The Words of the Stewart Family

European Youth Get a Taste of Israeli and Palestinian Life

Fiona Stewart and Hod Ben Zvi
July 14, 2009
Middle East Peace Initiative - June 21 -- July 4, 2009

Jerusalem, Israel - Twenty-six youth from Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, America, and Israel gathered in Jerusalem on June 21 for a taste of Israeli and Palestinian cultures and to learn through experience about transcending barriers of religion, ethnicity, and nationality for the sake of peace. In this two-week together they took part in service projects and dialogues with Israeli and Palestinian youth as well as visiting historic sites. Sponsored by the Youth Federation for World Peace, this International Youth Leadership project builds on years of Middle East Peace Initiative activities of the Universal Peace Federation.

"Meeting, experiencing, and serving people from both sides taught me to see each perspective," said Richard Graham of England. "Through serving we can build a connection of heart, somehow, as brothers and sisters of humanity."

The first day was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem helping with the renovation of St. Alexander’s Church. After sleeping in the pilgrim’s living quarters at the church, participants were introduced to their first project. It involved assisting The Palestinian Orthodox Society in the preparations for their receiving an Indian Princess. Tasks ranged from sandpapering 130-year old windows to dusting antique icons of the church, as well as arranging the garden and making floral bouquets. Jeremy Cirelli, a participant from Italy, commented about their work at the church: “We really made the caretaker smile.” After a tour of the Old City, the participants gathered to talk about their expectations and goals. After dinner, Professor Eliezer Glaubach gave an overview of the religious significance of Jerusalem.

The next day, the young people continued renovating the church and then went to Hebrew University, where they participated in a café meeting between Israeli Jewish and Arab students to learn more about the situation in Palestine. Tina Jordan commented, “This was a great opportunity to understand the perspectives of local youth caught on both sides of the conflict.” In the evening, the delegation participated in the Youth Movement Tours, where they met with a young municipal official and were given a historic overview of the new areas of Jerusalem outside the walls of the Old City.

The third day, they went to City Hall to meet with Hilik Bar, a Jerusalem City Councilor. He presented a demographic and historical overview of Jerusalem. A visit to the YMCA Peace Kindergarten gave them an opportunity to see a peace-building educational initiative in action. They were introduced to their bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) education program and played with the children. In the evening, the delegation had another opportunity for a hands-on service in a park beautification project in Ir Ganim. After the work was finished, they gathered for a kumsitz, sharing cookies and songs from different countries. After dinner, Dr. Sabella, a professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, spoke on the topic of “The Role of Religious Leaders in Peace-building.”

The fourth day began with an early trip to the Yefe Nof Elementary school. Kristofer Ostberg coordinated a morning of sports activities with the young children. Liel Shmueli, a local participant who served as a translator commented, “The kids enjoyed the time together a lot because they liked the international youth. It is pity that it was just two hours!” After the exciting morning, the afternoon was spent in a more relaxed setting as Eyal Raviv, founder of the website, shared his experiences networking fellow peacemakers and his insights into the importance of presenting a united grassroots movement to support political decision-makers. After dinner participants were divided into groups to plan their presentations at Bethlehem’s SOS Children’s Village. The four groups were Cloud of Environment, Cloud of Knowledge, Cloud of Sports, and Cloud of Nutrition.

A tour to the North took place the fifth day. The delegation first stopped to visit the magnificent Baha’i Gardens that overlook Haifa. Shortly after taking in the breathtaking sights, the participants drove east to the famous city of Nazareth and then to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his early life. Listening to a reading of the Beatitudes while admiring the Galilee Sea, it was hard to not feel inspired. They also visited the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes and then took a boat trip across this beautiful sea; on the boat, the young people had a taste of Arab culture through dancing with them to their joyful music.

The next two days were spent in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. The first morning, the participants visited the Church of the Nativity and in the afternoon they were given a tour of the Dhesheish Refugee Camp and a historical presentation by Ibdaa. Ibdaa, which means 'to create something out of nothing' in Arabic, is a grassroots initiative at the camp. In the evening, the participants helped at the Bethlehem School for Computer Literacy. High Cloud provided a generous financial contribution for the construction of this school, and we helped to prepare the site for construction by moving tiles, cement bags, and rubble. The next morning we continued the work and spent the afternoon at the SOS Children’s Village, an orphanage subsidized by European donors, making presentations from High Cloud’s Education Curriculum. The participants designed educational activities that included eating foods from the food pyramid, picking up litter, planting flowers, playing dodge-ball, learning English, and geography. Afterwards, the village hosted the delegates in their homes, where they met the “mothers” who take care of the orphaned children. Jeremy Cirelli of Italy said, “I enjoyed a lot working in Bethlehem, especially because of the happiness we brought to the kids there; I could see the value of the service projects we did.”

On the eighth day, the delegation had the pleasure and honor of visiting the Dome of the Rock. They could experience the rich ornamentation of the mosque and hear an enthusiastic historical oration from Omar Halasa, the representative of YFWP International. Shortly after, the group was led to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. In the afternoon, the group was given a tour of Ramallah in the West Bank and a presentation by One Voice, a grassroots movements that is politically active in trying to end the conflict in Israel and Palestine. They gave a lot of insight into the down-to-earth picture that “peace” in the Middle East entails. After dinner, the delegation was greeted by David Walsh, representing Service For Peace. David, also a part-time graduate student at Hebrew University, shared the background of his organization with the members and also introduced the Pluralistic Synagogue Project that he helped to coordinate.

Over the course of the next three days, the group helped the Pluralistic Synagogue renovate its property by weeding, clearing dead trees, decorating window frames with stained glass, constructing a sukka or temporary shelter, and repairing holy books. Members put their heart into the service provided here, as they wanted to do their best in leaving behind something lasting. The change from before and after the project was very dramatic as an overgrown jungle was transformed into a beautifully manicured garden and tidied interior. In one of the afternoons, the group took the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, or the Holocaust Museum. Though it is not an easy place to digest, the young people felt it was necessary to understand more the heart and strength of the Jewish people. To celebrate the completion of the Synagogue project and express appreciation for the hard work of the members, the group was gathered in the beautiful Rose Garden to enjoy playing guitar, soccer and volleyball, singing and chatting, while members of the staff prepared an Israeli-style barbecue.

Everyone knows that a trip to Israel is incomplete without visiting the Dead Sea. The final day started with the group’s arrival at the Dead Sea. Some of the hottest hours of the day were spent floating on the dense waters and covering one another, or “treating” each others’ skin, with its rich minerals. After returning, participants were asked to write reflections about their experiences in Israel, describing what they gained and valued most from their participation in the project. Then, for a 'Last Supper,' the delegation went to a lovely Chinese restaurant, where they celebrated by sharing happy memories and enjoying the pleasant surprise together. At night they were gathered at the Jerusalem Peace Center for a party for one person’s birthday (Ye Sam) and to give closure to the experience, which included a slide show of photos taken during the project.

Excerpts from participant reflections

"I found it most rewarding to not only go beyond taking sides, but also go beyond neutrality and passivity. Meeting, experiencing and serving people from both sides of the camp really taught me something invaluable; that it is in meeting and understanding that we can see each perspective, and through serving we can build a connection of heart, somehow, as brothers and sisters of humanity. I feel this trip enabled me to take steps closer to becoming an individual who goes beyond sects and cliques, and who learns to serve both sides through sincere understanding of each situation and position." - Richard Graham, England

“I was sometimes asking myself how my being here can actually help achieve something, when it comes to peace. I’ve understood that in order to deal with individuals and create peace between people, you always have to start with small steps. In this way, we are showing people what we do and what we believe in, and that we care about their situation. I think it really means a lot to them. I could see it in the way they responded to us..." - Kristie Krockow, Norway

"The project inspired me about the work of peacemaking and helped me to understand better the means for making peace in my own country and in my personal life." - H. C. N., Germany

"I could feel the change in the people and the joy we brought to them even just by doing small things, and I’m sure that just as hatred was passed on through generations, joy will be passed on in the same way..." - Jeremy Hyo-Soung Cirelli, Italy

"I believe what I enjoyed most of all was the fact that we could see a tangible difference." - Martin Stewart, Canada

"Because we are all a big family, their conflict is also my conflict; their suffering is my suffering. I tried to be a happy human being and to make my brothers and sisters happy." - Franz-Pol Ladouce, France 

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