Host family and teens

From left: Charlotte Akin, Abdullah, Eliran and Ralph Akin speak with The Reflector July 29 about the Creating Friendships for Peace program.

The scars of decades of conflict near the Mediterranean Sea have local families opening their homes to teens from Cyprus, Israel and Palestine in order to foster peace among the countries’ next generation.

Last month, 40 teens from Cyprus and 20 from Israel and Palestine came to the U.S. to take part in the Creating Friendships for Peace (CFP) program, an effort designed to bring youth from those countries to take part in camps and homestays. For the homestays, each teen is placed in a residence along with another from the opposing side of the region’s conflict — for Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking Cypriot stays with a Greek-speaking Cypriot, and for Israel and Palestine, an Israeli is placed with a Palestinian.

This year marked the second time that youth from Israel and Palestine were involved with CFP as part of a partnership between the organization and a Jerusalem-based project of a similar nature, the Jerusalem Peacebuilders (JPB). Battle Ground has been a center for CFP’s efforts, as the program’s national director Tammy Haas said about 10 families from the city have taken part in hosting since its inception in 2012.

Though separate entities, Haas said CFP has many families coming from local Rotary clubs. Herself a member of Lewis River Rotary, Haas said the goals of CFP and Rotary overlap as one of Rotary’s seven areas of focus is peace and conflict resolution. Haas said Rotary District 5100, which covers northern Oregon and Southwest Washington, was particularly invested in peacebuilding efforts, supporting organizations such as CFP with host families and funding.

Following a presentation at the club in 2012, Haas and her husband, Vern, decided to become CFP hosts. The following year, the couple went to Cyprus to visit families from both sides to see the situation firsthand. Prior to assuming the national director role, Haas was an area co-coordinator with her husband for three years.

Previously known as the Cyprus Friendship Program, Haas said CFP changed its name to Creating Friendships for Peace after incorporating teens from Israel and Palestine last year. The current program was modeled after the Children’s Friendship Project for Northern Ireland, which formed in 1987 but ceased in 2007 only because the climate between the opposing communities of Catholics and Protestants in the region had improved enough.

Haas noted that many in the U.S. are less aware from the conflict in Cyprus than they are of the one in Israel and Palestine or the past one in Northern Ireland. Starting in 1974 with military movements engineered by Greek, then Turkish forces, the island nation has been divided by Turkish- and Greek-speaking polities, resulting in a de facto split between the two groups.

Though once the sole focus of CFP, teens from Cyprus have been joined by those from Israel/Palestine starting in 2018. During this year’s homestays, The Reflector sat down with one host family, Ralph and Charlotte Akin, also members of Lewis River Rotary. In July, they hosted Eliran, 16, from central Israel, and Abdullah, 17, from Gaza.

The Akins got involved with CFP through connections with their Rotary club and its designation as a Peacebuilder club. Following their stay in Clark County, Abdullah and Eliran headed to Houston for JPB’s camp for another two weeks, which included physical activity, speakers and a faith-based component to foster leadership among attendees.

The teens who take part in CFP generally have experience both in diplomatic processes as well as in the U.S. Eliran said he got involved with the program through participating in Model United Nations (MUN), connecting with the JPB director, Fr. Nicholas Porter, after taking first-place at one of MUN’s conferences. Abdullah said he had also encountered the director when he visited Gaza a few years back.

Both Abdullah and Eliran had visited the US before — Abdullah as part of a delegation of youth representing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and Eliran as part of a conference in Boston advocating for Israel.

Though both teens took part in JPB last year, their stay in July differed as each was staying in the same house with a peer from the other community, using the same bathroom and, importantly, the same kitchen.

“(We were) in the same room, same house, sharing everything together, cooking … fighting about how you say the word ‘hummus,’” Eliran remarked.

The teens’ favorite part of the homestay was likely cooking, which apart from finding common ground in some of the foods the two prepared, the experience also served as a language lesson as Abdullah explained Arabic names of foods and ingredients while Eliran said what they were called in Hebrew.

“(We) found a lot of similar words, actually,” Abdullah remarked, noting that Hebrew and Arabic are both in the same language family.

Regarding their futures, both Abdullah and Eliran have plans that will take them out of their homelands again. Abdullah said he will have a seven-month stay in Senegal, either teaching or assisting a teacher of English, and following Israel’s mandatory military service Eliran said he’s looking to attend college to study something related to international affairs, eyeing an application to Oxford University.

Though much of the planned content of the program centers around more structured ways of fostering respect and trust — Haas mentioned community service and a ropes course as some of the activities — the families have an opportunity for things more fun than necessarily functional. Ralph Akin commented that Abdullah and Eliran got introduced to whitewater rafting during their stay.

The core of CFP is instilling a sense of understanding and mutual respect among the teens from different groups, which both those running the program and those participating agree believe is a better way to effect change. 

“We get the experience of being with the other side, which is something our leaders don’t have,” Eliran said about the homestay. “When you have the experience of both sides, when you can actually try to understand what the Israeli side thinks and what the Palestinian side thinks, you can find a solution that will fit most of the people.”

Abdullah added it is important for both sides to have equal representation in peacebuilding discussions, something that generally isn’t the case from his experiences in Gaza. 

“Peace starts at the bottom,” Haas said. “You can’t start at the top, expecting the government to be the problem-solvers. The people at the grassroots, in their communities that are affected ... they have to get rid of hate and disrespect and replace that with friendship, trust and understanding.”

“If we can have some impact, two kids at a time, it not only impacts those kids and their future, but it also has an impact on us,” Haas said. “What happens with global peace impacts us here in the U.S.”

The Akins have hosted a few times before and continue to take part because they feel the program is a viable way to make progress on issues that have taken decades to resolve. 

“Most people look at Palestine and Israel and they don’t see any hope,” Charlotte Akin said. “I think there is when you know kids like (Abdullah and Eliran.)”

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