By: Courtney Conway, Friendship Park, Calif – July 26, 2018
“English, please!” The ever-present phrase is used repeatedly throughout Hands of Peace to encourage all four delegations of the program (Israelis, Palestinians, Palestinian Citizens of Israel, Americans) to meet at a common place, at least in language. In tune with the goal of Hands of Peace, this goes far beyond a desire to cater to Americans and conform to the home turf of the program. Encouraging all delegations to speak one language has a profound effect on the community at large, actively creating an environment where social and cultural cliques are less likely, and everyone is coerced into bonding over a crucial element to both the program and life itself- communication. Language barriers across the world cause problems big and small, as when one cannot express his/herself to someone in their own way, some may think “what’s the point of trying?” As any Hand or XL will tell you, sometimes trying is all one needs to do.
But what happens when a new element is introduced to the seemingly delicate social environment? When Hands of Peace took the annual trip down the US-Mexico border, each participant was given a changed dynamic to confront and/or embrace. Mexican teens around the same age as participants met up at a ranch near the border for lunch and introductions. Suddenly five delegations, four languages, and a large number of teens bonded over doing what they do best: talking. Without skipping a beat, one could see all the initial hugs/handshakes, relating to one another over the biggest and smallest of things. Conversations with topics drifting seamlessly between pop culture and global politics filled the air as everybody filled the buses taking them to the international border.
Upon arriving at Friendship Park, a grassy area sitting in the shade of the metal gates and barbed wire, a key emotional shift took place. Here was a border looming between two countries seemingly unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and yet the scene seemed so familiar to everyone there. As people in Mexico played in the water and basked in the sun, the barren American side was patrolled with Border Patrol Agents preventing anyone from approaching the gate to talk to those on the other side. And that defines exactly what a border is when it comes down to it, does it not? A fear of and blockade against intercultural conversation and connection? Enter Hands of Peace: a program dedicated to pushing past that fear in hopes of a new conversation and better tomorrow. As Hands, XLs, and guests gathered in the field for dialogue, they accomplished what so many renowned leaders and diplomats are not able to. The group of teens from five different cultural backgrounds built bridges instead of borders, discussing the emotional and political effects of hostile international boundaries. They related their own countries to the ones they were in and looking at across metal bars, carefully listening to the perspectives of each other regardless of any preconceived idea that the “other side” was invalid. That human connection, that fearless conversation, is exactly what Hands of Peace is about. After knowing what these teens are capable of, hope that a more peaceful and inclusive world seems a bit more attainable now, doesn’t it?.
Courtney Conway was a Hand in 2016, and continues to stay actively involved in the San Diego alumni programming.