On the Hill, Pales­tinian ded­i­cates his life to peace

Love, not war, is the an­swer for in­tern who sur­vived a bul­let in Gaza

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY COLBY ITKOWITZ

Yousef Bashir re­mem­bers the blue sky that day. As he lay in the back seat of the car, an Is­raeli sol­dier’s bul­let lodged in his back, he stared up and out of the win­dow at the sky, won­der­ing whether it would be his last time see­ing it.

By that time in 2004, Bashir’s fam­ily’s home in the Gaza Strip had been oc­cu­pied for four years by Is­raeli sol­diers, who had con­verted it into a mil­i­tary post. The Pales­tinian Mus­lim fam­ily could have moved, like so many of their neigh­bors did, but Bashir’s fa­ther re­fused. If he left, they would prob­a­bly never get their house back. So they stayed, con­fined to a small area of their home, un­able to ven­ture up­stairs and re­quired to ask per­mis­sion to use their own kitchen and bath­room.

For Bashir’s fa­ther, Khalil, this small act of peace­ful de­fi­ance was a les­son to his chil­dren that the Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans could co­ex­ist. No mat­ter how un­com­fort­able or un­fair it seemed, Bashir’s fa­ther preached tol­er­ance. Even when his 15-year-old son was shot, an in­jury that would re­quire 16 months of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and leave him for­ever with pierc­ing pain from the bul­let still in­side him, Bashir’s fa­ther taught love.

It took Bashir some time to ap­pre­ci­ate his fa­ther’s per­spec­tive.

“He ap­proached them like guests. What I didn’t un­der­stand is how he could treat them as guests when they’re telling us what to do in our own house,” Yousef Bashir said. “And my fa­ther said, ‘That’s what hu­man be­ings do, and that’s what peo­ple who care about the Holy Land must do even if it’s the most un­re­al­is­tic thing in the world. We have to do that be­cause our destiny is to live in peace as the sons of Abra­ham.’ ”

Now 28, Bashir is ded­i­cat­ing his life to ful­fill­ing his fa­ther’s dream of peace be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans. It’s a life mis­sion that brought him to the United States to fin­ish high school, at­tend col­lege and im­merse him­self in a coun­try that prom­ises more than he could have ever dreamed in oc­cu­pied Gaza. He’s in­tern­ing on Capi­tol Hill for Rep. Ger­ald E. Con­nolly (D-Va.). And he speaks in pub­lic, tak­ing what hap­pened to him and us­ing it as a way to start di­a­logues, par­tic­u­larly with Jewish groups.

A grip­ping and ar­tic­u­late sto­ry­teller, Bashir sees him­self as an emis­sary.

But his story is not about be­ing al­most killed by an Is­raeli sol­dier. It’s about how Is­raeli Jews saved his life.

See­ing their hu­man­ity

Bashir and his fa­ther were stand­ing in their front yard wav­ing good­bye to United Na­tions peace­keep­ers who had been by to check on them when the bul­let struck Bashir. The Guardian re­ported in 2005 that the Is­raeli army had taken re­spon­si­bil­ity for the shoot­ing but never ex­plained why Bashir was shot.

The teen was taken to a hospi­tal in Tel Aviv, where he was treated by an Is­raeli doc­tor. His nurses, his room­mates, the vis­i­tors were al­most all Is­raeli Jews. They cared about his pain level. He saw them cel­e­brate their hol­i­days. Or­tho­dox rab­bis would gather around his bed and sing songs to lift his spir­its as they did with all the chil­dren. For the first time in his life, he saw Is­raelis the way his fa­ther al­ways wanted him to.

“All of those lit­tle mo­ments showed me their hu­man­ity, and I can’t get over that ever,” Bashir said. “I still dis­agree with Is­rael fun­da­men­tally, but I don’t hate them in my heart. What my fa­ther was teach­ing me all my life was that although an Is­raeli shot me, many Is­raelis were there to save my life. Sud­denly now I un­der­stood my fa­ther when he said you have to choose for­give­ness over re­venge, brav­ery over fear and peace over war, and this is what any Holy Lan­der should be do­ing.”

Once he had healed enough to leave re­hab, his fa­ther sent him to a sum­mer camp in Maine run by Seeds of Peace, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that brings to­gether young Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis. Bashir was still too in­jured to par­tic­i­pate in any of the tra­di­tional camp ac­tiv­i­ties such as swim­ming or sports, so he fo­cused his en­ergy on the daily di­a­logues. He told his story. Is­raelis told theirs. Both sides had griev­ances, but they were learn­ing they didn’t need to be rooted in hate.

Af­ter that ex­pe­ri­ence, Bashir was de­ter­mined to get his ed­u­ca­tion in the United States. He left Gaza to at­tend a Quaker high school in Ra­mal­lah, but he spent his time there sin­gu­larly fo­cused on get­ting back to the United States as soon as pos­si­ble. In Amer­ica, he said, “if you have any idea and you are pas­sion­ate about it, you will do it.”

John Hish­meh, a Pales­tinian Amer­i­can born and raised in Ken­tucky, was Bashir’s guid­ance coun­selor in Ra­mal­lah, and the two be­came close. He wasn’t like the other chil­dren, Hish­meh said.

“The Seeds of Peace was so deeply rooted in him, so the in­ten­sity in which he wanted to con­nect with peo­ple who were dif­fer­ent from him, Jews in par­tic­u­lar, it was un­matched by ev­ery­one around him,” Hish­meh said. “The en­ergy with which he wanted to con­nect with his en­e­mies, he couldn’t hold back the way he com­mu­ni­cated. He in­tensely wanted to come to Amer­ica so he could study and get ed­u­cated and pur­sue his dreams, which he has done.”

With per­sis­tence, he fin­ished high school at a board­ing school in Utah — “It was ut­terly peace­ful. I don’t care if it’s on the moon, there were no tanks or sol­diers, and that was my big­gest achieve­ment at the time,” he said. He went on to get his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree at North­east­ern Univer­sity in Bos­ton, although he had re­ally wanted to go to Bran­deis, a univer­sity with a large Jewish pop­u­la­tion, but didn’t get in. But he did for grad­u­ate school and re­ceived his mas­ter’s de­gree in con­flict and coex­is­tence.

Go­ing to a largely Jewish col­lege was, to him, a way to pro­mote peace. He needed to show those who thought ill of Pales­tini­ans that he was not brought up to hate.

“I need to speak to the ones who think I’m a ter­ror­ist, a threat, a bad guy,” he said. “They are the ones I need to go out of my way to speak to them, to shake their hand, be­cause I am con­fi­dent that if I get to do that, there’s no way they will go to bed that evening think­ing that guy was ter­ri­ble. I’m cer­tain of it.”

Mak­ing a life in Amer­ica

Sit­ting in Con­nolly’s of­fice, Bashir told his story. He had told it the day be­fore at the J Street Na­tional Con­fer­ence. And he would tell it the next day to a group of Is­raeli grad­u­ate stu­dents study­ing diplo­macy. They would in­vite him to join them for a meet­ing with Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), where he told San­ders that the sen­a­tor was the most pop­u­lar Jew in Gaza since Moses.

Bashir has been in the United States for 11 years and has not re­turned to Gaza. His fa­ther died in 2009, and he could not return to at­tend his funeral for fear he wouldn’t be able to leave again. He has seen his mother only once, last year when she re­ceived med­i­cal treat­ment in Ger­many. This past week, he ap­plied for his U.S. ci­ti­zen­ship. Liv­ing in the District feels like home, he jokes, when he sees calls for state­hood.

Af­ter his fa­ther died, his mother sent him the heart­felt let­ters they had re­ceived from strangers af­ter news of his be­ing shot made in­ter­na­tional head­lines. He sifted through those let­ters and reached out to those who of­fered their sup­port back then. Many peo­ple have since con­trib­uted to help­ing him achieve his dreams by fi­nan­cially sup­port­ing his school­ing, host­ing him in their homes, help­ing him make con­tacts.

One of those, El­lie Mack­lin, an 84-year-old re­tired fam­ily ther­a­pist, has be­come a sur­ro­gate mother to him.

“It’s been one of the most grat­i­fy­ing things in my whole life, this con­nec­tion I have with Yousef,” she said. “I’m very at­tuned to peo­ple who have tremen­dous need but also tremen­dous de­ter­mi­na­tion to make some­thing sig­nif­i­cant of their lives. I had this bent to do what was needed when oth­ers are will­ing to do their part. He has im­pressed me from the be­gin­ning with his pow­er­ful en­ergy to make pow­er­ful change.”

For now, aside from his speak­ing en­gage­ments, Bashir’s role in Con­nolly’s of­fice is no dif­fer­ent from any other in­tern’s. But he feels the weight of that re­spon­si­bil­ity pro­foundly. When he an­swers a con­stituent call and soothes a mother cry­ing that her son who has can­cer may lose his health in­sur­ance or speaks in Ara­bic to an Egyp­tian man need­ing as­sis­tance, Bashir said he feels as if he’s re­ally giv­ing some­thing back to a coun­try that has ac­cepted him.

It’s not lost on him that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is largely pro-Is­rael, and in a way, the bul­let that struck him was “au­tho­rized by this place,” he said, in ref­er­ence to Congress’s fi­nan­cial sup­port for the Is­raeli mil­i­tary. But there’s a dis­con­nect be­tween the rhetoric and the warmth with which he’s been treated.

“It gives me hope that de­spite it be­ing the place that au­tho­rized the M16 bul­let that I carry with me ev­ery sin­gle day, it em­braces me, al­lows me to come in,” he said. “Amer­ica has been more than gen­er­ous to me. Ev­ery dream I’ve had so far did come true. You know when some­one does you a fa­vor you say, ‘One day I’m go­ing to pay you back,’ and that day never re­ally comes. Ev­ery day I’m here . . . I feel that I’m giv­ing back to this county.”

“I still dis­agree with Is­rael fun­da­men­tally, but I don’t hate them in my heart.” Yousef Bashir

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Yousef Bashir, right, works on Capi­tol Hill for Rep. Ger­ald E. Con­nolly (D-Va.). At age 15, he was shot by an Is­raeli sol­dier and was nursed back to health by Is­raeli Jews, which he says “showed me their hu­man­ity.”

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