WILLIAMSTOWN — Mischel Azzan, 17, lives in Shefa-Amr, Israel. As an Arab, he held certain beliefs, until he participated during this year's three-week Artsbridge initiative at the Buxton School.
"I never though that I could be best friends with a Jewish person, but coming here proved that wrong," Azzan said during a July 31 interview. "We came here and we could dialogue, we tell our personal stories, (program leaders) let us express ourselves. We are friends, this is a second family. we all have two things in common, we love art and we want peace."
Artsbridge Inc. is led by Executive Director Deb Nathan and is made up of artists, psychologists, and educators who strive toward bringing unique programs to youth participants. The program brings together Israeli, Palestinian and American youth for an Artsbridge Youth Leadership Development program. The program focuses on a safe environment that allows for creativity, listening, dialogue, and empowerment. Participants work together in large and small groups on arts projects that involve creative arenas such as music, film-making, poetry, and other mediums. This session introduced a Music in Common program as part of the development project.
A showcase of the artwork and performances was hosted at Buxton on Sunday.
Tamar Elias, 16, of Israel, and Raneen, 17, who lives along the West Bank, worked together to create a short film titled "Identity." Both girls said that they enjoyed a trip to Boston but noted that some of the group activities, especially sessions known as "dialogue" were challenging.
During dialogues, the youth were encouraged to share personal stories of their lives as they unfold in the area in which they live. By using a personal perspective, youth were able to think about feelings and impacts rather than political perspectives or news reports.
Arabic news stations and Jewish news stations often tell the same story in very different ways.
"And the news isn't always true," said Raneen.
Part of the initiative requires the youth to give up their cell phones while participating and they may contact parents once a week for a brief time. Program facilitators do provide a morning news briefing but the idea is to get past current events and get to know each other as people rather political or religious adversaries.
Creating art together bridges the gap further, both girls said.
During a public question and answer session, Eliah Levine, 17, of Haifa, Israel drew applause when she replied to a question about the dialogues.
"When you can tell a story you can open closed minds," she said.
Boston student and poet Kobi Russell drew thunderous applause after presenting his poem. During his speaking presentation Russell told the group that if they wanted to be a soldier, "murder stereotypes, not people."
"Words, words will be your ammunition, not bullets," he said.
Students presented musical performances and dance routines as well.
Nearly everyone chuckled when students responded to a question about their impressions of America. The students answers included "huge cucumbers," "squirrels," "Chipotle," "Target," and "green."
The youth also handled interviews very well. For most, English is a second or third language,
"And it is hard because you don't want to say wrong," said Tamar.
The participants are expected to meet during fall, winter, and spring sessions arranged at neutral locations to continue building on the foundation of friendship they began. The journey to peace will not be easy but may be possible, Tamar said.
"It's a process," she said. "I feel that I am changing, and I am challenging myself."
[Editor's note: Some people quoted in this story declined to give their last names in order to avoid any potential persecution following its publishing]