Israeli, Palestinian teens connect in New Mexico - Albuquerque Journal

Israeli, Palestinian teens connect in New Mexico

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Half a world away from home, a small group of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers gathered in northern New Mexico this summer to cook, paint and talk.

Perhaps most important, they listened — really listened — to each other’s stories of checkpoints, bombings and bloodshed.

It’s the kind of listening that can be uncomfortable and provoke anger. It can also demonstrate the power of conversation.

“One person at a time, maybe it will make a difference,” Dyala, a 20-year-old Palestinian and university student who lives in the West Bank, said in a recent interview.

She is one of four senior young leaders — all former campers — who participated in this year’s three-week Tomorrow’s Women camp in Galisteo and Santa Fe. Each young woman served a “big sister” role during the camp.

For 19 years, the program has brought Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to northern New Mexico, providing a neutral ground of sorts, more than 7,000 miles from the conflict at home.

This year’s campers — about a dozen young women 15 to 17 years old — learned enchilada recipes, made murals and had difficult conversations. They speak different languages at home, but the camp is in English.

Northern New Mexico’s scenery and architecture are the backdrop.

Eden Vaknin, 20-year-old Jewish Israeli and a senior young leader in the camp, said early activities help build friendships and make it easier for the campers to connect with each other.

The girls may live just 40 miles apart at home while facing much different — often painful — experiences.

“It’s really hard, the anger between them — between the communities and between them specifically,” Vaknin said. The camp starts “with them being friends, and only after that, they can share their stories. That way they learn how to listen.”

The camp calls it “compassionate listening.” Campers spend about 40 hours in dialogue sessions over three weeks.

“They learn how to understand the other person’s opinion, and they understand how to negotiate, not in an aggressive way,” said Nada Vounis, an 18-year-old Arab living in Israel and a senior young leader in the Santa Fe camp.

Violence at home

The four senior young leaders serve as mentors. Each woman has her own stories of violence, heartbreak and commitment to peace — some of which they shared in short speeches last week before an audience at the Santa Fe rail yards.

Dyala said an Israeli soldier shot her father in the head and chest — killing him instantly — when he stepped outside to light a cigarette. Her mother, then pregnant, was shot and wounded.

Lihi Naim, a 21-year-old Jewish Israeli who served in the air force, said she has had friends die in terrorist attacks.

Vaknin described being attacked by a woman who followed her.

Vounis said she didn’t come to speak about herself. But she spoke about the importance of continuing the dialogue, one person at a time, no matter how uncomfortable.

Violence in New Mexico also came up during the rail yards event — a night of music, speeches and art at the farmers’ market building in Santa Fe.

In remarks to the group, U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., touched on the death of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, a 27-year-old planning and land use director for the city of Española. He is one of four Muslim men shot in Albuquerque over the last nine months in killings that brought national attention to Albuquerque.

Leger Fernández said seeing the kindness in others is key to reducing violence.

‘No black and white’

Tomorrow’s Women is a nonprofit group dedicated to training young women to serve as peaceful leaders. The camp in Santa Fe is just one part of a program that lasts about a year and continues after the participants return to the Middle East.

The New Mexico portion of this year’s camp ended last week.

As part of the camp, local chefs taught the girls how to make New Mexican dishes, and the participants hiked, attended the Santa Fe Opera, visited the Santa Fe plaza and completed a ropes course. Therapeutic art was also a component of the camp.

Alana Grimstad, a spokeswoman for the group, said the programs demonstrate to the participants how much they have in common and help them work through difficult emotions. Several have lost loved ones in the conflict.

“Many times, they come here full of hate, fear and anger because of what their life experiences have been,” Grimstad said. Some may be “living miles from each other, yet haven’t met someone from the other side.”

Among the graduates are a human rights lawyer, activists, journalists and the founder of a preschool for Arab and Jewish children. Vounis wants to become a doctor.

But the professions they pursue aren’t necessarily the point. Also important are the simple conversations they’ll have with people back home.

Vaknin, who’s Jewish, said she has shared the stories of Dyala — a Palestinian in the West Bank — with her friends.

“There is no black and white all the time,” Vaknin said. “There are things that we did wrong and they did wrong, and we have to fix it.”

An auspicious symbol

New Mexico is an important setting for the camp.

“In the United States, you can say whatever you want, you can believe whatever you want, you can be whatever you want,” Naim said.

In Santa Fe, the campers hiked together and danced in the rain. Together, they sometimes seemed indistinguishable from New Mexico’s teenagers. They laughed, hugged and finished each other’s sentences.

“It’s the most quiet place to do everything,” said Dyala. “Both sides can share their opinions freely without thinking if someone’s listening.”

The senior young leaders encouraged Americans to keep in mind the full complexity of the conflict in the Middle East rather than embracing simple talking points. Each death is a real person, not just a statistic.

Some people “take sides without even thinking or having more information about it,” Dyala said.

Naim said it’s important to acknowledge that people are suffering, even if your attention drifts away from Ukraine or the Middle East.

“Never lose the hope that peace can happen and change can happen,” she said. “And we need them to help us to make it — because it will be much easier if we have more hands in this process.”

In a Journal interview, the four senior young leaders — Dyala, Naim, Vounis and Vaknin — expressed authentic excitement about an unexpected sight in Santa Fe.

Driving through the city on an off-day, they spotted a sign lit up in the dark: The letters spelled out P-E-A-C-E.

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