Introducing the Parents Circle Family Forum
Nir Oren, Israeli Co-General Manager
In the early eighties, after finishing my compulsory service in the Israeli army, I traveled the world. I went to the United States and together with a friend, traveled the back roads from coast to coast. One day we traveled north and were about to cross the border with Canada. Occasionally we saw signs announcing the distance to the border and eventually we stopped at a small cabin. A sleepy policeman checked our passports and asked us to proceed. We asked him, "how far are we from the border?" and he replied that here is the border. We did not give up, "Where is the border itself, the frontier?" He looked at us and answered impatiently, "Here! United States is here and Canada is there".
We both got out and looked around, all we could see is fields and open spaces. We were actually amazed, "Where are the fences? Where are the minefields?"
I share this with you to describe a tiny bit of the experience of growing up in Israel, surrounded by enemies, in continuous conflict, when fear and hatred are the main if not only emotions towards your neighbors. If so, the border without fencing is inconceivable and incomprehensible.
The life and experiences of my friend and colleague from the "other side" of the conflict, Mr. Mazen Faraj was far away from being 'normal'. Being born and living in Daheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem to a family of refugees, made his life under the occupation intolerable.
He as well, most of his life knew the other side as cruel enemies and as the one to blame for his personal and national situation. Naturally he fought for his freedom and dignity.
My encounter with the other side happened after many years. 9 years ago, in the summer of 2003, the Parents Circle - Families Forum organized a summer camp for bereaved Israelis and Palestinians kids. It was heroic and unique. The time was of violence and casualties, in the midst of the second intifada and the Forum wished to say otherwise, that children should grow up in peace and quiet, without fear or hostility. My middle son attended the camp. Our "Entry ticket" to the Forum was my mother's death. Her name was Zehava = Goldilocks and all her friends called her Golda. She got on a bus near her home on the twenty-four of July 1995, nearly 18 years ago. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself on the bus and killed her and five other Israeli citizens. Mazen's Father was 62 years old when he was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in 2002. He was on his way back to his home carrying groceries for his family.
Years of pain and despair have not contributed to my desire to recognize and accept the other side. Just after my son returned from summer camp I first met my Palestinian neighbors. And the meeting was different from my expectations. I told my story and the same people that five minutes earlier I considered enemies, were attentive to my feeling and my pain, dropping a tear. I could listen to their stories of pain and suffering. The sense was of belonging not of strangeness, and not animosity.
My encounter story is a common story in our Forum. Mazen held similar ideas until he first met Israelis that are not soldiers entering his house or camp. Many members of the PCFF share that their first significant point of their life is of course the loss of their family member and the second is the first encounter with the other side. Me and Mazen Faraj are now together, but most of the Palestinian and the Israeli people had never met the other side. They live within a half hour or an hour away but never met. The only encounter is through media, through the extremists who find their way to the red headlines in the newspaper and the juicy television stories.
The encounter with the other side gave me back something I have lost for many years - hope and belief. As an individual, it is a two-way sword: being despaired and hopeless has the benefit of no expectations and no disappointments. On the other hand, hope is the best "fuel" to go and make a change in our hectic and unsettled region.
As co-leaders of our organization, it is something we must have to encourage others, to overcome violent times and to go on this sisyphean path, to end the conflict and stabilize a reconciliation process.
And obviously it is far from being an easy chore. To my knowledge, we are the only organization of bereaved families from both sides of conflict. We are struggling to create a framework for reconciliation, while the conflict "alive and kicking". In other places like Ireland and South Africa, such process occurred only following a peace agreement or cease fire.
You can imagine how hard it is to get into a dialog meeting with high school students just after the Gaza war or any other uni- or bi-lateral act of violence. When the Palestinian and Israeli representatives enter the classroom (and we are doing it hundreds time a year) they have to face not only hatred, fear and demonization, but also harsh day to day reality.
By sharing our stories, learning and acknowledging each other's narratives, changing opinions on the social networks and more, we are trying to change the peoples mind and confront them with the need and the possibility of reconciliation. We are presenting the idea that if we, who lost our loved ones, can do it then everyone can.
Nir Oren and Mazen Faraj are the Co-General Managers of the Parents Circle - Families Forum, Israeli & Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace and Reconciliation. Nir and Mazen were invited to present PCFF's work at the 2013 CIF Conference in Turkey.