"When we met I went to fist bump him and he got so excited, saying he had never first bumped anyone before and had always wanted to do it, but nobody he knew fist bumped." — Charles Coleman (right), sharing a moment on a moshav (farming cooperative) in northern Israel. "When we met I went to fist bump him and he got so excited, saying he had never first bumped anyone before and had always wanted to do it, but nobody he knew fist bumped." — Charles Coleman (right), sharing a moment on a moshav (farming cooperative) in northern Israel.

From fists to fist bumps: UAB Fulbright Scholar practices peacemaking around the world

July 07, 2017
By Matt Windsor
What drives Charles Coleman? Follow along on this recent graduate's quest for understanding and reconciliation across cultures.
All photos courtesy Charles Coleman

The camera fades in on a man hiking up a mountain in the dark.

This is Charles Coleman, of Birmingham, and UAB and the University of Haifa. He’s an Arabic speaker and filmmaker, and, a year later, he’ll be the first male in his family to graduate from college with a four-year degree.

Right now, he’s closing in on Masada, the famous desert fortress outside Jerusalem. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says. “It was almost like an allegory of my life. When we started, we were all lollygagging, talking; it was all easy. But then the group started to thin out. At the toughest parts of the hike, I was by myself, talking to myself, depending on myself to keep pushing. I passed several people who had been in front of me and then stopped and turned around and went back. And then, just as the sun pierced the sky, I reached the top.”

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“It was magical.” — Coleman looks out to the Dead Sea from the summit of the Masada fortress.

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“We topped the day off in the Old City of Jerusalem. We wrote prayers and stuck them in the cracks of the Wailing Wall. It was a really emotional experience.”

Origin story

Coleman first saw Masada in the back room of a sustainable development and resource company in Birmingham, when he was 16. He met the company’s owner, and got a job offer, during a local non-profit luncheon. The owner had a photo of the mountain fortress in his office and told Coleman the story: In the 70s A.D., a band of Jewish rebels, determined to fight against Roman rule, defiantly held out at Masada against a massive army. Faced with impending defeat, they all chose suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans. “This whole story to him meant: have a commitment to purpose. They were like Thomas Paine, more willing to accept death than defeat. That inspired me, and I promised myself that if I ever got the chance, I would go to Israel.”

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Movies brought Coleman back to Birmingham in his 30s. Before his return, he found himself in South Carolina, working for Konica Minolta making good money as a salesman. Upon his return to Birmingham, he worked with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Ameriprise Financial as a headhunter. “But any time I tried to move up, there was a problem: I didn’t have a degree. I didn’t want this to be a hindrance for the rest of my life. So I decided to reinvent myself.”

He needed a degree, but which one? “I wanted to make films, to get into the movie business. So I moved back to Alabama and starting applying to film schools in Seattle, New York, LA, and Atlanta. Then my sister said, ‘Why don’t you go to UAB? Take film classes there.’”

He applied, but fell short of the math requirements. “I thought about throwing in the towel. But my family encouraged me to appeal. So I wrote a letter and promised the appeals board that I would work my tail off.”

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“UAB took a chance on me. Chance is a wonderful thing.” — from Charles Coleman's speech at UAB Spring 2017 Commencement.

He did. Coleman aced his probationary courses and dove into school full-time, working up to four part-time jobs to meet his car payment and other expenses he had incurred when he was a high-flying salesman.

He wrote for the Kaleidoscope, earning $25 per article and more for his photos. He got his own column, and started writing about local politics. He was still leaning toward a film career, but an experience during freshman orientation had pushed him in a new direction. “One of the students who spoke was an International Studies major, and she had gone on three study abroad [now known as Education Abroad] trips at UAB, to two countries in Africa and one in the Middle East. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

In an introductory class in international relations, he met Scotty Colson, director of Birmingham’s Sister Cities Commission. “He talked about how important it is to sit down and share a meal with people from different countries and talk about our cultures. He said if you can do that effectively, you can multiply your value in the marketplace.”

“It was almost predestined…”

Coleman became more intrigued by the International Studies program in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Government. “It all gelled — ideas about conflict resolution and coming to grips with how the international system works, how foreign policy and domestic policy intersect, and how they can cause problems.” He took a course in Arabic, and eventually designed his own minor in Middle Eastern Studies. He became part of the UAB Honors College’s Global and Community Leadership Honors Program.

When it came time to do the Education Abroad trip required of International Studies majors, Coleman chose an honors program in Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Haifa. “Paying for the program was a big concern for me. But I worked with Megan Talpash in the Education Abroad office, who was amazing, and we figured it out.” Through a combination of scholarships from UAB, the sponsoring U.S. student organization, and the University of Haifa, Coleman was able to get enough funds for a semester abroad.

“While I was there I made a little video of my experiences — my first Arab wedding, my first Shabbat dinner, tasting my first falafel sandwich.” The film made its way to Haifa University’s president, who invited Coleman to attend a meeting with visiting donors. He struck up a conversation with a couple from Richmond at dinner. “He asked me how much I needed to stay, and I told him. He said, ‘I’ll leave you a check in the morning.’ That covered my tuition for the next semester. This was in November, right before I was going to have to come home. It was almost predestined that it was supposed to happen. That reassured me I had made the right decision.” That weekend, he was finally able to make his pilgrimage to Masada.

"I wanted to give back, for all that I received"

With his UAB graduation approaching, Coleman decided he wanted to go back to Israel. “I wanted to give back, for all that I received.” He applied for a grant from the Fulbright United States Student Program, with the goal of teaching English to Israeli students. Coleman was selected as a finalist — one of a record five from UAB this year — and will be an English Teaching Assistant in an Arab village called Sakhnin, which is in northern Israel. Sakhnin has been a settlement since the Bronze Age. He becomes one of a record five UAB students selected as Fulbright Scholars in 2017.

 “Last year I hung around in a larger city with both Jewish and Arab Israelis — celebrated Shabbat, the Israeli independence days. It’s going to be really interesting to live in a smaller town and get a first-hand perspective of how people in Sakhnin live.”

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"This is Muhammad, a student I volunteered to teach English — he and his brother, Mustafa, were my first two students. His mother invited me to stay for dinner each night after we finished our lessons. The photo was taken about 11 p.m. one night at his home in Jisr Az-Zarqa, which is the last Arab village on Israel's Mediterranean coast." 

Another project, from his time at the University of Haifa, offers Coleman hope for peace between two groups of people that he has grown to love. “I worked with a local film director and we were interested in finding situations where Arabs and Jews do things together, voluntarily. We went to hospitals and businesses where people were hanging out, not just coexisting but cooperating. We need more of this. The Sister Cities organization is built on the idea that the more you interact with people, the less opportunity there is for violence to escalate. When you’ve shared a meal with someone, it’s a lot harder to hate them.”

“That experience can change your life”

Coleman, who is an intern in the City of Birmingham Mayor’s office, has organized a trip this summer that will take four students from Phillips Academy and a teacher to visit Birmingham’s Sister Cities in Israel and Jordan. “Students I met at the University of Haifa had done their first study abroad trips at 12 or 13 years old, and that intrigued me. Our students, especially in the city of Birmingham, don’t get that opportunity. I thought it would be neat to open that up to students who probably wouldn’t ever get that chance otherwise. That experience can change your life.”

UAB’s Honors College offered Coleman his first taste of a leadership role in a potentially challenging foreign environment. This spring, he was a teaching assistant for an Honors College trip to Cuba, part of a seminar on the recent socioeconomic changes in the country. “We traveled around Havana, met with academics and officials at NGOs, and went to paladars, restaurants owned by private citizens, which is a new phenomenon in Cuba. You have these images that Cuba is going to be a Third World country, with people destitute and begging on the streets. That wasn’t the case. The people we spoke with acknowledged that things have been hard, but they were resilient and had a real sense of pride in their country. They consider themselves revolutionaries, and they are trying to maintain that revolutionary ideal with the economic changes that are coming. To have the opportunity to go and listen to these people was fantastic.”

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"They consider themselves revolutionaries, and they are trying to maintain that revolutionary ideal with the economic changes that are coming. To have the opportunity to go and listen to these people was fantastic.”

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Above and below, scenes from the UAB Honors College trip to Cuba in spring 2017, where Dean Shannon Blanton and students explored the changing Cuban economy

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“Hoping to spark a revolution…”

Yet another video, another dialogue. Coleman helped found a new student organization at UAB, Students for Human Rights, in fall 2016. He helped arrange a visit from Jung Gwang Il, a defector from North Korea who now leads an organization called No Chain, which uses small drones “to drop Western content across the North Korean border in hopes of bringing change to the regime there, including films about peoples’ lives outside North Korea. “After he spoke, I asked him what our students could do to help. He said that rather than give money, the best thing we could do is make videos about our lives that he could include in the next shipment.” Coleman’s video recounts his life story and reflects on the elements shared by people everywhere.

After his Fulbright year in Israel, Coleman plans to pursue a master’s degree and apply for a coveted slot in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Officer program. He has already been accepted into a graduate program at Dartmouth University. “To be able to play a role in advancing our foreign policy and interact with people. That’s the ultimate goal.”