Bahai News -- Glencoe News - Fostering peace Aug. 14, 2003

Fostering peace

Program brings U.S. and Middle Eastern teens together


When she realized her children had found good friendships in the neighbors' children, despite their religious differences, a light bulb went off in the mind of Gretchen Grad.

Grad dreamed of organizing a program that would promote a similar peace among Israeli, Palestinian and American teens. Her children's choice of playmates, coupled with the events of Sept. 11, led Grad to pursue her dream.

In April of 2002, the Glenview resident brought her idea to neighbor Deanna Jacobson, a member of B'Nai Johoshua Beth Elohim, and Nuha Dabbouseh, a member of the Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago.

"I thought it would be something tangible that our community could do to reach out and try to help others dealing with the conflict in the Middle East," Grad said. "Our community is very unique. We have interfaith relationships between the churches and the synagogues, and we're so fortunate to have the Islamic Cultural Center located in Northbrook. When we came to them with the idea, they immediately jumped on it and said 'yes, we want to help."

Hands of Peace, which is sponsored by the Glenview Community Church, BJBE and the ICC, placed six Israeli teenagers and six Palestinian teenagers in the households of 10 area residents July 21 through Aug. 4.

The foreign teens are alumni of Seeds of Peace, a three-week camp that brings Middle Eastern and American teens together in Maine. Seeds of Peace focuses more narrowly on bringing together Palestinians and Israelis and focuses less on interacting with Americans.

The participating American teens in Hands of Peace are members of one of the three local congregations. The host families were given home interviews by Julie Orr, a member of the Glenview Community Church, to assess their qualifications.

Shira Gemer, one of the Israeli exchange teens, said the program gave her a chance to speak to a Palestinian, something that would have been virtually impossible in her hometown of Ashkelon.

"The program tries to build trust between us, and it shows me that Palestinians are not the enemy. They (Palestinian teens) tell me information that I would never be able to get because of the media in Israel. They show me the other side, and that they are just like me," the 16-year-old said. Although this was her sixth visit to the United States, Gemer said she enjoyed taking an architectural tour of Chicago via boat, and ice skating with the other program participants.

Excursions into Chicago and trips to the beach were planned to help the group members get to know each other better, Grad said. They visited Lincoln Park Zoo, the Planetarium and the Baha'i Temple, and spent some time on the Northbrook Park District's outdoor team building course.

Mornings were spent in two-hour "co-existence" discussion sessions led by experienced facilitators. There the teens were encouraged to say what's on their mind, but in a manner that was mindful and respectful of others' feelings. The discussions were initially constructed to break the ice between the group members. As the days went by, teens were encouraged to share their political views and their feelings concerning the current situation in the Middle East.

"You get to hear what kids from the states think, and it lets you know how they feel," said 18-year-old Amer Omar, who is from Ramallah. "It's good because you can send a message for your people and get messages from other people, too."

Zina Alkafaji, a recent graduate from Lake Forest High School, said the fun she got out of the program was outside of the discussion sessions.

"When we're outside of co-ex, it's like we're all having fun, we're all friends, we're just hanging out. But in co-ex, there's tension, obviously. I mean, that's why we're here, but it's more fun outside of co-ex," the 18-year-old said.

She said she found the opportunity to show the foreign exchange teens around Chicago most rewarding. The Arab-American said she enjoyed the opportunity to relate to both the Arab kids and her American peers.

Omar, like many of the teens in the program, said he had some hesitations about coming to America, but his fears lessened with time. "I had some doubts about coming here because I am the only guy from the West Bank. I thought going back home, people would think 'Oh, look at him cooperating with the Israelis.' But I don't really care because, eventually, this is what everyone is going to do. Today's teenagers are tomorrow's leaders, and if they learn how to co-exist now, they'll co-exist when they're leaders."

Grad had her share of doubts in trying to build Hands of Peace, but she said her faith reassured her that it would all come together.

"I still have to pinch myself when I see what this program has become. The bonding and the interaction has been incredible. Even if these kids don't feel comfortable waving a peace banner when they go home, I still think they will change the way they treat others."

Many of the Israeli participants will be joining the army soon, and a compassion for Palestinians might surface that would not have had Hands of Peace not existed, Grad said. She said she believes the Palestinian teens also have a greater empathy toward Israelis now. Grad also added that a visible change in the community has taken place over the last two weeks.

"Our whole community has been impacted by the program, I think. We've had people attending services at the mosque and temple who have never set foot in either type of congregation before."

The extent to which the program ultimately will affect the teens' lives cannot be determined, but Grad said it is clear they have all been touched in some way. With more support from neighboring communities, Grad said she hopes to host up to 30 teens next summer.

©Copyright 2003, Glencoe News (IL, USA)

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