Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

On the road for peace

Israeli students bring message of hope to city kids

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Somewhere between delivering curling rocks, strapping on downhill skis for the first time and knocking down a few bowling pins, a group of Arab Israeli students visiting a Winnipeg Christian private school hope to talk about making peace.

The students from Mar Elias High School in Ibillin, Israel, want to explain to their Winnipeg hosts how they cope with the conflict and the dramatic political change now underway in the Middle East.

"We want to talk about ourselves, describe our lives in Israel and to make the world know we live under an uncomfortable situation and we live under conflict," says 16-year-old Wagdi Nicola, a Grade 11 student.

Nicola and seven classmates, along with teacher Emil Haloun, are midway through a 10-day visit to Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, a Christian junior and senior high school located in the stately Armstrong's Point neighbourhood.

"There's going to be dialogue, but we don't just want it to be heavy," says Westgate teacher James Friesen of this first ever interfaith student exchange between the two schools.

"It doesn't always have to be a political conversation, but relating to people, and recognizing differences and similarities."

The eight students -- four Christian, four Muslim -- were selected from the 1,200 Christian, Muslim and Druze students who attend Mar Elias High School, a private Catholic school founded in 1982 by Father Elias Chacour, now an Archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church. All the students are of Palestinian descent but are citizens of Israel.

"Our father (Elias Chacour) told us that on the road to peace we should avoid discrimination between Arabs and Jews," says Grade 12 student Saliba Makhoul, of the culture of peacemaking at Mar Elias.

The foundation for this visit was laid nearly two decades ago, when a group of Westgate students met Chacour in Israel. Last June, Westgate students visiting Israel dropped by Mar Elias High School for a brief visit, sparking the idea of a longer exchange between the two schools, says Friesen, who has led six student study tours to the Middle East.

"That's when Emil (Haloun) said we need to make this bigger and let's make some sort of exchange," says Friesen.

"It was a very spontaneous idea. My students had this wish to come to Canada," says Haloun.

While Haloun worked out the logistics from his end, which including gaining permission from Israel's minister of education to travel to Canada, Friesen and his students busied themselves raising funds to cover the $9,000 in airfare for their visitors.

In total, the Westgate students raised $15,000 for airfare and other expenses. Any extra cash will be sent home with the Mar Elias students as a donation for their school, says Friesen.

Seventeen Westgate students will return the visit in June, planning to stay with their exchange partners for three days of their three-week visit to the Middle East, says Friesen.

While in Winnipeg, the Israeli students hit the slopes during Westgate's annual ski day, attended classes and school events, and visited several Mennonite schools and churches.

Their plans for the upcoming week include curling with Jewish students at Gray Academy and sharing a meal with the Muslim community at the Grand Mosque on Waverley Street.

"It's important for us to build our awareness of people who live there (in Israel) on a day-to-day basis," says Nadia Kidwai, who is organizing the event at the mosque.

The Winnipeg leg of the exchange is designed to expose the visitors to several faith communities in the city, as well as giving Winnipeg students the opportunity to meet teenagers who live with conflict and unrest daily, says Westgate principal Bob Hummelt.

"It gives our students, beyond the ones going on the exchange, a taste of that political situation," he says.

"When you hear what's going on in the Middle East, forever more you'll remember the kids that visited us."

Although the goal of the trip is to talk about peace and connect people of different faiths and traditions, the teenagers on both sides of the exchange also want to compare notes about music, hobbies and favourite foods.

"I'm looking to learn about (Canadian) culture," says 17-year-old Yara Maty, who hopes to become a medical doctor. "If I like Canada, maybe I'd come here and study."

"What makes this program special is that we communicate with teenagers rather than older people," says Nicola, who plans to study science after high school.

"In the future, we can make a difference. Maybe someday we can make peace."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J14

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