2011, 2012 – Palestinian
More Than Just One Message: Speech at the Hands of Peace Benefit at the Hilton Del Mar on March 10th, 2019
I joined Hands of Peace in 2011. At that time I was a very shy person. I certainly would not be able to stand here and talk in front of you. Even though I was raised in one of the West Bank’s major cities, Nablus, I did not know much about the conflict or politics in general. I was raised in a big, well known, politically involved family. Some of my extended family were in prison and some were killed due to the conflict, but I chose a different path — a non-violent path. After the Summer Program I was more courageous and I was not that shy person anymore. I could speak my mind freely. While I had changed, the reality at home had not. I still had to go through checkpoints , the separation wall was still there and at night I still heard soldiers invading my hometown.
Luckily our first alumni seminar was coming up soon. I had a chance to share my feelings with other alumni. I felt that I was responsible to change the situation from the Palestinian side. I felt like it was my job to engage in conversations with others in my town about my experience in Hands of Peace.
The next year, I was chosen to return to Chicago as an XL. I felt I was more mature and grown up, being a role model to the first-year participants. Now I had more duties to fulfill. I felt that I was an important connection between the participants and the chaperone, helping the younger participants adjust to the program but also giving a hand to the chaperones whenever needed. This was the beginning of my training as a mediator.
When the program ended again, I felt that everything was over and my work with Hands of Peace was done. I did the two years in the program and that was it. However, I was wrong. I discovered that the work had not even started yet! So this is where reality hit me and I started to think…why am I still doing Hands of Peace? Why am I giving my time and effort to it even though nothing in reality has changed? During my years in Hands of Peace I discovered the following — I believe that Hands of Peace is more than just a one-message program. It is not only about “peace.” If we can achieve peace, that will be a major success. If not, then we can still try to make a difference in this world, if we cannot make a difference in this world, then we can make a difference in some people’s life and open up their minds. If we also cannot, then we can change ourselves.
I am proud to say that I am a loyal alumni, I was always present in the seminars, follow-ups, and meetings. I remember one day after one of the seminars, our pictures were posted online accusing us of normalization. Some people believe that normalization is any interaction with the other side and that therefore we are accepting the current situation. On our university campus, my fellow Hands of Peace participants and I received many threats. I remained calm. I knew it was just a tempest in a teacup. During that seminar, Hoda approached us to attend a dinner with a group of American adults who were on a Hands of Peace multi-narrative tour. Exactly after I saw the news, I called her and asked if the dinner was still on. She was like “do you know what happened?” I replied yes, I know, I heard the news, so what? I felt that if I were to back out now it would send the message to the public that what am doing is wrong and that I am shameful, but I insisted to attend that dinner to show the public, and especially the terrified participants, that what we are doing is right and at least we are trying to do something better.
During my years in Hands of Peace I discovered the following — I believe that Hands of Peace is more than just a one-message program. It is not only about “peace.” If we can achieve peace, that will be a major success. If not, then we can still try to make a difference in this world, if we cannot make a difference in this world, then we can make a difference in some people’s life and open up their minds. If we also cannot, then we can change ourselves.
In 2017, I returned to Chicago as a Chaperone. This was a major change in my journey with Hands of Peace. This time, I had to be the one who is giving the answers instead of asking the questions, the one supporting participants if they have a break down instead of being that participant. I thought it would be a piece of cake but again I was wrong.
One of the moments that I will never forget as a chaperone was an incident with one of the participants. During the program, his cousin was shot. He was devastated and shocked. As a Chaperone I felt helpless, what could I say to someone who just lost his beloved one to the conflict and here he is having daily interactions with Israelis. What is he thinking about? What can I do or say to make him feel better? But I knew that I had to support him.
During the program, I was telling myself ‘okay Mohammed this is it, I won’t do this anymore it is too tiring and energy consuming!’ But, during the last day, when I saw the participants crying, holding hands from the bus and running behind the bus just to say a last goodbye I knew how amazing the work we are doing truly is! How a 19 day program can change someone!
In a nutshell, what am trying to say is that I have had many darks moment where I felt like giving up and leaving it all behind but Hands of Peace was always there on time to lift me up again and put me back on the right track! This program still exists because of the hidden soldiers that are working day and night, from the founders to the year–round staff to the chaperones to the participants and of course to YOU as well. So thank you for making this possible! Thank you for empowering us to believe that peace is possible!