For those of you who don’t know me, I am one of the founding members of OTI, and also one of many in the OTI family who returned to the region after finishing school. Before I get into how I ended up here today, directing a non-governmental organization in the heart of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, I want to share a bit of my story with you.
I grew up in California and spent most of my life there. Like most other 1st generation Americans, my childhood was filled with anecdotes from my parent’s lives before they came to the US. And like far too many Middle Eastern Americans, I grew up hearing the stories of their exodus from the Middle East.
You see, my mother is a refugee. And her story is not one that is heard often. I won’t share it with you today for two reasons: first, because it will be too long, and second because it is painful for me to think about. The relevance though, is that it’s a powerful story, and it is a story that has driven much of my life.
I was born into this conflict. After they did what they did to my mother and her family, I didn’t have a choice. Every time I look into my mother’s eyes, I can see the scar, the pain, the humiliation, and the trauma. Even as a 64 year old woman, it’s all still there. So when I was a young teen, I made a pledge to myself: I would never let the forces that did this to my mother and her family, do the same to me. Next time, I would fight back.
That’s why when I arrived as a freshman at UC Irvine, and was confronted by student activists who seemingly felt animosity and hatred towards me, I realized it had arrived: it was time to fight. It was not just for me, and the pledge I made to myself, but for the honor of my mother and my people. And so I fought. I recruited hundreds resources for activism that would make headlines. And it did. But no matter how hard I fought, my mother was still in pain. And so was I.
2007 arrived. I heard about a group of students on campus that were coming together to plan a trip to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories. It intrigued me — and although I didn’t trust it entirely, the fact that we were engaging in intense discussion on how to keep things balanced was a positive sign. I thought to myself, maybe I could learn a thing or two from an experience like this. As an aside, I never really thought the project would succeed. To my surprise though, it did, and before I knew it, Summer 2008 arrived, and I was boarding a flight to Tel Aviv.
The truth is, I had visited friends and family in the region many times before, but the OTI trip marked the first time I visited the other side. Within hours of crossing that border, into an area that I had considered to be enemy territory my entire life, my life changed. I remember distinctly, it was the second night of the OTI trip. I met a young woman. Her name was Dina. We began talking, and she shared with me the story of her family. She shared with me the story of their exodus from their home. As she spoke to me, I couldn’t help but hear my mother’s voice. And for the first time in my life, I felt my enemy’s pain. As I’m sure you could imagine, what once seemed like a simple, black and white issue to me, became very complex. If my mother, a refugee, is a victim, which she is, and this woman Dina’s family were also refugees, and are victims, which they are, what does that mean?
That was the first of many complexities that I was forced to grapple with. To make a long story short, I realized that although I had my story, my cause, and my fight for justice, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything in this struggle, unless I understood the other people’s stories, their causes, and struggles for justice.
And so over the next few years, I traveled back to that ‘enemy territory’ as often as I could. I learned their stories, I made friends, came to understand their mentality, and little by little, I felt almost as comfortable there, as I did in my own home. They were no longer my enemies, they were my friends.
And perhaps it sounds naive. You know what — it is naive. Because there’s still a war — there’s still a conflict. And although I went through this crazy transformation, and came to these intense realizations, guns are still pointing in both directions, and we are still killing each other. But you see, OTI challenged me. It forced me to internalize the information and ideas that I normally pushed aside, because they didn’t conveniently fit into the way I thought about things. And this experience is not one unique only to OTI’ers who have ties to the region. We all have our way of seeing things. We all have our lens, our perspective, and our bias. Even those of us who see ourselves as neutral. But the nature of OTI is to challenge us, no matter what our beliefs.
We all know there are students on campus that fear OTI, good people. Many of my closest friends did. They didn’t want to get involved….Many feared it because OTI makes you feel insecure and weak in the beginning. But if you haven’t traveled with OTI to the region yet, you will soon see that no matter how insecure you feel at times, you emerge much stronger afterwards. Sound bites and stereotypes become a thing of the past, and our passions, ambitions, and voices become much more relevant and conducive to creating that beautiful and just future we want to see.
After all of this experience, my identity is still the same. I still have my community, my people, and my family. And I still love them. I am still proud of being who I am. At the same time, I learned to think analytically about things, and this is something that is critical to our future. If our generation truly believes in overcoming war, violence, poverty, and injustice once and for all, we must learn to be critical thinkers. We must learn to communicate with the people we disagree with, and most importantly, we must learn how to listen. Thanks to OTI, I’m on the path of realizing all that and more.
Today, I continue to grow. As each day passes I have far more questions than answers, but one thing is for sure….I believe deep down inside, that even the most intractable conflicts in our world can be resolved. In order to make any meaningful progress here in this region though, there is a need for education… not just education about one person’s story, or one side’s narrative. People must hear it all: they need to hear my mother’s story, and they also need to hear Dina’s story. And they need to think both critically and compassionately about everything.
Today I’m working with policy makers, opinion leaders, and other key stakeholders in the conflict to do just that. We bring them here to the region and show them everything, from every angle. If they only want to visit Israel, we convince them to visit the Palestinian-controlled territories as well. If they only want to visit Palestinian-controlled territories, we convince them to visit Israel as well. We take them to meet with bereaved families, public officials, NGOs, and others. Everyone from the government, to civil society, down to the grassroots. The idea, much like OTI, is to challenge them – to empower them to think critically and see the dimensions and issues in real time, from the field itself. Because we all know, the way we’ve been doing things has not been working. It’s time for new solutions. And this is a new solution…one that I believe can play a small role in helping us transition to a new Middle East, and ultimately a new world.
Without OTI, I would not have had the capacity to work with, and coalesce key players in such a polarized region, around a common issue. I would not have had the ability to communicate effectively with people who have opposing views to me. And I certainly would not have had both the humility and resilience that I am grateful to have today.
It was my community and my people who gave me my identity and my ambition. But it was OTI that gave me the ability to cross those borders, and actually do something constructive with all of it.