Peace mission

When Melinda Ward, formerly of Emsworth, signed on for a trip that would take her to Palestine and Israel, she knew it was not going to be a vacation similar to trips that religious pilgrims make to sites in the Holy Land.

A youth counselor at Holy Family Institute, Melinda, 25, was one of 23 delegates making the journey organized by the Washington-based Interfaith Peace Builders (IFPB), with other travelers joining her from across the United States.

The IFPB Web site explains that participants "…bear witness to the everyday violence of war and occupation and learn from those committed to nonviolent struggle, human rights and peace with justice. IFPB delegations present alternative images and analyses which reach deeper to uncover the roots of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avenues pointing the way to change and reconciliation."

Ward explained that her interest in the area began with a class she took a few years ago, "Political Geography of the Middle East," where she learned about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and became interested in the issue.

"I decided to join the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Council, where I found out from another member about the delegation opportunity. I was awarded a small scholarship from IFPB, which inspired me to launch a fund-raising campaign and pick up extra hours at work so I could embark on what I knew would be a revolutionary experience. The trip was that, and everything more."

This was the 48th delegation to visit the region, with each delegation having a specific theme or purpose.

"Ours was to help families with the olive harvesting," Melinda said. They assisted with the olive harvest festival, learning how significant the olive trees are to the people. "The trees are a sign of peace as well as a source of the oil product. If an Israeli soldier cuts them down, it's more than just a tree," Melinda said.

In addition to the harvesting, the group traveled to Israel and Palestine to explore the conflict from both sides. Most of their time was spent in Palestine, where travelers stayed with Palestinian families in the village of Jenin, north of Jerusalem, south of Nazareth, inland from the Mediterranean.

While visiting refugee camps, they learned of the United Nations' efforts to improve people's lives, despite a severe lack of resources, as well as limited educational opportunities. "The U. N. supports students, but just a half day of basic classes and only until ninth grade."

Melinda stayed with the family who created the documentary, "Five Broken Cameras," a 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary that gives a first-hand account of protests in Bil'n, a West Bank village affected by the Israeli West Bank barrier.

Living with such families gave Melinda a different view of Palestinians.

"I realize that many people would have feared being there, but that would be mainly because of the way the American media presents Palestinians. I was not afraid of the Arab culture," she said. "We brought gifts for the children, just simple things like mac and cheese and pumpkin butter, but they were so excited. We had a great personal encounter."

She also spent time in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth, where she found the people to be "…so generous and kind, always wanting to feed us! Palestinians have a very ‘laid-back’ culture, making the most of what they have." Melinda also visited the Wailing Wall and the Western Wall, as well as mosques and temples, exploring what leaders on both sides are doing to alleviate tensions.

She said that people are happy to have Americans visit, but they do not have a good opinion of President Obama. "They believe that the United States has the power, but does not do anything to resolve the situation."

She emphasized that the trip was not associated with HFI, but her work with youth in residential placement, stemming from her experience working with at-risk youth at HFI, influenced her decision to take the trip. "One of the main things I wanted to learn during my time in Israel and Palestine was about the initiatives taking place on both sides to ensure positive youth development," she said.

"Kids there have learned to persevere, and visiting and living with their families gave me hope. They have lived through worse times than anything in the United States. I have shared their stories of their bravery with my students here."

In a region that has witnessed thousands of years of bloody conflict triggered by political and religious differences, the solutions could be simple, yet they remain as elusive as ever.

"People wish for peace on both sides. People from both sides share the land and what Israel and Palestine have to offer. We saw so much diversity there, but also so much conflict. The land and the people are beautiful. The land brings people together from all over the world, yet it also divides."

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