The first children born and raised together in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam are now reaching their mid-20s. These young people studied together in the first ever Jewish-Arab, multi-cultural, bilingual, binational Primary School in the "Oasis of Peace." The impact this program has had on their lives is changing the world. Meet some of the young women who grew up in the village. Click on the photos of each of these women to read more about them.
Nursery School Teacher Takes a “Small Step” to Help the World
“I think the children who grow up in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, they have the perfect childhood. It’s like in the movies. You have all these green trees and you play everywhere and it’s safe. Dogs and cats and butterflies,” gushed an enthusiastic Natalie Boulos.
“One year, I went to a Jewish school and I had a very difficult time,” continued the 18-year-old Christian Palestinian, about her first year of public school following Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s bilingual, bicultural primary school.
“I didn’t have friends at all and it was because I am Arab. This was a real shock to me. I came from a place where it is OK to be Arab, and I can speak Arabic as much as I want. Then I went to the Jewish school and they all looked at me like I was something else, something different, something weird,” she said, her lilting voice falling. “So I left it.”
“[I was] 11 or 12. I was used to a place where people respect me for whatever I am and whatever language I speak and I don’t have to hide it. The thing about Neve Shalom [is] we live in a whole world not connected to the other world. I can speak Arabic whenever I want as much as I want as loud as I want. After the Intifada began, when I went to Tel Aviv or went to see a movie or whatever, it was like we had to speak Arabic quietly or not at all, because they [non-Arabs] looked at us weirdly or like they can harm us.”
She transferred to an all-Arab segregated school. “At first, it felt weird to be with all these Arab children. Why are there only Arabs? OK, I’m Arab, but why are there only Arabs? Where are the Jewish students? Where’s the Jewish teacher? Then you get used to it,” Natalie continued. “Also, the Jewish kids went to a Jewish school with no Arabs. So suddenly they didn’t have any Arab classmates. I lived in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, [so] I still had my Jewish friends, in the pool, in the playground, in the neighborhood.”
Today, Natalie works at the nursery school where she grew up, speaking Arabic to Jewish and Palestinian pre-schoolers alike.
“We have to help and cheer schools like Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam because when the kids go home and know both languages and they can see an Arab child that is not throwing stones and doing something like they show on TV, it helps a lot. I tell [people] that they should support us if they are interested in having the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews get solved. I think it’s an amazing idea. It is working, so why not support it?”
About 90% of the children attending pre-school, kindergarten and the primary school live outside the Village.
“These kids are learning a new point of view of life. They are learning that the Arabs are not like they see on TV. Arab kids get a chance to meet Jewish kids that are not like the people who go into the Army. Most of [the teenagers who live in the Village] do not go into the Army. They get to see each other from another point of view. I think it’s very important because everything we see on TV and hear on the radio and [read] in the newspaper is very exaggerated. When [the nearby children] come to this school and study together and have breakfast and lunch and dinner together and have parties and trips and it’s all together and it’s in both languages, I think the kids themselves know they are special.”
“Small steps like Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam are helping the entire world, the entire country. The smallest thing helps us a lot and shows us that [we] are respect[ed for] what we are doing.”
NSWAS Graduate Creates Summer Camp for Palestinian Refugee Children
“I think it’s an achievement,” said an adamant Ranin Boulos, 22, of Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s accommodation of schoolchildren from outside the Village. “When I started going to the school, it was a very small school [of] only the children from the Village. [There were] only 10 kids. We used to sit in the same class studying different books. Slowly, the school grew up. When you see people from outside the Village sending their kids to a school that is not in their area, it means the message of the school is really working. People want their kids to get the kind of education our school provides.
“The kids who get this kind of education tend to be really strong people who can make a change. I do believe that change comes from individuals. So encouraging this kind of change and making it happen, is basically helping a generation make a change!”
Ranin went to an all-Arab Greek Orthodox high school after the integrated education she had at the Village.
“It was difficult at the beginning,” explained Ranin. “The kind of education we got at the Village was about freedom, freedom of choice. The other school was all about rules and restrictions. To be honest, the way we grew up in the school, we have a very strong political awareness and are involved and active. I think the majority of people outside the Village don’t really have this kind of awareness, and it was difficult for me to sit in class when people didn’t really care and weren’t active.”
Ranin just graduated from the University of London, where she was a scholarship recipient of the Olive Tree Trust, a program that awards scholarships to Palestinian and Jewish students to live and study together for three years. She expressed her frustration with visiting American students’ lack of political awareness:
“We used to talk about politics. A teacher asked me to present our conflict [about] the Middle East and how hard it is to live in Israel being a Palestinian with everything going on. All the Americans in the class didn’t know anything I was talking about. Nothing. They didn’t know what Palestine is – one of the girls thought I was talking about Pakistan! I said to her, ‘With all due respect, you come from the United States. Your country is the country that is most involved in this conflict, how come you don’t know anything about it?’”
To complete her program, Ranin has established a summer camp at Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam for Palestinian children living in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories. This year, she arranged permits for 45 children from Kolcharem (sp??). Although the refugee camp is only a half-hour from Jerusalem, it took the children seven hours to maneuver the checkpoints. She said they arrived at Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam exhausted.
“They went through a lot of checkpoints – and searching – and they are kids!” she said angrily.
“We Have to Open Our Minds!”
“The people who live here like their children to be very open-minded,” stated a forceful Adi Frish, 24, who still lives in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam. “You grow up without prejudice. This is the best start for life.”
After attending the Village’s Primary School and a local Jewish high school, Adi works in Jerusalem for the national Ministry of Education, the government body that recently stated Jews and Arabs should not be taught together. The Ministry terminated funding to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam’s school, and now the Village is scrambling to raise money for a school bus to continue its remarkable bicultural, bilingual education.
“I think it’s a pity,” Adi said of her government’s lack of support for school integration. “I think that every person should have his own choice. [Integrated] education is most important when you are little, [when] you are [forming] your character, your values, your opinion about the world.
“I can’t agree that [students] should be separated, but I think it should be a choice, and I think there should be more schools with Arabs and Jews learning together. And there will be the other choice for people who don’t think like us. Everyone has to [have] his own choice. Everyone should have his own opinions. You can’t force someone to think what you think is right.”
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced that new text books will finally portray the Palestinian history, but only in books for Arab students. “I think it should be equal,” protested Adi. “Both sides have these books that show just one side of the coin. Every side can see just his side, but if you want to be fair and if you want to really learn about the other side, you can’t close your eyes, you should write two histories in the same book, side-by-side. This is how children get the true picture of the history of Israel.
“There is no reason that one people that should be occupied or one people should be stronger. We are all equal. We have to open our minds.
“Further than that, we have to help each other get independence, to be strong economically, to bring medical [assistance] and hospitals to the Occupied Territories…everything that a state should have for its people.”
Does this young woman working in a segregated educational system have hope for the future? “There is a lot of hope!” Adi said emphatically. “More than much! If there is a word that describes ‘more than much,’ that is what I think!"
Jewish Conscientious Objector Translates for Palestinian Prisoners
“I think that every person in Israel experiences the conflict in his own way,” says Naomi Mark, a poised, articulate 21-year-old who grew up in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam. “I think what Neve Shalom does is make it natural for people to live together.”
Naomi’s Jewish parents are founding members of the Village. “I don’t like to feel like I grew up differently than my friends who grew up in Tel Aviv,” continues the bright young woman. “I just had a different experience. Only now, when I look backwards, it feels different. But, while growing up, I felt like any other kid. I think that’s the significance of the Village. Just making it work from the roots and making it really natural and true and real.”
Naomi feels strongly that children surrounding the Village should have access to the bilingual, bicultural elementary school: “The primary school is our most powerful tool to present our beliefs and to allow this experience for other children in the area. For me, it’s amazing to see [children from the surrounding communities who have studied at the Village express] this point of view that is rare to see in Israeli society.”
Like other children in the primary school, Naomi studied in both Hebrew and Arabic. “That’s what makes it so special. [From the time] you are a baby, you hear Arabic, and not from someone who is building your house or [serving] you at a restaurant, [but from] your neighbors and your colleagues.”
Naomi is a conscientious objector, refusing to serve the mandatory service in the Israeli military. Instead, she performs national service with Physicians for Human Rights, helping Palestinian prisoners and detainees get medical treatment and inform their families of their arrests. “A lot of prisoners are shot during their arrest and their families don’t know anything about them,” she explained.
She also travels regularly to the West Bank with PHR’s mobile medical clinic, translating between the Jewish doctors and the Palestinian patients in rural villages.
“I like to have fun with [my Arabic],” Naomi laughed, “because it surprises every Arab. It sounds like a big shock!”
Jewish Teacher Wants to Help Arab Students
“I’m sure there are people in Israel who have never spoken to an Arab,” said 19-year-old Neriya Mark. “Just having this experience [of being educated in the Village] is very important.”
Although tentative about her English and Arabic, Neriya is a confident young Jewish woman intent on making a difference for her Arab students. In lieu of serving in the Israeli Army, she is volunteering in a private Jewish school in Jaffa whose student body is about one-fifth Arab.
“It’s really terrible to see how the Arab kids and the Jewish kids try to fit themselves into a Jewish school,” said Neriya. “I know it could be equal because I studied in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam. [In Jaffa, classes are] all taught in Hebrew. The Arab kids could be 12 and not know how to write their own names in Arabic. They think it will help them fit better if they try to be Jewish or something and it’s terrible really.”
“I had to reject the Army,” Neriya describes her conscientious objection decision. “I had to write a letter and they wouldn’t let me get out of the Army because of political reasons. They just wrote that I don’t fit or something because it’s not good for their statistics to have so many people who resist.”
Young Woman Hopes to Raise Third Generation at NSWAS
“In one month I am going to marry!” said a proud and excited 24-year-old Laila Najjar. “I am getting married here in the garden [at Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam].
Laila met her future husband at a university in Jerusalem. Although his new job will take the young couple to northern Israel, far from the extraordinary village where Laila was born, she hopes someday to raise her children in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, “the way I was raised!”
“One [person], I don’t think can change [Israel], but [over] generations, I think we can find another way of thinking and another way of behaving with each other.”
“[Growing up in the Village made me feel] special,” said Laila. “My parents came from the north to live in the Village. My relatives [still live] in the north; it is different for them. They are always asking me how it is to live with Jews. They don’t have any Jewish friends, so they have questions about how we act with each other, how we talk. From the age of five or six, I realized I was living in a different place.”
“Growing up [in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam], I feel like there is so much to do and I feel that my voice has to be heard. People have to see that there is an alternative,” said Noam Shuster, an earnest, intense woman who hopes to run for political office someday. “We need more of a feminine voice in politics.”
“But the thing is,” continued Noam, “in Israel all the people who get to high positions in politics are people who got to high positions in the Army. This is one thing we need to change. We need people who [studied] philosophy, more human things, less generals and less ex-Army.”
“Israel is a Jewish country, and I think that [making] rules for only Jewish people and increasing the racism is not helping anyone. As a Jew, I would be more proud if [Israel] had more justice, were more liberal and was a country for all its citizens. I think a lot of people want that. I think most people want peace.”
Noam is a conscientious objector, refusing the mandatory military service required of all Jewish 18-year-olds. Was she worried her lack of military duty would mar her future?
“People tried to scare me, this is part of the whole system,” the passionate 20-year-old said. “People said if you don’t do the Army, then this and this and this. My opinions are so strong and I know exactly what I want and I know what I am doing is right. I am very complete with my decision. People who are trying to put me down will [try to scare me], but they’re only giving me strength and confidence.”
Instead, Noam will be studying acting this year at the New York Film Academy – auspicious training for a budding politician!
When Noam attended an all-Jewish high school, her classmates were shocked when she automatically dated her assignments in both Hebrew and Arabic – a habit she learned from Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s bilingual primary school.
“I would get questions like ‘What! You’re living with Arabs? Aren’t you afraid they’ll throw stones at you?’ And I was like ‘WHAT! You’re talking about my best friends!’ Then I realized that [my classmates] didn’t meet people from other side. At the beginning, I thought they were just stupid – like why would [Arabs] throw stones at me? We go to the pool together! [After] growing up, I understand how much the media has to blame for it. [They] only show the other side as extremists who throw stones.
“I learned how important my role as an ambassador of this place is. I take the education that I was given here and expose it to as many people I can.”
Noam will be calling American Friends of Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam from her dorm room in New York to thank them for their support and to encourage them to support the Village’s campaign to buy a school bus so local children can commute to the Village’s bicultural primary school.
“This is so important, how we are expanding,” she said, brightening at the prospect of talking with American supporters. “In our school, no matter who you are, no matter your identity, you will be recognized. I feel more secure because I wasn’t afraid to be open to other cultures. We don’t forget who we are, but we recognize there is more of the world.”