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Participants of the Hands of Peace 2019 summer program. (Photo courtesy of Mindi Frankel/Hands of Peace)

Finding peace, learning to communicate and being open-minded are just some of the lessons Israeli, Palestinian and American teens said they learned through a summer program held by local nonprofit Hands of Peace.

The Carlsbad-based program recently hosted a three-week course that brought together 43 teens with the hopes of building future leaders who can resolve conflict in a peaceful way. The program is especially poignant as organizers said many of the Middle Eastern participants have experienced “violence and loss” first-hand as a result of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To improve relationships with their peers from different backgrounds, organizers held dialogue sessions and educational activities such as a visiting a church, synagogue and mosque. The program also includes a visit across the local border where the teens met with students at CETYS University in Tijuana.

The visit to Mexico comes at a time as hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants trek through the country with the hopes of finding refuge in the U.S.

“The idea was to bring together youth with diverse perspectives and lived experience from different cultures as a catalyst for dialogue,” said Sarah Heirendt, San Diego site director for Hands of Peace. “In the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, teens discuss the impact of borders, both physical and perceived, and their personal experiences with one another. For the teens from Israel and Palestine, this visit offers a unique perspective on a conflict different from their own while, for the American teens, it is an invaluable exchange as they learn about issues that impact their own community.”

Alex, an American 17-year-old who participated in the program, said the visit to the border made him aware of “the impact of barriers on our lives.” The nonprofit does not release last names of teen participants for security purposes.

“One of the central issues that we discussed was the refugee crisis taking place just across the border in Tijuana, from which I learned just how severe the effects are on the people of Mexico’s border cities,” Alex said. “In particular, I learned more about Tijuana’s issues of security and blatant corruption in it’s government, as well as how the region is struggling to accommodate Central American refugees.”

Alex, who is one of more than 600 teens to participate in the program since it began six years ago, will be able to take the skills he learned from the visit on to the next steps in his life, Heirendt said.

“The participants leave the border visit feeling energized and their perspectives enriched and expanded by the dialogue together,” Heirendt said. “The opinions these teens form in dialogue while using critical thinking, reflective listening and asking informed questions are skills that last a lifetime.”

Acceptance was one of the biggest lessons Tamari, who is Jewish-Israeli, said she learned.

Participants of the Hands of Peace 2019 summer program. (Photo courtesy of Mindi Frankel/Hands of Peace)

“I learned how to listen, how to accept opinions that are different than mine and most importantly, I learned how to achieve peace in myself,” said Tamari, 16. “I was surprised to see how the Palestinians and the Israelis are similar. We share a lot of things in common stories, hobbies, emotions and much more.”

But the teens didn’t just learn from each other, they also teach a few lessons to the organizers of Hands of Peace, Heirendt said.

“Every year I learn more about, not only the challenges that the teens from Israel and Palestine face in their daily lives as they live the conflict, but the challenges our local American participants face,” Heirendt said. “I am always humbled by their wisdom, maturity and capacity for growth – even when it is difficult.”

“These teens are my biggest inspiration and they give me hope for the future, year after year.”