For nearly two weeks, Israeli, Palestinian and American teens have been coming together in the Chicago area to forge a connection and find common ground. They are in the midst of the annual Hands of Peace summer program, which is designed to help break down the walls of conflict in the Middle East and throughout the world.
The 49 teens participating in the Chicago summer program come from widely varied backgrounds -- and many are from areas that are deeply divided by conflict, culture, geography and history. Yet they are working together to find their voices as leaders. Through daily dialogue sessions and team-building activities, the teens are overcoming stereotypes and learning the critical thinking skills that are necessary for becoming a leader and peace builder.
Now in its 15th year, the Hands of Peace program empowers young people with knowledge and skills that will enable them to take part in grass-roots peace efforts in their home communities. This summer's participants have undergone an extensive application process to be part of the program, showing a desire to share their perspectives, listen and work toward peace. Hands of Peace participants live with host families, giving the local families an opportunity to build strong, long-lasting relationships with the teens from the Middle East and see the conflict through the eyes of those who have experienced it firsthand.
The program is taking place at various locations throughout Chicago and the suburbs. On July 17, the teens celebrated their newfound friendships at a picnic in Winnetka's Elder Park.
They enjoyed food prepared by an army of volunteers, listened to a rock band and singing group from New Trier High School and took part in a friendly softball game.
The picnic was a chance for the participants to relax and get to know each other a little better.
Much of the program revolves around the dialogue sessions, led by professional facilitators, in which teens share personal stories, listen and offer their views about paths for peace. The participants also are taking part in educational activities including a visit to a church, synagogue and mosque and a community organizing workshop. In addition, there are team-building outings, such as a ropes course excursion and sightseeing in Chicago.
In addition to Chicago, there is a San Diego program, now in its fourth year and serving 47 teens this summer.
Many of the Middle East participants have experienced violence and loss as a result of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are meeting the "other side" for the first time. Gretchen Grad, Hands of Peace founder, says she sees great transformations take place in the young participants each summer, as they develop deep connections with each other. "This gives us hope for a better future," she says. "Young people are the key to change and peace in the Middle East."
Grad adds that the summer experience is transformative not only for the participants but also for the local families who get involved. "We are so thankful for our network of supporters, volunteers and host families. We could not do any of this without them."
After the summer program, Hands of Peace alumni continue to grow as peace leaders, taking part in seminars, alumni club activities and a yearlong leadership program to implement community projects in their home communities.
In addition to the summer program, Hands of Peace holds educational events such as film dialogue nights, guest lectures and community service projects. The organization also sponsors a Dual Narrative Tour of Israel and Palestine for supporters. The next trip takes place Oct. 21 to Nov. 1, 2018. The group will tour holy sites in Jerusalem, float in the Dead Sea, visit a refugee camp, talk with prominent politicians and activists, and meet with Hands of Peace alumni, families and staff.
More information can be found at www.handsofpeace.org/dual-narrative-trip/.
Hands of Peace is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) global interfaith organization. It was founded in 2002 by three women -- one Christian, one Jewish and one Muslim -- who shared the conviction that peace could be nurtured, one person at a time. Worldwide, Hands of Peace now has more than 500 alumni living and working for peace across the United States and throughout Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. For more information, go to www.handsofpeace.org.