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Young people represent Wahat al-Salam - Neve Shalom in the UK

Sunday 3 August 2008

For Sama Daoud and Neriya Mark, aged 20 and friends since they were small children growing up in Wahat as-Salam / Neve Shalom (WAS-NS) is not extraordinary. Sama, a Palestinian and Neriya, an Israeli, neighbours and childhood friends travelled to London on the 18th May 2008 for a week-long tour to raise awareness of their unique, bi-lingual, bi-national village, also known as - oasis of peace. Sponsored and organised by the British Friends of WAS-NS, the tour was a great success as media interest in the village, its education and humanitarian programmes was immense. Sama and Neriya grabbed slots on presitigious shows on BBC World Service; BBC Radio 4 - Midweek; BBC World - TV news and front page feature on the Church Times. A substantial amount of funds were also raised for the Tulkarm Art project.

Sama, the daughter of displaced Palestinian families from al-Ghabsiyya and Tira, moved from Jerusalem to WAS-NS when she was 9 months old. When asked by BBC Radio 4 interviewer Libby Purveson if she would bring up her kids in the village, she responded that there is no doubt that she would explain the main reason her parents moved to the village was due to their quandry of which nursery to send baby Sama too. The Daouds found the bi-lingual WAS-NS nursery to be ideal and in 1989 made the decision to move to the village.

To the same question, Neriya replied jokingly that she doesn’t even know if she wants children! The middle daughter in a family of three, Neriya was born in the village to the Mark-Zak family, who were among the earliest residents of the village. For a long time, Neriya was the only Jewish girl in her grade. At the same radio interview she was asked if there were any tensions on the playground due to the wider conflict going on in the country. Neriya recounts an incident from the 4th grade when Sama and another Palestinian girl came up to Neriya in the playground and told her that they decided not be friends with her (Neriya) anymore because she is Jewish and the Jews had kicked their grandparents out of their houses. (The primary school does not shy away from discussing political sensitive issues and this incident took place after a Palestinian man gave a talk to the kids about his experiences in 1948.) Both girls laugh not really remembering how they decided to be friends once again.

Growing up next door to one another, and attending the same bi-national, bi-lingual kindergarden and primary school, Sama and Neriya have been friends since as long as they can remember. They parted ways in the 6th grade when Sama went to study at an Arab Orthodox school in Ramle and Neriya went off to attend the regional Jewish high school. Currently Sama is working at the municipal offices of the village and Neriya has moved to Tel Aviv and is volunteering with KAV LA’OVED (Worker’s Hotline), a non-governmental organisation that works towards protecting the rights of workers. While in London, Sama was over the moon to learn that she had been accepted for a Bachelors program in Architecture at the acclaimed Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. They might not see each other as often they did when living next door to each other, but their friendship and strong bond is obvious and shines through their discussions. Fluent in English and extremely well-spoken, Sama and Neriya connected on a very human and emotional level with all their audiences.

The British Friends had a stated and realised goal of trying to get as much media exposure as possible. For that reason, planning of this tour started as early as February. Contacts were made with the media well in advance and press releases were sent out with Sama and Neriya’s biographies and pictures to spark interest. A short video, filmed by Canadian jounralist Ron Carrol in late April was used as a hotlink for PR purposes. With the background of the House of Silence, Sama and Neriya speak about their friendship and life in the village. This video sparked the interest of a BBC journalist who is currently interested in making a 40 minute documentary about the young women.

Sama and Neriya were hosted by Anthony and Tamar Warshaw, long-time supporters and friends of WAS-NS. Lasting from May 18 to May 25th, four formal events were organised, each with very different audiences. Benita Hide, Director of the British Friends explains that even though the visit did contain four meetings, the emphasis was on public relations and getting the media involved. As a result, the week was not planned to its fullest extent. In the past, the British Friends have planned extensive programmes which included visits to schools, universities, synagogues and churches. However, this time around, they wanted to make sure that that girls were free if a last-minute media opportunity showed up. Benita claims that compared to last summer’s tour with Noam Shuster and Ranin Bolous, this tour was less hectic. Even though they may not have reached as many people in such a wide variety of venues, the goals were much more clearly defined and plenty of time was left in the program to fit in media engagements.

Also compared to Noam and Ranin who are experienced ambassadors of the village, it was Sama and Neriya’s first time representing the village. "Having young people [representing the village] has several advantages over older, more experienced ones. They engage with the audience in a very personal way, with out the political slant that some of the older members have.” says Benita. She added that all the different audiences liked them very much and were very interested in hearing what they had to say.

The first evening was an evening organised by a group of Jewish journalists and might have been the least successful due to logistical issues and the insensitivity of the interviewer. However, things started looking up on the second evening. Held in a meeting room in Hotel Russel, in Central London, Sama and Neriya were interviewed by photojournalist Judah Passow A winner of four World Press Photo awards for his coverage of conflict in the Middle East, Passow, brought out a book of his photos and interviewed the girls making them feel comfortable and at ease. The audience of 50 people was mixed with typical WAS-NS supporters and new comers. They were so interested that they did not want to leave!

The third evening was organised by a vicar in a church in St Johns Wood in North West London. Sama and Neriya were invited to participate at the launching of Pathways, a group of clerics from the Regents Park mosque and different churches and synagogues in the area. The audience was impressed with their confidence as they stood up on their own and spoke in turn with out the help of an interviewer or the backup of the background information video showed at other events. The next night was a legal event at Lincolns Inn, one of the four ancient inns of court where Barristers of England and Wales belong to. Given the stature of barristers in England, this event was planned as the main fundraiser of the tour. The lawyers were entertained with wine and delicious Lebanese canapés while Sama and Neriya spoke about their life in the village. The evening was closed by an impassioned speech by the Chair of the British Friends. The last evening the young women were invited to prayers and a Sabbath meal at a Rabbi’s home which was perhaps the least formal of all events. Sitting around a large round table, Sama and Neriya sat amongst 25 congregants and enjoyed an informal, warm and friendly discussion. Benita gave direction to the discussion by acting as the interviewer and gave background information about WAS-NS.

What got the village most excited was Sama and Neriya’s appearance on the acclaimed BBC World channel. Calm and composed, one would not have been able to guess that Sama’s legs were shaking under the table! To add to the nervousness of being interviewed on BBC, the girls were almost late and were being fitted with microphones as George Alagiah, was introducing them. Alagiah’s portfolio for BBC includes feature interviews of Yasser Arafat, Kofi Anan, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Robert Mugabe. Not many 20 year old women can boast about being on prime time BBC. The Communications and Development team watched the interview together and many commented on their screen presence. After their stellar performance in London, no doubt Sama and Neriya will be called upon once again as not only ambassadors of the village, but also ambassadors of peace.

See also an interview of 14-year old Sama and Neriya conducted by OWL magazine in 2002.

*Sama and Neriya would like to thank the British Friends; Daniel and Claudia Zylbersztajn; Anthony and Tamar Warshaw; and Salah Uddin for making their stay in London a true pleasure.

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