A Final Project for the YaLa Peace Institute: “What is your vision of the MENA region in the year 2025 (if peace were to be established today) building on what you have learned from the YaLa Peace Institute?”
by Dom O’Connor (United States)
For the past couple of months, I’ve been contemplating a few things…graduating from undergrad, heading off to law school, a few new tattoos, a fun summer, and where this whole “peace process” is heading. In that line of thought, I decided to head down to my local coffee shop, conveniently situated next to my favorite tattoo parlor.
Ordering my typical venti blah blah blah, I accidentally bumped into the guy next to me, causing him to drop his newspaper. The story on the first page was about re-building Gaza after last summer’s war. I picked up the paper, and handed it back to its owner. After a furtive glance at my wrist, the man thanked me with a quizzical look on his face. We both proceeded through the endless line to wait for our over-caffeinated drinks. Awkwardly trying to avoid bumping into anyone else, I couldn’t help to notice that he kept looking at me. I finally made eye contact with him when we both mistook another person’s order as our own. We headed back to our spots in line when he somewhat breathlessly asked:
“Are you Jewish?”
“Yeah,” I said. I realized the glance at my wrist was a glance at my Star of David tattoo I had placed there nearly eight years before.
“I’m from Hebron, you know where that is?” he said.
“It’s in Palestine” I replied.
“You call it Palestine?” he inquired.
“Yeah.” I said “So you’re Palestinian?”
He nodded his head.
“That’s cool,” I replied “I have a few Palestinian friends here. Have you been here for a while?”
It was at this point that his underlying thought process made it’s way to the surface.
“I’m sorry to ask this, why are you talking to me?” he asked.
“Do you want me to stop talking to you?” I replied.
He stopped for a moment, and I could see a few emotions run across his face: contemplation, mistrust, calculation, resolve, and finally relief.
“No, I don’t want you to stop talking to me. Will you continue to be friendly?” he asked.
“Sure.” I said. “What’s your name?”
For the rest of our (very long) wait in line, we got to know each other as best as two relative strangers could. We found out about each other’s families, what each other was studying, what languages we spoke, where we’d traveled. Finally, the barista called out his drink order. He went to the bar to retrieve it, and on his way out he waved goodbye. After a few more moments, I collected my own drink and headed out the door. He was waiting near a bench and smiled at me again, so I walked over.
“You know,” he said “We wouldn’t be doing this back home. I couldn’t talk to you. We’d hate each other.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“It’s the place,” he responded “It does that to you. You can’t get away from the hate. It’s everywhere. It’s why people want to leave. But they can’t. They can’t go anywhere, and that’s frustrating. It makes anger, and angry people everywhere.”
I sat down next to him because I didn’t know what to say. We sat there for I don’t know how long, sipping our over-caffeinated drinks. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it wasn’t unpleasant: we just sat. Finally, when there was only ice in the bottoms of our cups, he got up to leave.
“I’m glad you bumped me,” he said, a goofy grin spreading across his lips. “This is weird. No one will believe me, you know…that I made friends with you.”
I smiled back. “Will you tell them back home?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he grinned “but it doesn’t matter.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Because” he smiled, picking up his things to go, “Now that I know you, maybe there are other people like you, you know, willing to talk sometimes. And that’s good, that’s very good.”
When I think about the MENA region in 2025, I think about that Starbucks experience. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for him. Realizing that the “other” just bumped into you. There were so many things he could have done. He could have ignored me, yelled at me, made up an entire back-story about the type of person I was.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he took the courageous step…to talk.
With programs like the YaLa Academy, there will be opportunities for these “Starbucks talks,” but there are three things we must do to ensure that these opportunities continue.
The first step is courage. The young people in the MENA region have to be courageous enough to step outside of their comfort zone to engage and explore with people who may differ in religious experience, thought, ethnicity or nationality, and background. They must be vulnerable to truly expose what they believe, what they fear, and what they desire. Understanding cannot come from half-truths or ulterior motives, it can only come from truly knowing how a person feels, thinks, hopes, and believes.
The second step is patience. The young people in the MENA region have to understand that true progress does not occur overnight. This can be extremely frustrating when oppression has been endured for decades, when hostilities continue to grow and escalate, and when the rest of the world seems not to care. Yet, lasting change, rooted in concrete means—laws, constitutions, international codes—must be crafted. It must take into account the goals, hopes, and fears of those involved. This takes patience: the patience to listen to another quite unlike yourself, the patience to contemplate, and the patience to process.
The last step for the young people in the MENA region is acceptance. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept things as they are. You never have to accept injustice, you never have to accept oppression, and you never have to accept fear. What you must accept are people. Accept that each individual is a person with a unique experience, and though that experience may be different than your own, it is still true for that person. Words and actions that invalidate another’s experience is in effect telling that person that their experiences don’t matter, that you don’t accept them as a person. If someone must fight to be considered a person, it threatens his or her very sense of humanity. It escalates problems to an entirely different level; namely a fight for the right to exist.
If one accepts that a person—standing in front of you in a Starbucks line, on the other side of a chat room screen, wearing an olive-colored uniform, or waiting in a border check line—has a unique experience—comprised of a unique outlook, unique, hopes, fears, desires, and beliefs—the situation de-escalates dramatically. Instead of seeing that person as an obstacle to their existence, they see a person who has already accepted that they have a unique experience, worthy of being heard, considered, and processed. Acceptance removes one of the biggest hurdles, and it only takes a moment; a pause at a coffee shop in Omaha, Nebraska, maybe a second at a shopping mall in Tel Aviv, perhaps a moment in a chat room in Ramallah.
So that’s my vision for peace in 2025. It’s not an overnight process, it’s not without some discomfort, but it’s possible, and it’s possible everywhere. It all comes down to the instances when life puts the stranger in your path. All it takes is a moment, and maybe a trip to Starbucks.
To learn more about the YaLa Peace Institute in Honor of Nelson Mandela, click here.
To view more final projects, click here.