Jewish Student Aims to Finish What He Started: Put Palestinian Friend Through College

June 30, 2009 — It's a story that has moved some to tears: Joey Katona, a Jewish kid raised in Los Angeles, attends a Seeds of Peace camp in Maine as a high-schooler in 2004. There he meets Omar Dreidi, a Palestinian Arab youth from Ramallah with ambitions of attending an American college. They become fast friends, and Katona vows to raise the money to bankroll Dreidi's education.

After completing their high school years, Katona heads for the University of Virginia. Dreidi wins admission to Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., a school with strong ties to Seeds of Peace. Katona begins to make good on his pledge, becoming a fundraiser and a first-year student all at the same time.

Today, both Katona and Dreidi are headed for their final years of undergraduate work. Katona is a student in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences majoring in politics and foreign affairs and minoring in a leadership program offered through the McIntire School of Commerce; he particularly enjoys helping to coach a local youth soccer team. Dreidi is a business major at Earlham, where he is a popular figure on campus and this fall will be a captain on the Quakers' soccer team.

They talk regularly. Katona has visited his friend at Earlham, and earlier journeyed to the Middle East to visit Dreidi's family and some of his own. Down the road, the friends hope to live together, or at least work together, perhaps on a collaboration that will further build relationships between Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

"He's one of my best friends in the world," Katona said.

The feeling is mutual. Dreidi wrote in a regular "progress report" that they send to supporters, "This past semester was one of my most difficult, as I was away from home during the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which made me feel uncomfortable, hopeless, and useless.

"However, with the support of my friends and especially Joey after his return from studying abroad, I maintain hope for peace between Israel and Palestine in the near future."

But can it be a feel-good story without a happy ending?

Katona has found fundraising an arduous business, especially when combined with a full-time academic load. He estimates that, even with Earlham's merit half-scholarship, Dreidi's four-year education will require a total of $90,000. So far, he has been able to raise about $53,000, and Earlham – which has shown great patience and flexibility, Katona said – is now threatening to block Dreidi's fall registration. Furthermore, Seeds of Peace had been providing about $3,000 per year in support, but the recession is threatening those funds.

Katona said he remains committed to seeing his efforts through to Dreidi's graduation. He's built a network of about 65 friends, family members and others who have stumbled upon his story. This summer, he's planning a fundraising event in Los Angeles that he hopes will raise "five figures."

"I am so blessed to have such amazing people surrounding me and supporting me from all over the world," Dreidi wrote.

Katona's commitment is rooted in Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine founded in 1993 that brings together Israelis, Palestinians and youths from six other countries in a facilitated effort to find common ground. About 4,000 campers have passed through the program; the hope is that some of them will one day rise to leadership positions in their respective nations, and perhaps change the course of the Middle East's bloody history. Dreidi is currently working as a counselor there.

Katona and Dreidi first met at the camp in 2004, and both returned in 2005. When Katona learned that his friend had been accepted to Earlham, but could not afford to attend, he sprang into action.

"I'm fortunate to come from a privileged background and my parents told me that I could go anywhere I wanted to," he said. He saw no reason why his friend should not have similar options; he saw raising Dreidi's tuition as a chance to "create a future that he otherwise would not have been able to create."

Their story has been told dozens of times, and clearly has had an impact. Katona recalls one graduate student who was moved to tears; she scraped together $11 from her meager funds. He's welcomed contributions from members of Temple Beth Israel, a Charlottesville synagogue.

Katona himself has been inspired by other peoples' stories. He heard of a 12-year-old boy from Maryland who watched TV coverage of the latest Middle East conflict and convinced his parents to host an Arab as an exchange student. It reinforced Katona's own determination.

"When I hear about that, I don't care how hard this is, I'm going to do it – no matter what," he vowed.

So he's spending the summer cramming more fundraising in while working an internship in Los Angeles. He hopes to visit Omar again sometime before graduation, perhaps to watch him play soccer.

After graduation, "If we can end up in the same city, we'd definitely live together," Katona said. One day, perhaps they will both live in the Middle East.

But for now, the whole shining future depends on something more basic: money.
For information on the Omar Dreidi fund, e-mail josephkatona@gmail.com or call 310-613-6268.

— By Dan Heuchert