CHICAGO (CBS) — Israeli, Palestinian and American teens spent three weeks in the Chicago area as part of a peace building program designed to help break down the walls of conflict in the Middle East and throughout the world.
“The Hands of Peace program began shortly after 9/11,” said Gretchen Grad, Founder. “It was six months after those awful events, the idea to do a program to bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together for dialogue and connection emerged.”
The Hands of Peace summer program encourages high school students of widely varied backgrounds to find their voices as leaders, overcome stereotypes and learn the leadership and critical thinking skills that are necessary for working toward peace.
“The 19 day summer program brings 49 high school age youth, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans gather together in Chicago and in at second site in San Diego and for those days, they are spending a majority of their time in very intensive dialogue. They share their stories, sharing their pain, understanding what it’s like to walk in the shoes of the other,” Grad said.
The participants come from areas that are deeply divided by conflict, culture, geography and history, yet they commit to forging a connection and finding common ground.
“They stay with host families. Families throughout the North Shore open their homes and get to know them person to person,” she said.
Grad said the peace building program brings high school students from the Middle East to Chicago to meet, talk and bond with teens in the United States. She said the program is transformative.
“I think the most profound change in these teens is that they don’t expect to find commonality. They don’t expect to feel warmth and connection with people they think are their enemy,” she said.
Grad said the American teens also come out of the program with new eyes.
“Very early on, these kids have a lot of questions. Everyone wants to be friends with the Americans. They go through a profound change. They get a first-hand look at what it’s like for their peers to live with conflict day to day. A deepening awareness happens. We’ve seen it post program. Many go onto to pursue careers that are around global activism, diplomacy. Their life trajectories are definitely changed as a result of this program,” she said.
Now in its 15th year, the Hands of Peace program empowers young people with knowledge and skills that will enable them to take part in grassroots peace efforts in their home communities.
The participants also take part in educational activities including a visit to a church, synagogue and mosque and a community organizing workshop. In addition, there are team-building outings, such as a ropes course excursion, a lakefront barbecue and sightseeing in Chicago.
“When they complete the program and leave their host families, it’s so emotional. It’s incredibility heart tugging. They are sad to leave each other, they’ve bonded with their host families. Many keep in touch forever,” she said. “Young people are the key to change and peace in the Middle East.”
Hands of Peace is a non-profit 501(c)(3) global interfaith organization. It was founded in 2002 by three women—one Christian, one Jewish and one Muslim—who shared the conviction that peace could be nurtured, one person at a time. Worldwide, Hands of Peace now has more than 500 alumni living and working for peace across the United States and throughout Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. For more information, go to www.handsofpeace.org.