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Katharine Gratwick Baker & Peter Titleman: Forging Palestinian friendships - On the work of Mohammed Sawalha

Mohammed Sawalha and a friend.

Mohammed Sawalha and a friend. Purchase photo reprints »

The new U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, has taken up the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of his first orders of business in 2013, although high level governmental attempts at peacemaking in the region haven’t been successful.

A friend of ours, Mohammed Sawalha, offers an example of a different kind of peacemaking effort on a more personal, individual and community level. Born in 1953 in a village just north of Nablus in the West Bank of Palestine, Sawalha has been a longtime professor of linguistics at An Najah University in Nablus. But like most Palestinians he also has had a lifelong concern for the future of Palestine, its survival as a country and as a culture. He knows there are no short-term solutions to the huge power imbalance in Palestine’s 65-year political, social, economic and military struggle with Israel. So he has put his energy into developing non-political programs for Palestinian children, the keepers of Palestine’s future.

In 1994 Sawalha founded the Palestinian House of Friendship, a nonprofit, non-governmental, non-partisan organization devoted to developing “positive relationships between Palestinians, Israelis and peoples of other nations.”

Its major goals are to “invest in the Palestinian individual and to encourage in him or her the ethics of democracy, human rights and a love for the Other.”

The House of Friendship works primarily with children, youth and their parents. Its programs include civic education workshops and conferences on human rights, as well as activities such as sports, crafts, costume exhibits, traditional Palestinian dancing, scouting, peace-oriented programs and language classes in Hebrew, English and French. Most successful are its summer camps, Smiling Faces, that offer fun to more than 400 boys and girls (many from refugee camps) during July and August.

The part of Palestinian society most affected by the standoff with Israel has been children. They are profoundly impacted on psychological, social, economic and educational levels.

They are under stress from continuous military incursions and curfews and many suffer not only from PTSD, but more typically from Continuous Traumatic Stress Disorder, a diagnosis developed in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s which describes the effects of exposure to frequent, unending high levels of violence usually associated with civil conflict and political repression.

Until the second intifada in 2002, the House of Friendship covered most of its operating expenses from tuition charged for courses in English and Hebrew. However, the current siege of Nablus has caused widespread economic distress that makes paying for language classes almost impossible.

Nine years ago we met Sawalha at the Traprock Peace Center in Deerfield. He was on a trip sponsored by Brandeis University, and we were impressed by his eloquence. He was clear in his devotion to human rights for Palestine, but also in his firm commitment not to be a member of any political party (neither Fatah nor Hamas). He articulated a vision for future generations that inspired us. We became friends and subsequently have twice visited him, his family and the House of Friendship in Nablus, observing his extraordinary community leadership on the spot.

Since then we have tried to help support Sawalha’s personal approach to societal problem-solving. For the past eight years we have organized fundraisers for the group in Northampton, Cambridge, New York and Washington, D.C. Many of our friends in the area have generously joined this effort. On Friday, the Edwards Church is donating space for the Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble (led by Michel Moushabeck) to give a concert in support of the Palestinian House of Friendship, with all proceeds going to the group. Tickets are $15 and will be available at the door.

Dean Cycon, of Dean’s Beans, is the concert’s sponsor and will run a coffee raffle during intermission.

Mohammed Sawalha will attend and speak to the audience.

We hope renewed U.S. governmental efforts in the Middle East will succeed. But meanwhile, with the leadership of people like Mohammed Sawalha, all of us have an opportunity to engage in personal efforts to bring about peace in that troubled region.

Katharine Gratwick Baker and Peter Titelman are residents of Northampton and founding members of the American Friends of the Palestinian House of Friendship.

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