Categorized | Trieger_Eva

Hands of Peace bring Middle East teens together

Itamar and Khalid

Itamar and Khalid


By Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

ENCINITAS, California -“When summer camp ends, you miss the friends you’ve made for about a week. When Hands of Peace ends you miss those friends forever, “said Itamar, describing his experience of the dynamic dialogue-based program that has one agenda: to develop open-minded young leaders who want to be a catalyst for positive change in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the world.

Hands of Peace originated in Chicago twelve years ago as the brainchild of three American women who were respectively Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Their common goal was to bring diverse groups of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans together meaningfully and in a way that would engender empathy and foster true friendship, and ultimately, peace.

That summer, Chicago hosted 21 teenagers from Israel, the West Bank, and America, and the prototype of a dialogue based program got underway. The 18 day model provides for a multitude of discussions, interactions, a variety of experiences, community service, guest lecturers, and visits to mosques, synagogues and churches. The teenagers learn that whatever their own perspective, they must be open to change and see things from another’s vantage point. They come to realize that all words and actions have consequences.

Luckily for me, Gretchen Grad, the Christian co-founder, was in attendance to introduce me around to the incredible, energetic and devoted leaders, teens, host families and facilitators at Sunday afternoon’s reunion in a beautiful home in Olivenhain. This particular gathering was a reunion for those who had attended and organized San Diego’s first summer of Hands of Peace, last July, which included 24 participants.

Scott Silk, the San Diego Site Director, and History and Middle East Diplomacy teacher at Pacific Ridge, discussed the impetus and work behind his involvement in the organization. Having worked with the group in Chicago, Scott came to San Diego a few years ago, and laid the groundwork for the West Coast chapter. He shared that his role with Hands of Peace allows him to “combine my interest in teens with my passion for conflict resolution.” Silk’s connection to Israel and Palestine began at age 13 when he visited the land. During his undergrad time at University of Michigan, Silk returned to Israel, and again during his stint in law school. Silk delights in “creating young leaders with awareness of all sides.” To this end, he has led a dual narrative trip to Israel and the West Bank where he teaches students about the political climate and complexities of the region.

The program recruits students aged 15-17 from Jewish Israel, the West Bank, and America. For 18 days the students attend daily dialogue sessions that are geared at building a bridge of understanding, compassion and honesty. They bond with each other as one teen to another, one human to another. Approximately three weeks prior to the program the students receive an orientation about the conflict to garner insight into each side of the issue and to provide a groundwork of facts instead of propaganda.

While in Chicago or San Diego, the program each day is packed with dialogues facilitated by Israeli and Palestinian professionals, and supported by chaperones and alumni. The teens follow a rigorous schedule that encourages them to examine their current belief system and step outside of whatever dogma they have been taught. It requires immense bravery and maturity to evaluate and examine the prejudices with which one has been raised, and attempt to move beyond these barriers when the reality dictates a change in perspective.

Last year, a first for the San Diego chapter, host families took in a number of Israeli and Palestinian students. Grad explained the process by which kids are assigned host families. Sometimes it has to do with pet allergies or religious observation, but largely it has to do with the space a host family can provide or how many children the host family has of their own. Two students may be placed in one home and their origin has little bearing on the matching.

Chicago currently hosts 42 students each summer, and San Diego is hoping to meet that number soon. Last year’s San Diego number was 24, and many of them were present this afternoon to bask in their friendship, and to speak to the kvelling crowd about their experiences since the conclusion of the Hands of Peace program in July.
Approximately 70 people filled the kitchen, and spilled out onto the lush landscaped patio. The din of happy laughter and a spirit of utter joy consumed the space as this reunion brought these folks together, to celebrate their growth and rejoice in the deep bonds, formed in one short summer.

I had the great honor and delight of talking with two of the boys, Khalid and Itamar. Both attended last summer’s program and Khalid also had the benefit of having attended the summer prior in Chicago. “I thought it was going to be all peace, love and everyone singing Kumbaya, but it wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t your stereotypical camp. We had enlightened discussions.” These talks led to a whole new type of relationship, and as the teens got to know each other, they proceeded without fear, even though the topics and content were difficult. Khalid described that it brought him to a “whole new playing field with new rules.” Khalid is a Muslim Palestinian American, who currently is a junior at Pacific Ridge. Since his experiences in Hands of Peace, he has created a self-designed plan for an international trip wherein he will gather documentary stories in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan and plans to make them accessible to the public via YouTube or Vimeo. This young man’s openness and erudition leave no doubt that he will achieve his goals.

Itamar shared his reflections of his first summer with Hands of Peace. This high school junior spoke of experiencing anxiety at the program’s outset, and expected it to resemble the Jewish summer day camp he’d attended. He said that shortly after the icebreakers he knew he was there to “get down to business.” He realized being a part of this process was a serious thing. Itamar was born in Israel but moved to the US at age 7 1/2. He has been raised in a secular home and definitely identifies himself as an Israeli. Itamar has many family ties in Israel and plans to return.

Eager to know more about the specifics of the dialogue I asked Scott Silk to break it down for me. He described four stages: Getting to Know You, Discussions of Politics, Sharing Personal Stories and Wrap Up. These stages are all critical and incremental, but it seems the biggest transformation occurs in Stage 3: The Sharing of Personal Stories. This is where the teens share their life experiences and while listening to another’s pain, fear, or triumph, develop the empathy that leads to a change of heart and more importantly, a change in behavior.

While I think all of this is amazing, I was skeptical. How do these kids keep up the momentum when the program ends and they return home to families who may have a history of fear or mistrust? I was reassured to learn that in America and in the Middle East, there are planned supports in place, not only to keep participants connected, but also to help them deal with hurdles they will most assuredly encounter since the entire world wasn’t a part of the amazing 18 day process.

I was elated to learn that there are alumni events in both the US and Israel, and the West Bank and mini camps that occur four times a year. Additionally, alumni clubs in both countries are active, sometimes hearing speakers, attending shows or concerts, or performing community service, but they are connected, working towards the goal of peace and harmony, always.

I wanted to know how the host families had been affected by this amazing experience and to help me understand, I spoke with Kelley Grimes. Kelley hosted two Orthodox Jewish girls. This again, was determined because the girls kept kosher, and Kelley’s home is vegan. While that doesn’t adhere to the precise rules of keeping kosher, there are fewer conflicts or difficulties with synchronizing the kitchens and diets. Kelley and her husband have a 15 year old daughter at home who really connected with the Israeli teens. I asked Kelley what surprised her the most and she shared that she was shocked by her “deep sense of connected humanness.” Yes, these girls came from a world away, but she felt so close to them in such a short period of time. Kelley also noted the great degree of maturity and insight she observed in her young guests. Their stay coincided with a tumultuous summer in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The incredibly rich experience has led Kelley to come on board in a Leadership Outreach capacity. This is a testimony to how life changing this program is for everyone involved.

The brief afternoon visit terminated with speeches from the teen participants of Hands of Peace. Each student shared his or her own story of how this program has altered perceptions, changed goals, and impacted life choices. “It takes a group to change an individual and an individual to change the world,” Silk had told me earlier. If these kids are heralding the change, I know we’ll want to be a part of the new order.

While this program only takes 2 and one half weeks out of a summer, its importance ferments and grows exponentially. The experience of the two weeks isn’t an end, but a beginning for these teenagers and hopefully for the world. The student videos are impactful and can be found of the website. Each brief movie drives home the point that we are more alike than we are different. When humans dialogue with each other we tend to find our similarities. As the boys told me, “When the yellow bus pulled away on our last day we were all just a bucket of emotions.”

Please check out the website for ways in which you can learn more about this incredible organization and help create a harmonious future.

Trieger is a freelance writer .  Your signed comment may be placed in the space provided below or sent to [email protected]

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