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R-MWC in the New York Times - An Empty Campus, Full of Friendship

Two students, a refugee from Bosnia and another from Beirut, build a deep friendship while sharing their experiences.

7/5/2006 9:50:23 AM


July 5, 2006
New York Times : On Education
"An Empty Campus, Full of Friendship"

LYNCHBURG, Va. - ALONE together, Matea Osti and Marwa Abdel Latif shared a piano bench at the Steinway grand, gift of the class of 1940. It was a summer morning on a campus without a summer session, and the lobby of Main Hall at Randolph-Macon Woman's College was nearly deserted. As the two young women put hands to keyboard for "Für Elise," a janitor passed behind them, vacuuming the Persian rugs.

Ms. Osti, now 20, first listened to the Beethoven bagatelle as a child in Bosnia, one war and two continents ago. When she came here to college, she heard it being played by a classmate and the memory brought on sudden tears. She enrolled in a music theory course in hopes of learning the piece, and then bought the sheet music, teaching herself the fingerings.

Now she was showing Ms. Abdel Latif how to play it, each day adding one more measure, one woman's right hand forming the treble notes and the other's left doing the bass. Who would more enjoy a duet, after all, than Ms. Osti's best friend? And who would more appreciate the elusiveness of the past than her fellow refugee?

Ms. Osti had come to this red-brick campus in the Blue Ridge foothills in the late summer of 2004, already a veteran of escape from Bosnia, refugee camps in Austria and resettlement in New Zealand. A semester later, in January 2005, Ms. Abdel Latif arrived from a two-room apartment in Beirut, just outside the teeming camp of Burj al Brajneh, home to thousands of Palestinians who, like her grandparents, had fled or been driven out of their homes during the Israeli war of independence.

The two students met soon after the Palestinian woman's arrival, when Ms. Osti noticed the newest resident of Moore Hall wearing her winter coat inside, so bitter did even Lynchburg's mild winter seem by Levantine standards. Several days later, the pair found themselves at the same table in the dining hall, sliding into a conversation about war with a student from Croatia. And as the pair began to reveal their personal stories over the china and linen, those emblems of comfortable refinement, they realized they were leaning closer to each other, bodies as well as words narrowing the space.

It was not that their experiences were identical. Ms. Osti had been forced from her family's town, Doboj, by advancing Serbian invaders, while Ms. Abdel Latif, who is also 20, knew about her forebears' flight out of Jerusalem only through her grandmothers' recollections.

Ms. Osti, like her parents, eventually became a full citizen of a country that welcomed her, New Zealand. Even after two generations in Lebanon, Ms. Abdel Latif's people were kept in stateless limbo by Israel and Lebanon alike.

Bigger than the differences, though, were the similarities. Early in their lives, the young women learned firsthand about the grimmer side of human nature. That knowledge made them feel wiser and more weathered than their American classmates at Randolph-Macon, some of whom had lived all their lives in one town.

"We have a sense of home and identity," Ms. Osti said the other day, reflecting on her common bond with her classmate, "and how it can be swiped away in a second."

"Sometimes all we do is sit there and look at each other," Ms. Abdel Latif added. "We don't even need to talk. It's the being there that matters."

More than serendipity brought the two together. From her inaugural speech in 1994, the president of Randolph-Macon, Kathleen Gill Bowman, set out to increase the enrollment of international students. Her initiative meant, in some respects, returning the college to its earlier self, when it educated the future author Pearl S. Buck and through its Methodist affiliation was deeply involved in the missionary enterprise in China.

In her dozen years as president, Dr. Bowman has more than doubled

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations