An update from three weeks of peace-building and playing with Palestinian children
Five nights ago, there was a full moon in the Sinai Desert in Egypt. I sat, soles of my feet touching, hands clasped, head bowed. I prayed to the universe to bless my path, this unknown journey into peace building and teaching in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. On the sand dune where I sat, the gravitational pull of the full moon had caused the sea to recede, leaving a sliver of pristine sand stretching one hundred meters into the water. I imagined the story from the Bible: Moses parting the Red Sea, leading the Jews into freedom from the bondage of Egypt, a full moon in the sky. With eyes closed, I pictured Moses guiding me on my own path. Out of suffering, confusion, and attachment to material success; towards peace in my heart and in the world.
I’ve had a truly transformative time these past three weeks in Jerusalem. Before our holiday in the Sinai Desert, I helped my friend Lisa and other volunteers to run a summer camp for Palestinian children from the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps in Bethlehem. These children grow up in extreme poverty in the shadow of a concrete wall, and they are some of the most joyful and spirited children I’ve ever met. Over ten days, we took them on adventures in Bethlehem and neighboring villages: each day was chaotic, lively, and full of joy, frustration, and learning for all.
What follows are a few memories.
The chaos and joy of summer camp
On day 2, we piled twenty children into a bus and took them to a freshwater spring in Battir, a village bordered by Israeli settlements. When we arrived, the children peeled off their socks and shoes and jumped into the spring, shouting and laughing with joy. Later, we hiked down rocky paths to a gathering spot, where a tent welcoming tourists once stood. The Israeli army bulldozed the site at the beginning of July, so we sat and played in the torn remains of cushions and broken wooden pallets. The children prepared hummus and salad, and we cooked shakshuka over a little fire as the sun settled behind the hills. Every twenty minutes, a near-empty Israeli train would pass by on the tracks, and the children waved to passengers they will never meet.
On day 5, we ventured into downtown Bethlehem with twenty-two children from the camps. They weaved like experts through the honking traffic, pedestrians and groceries, and the adults prayed to the traffic gods to keep our kids safe. We arrived just in time to visit a holy site: the birthplace of Jesus, the Nativity church.
When we crossed the church’s threshold, the kids grew magically silent, struck by wonder and curiosity. We walked slowly to the exact location of the birth, and the children paused reverently as other visitors jostled around us. In the church courtyard, we pulled out pastels and paper, and the children drew their feelings about their experience: a practice of touching their emotions and sharing honestly with others through art.
On the last day of camp (day 9), ten children, Lisa, and I crowded into a four-person two-door Jeep. For a moment, the children didn’t want to start the car: they were having too much fun climbing onto the roof, honking the horn, and enjoying the chaos of being squished together. Eventually, we all made it to our destination, and the kids caused havoc within seconds. They threw pretzels at each other, spilled water, stood on chairs, and collided with each other, crying. I questioned why I was there.
And then something changed. One of the Arabic-speaking camp directors scolded the children, teaching them new lessons about discipline and respect. We cleaned the room, the children apologized, and the night continued. We had printed photos of each child and brought shiny gold paper and stickers for making picture frames, and the children marveled at the stickers and created their own works of art.
After the upstairs neighbor called the landlord but before he called the police, we held a ceremony to honor each child. Each child showed his picture with great fanfare, and then circled the room, shaking hands or hugging everyone. It was beautiful: Each child was seen, acknowledged, and appreciated by their peers and by us. When leaving, Lisa asked two of the kids what they thought of the night, and they replied in Arabic: It was heaven.
How could I be anywhere else?
Introducing mindfulness to our kids
During camp, Lisa and I introduced the Palestinian children to non-violent communication and mindfulness practices from Plum Village. When children had difficulty following the rules or respecting our requests, we’d invite them to the living room of our Arabic camp directors. There, we’d ask them if they understood the rules, how they were feeling when they broke them, and what they were thinking at the moment.
In a mixture of Arabic, Hebrew, and English, we’d practice deep listening and looking to understand the behavior of the child. Was he or she feeling unloved or hurt? What needs were unmet, and how could we contribute to their well-being? We’d spend hours after camp discussing the gifts and challenges of each child, trying in our earnestness to teach our kids to express emotions in words, to think about the harmony of the group, to be kind and respectful and helpful.
We taught the children to ring the bell slowly, slowly (shwai shwai in Arabic). By the end of camp, kids would approach us to ring the bell when they needed to calm down.
We taught them walking meditation by “racing” around a table with rules in reverse: the person to finish last would win. We told them to listen to the sound of their feet and to feel each part of their foot in contact with the earth. Some of them understood immediately.
Working with friends on the path of peace
I had the great joy and fortune to work with a dear friend during my time in Jerusalem. Lisa and I met in Plum Village during the 21-day retreat in June, and I volunteered spontaneously to help her with summer camp once I heard about her work in peace-building and social activism. What I did not anticipate was the incredible openness and generosity of her heart. She’s able to teach a child to float in a swimming pool one moment, calm a man angry at his wife in the next, and then invite the sound of the bell with grace an hour later — all with a fullness of presence that I aspire to. It has been a blessing to bear witness to her work, and her resolve, imagination, and hope strengthen me for the path ahead.
Working towards peace in Palestinian refugee camps and across borders can be exhausting. Some days, I would return home from summer camp drained and saddened by the political situation. I would research the occupation, the state of Palestinian trash services, perhaps another Israeli politician, and I would cry from grief and distress at the giant wall separating my kids from the holy city of Jerusalem. In this climate, friends along the path are necessary: Lisa, Yonathan, and our friends from Aida would encourage and support each other, hold space for grief and for celebration, brainstorm, laugh, and de-stress together. Peace-building requires a community, and I was blessed with the best people.
Starting in November, I am committing to staying in Jerusalem and working in peace-building.
I plan to return to Jerusalem in November after two months in Japan, the United States, France, and Germany. There, I will work with Lisa to build the foundation for our shared dream: a collaborative co-working space and academy for women of all backgrounds, built on the simple premise that love, education, and community can create revolution.
In our space, we imagine supporting a diversity of peace-building initiatives, including:
- Educating Palestinian young women in coding, English and Hebrew language, and other trades; and fundraising for university education. Right now, very few Palestinian women in the refugee camps attend university after graduating from high school. Instead, they marry at a young age (18 or 19 years old), have children, and cede decision-making and financial control to their husband. We hope that trade and university education will give young women the ability to choose when and to whom they want to marry, and to support themselves financially whatever they decide.
- Opening a café that enables local Palestinian women to work and the international community to experience the beauty of Palestinian culture. I’m imagining hot meals cooked with fresh vegetables from our garden and olive oil from the trees in Battir, prepared by the incredible women cooks from Bethlehem. Over lunch, Palestinian women and visitors can have meaningful dialogue, brainstorm, and identify ways to help each other — and support the sustainability of the space at the same time.
- Building a sustainable rooftop garden. Many families in the camp cannot afford to eat fresh vegetables daily. The camp is littered with garbage and covered in concrete. We hope that a vegetable garden will produce healthy food for families and for our co-working café, beautify the camp, and provide a path for teenage girls to learn farming, stay active, and raise money for higher education.
- Creating listening circles for Palestinian men and women. Many men in the refugee camps have been held in Israeli jails under administrative detention, which means they can be held for months or years without trial. Many women suffer from lack of freedom in the patriarchal society. We want to offer both groups places of refuge, where they can touch their own emotions, learn to process and accept them, and to share them in a group. We want them to know that they are not alone.
We will be working to clarify the vision and define strategy for our space in the next few months, and I’m looking forward to sharing more then.
Why peace building in Jerusalem? Why not do this work at home in the United States?
A few days ago, an Israeli man asked why, as an international visitor to Israel, I wanted to get involved in peace building here. His perspective was that Americans (and all internationals) should stop interfering and should let Israelis and Palestinians work towards peace on their own. I took this question to heart, and the reasons I am here are as follows:
- I am passionate about peace building work, and there is a community of peace activists, teachers, and community organizers here that inspire and encourage me. I can learn a great deal from them and I can contribute something of value to the community.
- I can exercise all of my talent and ability here. I can lead projects that require technical expertise, without needing to code as my full-time job. I can help with strategy and operations for each of the projects we’re planning. I can harness what I know about startups to operate in a situation with limited financial resources (and yet, bountiful contributions from friends all around the world).
- I am truly excited to wake up in the morning and to do the work of peace. I am willing to do it for free (that’s how I know it’s true joy). Each day I nourish my spiritual practice: I practice deep listening to myself, my friends, and the children, I meditate when I am in need of calm, I find joy in the simple gifts of others and in my ability to hold whatever arises. Each night, I go to sleep in gratitude for another full day.
What is peace building? Do I expect to build peace between Israel and Palestine?
I want to be very clear in my writing that I am not working towards finding a political solution for Israel and Palestine: that’s for the politicians to work out. I am here in Israel to build peace in the hearts of men and women affected by the political climate. By cultivating peace in individuals, change can happen collectively, slowly.
Changing the collective consciousness of a society is akin to melting a glacier with a tiny candle: at first it seems impossible, but as ice becomes liquid, the blending of sea water and fresh water accelerates the melting process. In time, the glacier is absorbed by the vast ocean; just as the cascading effect of a few hearts turning to peace can melt an entire society.
We have to keep the candle of peace alive.
What I’m doing in September through November: Jerusalem, Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, and Plum Village
I leave Jerusalem for Tokyo on Saturday, where I will spend twenty-one days enjoying my family and our ancestral homeland. We’ll visit Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Tokyo, and send my brother Ryan off for a year of studying abroad. He will be living in a Buddhist temple and studying Japanese language at Waseda University in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Ryan’s been dreaming of living in Japan since high school, and I couldn’t be happier for him to realize his dream.
After Tokyo, I’ll return to the states for three weeks: September 22nd until mid-October. I’ll be visiting the Sugarplum sangha at the Mariposa Institute in Ukiah, my dear friends in San Francisco, my grandma in Los Angeles, and my family in the Bay Area.
In mid-October, I will return to Plum Village. At the monastery, I will spend a week in personal retreat and five days creating sanctuary and space for young women from the Palestinian refugee camps (we’ll be bringing them through Jordan to France).
At the end of October, our Palestinian delegation will travel to Paris, where we will meet delegations from Israel, Morocco, and France, and build empathy by sharing our experiences from home.
In November, I will visit friends in Berlin, and then return here to Jerusalem, ready to begin the work of my life: teaching and building peace in my heart and in this holy place.
Thanks for reading, my friend!
Until next time, I send my love and gratitude. Please feel free to say hello via email — I’d love to hear from you. If you have ideas for peace initiatives in our co-working space or people to meet in Jerusalem, I’d love to hear them too.
If you’d like to follow my writing, please subscribe to my newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/melaniegin