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April 15, 2004     586 Words

Palestinian Students Build Bridge of Peace to America

CINCINNATI—Five Palestinian teenagers from Beit Jala, a city near Bethlehem, spent five weeks in Milford, Ohio, late last year trying to establish peace and understanding between their homeland and the United States. Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara, 13-year-old students at the Latin Patriarchate (Roman Catholic) School in Beit Jala, made fast work of their time at St. Andrew-St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Milford. In those short weeks, the students left lasting imprints on the community, as well as on the hearts of those close to them.

The stories of the five Christian Palestinian students, their lives back home and their brief but significant stay in Milford are featured in the May cover story "Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara: Ambassadors of Peace." Assistant Editor Christopher Heffron interviewed the five students, their Palestinian chaperones and people from St. Andrew Parish. After April 21, the article can be found at: AmericanCatholic.org.

The Palestinians' visit was sponsored through the "Parish Partnerships Program" of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF)—a nonprofit organization designed to improve the lives of Christians in the Holy Land.

Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara brought with them a sense of urgency. As young people of Beit Jala, they know firsthand the damaging effects of war, occupation, bloodshed and turmoil. The students of St. Andrew-St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were eager to learn.We've come here for a job," Tamara says. "Our job is to talk about Palestinian people. Our job when we go back to Palestine is to tell the Palestinian people about Americans."

The five students also provided the people of Milford with a taste of their homeland: its culture, spirit, heritage and, sadly, unrest. The people of Beit Jala often endure curfews enforced by the Israeli military. Some curfews last a few hours while others can stretch to a month. But life is no less hazardous when curfews are lifted. Walking to the market, to church or to school can be hazardous, sometimes deadly. It's no surprise the five Palestinians savored their taste of freedom in America.

"American teenagers have many ways to entertain themselves," Issa says. "But for Palestinian teenagers, we have few chances to enjoy ourselves because we can't leave the Bethlehem area."

Differences between the Milford teens and the Palestinians are numerous, but such differences provided fertile ground for understanding and friendship. Father Rob Waller, pastor of St. Andrew, credits their age as the greatest teaching tool. "Since they are children, their presence lowers the defenses," Father Rob says. "When people's defenses are down, the message gets right to the heart. I think it's part of the beauty of being kids."

The five Palestinians have vowed to remedy the problems facing Palestine and the often strained relationship between their country and the United States. For their part, the people of St. Andrew are looking into hosting more Palestinian students in the future and possibly sending a few of their own to the Holy Land. Hopefully, this will be one step in establishing a measure of peace within their war-ravaged country.

As Raneem has said, "We pray that the future is a little brighter. We pray that the candle at the end of the tunnel will not be blown out, but rather shine brighter and brighter until the tunnel is lit up and the darkness disappears."

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