We were surrounded. Girls were dancing and talking and exchanging phone numbers while the boys wrestled and chased each other across the grounds, arguing about which soccer teams were the best.
Dozens of middle school students filled the school grounds, barely listening to their teachers and much too busy with each other to take direction. We could have been anywhere in the world.
But we weren’t just anywhere. We were in the Israeli village of Neve Shalom, a community dedicated to the coexistence of Arabs and Jews. The students were from an Arab school, a Jewish school and Neve Shalom’s mixed school for Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis.
They were saying goodbye at the end of a day that had brought them together as part of a program called Writers Matter. Two girls discussed the artwork they had created earlier as they walked across the yard arm in arm before embracing to say a tearful goodbye. Though the headscarf and traditional clothing of the student from Al-Jawariesh, an Israeli Arab school near Ramla, contrasted sharply with the skinny jeans and Nikes of her friend from Chof Ha Sharon, an Israeli Jewish school close to Tel Aviv, they had become fast friends over the course of the day.
Writers Matter is an international program that encourages students to grow as writers.
It was developed in Philadelphia in 2005 by Robert Vogel, a professor at La Salle University. After building the program in Philadelphia, where it now reaches more than 1,100 students, Vogel, who is Jewish, began working closely with Sami Adwan, a Muslim Palestinian who is a professor at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, to implement the program in the region.
Since 2011, they have helped integrate the innovative writing approach into the participating schools’ curricula. The program, reaching 300 students in Israel and the West Bank, has empowered these middle school students through journaling and self-reflection.
In the journals the children kept and the essays they wrote, issues were tackled with openness and creativity as they sought common ground and an opportunity to share ideas for the future.
As mentors helping to facilitate the writing activities and encouraging collaboration among the students, we saw firsthand the power of writing to make young people feel less alone. Many of the communities where some of these students live are filled with prejudice, anger and danger, and they are well aware of it despite their young ages. But violence and fear do not bring people together; finding similarities and sharing stories do.
By providing a safe environment where students can be open about what they are struggling with every day, the program allows the students to tackle their problems, sometimes collectively, sometimes on their own.
For four days in Israel and the West Bank this summer, we were able to bring students together across religious, racial, geographic and language lines to begin the process of building a community. Although the students began their days with timidity and the fear of change, as reflected in their initial writings and interactions, they eventually rose to the challenge and began reaching out to one another.
They began to build bridges, word by word. Students from the participating schools all shared the same messages: “Peace for everyone,” “Be yourself,” “Together we can do it” — and sometimes just the simple idea that it’s OK to be emotional, to express your feelings and to not be perfect.
For students too shy to share their writing, artwork succeeded in bridging the gap, and they decorated banners with messages and images of happiness, acceptance and peace.
The most important thing that we learned from the kids is courage. While we can create an environment where words will be heard and listened to, it is these young students who have the fortitude to stand before their peers and put their feelings and emotions out there.
On the final day, one student read a piece of her writing to the others, and offered some positive advice: “The best way to imagine the future is working hard to make it what we want. So work hard for a better future so that you might be able to make it better for your generation, family, and country.” The words seemed to sum up what all the students had been thinking.
By bringing students together, the program shows them that, despite their differences, open dialogue is the first step to overcoming any issues they may face. In those four days, both of us saw firsthand that these students want nothing more than peace, which for them means the chance to be themselves and live their lives free of the violence of the past and present.
Matt Howell and Kerrin Gallipoli are seniors at La Salle University enrolled in the Leadership and Global Understanding program and are involved in Writers Matter as mentors in Philadelphia, Israel and the West Bank.