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Teens from Mideast to seek peace at retreat

Local unity project dissolves stereotypes

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Amal Gazal, left, and Noga Feurstein, both of Haifa, Israel, became friends at the two-week leadership program sponsored by Rotary Club chapters in the U.S. and Israel.

When most people see news reports about famine, disease or world conflicts, they think, "There's nothing I can do."

Not Ilan Migdali.

Migdali isn't a politician or a celebrity. He's an acupuncturist who lives in Newbury Park with his family. A native of Israel, he was concerned with the escalating violence in the Middle East.

"After witnessing the last intifada (that began in 2000), and the degeneration of the Arab-Jewish relationship, I felt the need to contribute in a positive way," he said.

In 2002, several months after joining the Newbury Park chapter of the Rotary Club, Migdali proposed an ambitious project for the service organization: the creation of a two-week leadership camp in Ventura County where Israeli Arab and Jewish teenagers could learn to become ambassadors of peace and cultural understanding.

Although Ron Block, the club president at the time, understood the challenges, he was taken with the idea.

"I felt that a grass-roots movement would be more effective than the political entreaties, which had been ineffective over the years," Block said. "But only optimists with a desire to see a more peaceful world for our grandchildren, who are also a little nuts, could take on this type of venture."

The Newbury Park Rotary Club forged a partnership with the Rotary Club of Haifa, Israel, and, with the support of Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Center in Haifa, local Rotary Clubs, religious organizations, businesses, and individual volunteers and donors, Project TRIUMPH was born.

Now in its third year of a 10-year commitment, Project TRIUMPH (Today's Revolution is Understanding; Make Peace Happen) will host a new class of 20 sophomores from Hebrew and Arab high schools in Haifa next month at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

For two weeks beginning May 4, the group will live on campus with one weekend spent in the homes of local families.

The young Muslim, Christian and Jewish delegates are selected for their leadership abilities and fluency in English. Since January, they have attended "get-acquainted" meetings in preparation for their time together in California.

In Israel, there is little interaction between Arabs and Jews, Migdali said.

"At our last graduation party, Dekel, a Jewish student, said he had lived in Haifa for 16 years but, prior to Project TRIUMPH, he had never spoken to an Arab," Migdali said. "He had just finished two weeks of living together with five Arab boys and next door to five Arab girls. In Israel, the schools are in general segregated and there is prejudice from both sides."

First — know thyself

The Simi Valley retreat's curriculum was designed and is facilitated by husband and wife Tom Voccola and Frances Fujii, co-founders of the Thousand Oaks company CEO2 Leadership Development and Training. It is based on their transformational leadership program offered to business clients.

There are three parts to the instruction: Know Thyself; Understand Humanity and Master Relationships; and Create a Game Worth Playing — "make something happen."

Instructors help the teens to get in touch with their values, innate gifts, purpose and passion in life and to let go of their limiting beliefs. 

"The first step to changing stereotypes is to become conscious that prejudice is societal and automatic," said Fujii. "Once one becomes aware, then the individual has a choice to be different."

The students also learn that respectful and clear communication is important, and, Fujii said, "If you speak to the beauty you know lies within the other person, even if it appears to be hidden, you begin gaining a level of mastery in relationships."

As part of the program, the students make a one-year commitment to become involved in service projects in Israel that foster intercultural awareness and promote the idea that peace is possible.

" The Game Worth Playing' that we are all engaged in through Project TRIUMPH is peace," Fujii explained.

The itinerary includes leadership and team-building exercises; nonviolent communication and conflict resolution workshops; cultural exchanges; creative writing; nature classes; and sightseeing.

The teens also visit local high schools, where they meet American students and attend an interfaith dialogue with Christian, Muslim and Jewish clerics. (This event is open to the public; e-mail info@projecttriumph.org for upcoming details.)

Paying it forward

The program has been life-changing. Alumni are active in projects that try to bridge the cultural divide. Some are counselors in Arab-Jewish summer camps, others are planning a mural dedicated to co-existence, while another group is taking steps to form service organizations modeled after Interact Clubs in American high schools.

Even world events haven't dampened their spirits.

"We were in touch with the first group of students as the war with Lebanon was going on," Migdali said. "They remained committed to the value of the project, regardless of tension and danger."

Fahoum Fahoum, an almost-17-year-old Arab Muslim student at the Reali Hebrew School in Haifa, took part in Project TRIUMPH last year. He currently is recovering from an injury, but he had played for the Israeli national tennis team and was ranked first at the 14- to 15-year-old level. He had been in the United States before to help raise funds for tennis co-existence projects in Israel.

He enthusiastically recalled how much he looked forward to each day when he was at the Simi Valley camp: "I would think, Today I will be learning something new — new ideas that never occurred to me before and a different perspective of the world.'"

Fahoum said he believes the skills he learned will help him have more of an influence in society and "will help me build a future that is optimal for all."

Broadening perspectives 

Seventeen-year old Ifat Gordon, a biology and Arabic major, also at the Reali Hebrew School, was here in 2006. She has since taken a leadership role communicating with the other delegates from her group about events and activities that promote diversity and acceptance and has provided them with information concerning a recent teachers strike in Israel.

To Gordon, Project TRIUMPH was an invaluable experience that shaped the way she views others.

"I learned to carefully listen to other political opinions, even if they are opposite of mine," she said.

She cited the workshop about prejudice as having the biggest effect: "It showed me that stereotypes are a way to deal with the fear you have of another group.

"When I met the Arab kids, my stereotypes were shattered and that was a big thing for me," she said. "The project opened my eyes to see people as not part of an ethnic group; we are all humans, and that's what is important."

Project TRIUMPH volunteers are encouraged by their efforts.

"I don't pretend to be able to see an umbrella of peace over this troubled region, but when a young Arab says to you, I never talked to a Jew before and now I have Jewish friends,' you know you're doing something right," Block said.

For the most part, there is optimism about the Middle East's future.

"I believe peace is possible, and that humanity's hope lies with this and future generations," said Fujii. "If we inspire these young leaders with the vision, the heart and the skill to make a positive difference to create peace in their families, relationships, communities, careers and nation, then Project TRIUMPH's dream has been fulfilled."