Peace Child Israel, founded in 1988, teaches tolerance and mutual respect to youth through the means of theater and the arts. PCI brings Arab and Jewish youth from inside Israel to work together for eight months, meeting weekly to create a play about coexistence to perform in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

In Jaffa I met with Melice Lewine-Boskovich, the Managing Director of Peace Child since ’93. Through her own transformation from viewing the conflict through one lens to working in the field of peace building, Melice considers herself “walking living proof for the possibility of change” and that with “the right stimuli and circumstances, [change] is possible.”

Peace Child uses “theater as a tool for understanding, awareness raising, and also for changing attitudes among those in the audience who see the plays.”

During the weekly sessions leading up to the performance, the teens start with building a relationship and learning about one another.

Peace Child provides the opportunity for youth, who participate in the program voluntarily, to meet the other who they otherwise would never sit in a room with. “The educational and the living, everything is segregated…They learn about the basic things of each other’s cultures,” says Melice about life in Israel and the PCI program. Through activities of role-play, reverse-role play, sharing personal stories, improvisation, and codependent activities, PCI not only exposes the teens to one another, but teaches them that they’re more alike than they ever thought.

The teens also use their personal lives to create the dramas that are acted out on the stage: “The ones who come to this program are heroes,” Melice says after describing the pressure the kids have from their peers to not participate in such a mixed program. “About five years ago there was a group from Tel Aviv and Jaffa and one girl explained how her friends were giving her so much grief, [that] she’s either naïve or stupid, or sometimes people think they’re traitors. That discussion that they had in the group ended up on the stage.”

PCI also brings the parents together for dialogue. Melice comments on the success of these groups when explaining how one parent group who began eight years ago still meets today. PCI also has offered a teacher training on coexistence.

Due to the nature of the program, emotions surface and deep pain emerges. Melice describes how necessary it is for facilitators to notice and address these emotions. Through five staff trainings each year, facilitators better prepare for the complexities of the process. “[We] spend a lot of time on how the facilitators can understand and recognize and therefore facilitate the distress that’s going on in the group in conflict.”

Our discussion moved into the realm of the negative effects digital communication, specifically Facebook, can have on the peace building initiatives of programs like Peace Child. Melice explained how having a safe space was a criterion for peace building, yet “there’s no such thing as a safe space, there’s no such thing as a circle [on Facebook],” says Melice. “The entire industry needs to take a new look at peace building now that there’s no circle.”

Despite the challenges, PCI has made small steps in communities where Arab-Jewish segregation dominates. “We just instituted new sessions of these memorial days that come up in April and May: the Holocaust Memorial Day, Soldier Memorial Day, the Nakba, Land Day. We asked them to write monologues saying what they think the other person would be doing. The kids in Jaffa told the Jewish kids that they don’t pay any attention to the sirens on Holocaust Memorial Day and that blew their minds. After these sessions they wrote about each other…the Jewish kids had to write what they thought the Arab kids were doing on the Nakba. Two weeks later they each were saying that this year they were thinking about the other group and it was different for them this year for all of these holidays as a result for what they learned.”

I asked Melice what she expects when the kids leave the program. “I hope, when it comes time to needing to be compassionate or at least to have some understanding of the other side’s needs, that they will have gained that capacity. The problem is that here sometimes it goes to the level of existential. Here, at the moment, there’s a sense that one side can literally be put up against the wall to disappear…It is very complicated,” Melice describes, “then you have these kids who are willing to be in a show together…it’s quite surreal.”

Like many peace building NGOs in Israel, the region, and across the world, funding often falls short. Peace Child went from having ten separate groups, to four groups last year, to one this year. This past month, Peace Child had their final curtain call after a performance of West Side Story in Berlin. Unfortunately, with the depletion of funds, the essential work of Peace Child Israel now exists in the youth who lived it.

For now Melice hopes that more and more people spread the word of the work of PCI and the teens she considers heroes.“Sharing this story, not just here, is the direction to be going in the moment.”

For more information on the youth and work of Peace Child, visit: http://www.mideastweb.org/peacechild/  and watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCtK8D5v8NU

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