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Friends discuss violent region

By Ryan Haggerty
April 22, 2004

Two women -- one an Israeli Jew and the other a Palestinian Arab -- stood side by side in an Evanston church Wednesday night, sharing both a microphone and the story of their lifelong friendship in a region strained by violence and hatred.

Adi Frish, a 21-year-old Jewish woman, and Laila Najjar, a 20-year-old Palestinian Arab, answered questions from a crowd of 29 people at Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge Ave.

The women stopped at two locations in Evanston Wednesday as part of a three-week national tour to discuss their experiences growing up in the "Oasis of Peace," a community of Arabs and Jews located halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Frish's and Najjar's parents were the first to move to the community when it was founded in 1972 by the Rev. Bruno Hussar, a Catholic priest who was born a Jew but converted to Catholicism. Today Oasis of Peace is home to 50 families, half of them Jewish and half Palestinian.

Although life within their community does not reflect the terror that rages outside it, Frish said it is impossible to ignore the bloodshed that makes headlines on nearly a daily basis.

"We are not living in a bubble," Frish said. "We are living in Israel, we are living in reality. We feel all the feelings that human beings have. We are not putting them away or hiding them."

There are at least 300 families on the waiting list to move into Oasis of Peace, said Deanna Armbruster, executive director of American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam. Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam means Oasis of Peace in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.

Frish and Najjar both attended the Oasis of Peace primary school but had to attend outside high schools. When Frish and Najjar attended segregated high schools, the other students were amazed by the stories they shared about their experiences crossing cultural and religious lines.

In a society often divided by religion, Oasis of Peace residents celebrate the major holidays of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

"It doesn't matter what holiday it is," said Najjar. "We can celebrate it together and share it together."

For all the progress that has been made at Oasis of Peace, inter-religious marriage is still a touchy subject for Frish and Najjar and their families.

"As a village, we don't have a collective opinion on mixed couples or mixed marriages," Frish said. "If it's love, it's love."

But Frish said reality can get in the way.

"(Mixed couples) should know that they will have more difficulties than any other marriage," she said.

Chicago resident Hicham Chami, who opened the discussion by playing three Middle Eastern songs with two other musicians, said the women are an example of the power of communication.

"People on the other side are not as bad as we might think," Chami said. "When we take time to listen, when we take time to share, it brings it to the human level."

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2003 The Daily Northwestern