While the conflagration in the Middle East escalated last Wednesday, and missiles rained downed on both Israeli and Lebanese cities killing scores of civilians, Mohamed Salih sat in the shade with Melissa Goldberg discussing the tenants of Islam and Judaism.
Salih, a Muslim refugee from Sudan who arrived in Northern Virginia last fall, and Goldberg, a Jewish high school student in Rockville, had just finished painting a mural on the grounds of the Arlington Catholic Diocese. The painting depicted two hands, emerging from storm clouds, shaking, surrounded by the word "peace" written in several languages.
The two chatted about Salih's adjustment to American life, but could not avoid touching on the wider conflict between their two religions. What they discovered was the similarities between cultures far outweighs the differences, even in times of strife and warfare.
"We talked about how we pray at different times and different ways, but we are praying for the same things — peace and justice for all," said Goldberg, 16. "All religions have the same values."
GOLDBERG WAS ONE of 12 Jewish teenagers, participating in a month-long summer course at the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, who spent most of last week painting murals with refugee students at the Diocese's offices.
The Jewish students came from across the nation to spend a month at the institute, also called PANIM, learning more about Jewish customs and beliefs, and linking them to contemporary issues. The students live in dorms on the George Washington University campus, and are taking classes dealing with the Jewish response to vexing social issues such as poverty, homelessness and environmental degradation.
At the conclusion of each course the students participate in a service project, including working at a soup kitchen and picking up trash along the Anacostia River bed.
Goldberg and her classmates had just finished a class entitled "The Ethics of War and Peace," and painting murals with mostly Muslim refugees afforded the Jewish students the opportunity to put the lessons they learned in the classroom to use.
"By conversing about religion with someone different than you, you can help to build bridges and create peace," said Rebecca Cottle, a teacher at Summer JAM, the institute's student program.
Earlier this month, PANIM students coordinated a summer camp for younger refugee children at the Diocese, playing sports, producing skits, and making arts and crafts projects.
Most of the participants in the camp were children of the clients of the Diocese's migration and refugee services. The families have recently arrived in Virginia, often escaping political persecution in their home countries, and can not afford to send their children to summer camps.
"For the refugee kids this is a really big treat," said Rebecca Schum, a support services coordinator with the Diocese. "They get so much attention from the high-schoolers."
FOR THE THIRD straight summer the mural program brought together the PANIM students and teenagers, like Salih, who have recently immigrated to Northern Virginia.
Five years ago Salih's mother received an asylum visa to move to America because of her declining health. Mohamed and his two siblings were able to join her in November, but his father, a politically active engineer, has yet to arrive.
Salih said that spending time with the Jewish students piqued his interest in the religion, and he would like to attend services at a synagogue in order to learn more about the faith.
He also relished the opportunity to dispel myths about Islam. "I talked about the real Islam," he said. "I like to adjust people's views of my religion."
For other teenagers who are new to the country, the mural program provides the chance to mingle with American students in a relaxed environment away from the social pressures of high school.
"It's a very safe place for them to interact with the other students, even if their English isn't very good," said Jessica Estrada, the Diocese's refugee student liaison.
Ahmed Geele, a native Somali who arrived from Kenya less than two months ago, said he is unsure he had ever met a Jewish person before enrolling in the summer program. While the students painting the murals may practice two different religions, "all I see is kids just like me," he said.