Friday, September 14, 2012

Peace-building where “Peace” is a Dirty Word

Working in the West Bank and Israel afforded me an opportunity to test out my hypothesis that peace is what our world needs most, and empowering and inspiring children to believe in and work for peace will help us get there.

In the West Bank, I worked in what was once “the eye of the storm,” the largest refugee camp in the region known during the Second Intifada as a hotbed for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and infamous for the number of suicide bombers it produced.  Today, the Balata Refugee Camp houses nearly 30,000 inhabitants in .25 of land. The narrow streets of the camp are alive with the activity of shop owners, street venders, young men and children, making a walk through the camp a crowded and chaotic event.

When I first expressed interest in partnering with a local organization to bring a peace curriculum to the children of this camp, the idea met resistance. “If you pacify the youth, you will crush the Resistance.” I was told. “How can you work for peace without first working for justice?”

I explained the basic premises behind my work with children. I believe all children deserve to know peace. I believe children growing up in particularly chaotic and violent environments are in need of special attention to help cultivate their own peace, and I believe the actions of children can lead to more peace in their communities and the world.

With an explanation my partners deemed satisfactory and weeks of curriculum negotiation, I was allowed to begin my work.

The first day of any Kids for Peace meeting begins with the simple inquiry “What is peace?” I typically ask children what peace means to them, when they feel the most or least at peace, and what they do to create peace for themselves and others.  When I asked the attentive group of children how to create peace, a little boy’s hand shot up in the air. “Fight the enemy!” he shouted, bursting out of his seat. Trying to redirect my line of questioning, I continued, “What do you do to create peace for yourself when you don’t have any, for example, when you’re feeling angry?” I paused, waiting for my typical answers of “Read a book,” or “Go for a walk.” A little boy enthusiastically replied, “I beat my little brother.”

It was going to be a long and bumpy road to cultivating peace…

As the days went on, I worked with the children participating to develop skills to prepare them for facing future challenges. We learned and practiced nonviolent communication, conflict resolution techniques, and ways to ease anger and experience peace personally. They planned days of service and prepared to make a recycled trash herb garden as a project to improve their community’s environment.

The happiest day for me was The Great Kindness Challenge-Balata Camp Edition, a day dedicated to blanketing the camp with kindness and altruism. For three days preceding, the children made preparations for their day of kindness. Guided by a checklist of kind acts translated into Arabic, the children wrote thank you cards, made “Kindness Matters” posters in English and Arabic, designed “Pinwheels for Peace,” and strategized about how they could reach the most people possible with their good deeds. I proudly watched the seriousness with which they pursued service to others, and shared in their delight when the clock struck 5pm and they ran out into the camp’s streets, marking the start of their 24 hours of kindness by sharing smiles with at least 20 people.  

The Great Kindness Challenge was a beautiful day which left my heart full of hope. The next day, however, I was confronted with the realities of promoting peace in a sometimes hostile environment.

A photographer had visited my children’s group a few days before the day of kindness, documenting the children’s work. Unbeknownst to me, the photos were posted on a Facebook page with a sizable local audience under the simple title, “Peace-building Project in Balata Camp.”

The response was immediate from furious viewers.

“How dare you allow a white girl to teach our children about peace. All Americans think Palestinians are terrorists,” one angry commenter wrote. “If her goal is achieved, the resistance to occupation will be over,” wrote another outraged individual.

Quickly, I saw the fragile threads upholding the fabric of my peace program unwind before my eyes. Was that it? Was my chance at working with children to promote peace in the refugee camp over?

I immediately responded with a PR campaign, believing that the outrage arose from a misunderstanding. People were not against the values of kindness, respect, and altruism, but rather, they were afraid of the word “peace.” I drafted a carefully worded explanation for the photos posted on the internet describing the groups’ goals of providing children with a safe space to foster peace for themselves and serve their community.

The storm fortunately passed, and the peace work was permitted to continue.

My experience working with children in the Balata Refugee Camp was equal parts inspiring, educational, and frustrating. The program was very popular with the children who loved the crafts, fun, and games of the Kids for Peace curriculum and confirmed my belief that all children desire to be good and to do good. At the same time, the realities of working in an ongoing conflict zone necessarily transformed my work.  The reason Kids for Peace targets children is because of the deep biases that sometimes inform adults. With one simple word--“peace-building”—months of work was nearly derailed, underscoring the fragility of peace in tense environments.   
A young boy draws his idea of peace for our Peace Puzzle. His image include the Al Aqsa  mosque, the symbol of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and a continuing point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the Palestinian flag and the word "hope."

Girls write the script for a skit on conflict resolution, sitting in front of the boards made with the  Peace Pledge in English and Arabic. 

In preparation for The Great Kindness Challenge, a girl shows of her thank you card to a camp volunteer. 

Me helping girls make "pop-up" thank you cards for The Great Kindness Challenge.

Kindness Matters

Pinwheels for Peace

1 comment:

  1. Danielle--your courage and passion inspire! I look forward to a future where "Peace Keeper" is not only a profession, but one that is respected everywhere. You are building that future.