On which side of the blade…By Sarah Perle, Israel

In the fall of 2015 my friend and colleague, Hamze, and I had the chance to go to Rwanda to learn about forgiveness and reconciliation. During our trip we listened to many stories about the genocide that claimed the lives of close to 1 million people in 1994. 1 million victims in just 100 days – those numbers are hard to grasp. 1 million people…100 days…10,000 victims per day. Men, women or children – no difference was made. If they were Tutsi, or if they were helping their Tutsi friends or neighbors, they were systematically massacred.
Among all the stories we had the honor to be told, one still haunts me.

His name is Didas. We met him in his village. A very small village in the country side, a couple of hours away from Kigali, the capital city, or a lot more if you don’t have a jeep and a driver who knows his way around. His house, the house he built with his own hands, is situated on the top of a small hill and is surrounded by trees. Like all the other houses of the village, it is made of mud and wood. There is no electricity in the village and, as we arrived much later than expected, it was already dark when we entered Didas’ home and started our discussion.

Didas, who spoke French, started by telling us about his village. It is a peace and reconciliation village, which means that it was built by people from both sides of the conflict who today all live side-by-side. He also told us about his wife and children. His wife was a Tutsi refugee who came back to Rwanda after the genocide. After showing us photos of his wife and sons, a Bible that he always keeps open and the paper work showing that his reconciliation NGO is now officially open, he walked us outside and told us more about his story. After the genocide, he went to prison for many years. There, he was offered the chance to be part of a reconciliation process that took place on a national level starting in 2005. This process is called Gacaca. The perpetrators (the killers) had to go back to their community and explain everything they did, to whom, and when, and more importantly, they had to answer all the questions of the survivors. Didas went through this process and this is why he was able to get out of jail and settle in this village.

While he was telling us this, we were standing outside, surrounded by trees, half way between the jeep and Didas’ house, which we couldn’t see anymore in the darkness. Our faces were lit only by the light of the video camera. From afar we probably looked like 3 floating heads in the middle of the forest. Didas told me: “It was a Monday morning and the sun was high is the sky. I can even tell you what I ate. I remember everything about this day. It has been in my head every single day since.” After this and every sentence, I had to turn to Hamze, who was standing on my right, and translate what I just heard from French to English. Didas went on: “Young men from my neighborhood entered my house and gave me a machete. They told me I had to kill my next door neighbor because he was Tutsi. I had to prove I was a good Hutu. I was afraid. They put the machete in my hand. I entered the house next door. I killed him. I knew him.” His tone was calm – empty of any emotions – but his eyes were telling a different story. I tried not to stare at him and turned to Hamze. I didn’t know how to translate those words. I didn’t know how tell those sentences. A part of me wanted to run away. To run as far as possible from this dangerous man. I was terrified. I looked into Hamze’s eyes and slowly repeated the words. I could see that Hamze was going through the same thing I just went through. We were both scared and shocked…but how could we judge him and show him fear when his own country, his own community, forgave him? Who were we to show him disrespect and run from him when his wife, a survivor of the genocide, forgave and loved him? We were torn by all those conflicted ideas and feelings.

I turned back to Didas. Emotions were back in his voice. I think he felt relieved. The rest was easier to say. He told me: “I would never live anywhere else. Because here people know what I did and they still accept me. Here I can have a life without hiding. Here I know my children are safe. But I think about what I did every day.” Hamze and I thanked him and slowly walked back to the jeep. We stayed quiet for the entire ride. The words of Didas were heavy in our minds.

One year later today I am still processing his story. I carry it with me every day. It changed me deeply and irreversibly. Didas killed a man, and after this he was never the same. He wasn’t born to be a killer – nobody is. No child is born to kill or be killed.
Shortly after we came back from Rwanda, the knife attacks started in Israel and in the West Bank and I couldn’t react the way I would have reacted before our journey…because today I know: no one is born to become a killer; no child was born to carry a knife or be killed by a knife.

Family Can Be More Than Blood by Rola from Libya

13466482_1371783849504698_9181567511894921144_n“That’s the last bag.” I told my host dad as I loaded all my bags into the minivan. I looked back at the house that served as my home for the past ten months. I couldn’t believe it was time to say goodbye to my life here and head back to Libya. Those past months here in the United States have been everything I dreamed of, but I was ready to head back home. 


When I first left my family, I knew I would miss them, but I never imagined it would be this difficult to live away from them. Nevertheless, my host family was great, they always made me feel welcomed, and like I belonged to them just as much as their other children. This experience made me notice the dissimilarities between families from our different cultural backgrounds, but it also taught me to appreciate each difference.
As I hugged my host family in the airport with tears dripping down all our faces, my host mom handed me a letter that was wax sealed with their initials. On the back of the letter it said “Open when you miss us”. I put the letter in my back-bag and waved my final goodbye as I headed to my gate to check-in.

I couldn’t  have ever imagined how close I would grow to these people that were strangers to me just ten months ago. I couldn’t imagine that I now would have to feel homesick for a country that wasn’t my own. 
I was glad I had my fellow exchange student friend on the same flight as we headed for our final departure before we both part ways going to our own country. We held hands and consoled one another as we were feeling the same bittersweet feelings during that flight. Yes, we were very excited to see our families and friends back home but we were also saying goodbye to our new families and friends that we might never get the chance to see again.
I looked out of window and watched as St. Louis faded away until I saw nothing but clouds. That moment I pulled out my host mother’s letter and opened it. Is it hard to believe I already miss them? Point is I wish I hadn’t. The letter got me crying like a baby. I knew my host mother has her way with words, but every word on that letter hit right in the heart. One line that affected me the most was when she wrote: “As we send you home, always remember you have another home that will always be waiting for the return of their daughter.” 

When we arrived to our dorms in Washington D.C for our final orientation, the first thing I did was go looking for my two Libyan friends that came with me from Libya. They were placed with other families in other states and I haven’t seen them since we left this exact dorm site ten months ago to head out to our separate adventures. As they saw me run towards them, they started running towards me as we met halfway and embraced one another. That’s when it finally sunk in; seeing them made it seem real. I was going home.
Two days later, all three of us sat on our final plane to Tripoli. A couple more hours and I would finally be able to hug and kiss my mother. However, those couple of hours were the longest hours I have ever had to live. The anticipation that built inside me to just get off that plane already. It was like the seat was filled with thorns. Ok, maybe I am being a little dramatic, and I also might be the least patient person you’ll ever meet, but then again, who could patiently wait on an eight-hour flight that stands between them and seeing their family.
While people were reaching over their cabinet to get their luggage after we landed, I wanted to push all of them out of the way and just get off of this plane. It seemed like each minute was passing by so slowly just to irritate me. Oh, how I was angry while waiting for my luggage at the luggage claim! The fact that I was brining three huge bags was probably part of why I had to wait so long. What can I say, I’m a shopper that was left with money in the United States, what did they expect.
Finally, I placed all three bags on a stroller and hurried out. I could not stop my tears from dripping as I saw all my family standing there waiting for me; My parents, siblings, my cousins and also my best friend, whom has flown all the way from Benghazi to welcome me home. I was then so overwhelmed with everyone’s hugs I could not stop myself from crying. Let me tell you, that was a very dramatic scene, it kind of felt like a scene from a movie when a soldier comes back from war or something. Ok, I might not be a soldier and I was not in war but you get what I mean. 


As I settled back into my normal life, my host family never left my mind. We naturally kept in touch and skyped at least once a week. They also came to visit me a year later. The best part about their visit was having both my families on one table getting along as if they have known each other their entire lives. As I looked at them, this great sense of happiness overwhelmed me; I realized that I was blessed with two loving, supportive families that always have my back. I am indeed a very lucky girl.

No to Terrorism, Yes to Human Rights by Yamna Ayadi, Tunisia

charlie-hebdo-musulman-notinmyname_5183949Terrorism is an awful crime that can never be excused or justified. It poses a major threat to human rights, beginning with the most fundamental of rights – the right to life. Thousands of innocent souls have lost their lives. Terrorism, with its destructive power, has led to  growing mistrust, fear, and a significant new threat to international peace and security. It threatens relationships between nations and people. What effect does it have on young Muslims trying to find their way in society? I wonder: “Why are Muslims so often stereotyped as terrorists? When a person stereotypes someone or a group, is it discrimination? Does it lead to acts of violence against Muslims?” Labeling a person just because that individual comes from another religion is completely racist and unfair. Even if the terrorists are muslims, they should not be labeled as “Islamic terrorists”. In the same way, it would not be called “Jewish terrorism” if they were Jews or “Christian terrorism” if they were Christians. Newspaper headlines regularly print the words “Islam” and “Muslim” next to words like “terrorist” and “violence.” Why does such a small group of extremists, whose terrorist actions violate the central principles of Islam, determine the public image of the entire Muslim community? Where is the accuracy and fairness of the media?

One of the major stereotypes that some of my Muslim friends have to deal with is when they meet new people they often think that Islam is a religion of violence, and then need to defend their faith because of the prejudices and stereotypes held by people they encounter. In the end, they discover that not all Muslims are terrorists. And, it’s a good thing that people learn, but it’s sad that it takes a meeting with a Muslim person to reach such a conclusion because of the dominance of this stereotype. A religious person who fears  God can never commit such an act. The Prophet Muhammad once listed murder as the second of the major sins and he even warned that, on the Day of Judgment, {The first cases to be adjudicated between people on the Day of Judgment will be those of bloodshed.} Every attack made in the name of “religion” on innocent people is actually an attack made against religion. Terrorism is not, in any way, affiliated with Islam; in fact, it contradicts the very belief of Islam. How can a religion that’s name is Islam, which in Arabic is “peace,” be practiced as a violent religion? There is a misconception that has developed which links Islam and terrorism together. The media has been a big contributor to this misconception in many ways. The media is the principle supplier of false information about Muslims; feeding the public stereotypes that all Muslims are terrorists, and that the Quran, their holy book, promotes violence.

There are people who view themselves as Muslims who have committed horrible acts in the name of Islam. These people, and their interpretation of Islam, are rightly called “extremist;” they are a minority within Islam and the vast majority of Muslims reject their violence and consider their interpretation a distortion of the Muslim faith.
It’s important that people realize that Muslims don’t equal  terrorists. Every human being is different and they deserve a chance to express themselves – don’t let stereotypes define who we are. Ignorance is the rejection of something you know nothing about and I hope that Muslims are no longer stereotyped as terrorist.

And The Cycle Goes On… by Angy Shavit, Israel

tumblr_inline_nf8kjvnqvq1sag8l3Take a moment, think of what you were doing when you were 13 and when you were 17. At the age of 13 you may have had your Bar Miztvah¹, maybe even your first kiss. At the age of 17 you may have passed your drivers test and got your license. Maybe you even had your first drunk embarrassing night out. What about when you were 15? Were you already a rebel and your parents started embarrassing you when they came to pick you up?

Mahmoud Rafat Baderan was 15. A few weeks ago he was accidentally killed by the IDF as they mistakenly identified him as someone who conducted an attack. Who knows what he could have been one day. Maybe a singer, maybe a lawyer.

Hallel Yaffa Ariel was 13. She was murdered in her bed last month by Muhammad Nasser Tarayrah, who was 17 years old. I wonder what she planned on doing this summer. What pool she planned on going to, what friends she planned on seeing the next day.

Muhammad Nasser Tarayrah was 17. Muhammad entered Hallel’s room and stabbed her to death. He was mourning the death of his cousin, Yousef Walid Tarayrah. Yousef was 18 years old and was killed when attempting to run over soldiers.

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Politicians have already started working towards revoking permits for Muhammad’s family members. They’ve started to talk about demolishing his families home. So what will his little cousin think next? What will his brothers feel? Now that they won’t have a home anymore, their father will be out of a job as he will lose his permit, what will they do? How will they feel?

What about Hallel? What will her family think now? They live in a settlement in the West Bank where they see Palestinians every day… Will they begin to fear all Palestinians because of a few radicals? Will Palestinians fear coming anywhere near soldiers and Israelis after Mahmoud Rafat Baderan was accidentally killed?

The real issue is that we are stuck in an ongoing cycle of violence. A cycle that cannot end, a cycle that will continue so long as we give it fuel. As long as our politicians choose to use aggressive means, as long as we decide to incite hate, the cycle won’t end. Children who have yet to begin their lives, to get their drivers license, experience their first kiss, and enjoy the summer with their friends, will continue to lose their lives. If we don’t end it, who will?

 ¹ bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah literally translate to "son of commandment" and "daughter of commandment".  According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, and Jewish girls 12, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar/bat mitzvah and traditionally celebrate this event with their families and friends and in their religious community.

A woman’s right to be a man by Yousra Serry, Egypt

13497813_10154867002722137_1862929900133047368_oAs far as my limited education goes, women’s rights are all about their right to be and do whatever they’d like.

However, that’s not what I see nowadays.

A lot of the so called ‘women’s rights fighters’ aren’t even remotely fighting for this. Most women’s rights activists aren’t fighting for women to live freely and choose the life they want, regardless of what they tell themselves, they’re mainly fighting for women to live the life THEY think is most appealing and suitable for a woman.

You want to be a bellydancer? No! Bellydancing is all about making men happy and you’re much better than this.. This is so degrading for women!
You want to cover up? This “covering up” thing was originally invented by men who think of women as nothing more than a tool for pleasure.. This is so against what we stand for!
You can’t be a stay at home mom! You need to find a job to prove he’s not better than you in any way.

And on it goes and goes that now the only thing that’s supposedly all about women is, again, about men.

If men like it why do we have to stop doing it for ourselves? Work stereotypically for men should be for women too,no?


It’s like a lot of women’s unconscious goal is to deprive men of all that they like about women as some sort of a childish revenge.
Which is totally understandable regarding how women have lived and still live in male driven societies—But, it’s never acceptable.

What about a woman? What about what SHE wants? Are you seriously going to tell her how to live her life as a “strong woman”? Are you really going to make her feel bad for choosing something just to get back at men?

If that’s the case and if that’s your idea of women rights, then you’re not any different than any male driven society, if not worse.  You’re freeing women from men’s control and stereotypes to oppress them yourself and all in the name of female empowerment when what you’re really doing is nothing but taking their power and right to choose.

Telling a mom to “get a job!” isn’t okay. Because A) She’s already got one and the hardest one of all. B) It’s none of your business. C) telling someone how to live their life is the first step to being an oppressing a-hole.

Women are human, and humans are different. Creating one picture of how a woman should be and asking all women to be it is the worst way to shit on what you’re supposedly fighting for.
Saying a woman should act or look a certain way to be described as a strong woman is actually what you should be fighting AGAINST.
All women are strong and all their choices are the right ones as long as they take full responsibility for it.
And they would, if you would just give them enough space to breathe.

Women rights went from a woman’s right to be herself to a woman’s JOB to be a man. Just because men are doing something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Now THAT’S degrading. Trying to turn us into something we’re not and don’t want to be just to prove a point. I’m a woman and I want to be one.

I wanted to join the army as a kid because I wanted to; not so I can feel better about myself getting a “man’s job”.
I believe raising kids is the hardest job in the world and moms face challenges and difficulties much harder than any man fighting a war.
My sister likes makeup and polka dots and she’s not just strong, she’s also scary.
My friend likes the classic “controlling” man, and though I can’t stand them, I don’t think she’s a disgrace to what women are fighting for today.

Because, at least in my case, I’m fighting for women to say and be what they like without the fear of being judged whether by other women or men.

I want to live in a world where a woman isn’t ashamed to say and do what she really likes and isn’t shamed for doing something “too womanly”, a world where she stops constantly worrying about what other women will judge her for today.
I want to live in a world where being “too girly” isn’t an insult and being a pussy doesn’t mean you’re weak.

One of the very first things I noticed about the double standards of our society was how when a man cheats his friends cover up for him and even if they don’t agree, they still stick with him and even try to “cheer him up” when he’s caught.
But when a woman does the same, the first of those who stand against her are other women. Probably even her friends and family.
And that’s when I realized women are a huge part of the problem, if not most of it.

We have this proverb in Egypt that goes like “They asked the pharaoh “What made you one?” He replied “No one stopped me!”
Pharaohs are known to have been controlling and dictatorial so the proverb explains how dictators and oppressors are made, and it’s when no one stands up to them.

So, yes, women need to get educated about their rights first so they can then ask for them.. But what’s more important is knowing WHAT those rights are. You have the right to be, say, dress, write, go who/what/where ever you want.

So to all the women out there, it’s okay to be who you are and do whatever you want to do. And, yes, that includes being something I don’t agree with. I’m not the god of women nor are you or anyone else. Be a working mom, stay at home, or don’t even have kids. Get married at 16, 60, or never get married. Wear a bikini, a scarf, or even a tent.

It’s fine.
It’s okay.
It’s amazing.

There’s absolutely nothing more beautiful than a woman who’s comfortable with who she is. And absolutely nothing more ugly than a woman shaming another woman.
And because women are awesome and we never stop till we reach the top… I want you to be THAT beautiful and never even remotely ugly.

A guy once asked me “So if women really are as strong as men.. Why aren’t they ruling the world like men are?”
I answered “because we don’t stick together like men do.” I refrained from adding “and because we’re also not power hungry a-holes”
But I decided to be nice instead. Because, you know, women are also nice. At least when they want to be.

The things we have in common, by Dhia Elhaq Rzig from Tunisia

Dhia from Tunisia interviewed Raz from Israel as part of the YaLa 
Citizen Journalism program. This is what meeting the other looks 
like when both sides are ready to listen.

Raz is not so different from your average Facebook user. Just like anyone else, his profile is adorned with a picture of himself and some of his favorite places and activities, but perhaps what was most intriguing was the abundance of politically themed posts he shared. These posts ranged from satirical and critical to retrospective posts. I found some quite intriguing, especially since most of them were in Hebrew, a language which I have yet to learn. All of this would perhaps give a bit of a background to why I chose Raz as an interviewee and I’m glad to say he was as intriguing as his Facebook wall, if not even more.

Unlike many from the Middle East, Raz’s favorite food are sweet potatoes. As a lover of all things cheesy and spicy I have a hard time relating… but just like in food and life, to each his own. I imagine sweet potatoes are a lot easier to come by in Tel Aviv, Raz’s current city. Tel Aviv, a vibrant and dynamic city provides him with a lot of professional options in the field of computer science. As a nature lover, he loves the beach in Tel Aviv and the Yarkon River, which offer great bike lanes for days with friends or a break from the rush of the city. Perhaps, what Raz speaks of most, and the memories he holds most dearly are his childhood memories.

He recalled a memory when a number of nomadic people came to Israel and befriended his family. In one particular instance he was offered a fishing pole from a Polish friend in kindergarten. It was this experience that fuelled his lasting curiosity with people from other regions, whether it’s through participating in the YaLa Citizen Journalism Program or practicing his English with people travelling around the world and visiting Israel.

His grandfather grew up in Poland and could not even envision an institution similar to the European Union in his times, but now because of the EU, one can travel from former enemy territories during World War II freely without the need for visas and interviews. So perhaps the installation of something similar to the EU in the Middle East might not be as impossible as it seems, and what better way to ensure peace and security then through economic stability and trade relations. Raz, like many of his peers, wishes to find success in his field, get a chance to see a bit more of the world, and start his own family. Like many other global citizens, he also wishes to increase his proficiency in other languages, mainly Russian and Arabic.

One of the most surprising things that Raz learned at YaLa was the courage of some of his Sudanese friends on Facebook , as they were not hesitant to criticise the regime. He always believed that most people kept their opinions secret when living under authoritarian regimes, but was surprised to find how open the public debate was online, something I know first hand being raised in the shadow of a dictatorship . Even with the claims of widespread piracy, fraud, and other cybercrimes, the regime made their first conviction relating to concerns surround child abduction. This was contrary to the ‘Tunisia is well’ propaganda campaign all too often sung on the national media.


Last but not least , one of the places that Raz would most like to visit is Iran. He was told by a British couple, of whom he is an acquaintance, that it is a beautiful and interesting place

At the end of the day , even these type of conversations about matters such as food and childhood memories,  which may seem trivial are as important as deep conversations . They remind us that we’re all much more similar than we think, or than we were taught to think. Although, this was mostly an interview piece about Raz , I couldn’t help but to see the similarities between us , above and beyond just people, but for our mutual passions for both software engineering and the ocean, as people who are curious and accepting of differences , and as people who want to see more of the world. I can only hope that this curiosity and both of our countries and the entire region will defeat the prejudice that poisons our region. Perhaps, they may to see the light of peace and economic solutions that ensure the growth of all countries, and, in ending on a slightly geeky note  as Bill Gates once said:” For Microsoft to win, Apple doesn’t have to lose” If these bitter rivals could figure this out , I believe there’s hope to be found in the region as well.

To apply to the YaLa Citizen Journalism Program:  www.yalaacademy.org/apply

A Mountain by Errel Peli, Israel

 

12376277_10153261093492647_3836833924025078696_nWhen I was 19, I was confused. I always thought this confusion would come earlier, and that by ending teenage boredom, so would the confusion stop. But I was oh so wrong. I turned 19 right after I finished high-school, just as I came out of the closet and right before the compulsory conscription into the Israeli Army. I have only been in Israel for two years after three very transformative years in Australia, and I did not know where and if I belonged.
So, I decided to take a gap year, and see where things lead me, and I would like to relate to you a little bit of the complexities of Israeli society. During this gap year, each of us had to visit on a place that they thought they would never go to. I decided to go to a Yeshiva (Religious Higher Education) in the illegal settlement of Har Bracha, pretty close to Nablus. The settlements are usually considered in the eyes of the world to be the biggest threat to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and as the most visible method of occupation.
During my childhood, I have visited settlements many times, as my aunties all lived there. I was not aware of the political context, and would always go in an armored vehicle, without much awareness to the world outside. As I grew older, and realized what these seemingly peaceful villages mean, I stopped visiting, and vowed to refrain from going to the West Bank until peace is achieved.
But, as I’ve said, I was confused, and my aspiration to understand was more important. I wanted to see reality, rather than read about it. I remember getting on the bus, the only secular person, in a bus without any Palestinians on it. Looking outside the window, I saw winding routes and beautiful, green terraces, and a great big wall. I then reached a checkpoint, and went through easily, then another, but still – no Palestinian in sight. I reached Har Brach, which is positioned on the top of a very big mountain, and looked around. The wind was so strong, I could barely hear myself breathing and there was so much fog creeping everywhere, as if the skies were telling me: “Your ignorance is bliss. Do not try and see too much, because it will hurt.”
Nonetheless, I was on a quest, and I started exploring. I went into this amazing hall, filled to the brim with young adults, just like me, hovering over Torahs and studying. All of a sudden I felt so different and alone. When was the last time I studied Torah? When was the last time I did anything Jewish whatsoever apart from enjoying the time off the holidays gave me? So I sat down next to a youngster, his hair trimmed short, a big Yarmulke (Kippah) on his head and glasses, which made his eyes look humongous – and started talking to him. Even though I interrupted him with his reading, there was not a chattier person than he, and we delved right into the issues that I wished to explore. We couldn’t agree to anything. I zigged, and he zagged. Whether we spoke about religion, economics or the conflict, it didn’t matter, because we were on opposite sides. But, at the end of the day, just before we went to sleep, I thought to myself: “what did I come here for?”. And I realized that I came, not to convince anyone, but to realize what I thought was right or wrong. And to be able to talk to someone else about it, and justify my position. Early next morning we both woke up and walked outside to look from the very top of the mountain. And then, to my right, I saw the red-roofed houses of the settlements, and to my left, I saw big Palestinian concrete houses. And from so far away, I could not see the people inside. And the only thought that I had was: “everyone is probably eating breakfast right now”. I told my friend that, and he just smiled and walked back down the hill. And I just kept on looking, and everything was so quiet.
And you know what? Six years later and I still don’t know where I belong – in this country? This nationality? This faith? This community? But, one thing I do know. That I could not have known me if I had not tried to get to know the other. And I wish us all, on YaLa’s birthday that we will strive for peace not only with those who speak the same language as we do, but more so with those who don’t. Those, who do not even recognize that elusive language, the language of peace, of understanding, of tolerance. That’s our mission, that’s our mountain to climb.