Blurring borders Creativity for Peace
CREATIVITY FOR PEACE
“I experienced the conflict through rockets and stuff like that. I never got the chance to meet someone from the other side — the people living behind the rockets. I didn’t think I could come here and solve the conflict, but I had the goal of getting to know Palestinians as human beings,” said Yaara Tal, an administrative intern with Creativity for Peace, a summer-camp leadership program for Israeli and Palestinian girls that has been held near Santa Fe for 19 years. Tal, who grew up in Kibbutz Dorot, near Sderot, by the border with Gaza, first came to the camp in 2008, when she was sixteen, after a representative spoke about the program at her high school. At the time, she was primarily excited by the prospect of seeing more of the world, but the camp’s goals intrigued her.
Nine years later, Tal continues her involvement with Creativity for Peace by going on speaking tours in the United States. Now twenty-five, she recently graduated from college in Eugene, Oregon. She and her roommate, Deema Yusef, another Creativity for Peace participant, first went to Lane Community College on scholarships coordinated through the organization, and then transferred to the University of Oregon, where they both majored in international studies. Yusef, who is twenty-one and a rising senior, is from Palestine. She speaks publicly with Tal about the conflict as part of their scholarship requirements. Yusef’s family is originally from Nazareth, and she grew up in Ramallah, in the West Bank. She attended Creativity for Peace on a whim, when a last-minute spot opened up, though initially she had not seen the point. She, too, was sixteen.
“I decided to go because I wanted to talk about my experiences with the conflict and how horrible and difficult it is to live in Palestine — basically to make the Israeli girls feel bad about what their government does,” she said. “I grew up during the Second Intifada. Most nights I could not sleep in my bedroom. My family and I slept in the hallway because that was the safest place in the house, with no windows. There were a lot of shootings and bombings.”
Campers spend the summer engaging in intense discussions and participating in group endeavors, including art projects and a ropes course, as well as field trips to cultural events, shopping, and other local attractions. They also spend a week with girls from Northern New Mexico. Plenty of what they do is just for fun, but the daily dialogue sessions are challenging work. “For the first few days we are just setting guidelines and learning how to talk to each other,” Tal said. “We have rules like ‘don’t judge people’ — rules that create better conversation. We try to focus less on politics, because talking about politics can make you circle around and around.”
Politics, however, is not a taboo subject. Every group of campers differs when it comes to how they deal with talking about the conflict. Some want to avoid the conversation and just concentrate on being friends. Other years, the girls start with politics and have to learn how to move past that. “At some point with every group, the Palestinian girls go here and the Israeli girls go here, and they exclude each other and speak their own languages even though everyone is supposed to be speaking English,” said executive director Dottie Indyke. “The reason that happens is because anger comes up, feelings of injustice and persecution. Someone says something that really, really hurts you. Some groups have to be dragged to the breaking point, but they can’t have the breakthrough without the breakdown.” The public is invited to get to know the Creativity for Peace participants at Salaam-Shalom: A Celebration of Peace, on Thursday, July 27, at the Santa Fe Farmers Market Pavilion. Campers who have returned as counselors, called Young Leaders, talk about their work in the United States and the Middle East. The event features food trucks, music, and a cash bar.
Though their time at the camp is important, it is what happens afterward that matters most to participants. Some of the girls return as Young Leaders, and there is programming in Israel and Palestine so that they can continue to communicate with one another and work on peacemaking skills. Some friendships last and others do not; some girls need years to process the experience of Creativity for Peace. When war breaks out, even those who stay involved with the organization find themselves pulling back and taking time before reconnecting. Yusef said that returning from New Mexico can be devastating, because for all the friendships that were made, Palestinians still go home to oppressive restrictions. Israelis return and soon must serve two years in the military, which they do with differing levels of enthusiasm, national pride, and willingness or ability to talk to fellow soldiers about Creativity for Peace. For many on both sides, it can feel as if nothing has changed — yet each year, a handful of Middle Eastern girls who once automatically hated each other no longer do.
When they speak to audiences about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yusef finds that many Americans do not know much about Palestinians, and only know the Israeli side of the conflict. Her job has been to portray that side through personal stories. She talks about traveling to Nazareth from the West Bank during the holidays and having to spend hours at checkpoints, where there is often violence. “My city is a little safer than it was before, but we still have a military presence, so there are always stories. And I tell them what it’s like to travel through the Tel Aviv airport, where they don’t treat Palestinians very well.”
Each year, a handful of Middle Eastern girls who once automatically hated each other no longer do.
Tal said that one thing not all Americans know about Israel is that much of the population is secular. There is much public debate about what it means to be Jewish and whether or not that should not be determined by the government. “No one has the right to decide if you are Jewish enough,” she said. “My mother is Korean; she converted to Reform Judaism. My father’s brother was secular but became religious, and he does not consider my mother Jewish. That’s funny because some people in his community don’t consider him really Jewish, because he wasn’t born Orthodox.” She also wants people to know that just as in America, you can love your country and criticize it at the same time, and want to change the actions of your government.
Never would Yusef have imagined that one day she would be close friends and roommates with an Israeli. During her first summer at the camp, she was offered a spot in a double bed with one of the Israeli girls, and she refused. “In my head, all Israelis wore the uniform of soldiers. I did not want to show an Israeli that I was comfortable with her in that way, to sleep next to her. But when she said she’d sleep in the other bed, it made it easier for me to stay the way I was.”
Tal hopes to work for UNICEF or another international organization, possibly but not necessarily in diplomacy. Yusef is concentrating her degree in conflict resolution in the Middle East. “I am proud to be a Palestinian person, an Arab, Muslim. I was talking about this with Yaara in the last couple of weeks, and I was saying that my life is basically about the conflict and I don’t know what I would be doing otherwise. I am so interested in politics and all of these things.”