Sometimes you have meetings to set up other meetings. Sometimes you have meetings that change everything.
In January, through an introduction by a longtime friend of Operation Respect, I met Hani Masri. Hani is a Palestinian-American businessman raised in Nablus, Palestine, who has advocated for peace in the Middle East and for children’s issues throughout his life. He is a master storyteller, brilliant businessman, and generous spirit, and I fully confess that I did not want to leave our lunch together in DC.
Hani introduced me to Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO), an American NGO he founded which operates a center in his hometown of Nablus. At TYO’s request, Peter Yarrow, Mark Weiss, and I traveled there in early April for several days of training and to begin what we hope will be a long-term partnership. Simply put, they are an extraordinary organization. With just 6 teachers, 4 international interns, and 70 volunteers (all college graduates unable to find employment), the TYO center serves 240 children ages 4-8 in preschool and after school settings. Their focus is on health, social skills, the arts, IT skills, and English language learning. In addition, when funding allows, they expand program offerings to children ages 9-14 and to women in the community to empower them with entrepreneurial skills.
The context for their work is important, so I want to tell you a bit about the location. Nablus, once the industrial capital of Palestine, is about an hour away from Jerusalem, but getting there required us to pass through multiple checkpoints along the way and a driver with permission to drive in both Israel and Palestine (I am using the name Palestine though others might refer to this area as the West Bank or the Palestinian Territories). The city and surrounding area, population about 100,000, sits between two mountains and appears carved from stone. There are piles of rubble—stones and trash—everywhere, standing in contrast with new, modern buildings. Evidence of conflict is clear and pervasive. The unemployment rate is 60% in the community at large, but higher for those with college degrees (!) and those who live in the refugee camp established for Palestinians in 1948 when they fled or were expelled from Jaffa (near Tel Aviv). From the mountain top, it is possible to see the Mediterranean Sea, but residents of Nablus may not travel there without the permission of Israel, permission which is rarely granted.
In this video slideshow, you can appreciate some of what we experienced in Palestine:
The culture of hospitality and kindness surrounded us as visitors, from our incredible hosts, to the hotel, shop, and restaurant staff with whom we interacted, to the darling students who dressed up for our concert and brought me flowers. We laughed and danced and cried and ate and sang and shared joy and pain with well over three hundred children and adults who were friends we simply hadn’t met yet.
The quality of TYO’s work with children based on the training the volunteers have received and the environment of warmth and caring they and the staff have established rivals the very best I have seen anywhere in the world. What makes it even more amazing is that they intentionally seek out children who have experienced trauma—political, familial, health, loss, etc.—with the specified intent of intervening early so that the experience of trauma does not lead to long-term mental illness. This concept is burgeoning in the United States, but is already well established and regarded in the TYO community thanks to the leadership there which, again, matches up against the best I have ever seen in nearly 30 years in education.
We provided a full day of training to all 80 adults in the implementation of Don’t Laugh at Me in Arabic. Although they have been focused on social skills, they have, until now, not had a structure in which to teach the skills, so our work is a perfect match to their goals and expertise. We followed the training day with two concerts—one each for the 4-5 year olds and 6-8 year olds—in which Peter performed along with Mira Awad, a wonderful Palestinian performer and peace activist. Peter was also joined by a staff member from TYO who learned and sang “Don’t Laugh at Me” in Arabic with the children and staff (there is a beautiful version of the song in Arabic on our website as well). It was incredibly moving to hear their voices join in the chorus and sing with joy and hand motions!
This trip was an exceptional one for Operation Respect; one with important and powerful implications for our next steps. Perhaps more so, however, it was enlightening and inspiring for Peter, Mark, and me. Through Don’t Laugh at Me, we teach the skill of perspective which helps people develop empathy. It is not hyperbole to say that we are the ones who truly learned this time around.