Becoming a World-Class Negotiator

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Online meeting with students from Gaza

Upper School history teacher Peter Shulman and IT director Richard Kassissieh first gave us a quick overview of the history of Israel and Palestine, focusing on land ownership and the conflict over thousands of years. We took in a lot of information that day, and we gained a lot of understanding for both sides of the conflict. Our teachers also had us go around the room and explain who we are here and now, what we stand for, and where we come from. As people spoke around the room, every person had something special and unique about their origin and what brought them to where they are. Despite our different backgrounds, we all wanted to learn more about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The next day we met at 7 a.m. to speak with a group of students from Gaza through Skype, an online audio and visual connection. Remembering the experience continues to remind me how I want to change policy and injustice in the world as I continue to grow up. We were told that the group that we’d be speaking with was made up of Palestinian students my age living in the Gaza Strip, where attacks on both sides of the conflict continue to cripple the two fighting powers and prevent them from reaching an agreement.

As I walked into the room that morning, our mentor Richard, who is of Palestinian descent, explained the guidelines to my peers and me. “Withhold any questions you might have in regard to internal fighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. As you know, Gaza is very small and very isolated. Words fly fast to the ears of harm-doers and direct, honest answers about these questions might have serious consequences for these students,” Richard told us.

The question that one of the Palestinian girls asked that will remain in my memory was, “Does the conflict here in Gaza, where we live, affect the daily lives for you guys?”

At that moment I felt embarrassed because it didn’t really enter into my mind daily. I attend school with the freedom to learn what the teachers have the autonomy to choose to teach us, and as citizens of the United States we have the freedom to travel. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, and sat in front of the screen. I played with my hands, rearranging my scarf, and began to bite my lip, nervous and full of anxiety, thinking that the girl on the screen must hate us, the Americans, who get to be free.

I was wrong. She looked at me as a peer, a teenager, just like her. I found the words tumbling from my mouth easily as I addressed her.

“I go to school, and I never have to worry for my safety. My family and I don’t live in fear. The conflict doesn’t really cross our minds at all; in fact, many of us, in this room, never knew how profound and wrong the world still is in your part of the world. I know about it now, though, from taking this seminar, and I will do what I can to make your voice heard,” I said, wanting to speak more, but I didn’t.

Next, another one of my peers spoke from his heart, “I am sorry. I’m sorry that you can’t go to the movies and play with your friends in safety. I just want to say that our leaders’ actions do not reflect how the people in this classroom feel, because I know I’ll follow this conflict and have your life conditions in my mind from now on.”

The girl on the screen, a citizen of the world just like us, replied, “What you just said is enough. The fact that you understand what we are going through every day here in Gaza makes me have a smile on my face.” As she made this statement, the dimple in her cheek was visible. As she sat, wearing a headscarf that covered her hair, her body language shifted, her arms opened, and she sat forward in her chair; she was happy.

I noticed that the teacher coordinator beside her began to cry. She told us, “You see, the Palestinian youth never travel or meet anyone who isn’t Palestinian. I was lucky. I was able to travel, and I have friends who are Israeli and from other places around the world. These students do not even have that; they are isolated from the world.” I have an opportunity to make her problems and concerns heard.

I have the opportunity to learn and get an education that fits my characteristics and interests. Now I can look at the conflict from both sides, understanding that the conflict is not based on religion, but on land and power. Dialogue with these students made this conflict more real in my mind than I had ever previously imagined.

I know that my role in the lives of others will continue to strengthen and grow through my education. I hope to help the students who are not being given the chance, like my peers in Gaza.

—Aurielle Thomas ’08