Things weren’t going especially well between the seven Israeli, Palestinian and American teens hanging from cables 50 feet above the ground on the ropes course at UC San Diego on Sunday.
Amid pleas from a course guide to form a tight circle and work together to help a colleague conquer her fear of heights, they instead drifted apart, broke into private conversations in three languages and began to lose focus.
Then, suddenly, they all burst into song at the top of their lungs, singing a catchy toddler favorite that transcends all borders: “Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo ….” After dissolving into laughter, they moved together as a team and gradually helped the girl cross the high wire to safety.
The Challenge Course at UCSD is an ice-breaker event for Hands of Peace, a three-week teen leadership and conflict resolution program now in its sixth summer in Carlsbad. Founded in 2003 in Chicago, Hands of Peace aims to teach motivated teens from Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United States tools to find their voices as peace leaders, break down stereotypes and learn communications skills.
This year’s 42 participants — all ages 15 to 18 — include 10 Jewish Israelis, 10 Palestinians, 6 Palestinian citizens of Israel and 16 Americans of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. The program began on July 10 and continues through July 29. Over the next few weeks, the students will present cultural skits, paint murals, learn speech-writing skills, have a dialogue with Mexican teens at Friendship Park on the U.S./Mexico border and listen to speakers, including Azim Khamisa, whose San Diego foundation teaches students peace and forgiveness in memory of his slain son, Tariq. Khamisa forgave the teenager who killed his son and formed the education foundation with the boy’s father.
The program’s centerpiece is a series of often-heated group dialogues where the teens confront the political, humanitarian, cultural and religious issues that divide them. These sessions are off-limits to everyone but the youths and their session mediators. To protect their identities, the Middle Eastern teens use only their first names.
Sarah Heirendt, site director for Hands of Peace in Carlsbad, said many of the teens from the Middle East arrive each summer with biases and strong feelings about who and what is right and wrong. But as the weeks progress, they begin to open their minds to new perspectives. The ropes course is the ideal way to start opening those doors.
“Before today,” Heirendt said on Sunday, “they have all been sticking with their delegations, sitting together, eating together and speaking in their own languages. But being up there, blindfolded, 40 feet off the ground and speaking the common language of English, they’re forced out of their comfort zones and form friendships. They become a group. The energy is always electric on the bus ride back.”
Heirendt has been involved with Hands of Peace for the past four years. It’s a passion project for her. She earned her master’s degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University, a field she chose to pursue at age 19 after volunteering one summer at a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus.
“My heart was broken by the stories I heard,” she said. “I had a deep desire to help. These children are our future.”
Run by Outback Adventures, the 15-year-old Challenge Course is often rented out by companies for team-building retreats. Course manager Denise Ouellette said that whether it’s corporate workers or teens from the war-torn Middle East, participants in the five-hour ropes course confront their fears, find out it’s OK to fail and learn how to grow from their shared experience as a team.
“We all want to feel we’re part of something,” Ouellette said. “What they learn here is that so much more is possible through community.”
Antonyus — an 18-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel — has returned to Hands of Peace for a second year to serve as a mentor. A freshman at Technion Israel Institue of Technology in Haifa, Antonyus said that during his first visit, he often stormed out of the group sessions in frustration. But eventually he learned to listen to other viewpoints. He wanted to share his revelation with others Palestinian participants this summer.
Another second-year participant is Inbal, a 16-year-old from the Israeli city of Hod HaSharon. During her first Hands of Peace event in Chicago two years ago, she arrived terrified that anger would erupt between the delegations. Instead she learned that anger plays a critical role in resolving conflicts.
“I was afraid of anger but I figured out that it’s a way for people to show their pain,” she said. “Pain is something we can all relate to. What helps deal with anger is empathy and providing a space for someone else’s pain.”
While the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a central part of the discussions at Hands of Peace, America’s political policies on the conflict have always been a flashpoint, and it has grown hotter under the Trump administration.
Second-year participant Lexie Tucker, 17, of Carlsbad, said she has learned to listen and understand the frustrations that Middle East delegates have with America. She said she makes it clear that although she’s an American she doesn’t agree with all of the current administration’s policies.
“I have my own thoughts and opinions on the subject. I’m my own person,” said Tucker.
Each of the national delegations at Hands of Peace has a chaperone who is a past participant. Heirdendt said many alumni have gone on to work in peacemaking and humanitarian fields, including working as journalists and embassy officers, in the field of conflict resolution and in the Peace Corps.
One of this summer’s chaperones in Carlsbad is Loai, a Palestinian doctor from East Jerusalem. He attended the program as a student in 2010 and 2011 and is returning now as a volunteer because he said the experience changed his life.
“It was a big thing in my life,” he said. “It helped me learn to communicate better, to manage problems and to express my feelings. It made me a better person.”
- News Analysis: U.S. Pence's visit to Israel brings nothing hopeful to Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- Israeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project
- Typical American Teen Struggles To Balance Demands Of School, Pansexual Orgies, And Drug Raves
- Palestinians protest new U.S. stance on Israeli settlements in "day of rage"
- What Another Round of Netanyahu Will Mean for American Jews
- Israelis have a chance to dump Netanyahu. I fear they won’t seize it
- Jared Kushner's plan for Palestinians: What's (not) in it?
- Israeli Troops Beefed Up in West Bank and on Gaza Border Ahead of Palestinian ‘Day of Rage’ – Report
- Why Is Guatemala Following Trump's Lead In Moving its Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem?
- Tech executives call for greater bilateral trust