Building Bridges and Making Peace, One Life At a Time
|The idea is simple: It's hard to hate someone who has become your friend.
As they sat in a circle at a New Jersey estate this last summer, their faces a mixture of apprehension, fear, and hope, twenty-two Palestinian and Israeli teenage girls gazed at each other, seeing the enemy. But by the program's end two weeks later, the girls who once stared at each other with revulsion wept at the thought of separation. Enemies have become friends: just what Melodye Feldman, the program's founder, hopes for: making peace, one life at a time.
All of the girls, regardless of their various political beliefs, had come to take part in a unique program called "Building Bridges for Peace," to take the first step toward understanding the "other side." The forty-seven-year-old activist began Building Bridges ten years ago under a nonprofit organization called Seeking Common Ground. For the past nine summers, the Colorado-based organization has gathered teenage girls from Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip together to attend a three-week camp in the Rocky Mountains. This year, the gathering took place in New Jersey.
Feldman says that the camp offers a safe place for the girls to share their stories and hear the experiences of others. "The girls live, eat and hang out together, and the barriers come tumbling down," she says. And while the young women may never agree on the conflict in their home countries, at least they better understand another point of view. And that, she believes, is the first step toward living together peacefully.
1993 Oslo agreement opened doors for coexistence work between Palestinians and Israelis, and Feldman wrote the Building Bridges program based on several very basic principles. "I considered how we could build inclusive societies where people could live side by side without killing each other," she says. "I wanted to give people the skills and tools to do that. And one-on-one interaction allows people to see a human face rather than the broad caricatures of certain groups drawn by media and stereotypes. This relationship building is the ground work. They're not negotiating anything, but laying a foundation of trust and empathy.
More than 400 girls have attended Building Bridges. Although it can be risky, former participants meet in Jerusalem or elsewhere whenever they can. Others keep in contact by phone, e-mail, or in an Internet chat room they've established.
In 2000, Feldman collaborated with Dr. Katharine Henderson, a Presbyterian minister, to create Face to Face/Faith to Faith, a program designed to bring teens of all faiths together. "The goal is get these kids, the future leaders of the world, to see beyond their stereotypes of the other," "At the Face to Face program, the teens see that the person they might consider an enemy is often very much like themselves," says Henderson, "so the other becomes a human being."
|Face to face, interpersonal action breaks down barriers of stereotyped fears and builds bridges of humanity. Finding common ground and not dwelling on differences is key to the process.
While "the troubles" in Northern Ireland may look different from "the conflict" in the Middle East, the same concerns are played out: land issues, class struggles, indigenous people versus immigrants, and two sides looking at each other with mistrust. "But bringing young people into contact with the 'other side' changes everything says Feldman. "Both sides have a chance to be heard. Pain often comes from feeling ignored. Healing comes from the ability to tell your story to the person that you perceive is the enemy."
Feldman also says that living in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and/or other sites of communal conflict) is tough and it is difficult to return to those areas. However, "what the girls have to go back to are those interpersonal relationships and friendships that they've built."
This project works because it brings young people together in a neutral and supportive setting. Living together brings out shared commonalities, especially in this case, because there is much that is culturally familiar to both Israelis and Palestinians. Compassionate listening principles are also applied - listening respectfully to someone else's ideas and points of view.
|Location:||US, Israel, West Bank, Gaza|
|Extent of Action:||International|
|Source:||Hope (magazine), March/April, 2003, p.25|
|Seeking Common Ground, P.O. Box 101958, Denver, CO 80250, 303-698-9368, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.buildingpeace.org/|
|Prepared By:||sl, 12/04|