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Windows to Palestine, Windows to Peace The Arab Educational Institute
By Leyla Zuaiter
three-minute walk down Milk Grotto Street in Bethlehem lie the new quarters of the Arab Educational Institute - Open Windows (AEI), overlooking Beit Sahour. This unique institution offers Palestinians views into the self, society and the world as wide as those afforded from its large windows. The peaceful, timeless view befits this Pax Christi-affiliated institution whose overall mission is building capacity for a just peace. Operating primarily in the Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah areas, AEI targets three key sections of the society: women, youth, and educators. To reach its goal, it promotes community building and the development of the knowledge, attitudes and skills needed for the effective communication of Palestinian heritage and reality to international audiences. It does so through written, oral, visual and artistic media, and non-violent activism.
Although AEI does not shun dialogue with Israelis when feasible, this is not the main thrust of its activities. In its view, true peace starts with the self, and then moves in ever widening circles: the family, community, society and finally the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "How can we accept the other until we know and accept ourselves?" asks Development Director, Dr. Toine Van Teeffelen. "Knowledge gives pride and confidence. Only with full knowledge and confidence of one's history, heritage and self identity can we meet the other side on equal terms."
While its programmes, projects and activities defy neat classification, AEI's trademark multi-stranded holistic approach is immediately evident in all it does. Take its definition of "knowledge" for example. To really know oneself and one's heritage, AEI argues, one must be engaged spiritually and physically as well as intellectually: knowledge must be acquired through all the senses-the sights, sounds and smells of town and country, the feel of the land under one's feet. Thus, despite obstacles, AEI persists in helping young people explore the physical environment. The fieldtrips bring together Muslim and Christian youth of different socio-economic groups from towns, villages, and refugee camps drawn from AEI's network of 21 schools. These young people might be seen eagerly searching for herbs and recounting their traditional uses and the folklore attached to them; visiting a beautiful spot of significance in the Christian/Muslim tradition, such as the shrine to Lot in Bani Naim where one can see the marks made by Abraham's knees while he watched Sodom and Gomorrah burn; or re-enacting events in the places associated with them, such as the story of St. George in the village of Al-Khader.
AEI's Anton Murra is intimately acquainted with the problems of youth, which often are overlooked in the struggle for survival. Unable to absorb all that is going on around them, their reaction is to become deeply depressed, apathetic, or completely disconnected from reality, according to Murra, who leads the youth groups. "Young people are in desperate need for someone to bring them to peace with themselves," he says. "You can't imagine how eager they are to get out of their deadening daily routine, to do something active. Some kids have never been out of their own village, especially girls." The Youth Guidance and Awareness Programme provides young people with a much-needed outlet and the Youth Centre provides them a place to call their own. In this supportive environment, they learn to speak out about their concerns and opinions about themselves and their community and how to listen to those of others.
Young people are encouraged to examine their own lives in context, by recording their experiences, feelings, and aspirations, allowing them a way to explore their identity and reducing the risk that they will internalize the distorted image of themselves and their people reflected in the media. They are encouraged to write in English, both as a means of increasing their proficiency and a way to share their experiences with foreign readers. One such project resulted in a 70-page collective diary of the Aqsa Intifada, When Might Becomes Right, When Abnormal Becomes Normal. AEI’s Van Teeffelen knows the power of first-hand accounts: his Letter from Bethlehem, a sequel to his own Bethlehem Diary, has a wide Internet following. The impact of these activities is unmistakable: youth in AEI's programmes are engaged in life, and find inner resources to face the difficult challenges in their lives.
Murra himself offers a good example of AEI's impact: he first became involved in the institution as a participant in one of the youth groups.
AEI draws on the long-shared Muslim/Christian life in the Bethlehem area, recognizing and celebrating the differences between the religions, while using the commonalities to strengthen the community. It encourages Palestinians to drink deeply from the wellsprings of their rich shared cultural and religious heritage for the spiritual refreshment needed to face current challenges. Promoting what its director and co-founder, Fuad Giacaman, calls "Peace Spirituality," AEI uses a technique called RRCA, for "Read, Reflect, Communicate and Act," in such activities as the women's non-violent communication course or the Muslim/Christian Living Together school field trips.
Here’s how it works. A passage or quotation from the Bible, Koran, or the writings of a peacemaker concerning a certain theme, such as helping others, is read aloud and then silently. Next the participants communicate their feelings or thoughts on the passage without trying to convince the others of their views, and listen to the views of others without passing judgment. Finally, the group takes action appropriate to the theme, such as visiting an elderly person whose home has been demolished, for instance. For in AEI's view, unapplied knowledge is of only limited value. An essential sequel to knowledge is communication and action. Thus in the wake of its activities AEI often organizes marches, candlelight vigils, signature or letter-writing campaigns such as that to Bush and Kerry during the American elections, or symbolic actions such as releasing balloons with attached messages.
AEI's publications simultaneously communicate and strengthen community life. Books such as Sahtain, a Palestinian cookbook, My Stories are Your Stories, an oral history project, and The Bethlehem Community Book, concerned with religious heritage, to name but a few, sent people back to the community to cull and preserve their knowledge of the elders, increasing inter-generational contacts and developing communication skills in the process. While focusing on the Bethlehem community where it is located, AEI refuses to fall into the trap of internalizing the ever-increasing fragmentation of Palestine, as reflected in its decision to publish Caged in: Life in Gaza During the Second Intifada, based on observations of United Civilians for Peace. AEI's publications for educators explore the use of traditional proverbs as a basis for facing today's moral dilemmas, for example, or information about the major approaches of each of the monotheistic religions on issues such as the meaning of land, justice and compassion, non-violence and reconciliation.
Far from considering art an unaffordable luxury, AEI believes that it is essential for Palestinians in their current situation. Art offers an alternative reality to the harsh day-to-day world of ugly checkpoints, walls, and borders which shrink the horizons of the Palestinian people. Imagination allows one to see one's environment with fresh eyes, and increases the possibility of bringing about change. AEI's response to the Wall, for instance, was to make a film for distribution abroad in which the Wall served as a virtual background for the projection of children's graffiti, poetry drawings and drama, thus bringing attention to both the plight and resilience of the Palestinian people. Art touches people directly in a way that no number of historical facts or statistics can, allowing Palestinians another way of getting their message across. Thus a course offered to the women's group on how to develop video material on the Palestinian reality to foreign audiences culminated in a 33-minute video entitled Blessed Are the Olives, made by the women themselves. But art also offers an emotional outlet and the refreshment needed to persevere in the face of difficulties, as in the case of the women's Muslim/Christian choir which performs at community events.
One of the paradoxes of AEI's approach is that remaining rooted in one’s culture facilitates "crossing borders"-a term commonly used by AEI staff-in spirit, if not in fact. AEI sets up international school exchanges, such as "Sharing Stories," a Palestinian-Dutch Internet exchange, and its new youth website allows young Palestinians to communicate their reality directly to outsiders. International visitors and volunteers, such as Christine from Germany who worked with women on the subject of human rights, or Rune from Norway who worked with a youth group on youth management, are like fresh breezes though AEI's open windows, counteracting the suffocation of closure. AEI opens windows as well for the foreign journalists, cultural tourists, volunteers and others who make the effort to visit its centre, and who wish to experience Palestine as Palestinians do; it can also help arrange stays with host families.
Financial director, Elias Abu Akleh, who founded the AEI with Giacaman in 1986, appreciates the support the institution has received over the years. However, he stresses that increased community awareness and moral support of AEI's programmes as well as greater financial support from Palestinian and international partners are needed for the institution to reach greater numbers of people in its life-affirming programmes.
In June, AEI inaugurated its new School of Communication which features a series of workshops and courses designed to increase the knowledge of community members about their heritage and their ability to communicate their reality in a credible manner. Communication is a two-way street, however, and the question remains, to what degree the international community is willing to overcome obstacles to receiving the message.
As for the Palestinians themselves, no matter how many obstacles or checkpoints are placed in their paths, AEI strives to dismantle the checkpoints in the mind, which so insidiously come to mirror the situation on the ground. However caged in Palestinians may be physically, however many walls may block their views, AEI strives to ensure the windows to their personal and national identities and the world remain open. Is anybody out there listening?
To find out more, contact AEI at 02-274 4030, fax 02-277 7554, email: email@example.com.
Leyla Zuaiter conducted a workshop entitled "Exploring Personal and Cultural Identity through Family History and Genealogy" to a women's group at AEI's School of Communication.
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