By Dianne Brause
It was in the spring of 2012, while on a Compassionate Listening Project Delegation that I first met Sami Awad. Our small group of Americans and Canadians were traveling around Israel and the West Bank, meeting with people who were passionate about their particular views on the Israeli/Palestinian situation and how they were working to “solve” it. These ideas ranged from “There were never any Palestinians and those people ought to just go back to Jordan or Saudi Arabia where they came from and leave this land to us, the Jews, as God promised!” to a group made up of Ex-Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Freedom Fighters who had each come to the conclusion that violence and killing one another would never lead to peace–so they joined forces in talking to school children on both sides about the stupidity of waging war against each other. There was a wide range of groups, points of view and attempts to change the situation, all with varying tactics and results.
In the Bethlehem area, we visited a number of groups of interest, but I was riveted when I heard Sami Awad speak about his vision for the Holy Land Trust, the nonprofit he had started in 1998, after he returned from America, when there was still hope that the Oslo Accords would bring a just and sustainable peace to the Middle East. Sami grew up under the wings of his grandmother, who when her husband was shot in the head and killed in 1948 war, had stated: “This family will not hate!”
Sami was also influenced as a young man by his uncle, Mubarak Awad, who by some analysts, was projected to become “The Gandhi of Palestine” because of his stance and organizing of nonviolence training and practices. Mubarak, who also had done his schooling in America and subsequently taught college there in Washington, DC, chose to go back to Bethlehem to continue a campaign of nonviolence training. As he became successful, he was deported from Palestine–since it seemed he might become too instrumental in peaceful resistance to the Occupation, and this didn’t seem to bode well for Israeli interests. He is still not allowed to return as a resident of Palestine.
Sami followed in his uncle’s footsteps with the creation of the Holy Land Trust, and to this day, treads a fine line between being an inspiration to the people of Bethlehem and being seen as a “collaborator” by some Palestinians–for reaching out in love to Israelis; a threat by Christian Zionists who think he is “against Israel”; and a menace to the Israeli government who often won’t give him a permit to enter Jerusalem (5 miles away on the other side of the “Wall”) presumably as a troublesome “peace activist!”
What I heard in Sami’s talk to our group, reminded me of the old days, when Martin Luther King spoke, of a need for bringing peace to all sides of this terribly complex situation and a need to continue to resist the unjust occupation nonviolently. But, he also longs for the Palestinian people to step up to the plate and take responsibility to create for themselves the systems and infrastructure that would sustain a nation, if and when it ever comes about!
In his recent Christmas Message, Sami stated: “Holy Land Trust believes that peace in the Holy Land is possible. Not only that, we believe that the Holy Land will one day become a global model for peace, justice, equality and reconciliation between peoples.”
So, how do the projects of the Holy Land Trust reflect Sami’s guidance as its founder and visionary? As a volunteer there for seven months in the past two years, I began to learn about the various projects and their impact. The Palestinian Summer Encounter, the Olive Harvest and the Home Rebuilding projects all bring together “international” volunteers with local people to enhance knowledge and friendships on all sides, while also accomplishing worthy service projects within the Palestinian society. (These are administered by the “Travel and Encounter” department and are well-worth looking into, if you really want to “understand” something about what is really going on in the West Bank.)
A new initiative is called: “Open Bethlehem” and it is a project designed to increase tourism and thus economic recovery in the aftermath of the coming of the Wall and the greatly decreased numbers of visitors from outside who now are afraid to enter into the “West Bank.” Last year, the first annual “Bet’Leham Live Festival” was held in the summer and much emphasis was placed on enlivening the ancient pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which is currently only open for formal ceremonies by church leaders at Christmas and Easter. Much “sprucing up” and the opening of shop doors, which have been bolted for years, was underway as I walked to work each morning along Star Street, the traditional route.
The “Nonlinear Leadership Training” has served to empower many Palestinians, and especially women leaders across the West Bank, to begin to take a more active part in creating the kinds of lives and initiatives that they see as important for their communities. Sami feels strongly that it will be the Palestinian women who most strongly lead the community toward a peaceful and just solution to the current conflict.
But, for me, the newly begun “Empowering Palestinian Teenage Girls” project is the most exciting of all–since I got to play a part in bringing this project to light! Starting with funding for 15 teenage girls from across the spectrum of Bethlehem society, we rapidly grew to a cadre of 27 girls who aspire to become community leaders in addition to strengthening their own inner knowing about their unique gifts to offer within their families, neighborhoods, and the greater Palestinian society. These girls, who rarely get any opportunity to become involved in many activities or learning outside of their school and religious circles, are now exploring parts of themselves and learning practical skills, which can help them move into society as strong leaders.
It is my hope that these programs–and many others taking place throughout the West Bank and Israel–may help to create the conditions for an eventual “out-of-the-box” solution that is so sorely needed for both the Palestinian and the Israeli communities within the Middle East, so that the Holy Land can serve as a model for the rest of the planet! My great thanks goes to Sami Awad, for his courage and leadership in this movement of faith in the goodness of all humanity.
If you feel inspired to support the work of the Holy Land Trust, please go to their website: www.holylandtrust.org and click on the “Donate Now” button or follow them on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/holylandtrust.
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This article appears in:
2014 Catalyst, Issue 1: Activating Your Vision for 2014