While war rages in the Middle East, Israeli, Palestinian and American youth promoted peace during a summer camp July 7-24 at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad. Organized by Hands of Peace, the nonprofit aims to build bridges between teens divided by conflict, culture, geography and history.
“We’re trying to provide a safe space for these kids so they can communicate and listen to each other,” said San Diego Site Director Scott Silk. “We believe that by giving them this space to talk and to be together, we are giving the opposing side a human face — for all involved. That’s the start to any kind of peace — understanding that the people on the other side are actually human, too.”
For the past nine years, Silk has worked with the Chicago-based nonprofit, which holds annual summer retreats for students ages 15 through 18. This summer, the group held its 11th summer program with 42 teens in Chicago, and Silk helped launch a sister program in San Diego’s coastal North County.
“The goal is to touch as many kids as we possibly can,” said Silk, who is Jewish and teaches Middle East and American history at Pacific Ridge School, a private school for grades 7 through 12. “I’ve been so amazed and touched by the community of people that’s rallied around this organization. There are hundreds of people here who are doing their part in some way or another.”
Hands of Peace had to raise $140,000 to kick off its inaugural 17-day retreat in Carlsbad. All of the 24 participants received full or partial scholarships, with many having experienced violence and loss as a result of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a regional coordinator, Arab-Israeli Rana Haddad helped recruit teens for the program she participated in when she was 15 years old. As a Palestinian Christian living in Israel, Haddad grew up next to Jewish people, but didn’t interact with Jews until participating in the summer retreat.
“We live in a really complicated place,” Haddad said. “I come from a city that is mixed with Jews and Arabs together. I was 15 years old, but for 15 years, I wasn’t co-existing with Jews, although I had Jewish neighbors who lived next door. It’s like you’re living together, but not living together at the same time.”
Haddad participated in the dialogue-based program for two consecutive years, learning about different cultures and religions, developing team-building and leadership skills, and exploring ways to incorporate peace-building into her personal life and community.
“You go back home stronger, full of hope,” Haddad said. “You know peace is possible. The things that you shared with your friends, here, at Hands of Peace, these are the same people that you’re living with in war back home.”
Now 26, Haddad works with the organization to help promote peace and develop future leaders. Still, she said it isn’t always easy.
“It’s really hard to be away from home and to talk about peace while there’s war back home,” Haddad said. “If it’s going to affect the process, however, I think it will affect it for the good. It’s better for the kids to face these things here, where they are safe.