When we recently launched a Facebook campaign to bring our vision of Peace Heroes to a wider audience, I was completely taken aback by the extremely negative comments that came flooding in. Some people were skeptical (“I wish it were true!” or “I’ll believe it when I see it”) while others were downright hateful. The comments took my breath away, but they also made me realize how little hope people have for the world we live in.
I want to challenge this hopelessness by telling you a story about a boy and his peace hero. May it touch you the way it did me, and breathe new life into all our weary hearts.
“Have you ever met Ali Abu Awwad?” the woman asked.
Tareq smiled and shook his head. “No,” he answered, “but one day I hope to, since he is my all-time favorite peace hero.”
We were at the tail end of yet another wonderful presentation that some of our students had given to a group of visitors from abroad. Tareq, who had done these talks on several occasions in the past, always ended his presentation with the story of his favorite peace hero: Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist who chose to turn from violence to nonviolence and is now proactively working to inspire his community to do the same.
It wasn’t the first time someone asked Tareq this question, but this time the idea suddenly struck me: Why not arrange a meeting between Tareq and Ali Abu Awwad? After all, we had had some contact with Ali in the past – might he not consider crossing the checkpoint from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in order to meet this 8th grade Palestinian boy who is such an ardent fan of his? I couldn’t think of a better way to thank Tareq for his faithful commitment to Peace Heroes over the past few years.
I suggested the idea to my colleague Susan, and she immediately started making all the logistical arrangements involved in pulling off such a feat. A month later, we were ready to roll. Ali had very graciously agreed to come to Jerusalem to meet Tareq, and Tareq’s parents had given us their wholehearted approval.
The only one who knew nothing about our plan was Tareq, who thought he was coming to pick up a certificate when he showed up at our designated meeting place on Friday evening. So when Ali stepped out of the room next door, Tareq was understandably amazed.
“You’re Ali Abu Awwad!” he exclaimed in disbelief, trying very hard to maintain his composure. But it was evident that he was brimming over with excitement.
The energy in the room was palpable. Every single one of us had a great big smile on our face as Tareq began to internalize the fact that not only was he meeting his favorite peace hero – who was there just for him – but he was also going to have the opportunity to interview him – on film!
As Tareq and Ali settled into their seats and began to talk, I reflected on the significance of this event, and how all the hardships involved in peace work are worth it for a moment like this. I knew that this would likely be a watershed moment in Tareq’s life, one that might very well help shape him into another peace hero, just like Ali. What I hadn’t considered, however, was the effect this meeting would have on Ali himself. But a conversation we had had just before Tareq showed up was still reverberating through my mind, making me wonder about the mutual impact of this encounter.
A few minutes before Tareq arrived, I showed Ali two short video clips from Tareq’s last presentation. In one video, Tareq told the story of how Ali had turned from violence to nonviolence. In the other, he described why Ali’s story has had such an impact on him. Ali was visibly moved by these clips, and told us so. He explained to us how his vision – to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nonviolently – is a very big vision. Because of this, he sometimes worried about what would become of it if anything happened to him. But watching Tareq made Ali realize that there are others who can carry out this vision also. That there are children who, already now, are rising up to become leaders within their own community – leaders committed to nonviolence, just like he is. Ali told us how, for the first time, he felt that his dream is safe, because of children like Tareq.
Which is why it made perfect sense (though it still caught me off guard and brought tears to my eyes) when Tareq asked Ali, “Who is your favorite peace hero?” Ali answered (without batting an eyelid), “You are, Tareq.”
In that moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks that inspiration does, in fact, work both ways; that there is a powerful reciprocity between current day peace heroes and the students they inspire. Tareq received a great gift that evening, but so did Ali. Ali walked away from the encounter encouraged and re-filled with hope. It gave him the boost he needed to keep doing what he is doing in the direction of peace, no matter how hard and tiresome and hopeless the journey can sometimes seem. The impact was mutual – an outcome I had not anticipated.
Every single one of us received a gift that evening. Every single one of us walked away feeling that something truly beautiful had taken place.
So, to the people who saw our campaign on Facebook and doubted, I say this: There is hope. It is found in people like Ali and Tareq – people who dare to dream big, who daily choose to pursue their dream for a better world without the use of violence, who never give up, even when there is every reason to feel hopeless.
If only for a moment, I urge you to let go of the skepticism and be inspired. Real change is happening, and it is good.