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Clothing for refugees connects Palestinian family to Bethel College

September 11th, 2017

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - On May 25, Aziza Hasan became the second member of the second generation of her family to graduate from Bethel College. That's not so unusual. But how the first generation got to Bethel College is.

In 1948, the Hasan family was among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes when the state of Israel was created. By 1957, the family lived in a refugee camp near Ramallah.

One day, Shawkat Hasan, the oldest son, reached into the pocket of a shirt that had come in a bundle of clothing provided by Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and service organization. In the pocket he found a piece of paper with the name and address of Isaac Braun, a Mennonite from British Columbia. Hasan and Braun began corresponding.

In 1957, Aaron and Betty Epp lived in Reedley, Calif., where Aaron was pastor of First Mennonite Church. Because Aaron was a delegate, they decided to go to Mennonite World Conference in Karlsruhe, Germany. Since they were going all that way, to make the trip really worthwhile, they decided to splurge and travel to Italy, Greece and the Middle East. On the ship crossing the Atlantic, the Epps met Braun and struck up a friendship.

In Jerusalem, the Epps met Shawkat Hasan, who had come to the hotel to meet his friend Isaac Braun for the first time. Hasan invited Braun to visit his family in the refugee camp and to bring anyone he wanted with him. Braun asked the Epps.

"I think the Hasans must have borrowed from everyone they knew in the refugee camp to serve us a wonderful meal," Betty Epp remembers. "I'll never forget the sight of all those faces peering over the wall at us." Aaron returned to visit the Hasans one more time before the couple left Jerusalem.

After this, Shawkat Hasan was determined to go to college in the United States. He got a job teaching in Kuwait, Epp says, and earned enough money to emigrate. He was planning to attend a university in Chicago, but first he came to visit the Epps, who by that time had left Reedley and were pastoring at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kan. "This must have been 1968," says Epp.

As a result of that visit, Shawkat decided to attend college in Kansas instead of Chicago. He enrolled at Bethel College, the Epps' alma mater, where he graduated in 1972 before going on to graduate school.

And all along, Shawkat worked to bring other members of his family to the U.S. His brother Shafiq, who has lived in Newton for more than 20 years, was the next. Then came their sister Basma, still only a high school student when she left Jordan, where the family had settled permanently. She lived in Hesston with the family of Irvin and Edna Reimer. The last sibling to attend Bethel was Farouq. A nephew Ayman Hamad of Wichita graduated from Bethel in 1995.

Shawkat Hasan went on to make documentary films and to work for the United Nations, based in Vienna, Austria, for many years. Later he and his family settled in British Columbia, near their old friend Isaac Braun and his family, and today live in Vancouver.

Shafiq Hasan graduated from Bethel in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and trained in medical technology. He lives with his family in Newton and for 21 years worked at the Halstead Clinic and Hospital. When the facilities closed recently, he took a job managing the lab at a hospital in Abilene.

Farouq Hasan returned to Jordan with his wife, Christine, who is from Denver, Colo. Farouq died unexpectedly in 1995. Shafiq then brought Christine, her two daughters, Aziza and Anam (Annie), and two sons to live in Halstead.

In May, Aziza completed a degree in history and social science and earned academic honors at Bethel College, and Annie finished her first year at Bethel. Their aunt, Basma, who has worked for Royal Jordanian Airlines for many years, came from Jordan to attend Aziza's graduation.

Also graduating from Bethel this spring was Aaron and Betty Epp's granddaughter, Tina Schmidt of Goessel.

Aaron, who died in 1992, wasn't there for the celebrations for Aziza and Tina. But he would surely have been proud.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.