By Soha Al-Jurf, a Peace Ambassador
When I first read about the Peace Ambassador Training program, I envisioned it as a program that would provide me with a specific set of rules or principles that would help me become something—a step-by-step process through which I would be guided by a select group of experts on how to go off into the world and act. In the face of the inevitable discord that seems to challenge me at every turn on my chosen path as a social renegade, I thought a basic how-to for renegades would be a welcome addition to all of the other workshops and seminars I’ve attended over the years.
At the time I signed up for the program, I had spent fifteen years working in clinical settings as a speech therapist, and, although my work with people could sometimes be profoundly meaningful (and it certainly ignited a commitment to my own deep personal inquiry and a honing of communication skills), there was a core restlessness in me that I just could not shake—the world is on fire, I kept thinking, there must be more that I am meant to be doing here.
A few times over the course of those many years, I quit my job and ventured off to write—mostly in and about Occupied Palestine. But those periods of time always felt like excursions from what I should be doing: working at a job, like “normal” people in the U.S. who have a Master’s Degree do. And so, I continued to work in an office, while part of my soul was consistently seeking to be elsewhere.
I enrolled in the Peace Ambassador Training program hoping for some insights on what a more complete and fulfilling path toward serving humanity might look like. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be doing; I just knew I wasn’t doing it, and, subsequently, I wasn’t fully being it, either. I imagined I would be trained much as any ambassador would—to represent whatever or whomever it is I am representing diplomatically; with dignity, respect, and integrity. And, in some ways, that is precisely what the training was: a practical guide for those of us who choose to witness the suffering in this world and need communication tools and spiritual practices to support that work.
But, as meaningful as each teaching was, I think that the greatest gift I received from the trainings is the soul-recognition that being a Peace Ambassador is not something I am striving to become; I am one already. Not because I’ve written a book about the situation in Palestine/Israel or because I’ve marched in protests against war or because I’m willing to go to dark places w
ith the hope and intention to uncover the light. I won’t suddenly be a Peace Ambassador once I’ve created an organization that has a viable vision to end all war and violence or eradicate world hunger or ensure that every child has access to education. I am a Peace Ambassador because I hold an intention toward manifesting goodness, both in my thinking and way of being, and in my actions toward others. And, although it helps to have meditation practices and communication skills and to hear stories of others who have walked this path toward serving humanity before me to be an Ambassador of Peace, the most profound part of my experience with the Training was simply being held in the fiercely loving, honest, unconditionally accepting energetic field that was created by both James and Philip on each call, and sustained by the incredible community of guest teachers and participants each week. Within that space of genuine wisdom and care, I felt my own depth and power and potential mirrored in a way that gave me permission to take myself seriously.
Six months after the completion of the training, I took a leap of faith and quit my job as a clinical speech-language pathologist. With a somewhat vague idea of starting something new that would provide more personal fulfillment for myself and have a greater impact on society than I’d been having, I found myself in Cairo, on a street corner in an upscale neighborhood called Zamalek, in front of a Western-style café.
As I was about to enter the café, a young girl approached me. She looked about seven, and she was wearing a filthy purple velour training suit, plastic slippers, and bore tiny scars all over her face. She was pantomiming with her hands, tapping her lips vigorously with her fingertips, looking down-trodden and pathetic, but she wasn’t saying anything. I’ve encountered many girls like this one over the years—in villages and refugee camps in Palestine, as well as in Egypt. My reaction to them has varied, though my underlying feeling has typically been one of discomfort at not knowing the “right” thing to do. But, in this moment, the absurdity of her gestures struck me and I started to chuckle.
“What are you asking me?” I said to her in Arabic, realizing that she must have thought I don’t speak Arabic, as I was sporting the typical jeans, sweatshirt, and backpack that all Americans wear while walking around in her city. “Do you want food?”
She nodded, with a theatrical expression of despair on her face that again made me laugh.
“Speak, Child!” I finally blurted out, the situation seeming so utterly absurd to me that I wanted to break the bizarre ritual. “Come,” I said to her, gesturing to a nearby table. “Let’s have lunch.”
With that, the young girl smiled, her entire “beggar” façade vanishing, as we sat down together and began talking about her life, and her chatty girlishness found its rightful place at the table.
The end of this story is more tragic than its beginning, of course, as I left Egypt and my little friend Manar remains, wandering in the streets of Cairo each day, hustling to make her 70 EGP quota by selling packets of tissues in hopes of avoiding another lashing from her father. Of course I wanted to take her with me and raise her myself. Of course I wanted to take her away from her family and put her in a children’s home where she would be put in school and safe from the abuse in her father’s home and in the streets of Cairo. And I did ask her if she would like me to facilitate this, though she declined.
Admittedly, I’m not yet certain what is my “right” action in the face of all of the world’s many tragic situations, or even this one. It would be unbearably trite and frankly inaccurate of me to make profound meaning of the relationship I developed with Manar and her older sister Amira over the ensuing weeks, as if I’ve done something magnanimous by treating these children as children, rather than as anonymous “beggars,” as most of society does. It’s not profound. It’s just real life. And we are constantly making choices about how to interact with it. I don’t always make the most compassionate choice in dealing with the barrage of experiences I face in a day. But, this time, rather than turning away helplessly from these girls in their seemingly hopeless situation, I accepted the possibility for love to get through, in a situation that is ordinarily walled off by aversion and fear. In that moment, I was honoring my commitment as a Peace Ambassador.
Looking Manar in the face that day, rather than looking away, gave me a chance to practice holding the space and dignity of a Peace Ambassador. It doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the magnitude of abuses suffered by children in our world, and the fact that I can’t fix all of it sometimes makes me want to give up. As I said to James once on one of our calls in a moment of despair, sometimes my knowledge that it’s not all fixable leads me to want to shut down, pretend it’s not there; sit in a café away from it all and sip cappuccino. But, to quote James’ response to my plea to simply forget the suffering of the world and sit on the beach eating ice cream, “People like you don’t have a choice.” And people like James offer the space and the guidance to make that life in which we insist on bearing witness to the darkness infinitely more filled with light.
Soha Al-Jurf is a Palestinian-American writer who, until recently, was based in San Francisco and working at UCSF Medical Center as a speech-language pathologist, specializing in voice. Her book, Even My Voice Is Silence: A Palestinian-American Woman’s Journey “Back Home” was awarded the 2013 Arab-American Book Award’s Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction.
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This article appears in:
2014 Catalyst, Issue 6: Peace Ambassadors for the 21st Century