Hands of Peace participants in Glenview find free speech enables understanding of other views
The organization is called Hands of Peace, but in its annual summer program it is young people's voices that do the work.
Dialogue is central to Hands of Peace founder Gretchen Grad's 20-year-old mission to unite Israeli and Palestinian high school participants and their American counterparts to become agents of change.
"What kind of surprised me was how little people knew about the other side," said Ilenia Willmert, a rising senior from Napa, California.
The friendly Jewish girl was among 36 student participants -- "Hands," they're called, ages 15 to 17 years old -- representing American, Israeli, Palestinian and Palestinian Citizens of Israel delegations gathered for Hands of Peace's three-week summer residency at Glenview Community Church before they return each night to host families throughout metropolitan Chicago.
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced a two-year break, the Hands of Peace summer program returned to Chicago and to its San Diego site. The award-winning, nonprofit, interfaith organization also has full-time staff in Israel and Palestine.
"I don't think there are many programs that exist like this in the world that bring together people from two sides of such opposing ideas to have healthy conversation about it, to really understand each other and listen to their stories and gain some sort of compassion that they wouldn't have had the opportunity to come across in normal life," Willmert said.
The event concluded Sunday. And throughout, participants enjoyed a variety of activities.
"Almost immediately, they made friends," said development officer Lisa Notter, who assists Chicago site director Emily Kenward. A 2015 and 2016 participant, Kenward initially wanted to be a biologist, but now specializes in feminist foreign policy, influenced by the program.
The students tackled a high ropes course in Olympia Fields and attended Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious services. On Tuesday they were preparing food and skits for "Culture Night" at Glenview Community Church, giving back to their host families.
They did arts workshops, leadership workshops, storytelling, and on Thursday visited downtown Chicago, followed by a rooftop luncheon.
But the crux of the summer program -- which Grad, her staff and more than 700 Hands of Peace alumni hope will one day help create peace in the Middle East -- is the dialogue led by professional facilitators who get the kids talking.
For the overseas visitors, this rarely happens at home.
"Sometimes you live across the street but you can't speak with each other. You need to cross the ocean to have the environment that allows such interactions to happen," said Hamze Awawde, the Palestinian delegation regional manager from Ramallah, the West Bank seat of Palestinian government.
That inability to communicate is a product of fear, trauma and regulation, he said.
"It's eye-opening," Awawde said.
"The difference is here at Hands of Peace, you can say whatever you want in a respectful way, how do you feel about everything going on," said Palestinian delegate Adam Abu Sneineh, who lives in Jerusalem, but has a "travel document" -- not a passport -- that claims he is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, but Jordanian.
"You have the space and the room to express your feelings freely," Abu Sneineh said. "Back home it's really hard to express your feelings about what's going on, the situation. Even between Palestinians, there's not really much room that you can express yourself. But here you can express yourself however you want and be confident that people will accept you."
On the ropes course, Adam said he felt confident, but also "a little bit scared." That feeling vanished when surrounded by his international peers.
"I felt the confidence from the people around me," he said. "I felt strong doing it."
Wearing a "Scooby-Doo" T-shirt, Layan Jubran, a fresh high school graduate from Haifa, Israel, and one of the program's Palestinian Citizens of Israel, resembled any young woman anticipating a gap-year adventure.
If Willmert didn't know how "the other side" felt about Israeli-Palestinian relations, Jubran went beyond that.
"During the dialogues I heard both sides. I go to an Arab school, so I've been living with Arabs and Jews my whole life. But I think now, hearing what they actually believe and their actual point of view, going back now to live in Israel I think I will be more open-minded and understanding of their points of view," Jubran said.
"I think this program is very important for us Palestinians, because I think the media doesn't share our stories enough. So I think we have a really big role coming here to share our stories and actually be heard."
Awawde would say the media shares what will "sell." Peace, he's seen, does not sell.
"Just to say an Israeli and Palestinian met and had a nice day doesn't sell in the region," he said. "But if you say they killed each other, it will get a lot of attention."
That brings the counterpoint of Eliya Kfir Schurr, a Jewish high school senior from Jerusalem. When she was younger she thought peace was imminent. Now she has doubt.
"I hope so, but I don't know," she said.
"Now it seems to be much more difficult, because there's two sides and each side wants to achieve its goals and to tell its narrative. It's a different narrative, and so different goals. Before I came I was so positive and so hopeful, and I hope that when we finish here I can feel it again."
Eliya also wondered: "maybe if their story is so different from your story, maybe your story isn't right."
That's a concept familiar to the American delegation. Lisa Notter said much dialogue in this year's program focused on American divisiveness and its similarities to the Middle East.
Despite the freedom of thought at Glenview Community Church and around host family dinner tables, Hands for Peace does not seek results in 19 days. It is a movement for the long haul.
"The real effect of this program happens once they go back (home)," Notter said.
"You ... just keep doing the work, and the hope is that no matter what they do it'll change the world through the circles of all the people that they know. We have 700 alumni who've been through this program now, so that's the hope. And then at some point the conflict in the Middle East will change, just like everything eventually does."