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Bridging a Cultural Divide

Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield hosts Palestinian students this summer.

John Wilder of Springfield and new friend, Ameed Kawwa of Palestine, arrive back at Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield after a week rebuilding homes for the poor in Petersburg, Va.

John Wilder of Springfield and new friend, Ameed Kawwa of Palestine, arrive back at Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield after a week rebuilding homes for the poor in Petersburg, Va. Photo by Alan Goldstein

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Ameed Kawwa, one of the Palestinian youth, writes on a mirror the group displayed at the Tri-Cities Work Camp. Kawwa, a student from St. Phillip's Episcopal Church in Nablus, Palestine, came to the U.S. this summer to work with youth from Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield.

For many, the concept of “peace in the Middle East” is a distant dream bordering on fantasy.

But for a group of teens at Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, who worked alongside Palestinian youth building homes this summer, it’s a dream within reach. And the first steps, they say, are tolerance and understanding.

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(Back row) Sama Dawani, John Wilder, Ranim Nairouz and Ameed Kawwa ride "The Berserker" at Kings Dominion this summer. Palestinian youth came to the U.S. this summer to work with youth from Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield.

“Meeting these students, it felt like we were more alike than different. It’s hard to understand the conflict until you see the real faces behind it. Once you get to know people as people, it becomes easier to bridge that cultural divide,” said John Wilder, 18, a member of the church youth group. Wilder, who graduated from West Springfield High School this year, is planning to study foreign policy at James Madison University.

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Father Ibrahim Nairouz, priest of St. Phillip's Anglican Church in Nablus, Palestine, presents Rev. Dr. Jay Click, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, with a crèche made from the wood of Palestinian olive trees. The clergy are flanked by Ranim Nairouz, Father Ibrahim's daughter, and Mary Martje Post Goldstein, liturgist.

For two weeks this summer, Grace Presbyterian hosted seven teens and their Anglican priest, Father Ibrahim Nairouz, of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nablus. Grace Presbyterian has a partnership with two Palestinian Christian congregations on the West Bank.

“It’s part of our goal of building stronger connections and understanding. The entire visit was a wonderful experience, and some lifelong friendships were made,” said Rev. Susan Wilder, chair of the church’s Middle East Working Group.

During their visit, the Palestinian teens toured historic sites in Washington and Fairfax County, went tubing at Burke Lake Park and shopping at Tysons Corner. They also took part in the Tri-City Work Camp in Petersburg, Va. with the church’s youth group. About 200 youth from churches along the East Coast participate in the camp each year, during which students work with adults to help renovate and rebuild homes for those who cannot afford the repairs.

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Rev. Susan Wilder hugs Father Ibrahim and his daughter, Ranim Nairouz as they prepare to depart for Jordan on their way to Palestine.

“What is ironic is that the youth are doing work here they would be allowed to do in the West Bank,” said Marty Martje Post Goldstein of Grace Presbyterian. She said the teens and their pastor had to travel 10 hours to Jordan to catch a flight to Palestine, because they aren’t allowed to use the airport an hour from their West Bank home.

“Life is hard in most places of the world,” said Rev. Jay Click, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. “And these teens have experienced hardship that’s difficult for most of us to understand.”

Despite the harsh political realities of their lives in Palestine, the visit—according to the teens—was an eye-opening success that helped them build new friendships and cultural understanding.

“I think people are surprised that there are Christians in Palestine, but it’s the Holy Land. We’re all the same the world over; we want the same things. Now I have more best friends on Facebook,” said 16-year-old Ranim Nairouz.

Fourteen-year-old Sama Dawani, who was on her first trip to the U.S., said she wanted to be remembered for helping other people. “I came here to help and to have fun and make new friends,” she said.

“I think helping our youth learn about different cultures is a good way to increase harmony and peace,” said Rev. Wilder.