I had been told that there is a group of fifth grade girls at the Palestinian school in Jerusalem that gathers most days during the lunch break to do peace-related things: they draw pictures, put on dramas, recite poems, write and perform songs, and have lively discussions about whether or not they themselves are peace heroes – like the ones they are studying. Apparently this little get-together has been going on for some time, and this week I was invited to join them during lunch to see what it is all about.
The girls were expecting me and had prepared for the occasion. One girl stood up and gave a little presentation about the peace hero they are currently studying (Rigoberta Menchu from Guatemala). Another girl read (or rapped) a peace poem written by one of the teachers. Still another girl, using little animal figurines as her cast, put on an entire production about a girl who is bullied by other girls at her school. When I had to leave before the play was over, she tugged at my sleeve and asked if she could secretly tell me the ending (so as not to spoil it for the other girls, who were mesmerized with her story). She whispered in my ear that at the end, the bullied girl forgives the mean girls, “because that’s the choice she can make!” I was struck by this, mostly because it articulated a theme I’d heard repeatedly expressed in their conversations that morning – that peace is a choice, one that each and every one of us is capable of making.
As I was leaving, I asked the girls, “If you could meet one of the peace heroes face to face, which one would it be?” Immediately I heard their excited answers ring out from all sides – “Gandhi!” “Malala!” “Me also Malala!” “Martin Luther King!” – as each one of them eagerly scrambled to her feet and came running to me, keen for me to hear and acknowledge her answer. I laughed out loud, buoyed by their enthusiasm, and told them that maybe one day they will be able to meet some of the peace heroes that are still alive. They all nodded their heads in hopeful consent, none of them suspecting that the very next day they would be given precisely this opportunity, when Dr. Abuelaish visited the school.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian from Gaza who lost three of his daughters and a niece during the Israel-Gaza war in 2009, when an Israeli tank shelled his home. When this terrible tragedy occurred, Dr. Abuelaish had already made a name for himself as one of the few Gazan doctors also working in Israel and as a man whose home was open to everyone, Israelis included. He chose to work in Israel because he wanted the people there to see the human face of the Palestinian people. Choosing this path enabled Dr. Abuelaish to cross the divide, not just geographically, but emotionally and mentally as well.
After his daughters were killed, Dr. Abuelaish wrote a book, which he titled I Shall Not Hate. The book is a stunning expression of Dr. Abuelaish’s deep conviction that healing is found in hope, not hate. Speaking to a group of educators last week, Dr. Abuelaish told the audience that after his loss, people were expecting him to drown in hatred. “The wound is deep,” he acknowledged, “but I will not let that dominate me. I will transform the wound . . . and let it energize me to move forward, to make a change for good. Hatred is self-destructive; it destroys the one who carries it. But the refusal to hate is the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of human experience.” Over and over again throughout the evening, Dr. Abuelaish came back to this point – that what we do with our grief, our hardship, is up to us. “Blaming others is easy,” he said. “Taking responsibility is the hard part.”
Sitting in the audience were a handful of students from the school, including several fourth graders who had learned about Dr. Abuelaish at the end of the previous school year. During the question and answer period, one of these boys stood up and explained to Dr. Abuelaish that he is one of the peace heroes they study. He then asked the doctor, “So, as a peace hero, I want to know – who is your favorite peace hero?” Dr. Abuelaish couldn’t help smiling as he told the young boy that he is good friends with Leymah Gbowee (from Liberia) and Malala Yousafzai (from Pakistan) and has great respect for them both, because they did not let their hardships defeat them. “They are strong women,” he said, because they made “brave choices.”
Later it occurred to me that the fifth grade student who put on a play for her friends was channeling this very strength when she enthusiastically told me that forgiveness “is a choice she can make!” This girl and her friends may be young, they may not have experienced the hardships of Malala, or Leymah, or Dr. Abuelsaish, but they are well on their way to becoming strong women, because they are learning not to underestimate the power of their choices – and subsequent actions. Through stories of and encounters with peace heroes, these girls are seeing what true bravery can look like. Brave is when we we give up the right to feel hate, even when that hate is justified. Brave is when we refuse to let our wounds defeat us but instead find a way to transform the pain into hope. Brave is when we take responsibility for our own actions – past, present, and future – without always seeking to put the blame on others. Brave is when we do what is not expected of us simply because we prefer to love. Brave choices do not have to be spectacular to have an impact. Even small acts of kindness can leave their mark. Simply “ask yourself what you can to do make a difference,” says Dr. Abuelaish, “even if it is just giving someone a smile.”