The Fellowship class in our New York offices. (photo: Joseph Cornelius Donnelly)
Members of the Fellowship Program relax at Harvard. (photo: Joseph Cornelius Donnelly)
No matter the season, New York buzzes with visitors. People from the four corners of the globe converge on the city and bring unique and often diverse points of view.
Last winter an Arab doctor from Egypt, an Israeli expert in volunteerism, an Arab social worker from Nazareth and another from Jordan, an expert in child-care programs for the handicapped came to New York to meet with John Cardinal OConnor on his weekly television program. Since the Fellowship Program began in 1987, Cardinal OConnor has been chairman of the Advisory Board. We desperately need people of all political and religious persuasions who are dedicated to alleviating human misery in the Middle East, said the Cardinal. The Middle East Educational Fellowship Program is a harmonious inter-faith effort. If we can bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together, who knows what we may do in the long run?
These students visited the staff of Catholic Near East Welfare Association shortly after they arrived at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The Middle East Fellowship Program was designed to bring together skilled human service professionals from Middle Eastern countries to live and study together in the United States and then to return to their countries to work collaboratively for peace and justice.
The Fellowship Program was designed to help Arabs and Israelis continue their professional education. This good intention met numerous challenges.
At our first meeting in New York, the Fellowship group were all strangers to one another. Raja Kamal, director of the program, and a native of Jordan, was the link. He created an environment where people could come together. Even so, there was uncertainty in the air. There was politeness, interest and insight, but little overt openness. Introductions and program explanations completed, the tensions rose to the surface.
I never met an Arab Palestinian before. This is a completely new experience for me. Maybe it should not have been this way, but that is the way it was at home.
There were candid statements about prejudice, injustice, historical facts of life and assorted attempts to prove the others lack of understanding. Frustration was not easily masked. Respect, however, was never forfeited.
Throughout the lively exchanges, all parties agreed the Fellowship Program was vital and helpful and filled with potential. Each of the students offered suggestions about how to improve it in one way or another, and how to maximize its effectiveness for future classes. It is actually quite rare that professionals from such contrasting views and backgrounds have an opportunity to create something together. Such fellowship is earned and learned through patience, humility and academic work.
The other strangers in the room, namely, staff and reporters, were able to observe a group and a program being born. Something most worthwhile was happening. I became eager to understand more of the challenges, to befriend the participants and support the efforts at fellowship.
This past spring I again had the opportunity to visit with some of the students I met last winter. I met at Harvard with four women from the group of six. With them that day there was another woman, an educator from Massachusetts, who volunteered to work with the program as part of her own sabbatical activities. There was a marked contrast in our reunion.
I doubt that it was intentional but Shoshana, Rivka, Vivian and Marna were each wearing brillant pink blouses. My afternoon visit with these four women, two Israelis and two Arabs, was as colorful and as fresh as the New England spring.
The program changed my life, said one Israeli woman. Despite our differing points of view, we will leave the program as friends, said a young Arab woman. Vivian went on: This has been a very positive experience. It was often difficult. Things were not as easy as people might have thought. This was really my first experience of being with Jews and Israelis. We found joy people to people. Im proud of what Ive learned here in the United States. You have many fine systems here.
We have been here planting the seeds this year for those who will come after us. Its important for women to be part of this fellowship. There arent enough professional growth experiences available in the Middle East for women. We will keep in touch with each other professionally when we return home. Hopefully, we will meet annually as a group.
One challenge the group encountered during this first year was to educate their new American friends, also students, about the Middle East. American ignorance about this region hindered understanding the Fellowship Program students. Education must have an element of internationality in it, said one woman. We all have a story to tell! These women listened a great deal and learned a lot the past year. But they had to work at it.
The challenges that the students face at the end of the program are as great as those that they faced in the beginning. Bursting with new ideas and experiences, they must return to professional employment and their homes. It would be easy to stay in the United States, get a job and not go home. I needed strength to refuse an offer here and go home. I know I will face uncertainty, but that is the condition of my people.
Rivka, who always spoke freely, said, I leave with hope and encouragement! I look forward to working with new people when I return to Israel. There is much work to do. I would like to do it together. We are grateful to the people who made this Fellowship Program possible. By bringing people of conflict together into a united program, I was able to grow up more. I hope many others will have this valuable opportunity. I have been proud to represent my people here in the United States and I am proud to represent your goodness and interest to them when I return home.
Another season is upon us and the world calls out for people of understanding to work together everywhere. Students fill the Fellowship positions at Harvard this year from Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan.
One young man, Mahmoud Abu Al-Ruzz, was helped many years ago through Catholic Near East Welfare Association and its Pontifical Mission for Palestine in Jordan. He was a needy child. He is now a man of compassion, intelligence and profound commitment to his people. His gratitude for the continued assistance he has received since his childhood is no secret. His success in the past working at a United Nations refugee camp in Jordan is sure to be complemented after this year of fellowship. Like so many of his classmates and countrymen, Mahmoud is eager and earnest about building a better world.
Joseph Cornelius Donnelly is associate secretary general, communications, of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.