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The Interpreter

In the 1930s, Jerusalem was a city of mounting cultural tensions, as its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants fought for control of a region at the heart of both religious traditions. Kholood Qumei’s grandmother, a Muslim, lived there with her two best friends, one Jewish and one Christian. Over the next decade, Jerusalem became increasingly segregated, with each religion claiming a different section of the city. These women rebelled in the small way they could: by swapping head coverings.

“They started wearing each other’s veils, and going to the other sections of Jerusalem with their children to visit each other,” says Qumei, who graduated this year from the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. “It’s incredible to hear about that now.”

Inspired by her grandmother’s story, Qumei wrote her honors thesis on the hijab — the veil worn by many Muslim women — and its controversial reception in the Middle East today.

With a Catholic mother from the Philippines and a Muslim father from Jordan, Qumei grew up visiting churches and mosques, straddling two cultures and two religions. That didn’t stop during her four years at Seton Hall. She threw herself into learning about the long, intertwined history of these religions, and organized public events to spur open dialogue about their most controversial aspects.

Her passion for scholarship and service will continue next year, as she begins a master’s program in Islamic Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

Photo by Milan Stanic

Qumei was born in Brooklyn, but didn’t stay there long. Her father, a doctor, and her mother, a nurse, wanted their children to be exposed to other cultures and learn other languages. “My mom told me, in a nutshell, ‘We didn’t want you to have the easiest life, and we did that on purpose’,” Qumei says.

When Qumei was 5, the family moved to Jordan, where life wasn’t easy. Her parents divorced shortly after the move, and her mother — who didn’t have many friends in Jordan or know much Arabic — struggled to raise three young children. Qumei remembers their shower, with low water pressure and cold water, and her mother adding boiling water from the stove.

Despite it all, Qumei’s mother found time to help others in need. She set up free health clinics at the Filipino embassy for women, mostly domestic workers, who had been beaten and raped.

When Qumei was 12, the family moved back to the States, where she took her mother’s lead by helping others. At age 14, she spent the summer in Guadeloupe doing volunteer work. The following summer, she went back to Jordan to help her aunt set up a program to teach police officers about violence against women. And the summer after that, she went to a small village in Ghana to help build a kindergarten classroom.

When it came time for college, Qumei chose Seton Hall because she saw students and faculty treating each another with respect.

“I noticed that at Seton Hall, everyone would open the door for everyone else,” she says. “Every single kid, even if they were in their sweatpants and just rolled out of bed [did it]. I felt it was really rare.”

Qumei has been among a growing number of Muslim and multicultural students on campus.

“Seton Hall has a lot of respect for religious diversity, and I’m not sure people realize that,” says professor of religious studies Gisela Webb, who has noticed more Muslim students in her classes. “The school both attracts and creates people — like Kholood — who are good global citizens, empathetic and knowledgeable about other religions.”

From her first day on campus, Qumei was interested in engaging fellow students about different religious and cultural traditions.

She tutored other students in Arabic. As part of the Honors Program, she loved the intensive seminars on Islam and philosophy, but was frustrated that they weren’t available to the wider Seton Hall community. So she launched the Honors Program Student Association, which sponsored evening events in which any student could come have pizza and listen to a professor give a talk on everything from food ethics to Western perceptions of Islam.

What’s most intriguing about Qumei, her professors say, is that she manages to pair a passion for service with an equally strong drive for intellectual debate and scholarship. In controversial classes about religion and politics, “she would not shy away from dealing with very sophisticated and thorny controversial issues,” says Issam Aburaya, associate professor of religious studies. “She is very assertive, and has the skills of a leader, but yet she is also very polite.”

Qumei says that through her studies, she has learned that service and scholarship aren’t so different. “I see it in my professors — it’s service through education.”

As she continues her intellectual journey, Qumei stays grounded by her diverse family. After she was accepted into Harvard Divinity School, she called both of her grandmothers — one in Jordan, the other in the Philippines — to tell them the good news. Neither one knew what Harvard was. “They had never heard of it, but they knew it must’ve been a big deal,” Qumei says, laughing. “They’re just happy I’m getting an education.”

Virginia Hughes is a science writer and blogger based in New York City.

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