Welcome back! In this section, we're going to continue talking about Kids4Peace: who they are, what they do, what challenges they're facing, and what that means for the future. Carmiel and Ismat are our spokespeople.
The idea behind Kids4Peace is to bring children of all backgrounds (such as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, secular, etc.) and have them get to know each other beyond what the conflict is. Of course, they have discussions about the conflict and what it might mean for them, but their friendships are deeper than that.
Carmiel, who is Israeli, tells us a story about when he was a kid, and he played a game of soccer with a group of Palestinian children. At first, it was the Israeli kids against the Palestinian kids--what some might think of as the natural team division. However, it soon became apparent that the Palestinians were much, much better at soccer than the Israelis. The Israeli team kept losing, so they redivided the teams. There would be about equal numbers of Palestinians and Israelis on each side, so that the teams were drawn more fairly. The kids soon were playing a fun and intense game of soccer. By the end, Carmiel considered the Palestinians his friends.
Fast forward about a decade, and Carmiel had just graduated high school. Like mentioned before, Israeli citizens join the army upon graduation, and Carmiel was no exception. He was in the combat sect of the IDF, and he found himself driving a military tank toward the very village his childhood-Palestinian-soccer-teammates came from. He wondered, as he peered through the peephole of the tank, if he was firing upon the homes of his friends.
After that, he knew that he couldn't live idly anymore. He was not okay with the idea of going to war against his friends, and he sought to become an activist for the peace process. He stumbled upon Kids4Peace and fell in love immediately.
Kids4Peace has both local and global chapters, with a local one in Jerusalem and a global one in Seattle. This allows for the bringing together of not only Israelis and Palestinians, but Jewish and Muslim children abroad. They learn to engage in difficult conversations, ask tough questions, and still kindle friendships despite their differences. The program lasts for six years (6th through 12th grade), with most kids joining K4P in their sixth grade. They then stay until 12th grade, where they will have built incredibly strong friendships with people who don't necessarily have any of the same views as them. Though there are kids who join later in middle or high school, the majority take on the six-year program from the very start.
Throughout the school year, Kids4Peace serves as a safe space for the kids, no matter where they come from or what's going on in the region around them. They usually have weekly meetings to talk about their own experiences and how narratives across the region differ. Beyond weekly meetings, there are community service projects, overnight retreats, and public events.
Sometimes, a group of Palestinian and Israeli children might have disagreements, but not in the way you think. It might be within the Israeli portion of the group that a disagreement arises, whether that be regarding Israeli view of policy or religion (and the same could happen within the Palestinian, Christian, or secular portions of the group). When the program first started, it was about a third Jews, a third Muslims, and a third Christians. As the years went on, however, it became mostly Jewish and Muslim children who seek to learn more about each other.
They then start an activity called Fishbowl, where all of the disagreeing Israeli (or whatever portion is disagreeing within themselves) children stand in the middle of a circle (the outer part of the circle is made up of all the other students). Here, they talk about what they are disagreeing on. Only people on the inside of the circle are allowed to talk, and those on the outside do something incredible: they observe what conversations go on when others disagree about something. It's an organized, safe way to show those on the outside of the circle that even within the inner circle, there are differences.
Carmiel tells us that sometimes, when the kids are just talking casually and a disagreement arises, they initiate Fishbowl themselves--without an adult having to moderate the conversation. One kid will exclaim, "Fishbowl!" and all the other kids will immediately form the circles and proceed. This method of communication allows for active listening rather than just talking (and putting up walls in the process of talking with the intention of refuting an opinion).
Beyond Fishbowl, K4P helps students talk and listen critically about issues in the area. They gain confidence in expressing themselves--such as in contexts of public speaking--which may help them to attend conferences and symposiums.
Not only are these great parts of the K4P program, the children also participate in a language exchange program. This means that Israeli kids learn Arabic, and Palestinian kids learn Hebrew. They get language lessons form K4P staff, but the most learning comes from the talking that happens amongst the kids themselves.
Sometimes, there might be a word taught in, say, Hebrew, and there is actually a more-used slang for the word. Native-Hebrew speaking kids will tell their native-Arabic speaking friends what word to use so they don't get weird looks in everyday life. The children even speak in their newly-learned languages voluntarily with each other--even when there aren't adults/teachers monitoring! This language exchange has allowed for a greater understanding between the groups, and it makes friendships even stronger.
There are six steps that K4P follows in their work. It happens in this order: Trust, Friendship, Collaboration, Faith, Vision, and Dialogue. These steps take place over the entire six years that kids are in the program. Notice how Dialogue isn't until step 6. The dialogue that can take place when there is already trust, friendship, collaboration, faith, and vision in place is much different than the awkward dialogue that takes place upon first meeting someone.
The dialogue of K4P children regarding the conflict is at a maturity level beyond their years. When they talk about religion, they don't talk about their own religion as the one ultimate truth; rather, they speak of it as their story--or their narrative and understanding--of their faith and their own personal faith only. This allows for everyone to understand and be understood, not in the context of something like neo-"evangelism," but of productive discussion and learning.
Regarding religious observance, K4P says, "Kids4Peace is open to all youth regardless of religious background. During the program, participants learn about the beliefs and practices of multiple traditions, in order to foster understanding, challenge stereotypes, and develop appreciation for shared values. Participation in prayer or religious activities is not required as a condition of involvement, though youth will have opportunities to visit houses of worship and see the rituals and practices of different faiths."
In addition, regarding political involvement and activism, Kids4Peace says, "Kids4Peace is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization and does not take formal positions on political issues. We are engaged in the public arena, with a commitment to rejecting violence in all its forms, challenging an unjust and unsustainable status quo, and working together for long-term solutions. Our youth are asking tough questions now–and they ask them at a younger age. Through media, peer influence and personal experience, the hard issues of violence and conflict are already part of their lives by age 12 or 13. It is no longer possible to create a community of friends outside of conflict. Instead, we are building this community in the midst of conflict. That community must be strong at the local, national and international levels. In all our youth programs, we need to bring a new level of honesty, seriousness and skill."
Not all families agree with this approach. In fact, many of the children's parents and grandparents would refuse to talk to their children upon the joining into K4P. Eventually, most families came around, but these topics are probably still avoided at the dinner table. One mom told Carmiel, "I don't personally believe in what K4P is doing, but I want to send my daughter here despite my personal belief because she deserves to learn and figure out her beliefs for herself."
Every summer, there are weeklong camps held for the kids; they're kind of like retreats such that the time is dedicated to kids focusing on building friendship and trust between one another. Traditionally, these camps were held abroad somewhere; the Jerusalem base would take their kids on a chapter-wide trip. These summer camp is the salient experience of K4P, though of course, every interaction between the kids is important. At the camp, each grade level focuses on something different that is tailored to what the grade needs to learn the most.
A sample of the 2017 itinerary shows the 6th graders focusing on Interfaith learning, friendship, and community; the 7th graders on cultural exchange, understanding conflict, and dialogue; the 8th graders on history, identity, justice, and religious sources of peace; the 9th graders on faith-based social change, advocacy and public leadership; and the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders focusing on the vocation of their particular interest (examples are politics and diplomacy, human rights, arts and culture, education, etc.).
However, American President Donald Trump recently cut financial aid to Palestinians; this blanket statement means that funding to USAID was cut. USAID has previously been the biggest donor to not only Kids4Peace, but many other non-profit peace organizations as well. K4P has been dealing with this budget cut all year, and they have been trying their hardest to keep the whole experience the same for the children--but with great difficulty.
Instead of being able to take their kids abroad for the summer camp, they will be hosting a local summer camp instead. While the summer camp takes the largest chunk out of K4P's budget, they know that it is one of the most influential experiences in a child's life, so they have been working to keep it. The solution was to keep it domestic rather than spend a ton of money covering plane tickets for the children and counselors.
A September 2018 post of the K4P Press says, "The Trump administration's decision to block aid to the Palestinian people is now affecting Kids4Peace and other recipients of Conflict Management & Mitigation grants (CMM) from USAID. CMM has been the single largest funder of cross-border projects that create trust between Israelis and Palestinians and build support for peace in both societies. Today, Kids4Peace Jerusalem reaches over 500 Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth and parents from diverse cultural, political and socioeconomic backgrounds. With the support of USAID, Kids4Peace operates a long-term, year-round program of dialogue, leadership and activism for youth age 12-18. Kids4Peace staff won the 2017 IIE Victor Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, in recognition of this innovative and effective program model. Without further USAID funding, Kids4Peace expects a major financial shortfall beginning in Fall 2019. The organization plans to reach out to foundations, individual donors, and other governments, so Kids4Peace Jerusalem programs can continue to thrive."
In response to the budget cuts, a 16-year old Palestinian K4P student named Omar Dahleh says, "Funding cuts towards Palestinians at large and peace organizations specifically are a direct hindrance to a peaceful future for the region. These actions make my life more difficult as a Palestinian and undermine my efforts as a young Palestinian peace activist."
On average, K4P brings 70 families into the program annually. They hope these numbers grow because the conversations that happen between students are crucial to a long-term peace solution. Carmiel says that the conversations teens gave are often the ones that adults are too afraid to have, as if the gravitas that comes with actually saying an idea out loud and putting it out on the conversation table is too dangerous--puts them in a place of too much vulnerability. The teens aren't as scared to just say something, like testing an idea and putting it out there, just to see how it feels.
When there is violence going on in the city, K4P makes sure any meetings they have are safe for the children, whether that means changing locations temporarily or meeting for shorter periods of time. However, the times of violence are actually the times that more kids come out to the meetings; they seem to need to talk to the "other side" more when there is violence on their doorstep (literally, on their doorstep). They need the understanding and friendship more at these times.
Another challenge K4P faces happens at the end of the six-year program, when the Israeli kids go into the IDF. Suddenly, the kids who were one friends are again on opposite sides of a border. How do the kids deal with this? The sad reality is that for the few years that Israeli children are in the IDF, many of their friendships will be temporarily halted--like pressing a pause button. It makes their service in the IDF and the Palestinian children's viewpoints a little bit easier to cope with, though it's still not very easy at all. Once the Israelis are done with their time in the IDF and leave the IDF, the friendships rekindle and friends reach back out to each other.
This is one view of friendship that as Americans, we are privileged to not have to deal with. There is such a deeper level of nuance and understanding that goes on in Israeli-Palestinian friendships that we don't even have to consider when making our friends--or choosing which friends to stay in contact with. Obviously, though, the K4P friendships are true and strong, since they are revived once the administrative entanglement of the IDF is removed from the picture.
As long as these friendships are kept alive, the hope for a more peaceful future is alive as well. Ending our stay in Jerusalem with such an optimistic, pure, and nuanced note was the best way it could have gone. In the next section, we will be heading south for the Dead Sea and then back north toward a kibbutz!
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