Seeds of Peace is a nonprofit organization that inspires and cultivates new generations of global leaders in communities divided by conflict. To help meet their mission, the organization runs the GATHER fellowship, a one-year program that supports changemakers in their varied efforts toward social innovation and social change.
In this piece we feature three fellows from the recent cohort, highlighting the significant work and inspired vision that drives them forward.
Building Bridges Between Israeli & Arab Youth Through Music
For Arnon, music has been a lifelong pursuit. He sees it as a “workout for the soul,” a vehicle of healing, a universal language, and a method of changing one’s mindset and state of being for the better. When Arnon was 23 he moved from Israel to London to study music. He took the stage name Sun Tailor, and for the past seven years, has traveled around the word performing. It was during a trip to India just before the release of his first album, that Arnon says he found his “why;” it was to bring people together and create a shared experience.
This passion is at the center of the project he is working on as part of the Seeds of Peace GATHER Fellowship [*see below], where he is harnessing the power of music to help heal a divide in his own community. Arnon learned about Seeds of Peace in 2017. He said Seeds of Peace and specifically the GATHER fellowship program has not only connected him to a community of other innovative entrepreneurs, but has also pushed him and provided the support necessary to pursue this project, which he had been thinking about for a few years, and build it from the ground up.
Arnon created an interactive music workshop that brings together high schoolers from Israel, Jewish and Arab, so that they can experience the “other” from a new perspective. “The workshop came from the idea of people coming together, singing together, clapping together—sharing a language beyond nationality or religion. The best thing I can give to the world is connecting people to a shared experience, using the power of music to open up hearts and minds. To create a community out of nothing, without words.”
After studying music in London, Arnon moved back to Israel, to Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. It is one of the few places in Israel where Arabs and Jews live side by side. However, the two communities remain largely separated. In Jaffa, where this separation and difference collides with physical proximity, Arnon could feel the divisions and tension between the Arab and Jewish communities.
“At first, walking down the street was an almost foreign experience for me. Sometimes I could see hostility in the eyes of my neighbors. Other times I’d get the feeling I wasn’t welcome. In London, I was a real foreigner, and I never got that feeling there. Here, I was feeling like an unwelcome stranger in my own country. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is alive in the streets of Jaffa.”
Arnon believed that the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians could be improved if a space was created where individuals could interact with one another in a non-violent, creative way. He wanted to use the power of music and the universal experience of creating and listening to it as a tool to bring these communities together and build a human connection. “However different our identities may be, we all feel touched by music. It transcends identity. It creates community where no community seems possible. It can help us find our own voice and to acknowledge the beauty in the voices of others.”
With the help of his Palestinian partners, Arnon create a safe environment for these teenagers to engage in respectful dialogue that might ultimately serve as a vehicle for social change. However, he does not view his mission as solving any political problems. Rather, his goal is to build personal connections in order to increase empathy and break down preconceived notions of the “other.”
“Reconciliation comes from meeting, from being in the same space together. Can you hate someone who sings with you? What kind of friendships can be created from playing music together? It’s not about solving a political issue. I’m not a politician, I don’t have a political answer. But I have a human answer. If we can see each other as human, as the same, we’ll be much better at solving the problem.”
Arnon’s biggest hope is that his music workshops give young people from both communities a chance to engage in a positive experience together. “I hope that our workshops touch the hearts and minds of the next generation in this land, so that when they pass each other on the street, they’ll think of a song, not an enemy.”
Letters of Love Connects Communities
In 2015, the Syrian war and ensuing refugee crisis were the topic of every news headline. Social and online media allowed people around the world to follow this conflict in real time like never before. It was this phenomenon that inspired Pooja, a high school math and science teacher at the time, to do whatever she could, with whatever she had, as she says, to humanize refugee communities.
“It was the first war in our time that was livestreamed through social media and it really bothered me how we could just watch it happening and not do anything about it. Also, the fact that more than 50 percent of the victims were kids – it just hurt me. The very fact that we are so used to treating these large-scale humanitarian crises with frivolity – I just wanted to do something about it.”
So she founded Letters of Love with the goal to connect communities, give people a global perspective, and humanize the “other.”
Letters of Love began as just a “Facebook page with a bunch of friends around the world,” who were united around the idea that something as small as a handwritten letter could connect communities, build empathy, and make a real difference. It has since grown into a youth-led initiative that connects children around the world to peers in refugee communities through writing and delivering letters. It is also an official member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees #WithRefugees Coalition, the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY) in the Hague, and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Youth Network.
In just three years, Letters of Love has delivered handwritten postcards to more than 30,000 Syrian, Iraqi, Yazidi, Palestinian, Afghan, Kurdish, and Rohingya refugee children, and has effectively engaged more than 20,000 youth.
“We empower refugee children with joy, laughter, and psycho-social support, and we use empathy-centric education as a tool to sensitize school and university students about the ongoing refugee crises.”
Pooja is a 2018 Seeds of Peace GATHER Fellow but her involvement with Seeds of Peace goes beyond the Fellowship. Pooja first learned about the organization through her now husband who is a Seed, or graduate, of the camp program. In the very beginning stages of establishing Letters of Love, one of Pooja’s husband’s camp counselors was an important mentor to her. Pooja is now a counselor at the Seeds of Peace camp herself, and she says that her involvement with Seeds of Peace over all these years has been a transformative experience, one that has shaped her personally as much as it has shaped her professional mission.
“I’ve witnessed the value in connecting communities that are indoctrinated to hate each other, and I’ve seen the value of communication and dialogue.”
Pooja says that the GATHER Fellowship has connected her to a diverse community at the crossroads of social innovation and conflict transformation. This has given her access to potential collaborations, some of which she has already pursued, which she says has helped increase her impact both qualitatively and quantitatively.
“Being part of the Fellowship enables me to become a part of this ebullient community, share best practices, learn various aspects of setting up an organization, and also derive a multicultural and international perspective on various social issues.”
An experience Pooja had as a counselor also inspired the Pen Pal Project, an offshoot of Letters of Love that uses strategic mapping dependent on age, interests, and other factors to connect high school students to peers in refugee camps in a more deliberate way, and on a more long-term basis.
“In my bunk, a Palestinian camper was freezing at night, and this Israeli camper put a blanket over her. The next day the Palestinian camper didn’t know how to thank her, so she wrote a letter in Hebrew with the help of a few other Israeli campers and handed it to her first Israeli friend. It was such a powerful moment.”
The campers told Pooja that they wanted their friends back at home to be able to connect with “the other” in the way that they were able to at camp. Although Pooja, through Letters of Love, could not address the Palestinian and Israeli communities directly because of political barriers, she found another way to create an exchange of perspective and foster what she calls “unimaginable friendships.” Through the Pen Pal Project, 350 students in India were connected to 350 children who were Syrian refugees in Turkey, internally displaced children in Syria, and Palestinian children in a community center in Gaza.
More than anything, Pooja hopes that participating in the Letters of Love initiative inspires young people to have more of an impact in their own communities. “It’s about highlighting the potential of each young person as a change agent in society.”
Support and Empowerment for Refugees in Greece
Over 27,500 refugee children are living in Greece today, displaced from their countries and their homes. They are vulnerable, having departed in a hurry, endured a dangerous journey, and lost nearly all elements of their previous lives.
In 2016 Anis, a tour manager for renowned orchestras in one of the leading classical music agencies in the world, volunteered in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. He worked with many of the children and was distraught by a hopelessness that pervaded the atmosphere. What he experienced in the refugee camp inspired him to embark on a project that uses music education as a tool to bring opportunity and humanity to refugee children. Co-founder of this project, El Sistema Greece, Anis was selected as part of Seeds of Peace GATHER Fellowship.
“As I got there and saw the situation of neglect and loneliness the refugees live in, I immediately knew I needed to connect with my work and bring a music education program to the numerous children I got to know.”
Anis recognized a need for opportunities that not only help to empower children in refugee camps, but also help to integrate them into their new societies. Having travelled the world with various orchestras, Anis understood art, and music especially, to be a universal language, and he was “inspired to use it as a tool for consolation, regeneration, empowerment, and education for the children of the camps in Greece.”
Anis co-founded the NGO El Sistema a year and a half ago with the mission of conflict transformation through music, friendship, and mutual human support. The organization started with only two dozen participants in a refugee camp near Athens, and has grown to over 500 participants in six different ”nucleos” that participate in El Sistema organized music classes and concert performances. El Sistema Greece is now offering free music classes to refugee children, but also migrants and Greeks to foster social inclusion. More than 20 different nationalities are represented in El Sistema’s music classes, and Anis is dedicated to embracing this diversity, the “new face of Europe and by extension the new face of the world,” through creating as inclusive and harmonious an organization as possible.
Anis says he immediately saw the potential of a collaboration with Seeds of Peace because of their shared goal of finding innovative methods of conflict transformation. The Fellowship has connected him to a community of other individuals dedicated to similar goals, and the exchange of ideas and resources has had a meaningful impact on both Anis and El Sistema.
“We all realized from the beginning that being part of this community will allow us to dream bigger and make joint projects happen. Today El Sistema Greece is partnering with the other Fellows’ projects, giving a more international frame to what we try to achieve locally.”
Anis sees his organization as a way to create a new and more inclusive community that recognizes the value of refugees as humans through a model of education that embraces the values of understanding, openness, and team work. He believes that conflict can be overcome through shared creation, and that El Sistema’s student performances are a social equalizer, in that all the participants, regardless of their background, are equal contributors to making the best music possible. Anis hopes that this experience will show others that an inclusive society is possible, and will also help to change the perception of refugees from a burden to society to individuals that can bring talent and richness to new communities.
“El Sistema Greece [seeks to have refugees] transform their loneliness into creative citizenship,” he says. Beyond empowerment, education, and building community, Anis believes the music lessons and performance opportunities that El Sistema provides serve as an emotional outlet for children of conflict suffering from trauma.
“The physical act to sing or to play an instrument releases stress and tensions. Traumatized children can find a relief with music. This model is replicable to other conflictual zones in the world and could well be one of the solutions to providing a better education to all the children that are experiencing post-war traumatic anxiety.”
Education through music is not only a passion for Anis, but a responsibility. In fact, he sees it as society’s collective responsibility to do more to give refugees, and especially the youth, the opportunities they need to achieve social inclusion. He hopes that El Sistema can be a leader in this effort.
*Seeds of Peace is a nonprofit organization that inspires and cultivates new generations of global leaders in communities divided by conflict, equipping them with the skills and relationships they need to accelerate social, economic, and political changes essential to peace. Our network now includes nearly 6,700 alumni throughout the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and the United States who are uniquely positioned to lead change. The nonprofit was founded in 1993 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
**GATHER is the social innovation branch of Seeds of Peace comprised of its alumni and other changemakers from across the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and the United States. They are creating opportunities across diverse fields—business, nonprofit organizations, technology, education, arts and culture—to reshape communities divided by conflict. The Fellowship is made up of a select cohort of this community and aims to support the Fellows’ efforts to challenge the ideologies, policies, and practices that perpetuate conflict in their communities.
Lexi Kanter is a gap year student working at Seeds of Peace as a member of the communications department. Prior to that, she spent time working in Barcelona, and in Myanmar on a program focused on global development, ethnic and religious conflict, and human rights. Lexi will begin studying government at Harvard University in the fall.