June 23, 2011, 11:48 PM
Greetings of love and peace from Rabat, Morocco.
A flock of swallows is delighting at dusk outside my windows – swooping and soaring, chittering in what sounds like joy; and the muezzin from the nearby mosque is chanting the call to prayer. My prayer at the moment is one of gratitude for a rich and full day that began with an impressive exercise with the training for young leaders from the Middle East and North Africa and Europe and ended with a stirring and deep presentation and question and answer session with two leaders of Combatants for Peace – a group of former Palestinian militants and former Israeli military who have made the courageous decision to foreswear violence and do the hard work needed to build relationships and work together for peace. Then, once the formal program had ended for the day, a group of us headed down to the beach for a blissful swim in the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean, a swim that was ended prematurely when the life guards whistled everyone out of the water following a shark sighting! All in a day’s work and play.
Here are a few of the many highlights:
When we arrived from the hotel, the young leaders were working through an exercise, led by Matthew Youde with clear direction and an open style that invited spirited engagement by the participants, on planning, implementing and evaluating a program of action which the participants had envisioned in small groups the first day of the retreat. From what I observed, some powerful young leaders are here and they are eager to be at work making the world a better place.
I left the young leaders to begin the full session for the rest of the assembly. After beginning with an icebreaker to help everyone begin to know each other’s names and to relax into community, and two opening prayers, we participated in an interactive presentation – Reflections of Refugees’ Situation: A Comparison Between Europe and MENA, led by GC Trustee from Palestine, Tareq Altamimi.
Tareq skillfully engaged the group in an exploration of the difference between being a refugee and being an immigrant, first by having us reflect on a series of quotes and then by discussing the topic directly. One of the quotes Tareq offered that I particularly liked was from Swami Vivekenanda: In a day when you don’t come across any problems, you can be sure you aren’t traveling on the right path. My response was that this may well be true, but I’d be delighted to try a few days when I didn’t run across any problems.
Among the differences raised between immigrants and refugees: immigrants generally leave their home country out of choice, refugees out of fear; immigrants are given official status (or not) by the government of their new country, while refugees are officially recognized by the UN.; immigrants are generally free to return to their home country, while refugees generally are not.
We heard moving stories from different people about their or their family’s status as immigrants and/or refugees. Shlomo Alon spoke of his parents leaving Europe for Palestine in 1938 ahead of the rising Nazi threat and that within a year their entire families had been exterminated. I guess you could say my parents were immigrants, Shlomo said, and their families that were slaughtered by the Nazis would have been refugees. Tareq spoke of the Palestinian plight of feeling yourself to be a refugee in your own country.
Tareq offered a detailed overview of the Palestinians as the largest refugee group in the world, and also provided an overview of the global refugee/immigrant situation. Alexandra Mattescu of Romania, who would lead the next session, offered the statistic that 1 of every 35 people is an international migrant. That’s 200 million international migrants if you imagine a global population of 7 billion!
In general people agreed that it was essential to break down the barriers that separated immigrants/refugees from the mainstream population in their countries, allowing large parts of the population to come to know and respect these people as unique individuals who deserve the most humane treatment possible. Education and economic opportunity are important for immigrant integration. Learning the local language and customs is important, but people shouldn’t have to abandon their native culture. An overriding question – how can we be part of a larger whole without losing our unique identities?
Alexandra Mattescu, who leads the Anna Lindh Network in Romania, focused initially on immigration in Europe, beginning with the acknowledgment that many rightly perceive Europe as a fortress when it comes to refugees and immigrants. We carry the image of immigrants/refugees as desperate people fleeing their countries in inadequate boats who are a threat to long established cultures. Racism, religious prejudice (mainly Islamaphobia) and fear of crime (often directed against Romas, all factor into resistance to immigrants/refugees. They often take low-paying jobs that citizens won’t take, but that also closes them out from more significant opportunity. Following this introductory overview, Alexandra led the group in a spirited discussion of the issue of integration that circled around acceptance, resisting labeling others, and whether the growing phenomenon of mixed marriages is a positive trend for the future.
After lunch, Sherif Rizk, of the Tolerance CC in Egypt, led a workshop on Mass Communication: A Means of Integration of Disintegration? Using a series of video clips, Sherif demonstrated how easy it is for the media to manipulate people’s experience of reality. He cautioned us to remember that the media can never be completely unbiased; that it’s up to the people to generate their own news through social media and also to check the accuracy of what any media are presenting by checking multiple sources. Sherif’s session was lively, with a rich discussion of people’s experience of biased media, of media focus on blood and violence, and of the challenge of getting the regular media and media consumers to pay attention to positive stories.
The final presentation of the day came from Mr. Yousri G.F. Al Sallamin, a former Palestinian militant and Mr. Oren Elbaz, a former Israeli soldier, both of the Combatants for Peace Movement. They shared the riveting story of the work of this organization, which won an Anna Lindh Euromed Award for Dialogue in 2009. During the 8 months of its founding in 2005, former Palestinian militants and former Israeli soldiers committed to the at times excruciatingly difficult work of getting to know and trust each other so they could become true partners for peace. Among other things, this mean learning about and being able to move beyond the violence each side had done to the other. It meant moving beyond stereotypes, dealing with great pain, and, ultimately, being able to forgive each other and themselves for the violence they had committed.
Coming out of this time of intensive trust building and on a platform of non-violence, they committed to some basic guidelines: an end to the Israeli occupation; building a Palestinian state; East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state; Palestinians and Israelis coming to know each other in their daily lives as opposed to combatants in this struggle. They spoke of their work to create a peace path in Palestine to encourage Israelis, Palestinians and people from other countries to travel through Palestine, to see Palestinian people going about their daily lives and to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.
The whole group offered our rapt attention as these two courageous men told their personal stories, relating how difficult it had been to make the transition from being a militant or soldier to being a committed non-violent activist. Yousri spoke in Arabic, with Tareq translating into English. Oren spoke in Hebrew with Yousri translating into Arabic and then Tareq translating into English, with an occasional assist from a native Hebrew speaker.
During an engaged question and answer session, Oren said he didn’t feel threatened by the Israeli government, but did feel persecuted by public opinion in his home in southern Israel, largely, he felt, because the unrelenting negative media coverage of Palestinians made it impossible for many of his neighbors to understand how he could see former Palestinian militants as friends. The two men talked about how those perpetrating violence on both sides of this conflict suffered from the violence they perpetrated; and about how difficult it is, as impressionable young men growing up on a steady stream of propaganda, to say no to the order to do violence to others.
Without question, this was the most inspiring and most challenging presentation of the day; and the most focused engagement by the whole group, which was really quite engaged all day. As they finished, Oren and Yousri said that what they most needed was as many opportunities as possible to tell their stories.
I left this session, this day of sessions, with profound gratitude for the work of my URI colleagues and others in the MENA region and in Europe; and grateful for the obvious maturing of this work as those engaged in it become increasingly committed, courageous and sophisticated in facing the truly difficult challenges to creating a new more peaceful future that honors the basic dignity of all.