Teens who are Jews, Muslims and Christians get together for peace.
The group Hands of Peace, based in Chicago, had a farewell celebration on July 29. They wanted the young minds to help overcome the divisive political history in the Middle East in a conflict that has been bubbling over for more than 70 years and bring ideas for peace.
Now in its fifth year, the Hands of Peace program brings together 46 Israeli, Palestinian and American teens for a summer leadership conference that centers on daily conversations and team-building exercises to break down the walls of hate, prejudice and misunderstanding.
Sunday’s celebration was the first time the participants had an opportunity to share their experiences with an audience, which was made up of several hundred donors, host families, volunteers, parents, alumni and community members.
With the help of skilled facilitators, the high schoolers spent their mornings involved in deep dialogues about their feuding nations. Their afternoons were spent doing activities like rope climbing, cultural exchanges in the kitchen and visiting churches, mosques and synagogues together. At night, they stay with their American host families.
Near the end of the program, all of the participants gathered on stage to sing songs of peace. As they sang and swayed together, each teen held up a piece of paper on which they wrote the one word that described their experience in Hands of Peace. The words, some written in Hebrew and Arabic, included: New, change, love, proud, friends, growth, empathy, acceptance, powerful and peace.
There was time for the kids to be kids but they also worked on learning, listening and growing as empathetic human beings. It’s the next generation deciding how to end a decades old war with their futures on the line.
The stakes for these teens are high. It could be dangerous back home for some of the Middle Eastern teens if word got back that they were engaged in peace-making activities with the “enemy.” To protect their privacy at Hands of Peace, most used only first names and could not be photographed. Most group activities and all of their often-heated group dialogues were off-limits to everyone but the teens and a few adult facilitators.
Sunday’s keynote speaker was Gretchen Grad, who founded Hands of Peace 15 years ago in Chicago. San Diego is the only other city where Hands of Peace takes place but she hopes to expand the program to other U.S. cities.
Grad said the participants learn to listen to other ideas and ultimately realize that behind their religions, ethnicities, nationalities and political beliefs they’re all alike and want the same thing: peace and prosperity for their families.
Second-year participant Marwan, a 17-year-old Christian Palestinian from the West Bank, said “Every day that passes someone will get killed and his family will have the same terrible feeling that I do.” And he said “We should put an end to the bloodshed because with peace comes freedom.”
*Hands of peace : https://www.facebook.com/HandsOfPeace/