As things start to settle down, a new chapter begins. Rachel, Shai, and Mahmoud, each in their own little corner of the world, feel a pull back to the Institute. It’s like a call to finish what they started, a promise to themselves that they need to keep. Rachel fights hard to get back, determined to return to the Institute. She convinces her university, her family, and everyone who thinks she’s crazy for wanting to go back. She knows in her heart that this is the right thing to do. 

Shai’s decision to return is motivated by his desire to continue striving for peace. The Institute represents a part of him that he can’t leave behind. The soldier has fulfilled his duty, but the dreamer, the learner, the peace advocate in him is yearning to go back.  

Despite some hesitation to face the checkpoints he has to cross, Mahmoud feels this tug at his heart, a silent promise he made to himself to return and see his dreams through. The Institute has become more than just a place of study for him; it is a place where he feels he belongs, where he can make a difference. 

Their reunion at the Institute is bittersweet. Things have changed, but the spirit remains. While Shai takes time to readjust, Rachel steps up to reconnect the threads of the community, knitting it back together. Mahmoud sees the Institute in a different light now, richer and deeper. 

Their story becomes an inspiring story of hope, resilience, and undying dreams. The Arava Institute turns into a symbol of unity and strength, a place where learning meets understanding, where hearts connect against all odds. It’s a tale of how three young people found their way back to a place that was more than a school – it was a home, a haven, a shared dream in the heart of the desert. 

Submitted by Atman Errachid


*name changed for confidentiality 


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