Israeli, Palestinian and American teens break down boundaries

Israeli, Palestinian and American teens break down boundaries
Hands of Peace aims to promote change and encourage peace in the Middle East. From right, Alyssa, Yonatan, Omar and Randa are participating for their second year and all said the experience has been eye opening. Photo by Ellen Wright

CARLSBAD — Dozens of teens gathered Wednesday afternoon to make a two-minute video.

They weren’t trying to be the next YouTube sensations or film video game tutorials. They were hoping to spread a message of peace to end the war and violence in the Middle East.

For the second year, nonprofit Hands of Peace held a three-week long program in Carlsbad, which included teens from Palestine, Israel and America to teach the students leadership skills and to facilitate discussions to promote change.

The hope is that by exposing the teens to different beliefs and introducing them to cultures they’ve never experienced, they’ll be able to affect change in their local and national governments.

“It takes a group to change an individual but it takes an individual to change the world,” said Scott Silk, founder of the Hands of Peace San Diego branch.

The organization has been running in Chicago for 12 years.

Every day the kids spend two and a half hours in “dialogue” where they discuss topics and issues related to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

The discussions often get spirited so a trained facilitator leads them.

It’s these discussions that Palestinian citizen of Israel Omar (last name withheld) said had the biggest impact him.

After he had an argument with an Israeli Jewish student at his boarding school regarding the conflict, he began receiving death threats.

He said the skills he learned at Hand of Peace allowed him to talk with the boy and come to a resolution.

“I just talked to him as we do here in dialogues and we became best friends,” Omar said. “Without Hands of Peace, it wouldn’t have happened, who can know what would have happened.”

Randa, from Tulkerm, Palestine, agreed the discussions have been eye opening.

“My opinions changed, my visions of things,” she said. “I’ve started to think about others before I think about myself because after Hands of Peace, I know that I’m not the only one suffering in this world.”

Before the program, she said she’s never met someone from the “other side” or Israel because of the international borders and checkpoints that separate them.

The American students have been affected by the program too.

San Marcos teen Alyssa said the program has shaped her identity and the way she views the world.

After becoming close friends with teens from Israel and Palestine last year, the war on the Gaza Strip gained a whole new relevance for her. The teens were leaving Carlsbad to go home to Israel and Palestine right in the middle of the crisis.

“It’s humanizing,” Alyssa said. “There are millions of people living this reality and that’s unacceptable.”

While staying here, the Israeli and Palestinian students stay with families. They’re exposed to American culture and diversity.

After the program is complete, seminars are hosted in both Israel and Palestine for the kids to continue with dialogues.

Silk said some of the alumni have presented to Congress members and one has written a book.

Through donations, the nonprofit is able to arrange the life-changing program and students are vetted through an application process.

On Wednesday afternoon the students were given about five hours to make a two-minute movie discussing similarities, although the lessons learned during their stay in Carlsbad will stay with them forever.

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