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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Students make unexpected discoveries in Israel

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University of Saskatchewan Edwards School of Business students Qamar Ahmed and Dean Daphne Taras are seen in in Amman, Jordan.

SASKATOON — A new program at the University of Saskatchewan is introducing aspiring business leaders to the international stage and creating connections with entrepreneurs and universities in Israel and Jordan.

Launched in April, Entrepreneurship and Mining in Israel and Jordan – an International Tour gave 16 Edwards School of Business students insight into Israel’s dynamic entrepreneurial sector and a first-hand look at the international success of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc. (PotashCorp). The world’s largest producer of fertilizer donated $50,000 toward the trip and sent its executive vice-president and chief financial officer Wayne R. Brownlee to join students in surveying the Middle East’s potash industry – PotashCorp owns 14 per cent of Israel Chemicals Ltd. and 28 per cent of Arab Potash Company in Jordan, both major suppliers of fertilizer to Asia.

The 10-day tour held in May exposed students to the economic and cultural growth of the Jewish state and the importance of potash mining to Jordan’s development.

After passing through security, the first-time visitors were anxious to begin the tour, but one student had other reasons for feeling nervous.

With the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s seal stamped on his Canadian passport, finance major Qamar Ahmed attracted the attention of Israel’s border authorities, provoking a barrage of questions about family, friends and religion.

“After the officer asked me if I was Muslim, I told her I belonged to the Ahmadiyya Islamic Community and came to visit our Haifa mosque. Once I mentioned that, she began to relax,” Ahmed recalled.

Ahmed’s great-grandfather, Mirza Bashir Ahmed – son of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), believed by Ahmadis to be the Islamic messiah – travelled to Israel in the 1950s and established a community in Haifa.

“This experience at the Mahmood Mosque was unbelievable and humbling,” Ahmed said, referring to the mosque built by the Israeli Ahmadi community in the 1970s.

Most Muslim countries regard Ahmadis as heretics and they are often persecuted for their beliefs.

“One of the local community members said Israel is the best place for practising Ahmadis,” he said. “Even though the majority of the country is Jewish, people are allowed to be themselves.”

Students also met with the Canadian ambassador to Jordan and the head of Arab Potash Company, and learned about the environmental situation of the Dead Sea from a senior lecturer at The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The most emotional experience for many of the participants was the visit to Yad Vashem.

A couple hours before Shabbat services at the Western Wall, participants discussed their impressions of the museum. One student, however, found it hard to speak.

“I was overcome with emotion,” said management major Anna Burton.

About a year ago, Burton’s grandfather found out his father was Jewish but had converted to Christianity in 1903.

“We went to learn about potash and entrepreneurship but returned with a lot of unexpected personal and cultural learning experiences,” said Burton, who, along with several classmates, is thinking about a second trip to Israel.

“It’s never a surprise to me when people find meaningful connections to Israel, whether because of religion, family background, etc.,” said Dylan Hanley, director of Canadian Academics for Peace in the Middle East, which donated $20,000 and co-ordinated the trip.

Hanley is a non-Jewish academic who supports Israel and has led more than a dozen trips to Israel since 2007.

Despite the suspicious reception at Ben-Gurion airport, Ahmed’s experience of the ancient and modern aspects of Israel – including test-driving an electric car at Better Place – changed his views about the country.

“Before I visited Israel, I had a negative opinion of it. But travelling really opens your eyes, and it’s important to experience things first hand. Otherwise you’re doing the country an injustice,” Ahmed said.

Other sponsors of the tour included the Saskatchewan Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration ($35,000), the University of Saskatchewan’s President’s Fund ($16,000) and The Hanlon Centre For International Business Studies ($8,000).

“No two people had the same response to the stimuli,” said Daphne Taras, dean of Edwards School of Business. “It really affirmed that each individual who goes to Israel, finds different points of meaning, often in unpredictable ways.”

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