A unique charity is helping children to set the foundations for a peaceful future in one of the most challenging conflict areas in the world
Children of Peace simply refuses to take sides. A UK-based organisation that aims to protect all children in Israel and Palestine – regardless of community, culture, faith or gender – it works with grassroots communities to build friendship, trust, understanding and reconciliation.
“It’s all about dialogue. Making contact; sharing a meal around a table; actually meeting people; celebrating people’s similarities and respecting their differences,” says Richard Martin, who founded the charity six years ago. He was inspired by his father who planted a thought in his mind: “If one man can change the world, think what a hundred could do.”
It was when he met two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, that he was moved to act. One had formed a courageous peace group, The Parents Circle Family Forum, bringing together bereaved families from both sides of the conflict. Richard was asked to get involved by helping the children, and beginning on his own, with just a telephone, a PC and an address book, he took up the challenge.
The diverse grassroots projects that have now been supported range from helping to establish a children’s recreational centre, to bringing school equipment to Gaza; funding musical instruments for an Arab-Jewish conservatoire in Israel; helping children with educational needs or impaired vision in Jerusalem; bringing medical supplies into Ramallah or organising a football tournament where children played in mixed teams and were bussed across the border with their parents who met each other over a barbecue.
The charity’s approach is to focus on immediate mechanisms for building peace. It provides grants and builds alliances with organisations that share its principles, establishing projects in the arts, education, health and sports for Israeli and Palestinian children aged 4-17. It works closely with cross-cultural groups run and supported by people living in the region, who know at first hand the real issues facing them.
One of Richard’s favourite examples of their work is with Hope Flowers School. “It is a beautiful school in Bethlehem,” he says, “which teaches the children – many from economically deprived backgrounds – tolerance, peace, and respect for their Israeli neighbours. The School promotes a unique prototype of peace and democracy education, which serves as a catalyst for educational improvements in the region and worldwide.”
The school also hosts projects that respond to the concerns of local Palestinian people, including debates on community issues such as education, democracy and local health.
A language teaching programme is another key part of the work of Children of Peace, which has had success affecting policy too. “Right from the start, we argued that children in the region should be learning each other’s languages,” Richard says. “Just a few months ago, the Israeli Department of Education introduced Arabic into the state school syllabus in selected schools.”
Much of the charity’s activity is youth-led and through a youth ambassadors programme and a new blog, the charity aims to help Israeli and Palestinian young people to start talking to each other.
A programme has also been developed to link schools worldwide with those in Israel and Palestine, while a group of Israeli and Arab girls based at the Jezreel Valley Arts Center in Israel have been supported in setting up the Shani Choir. The group’s version of John Lennon’s song, Imagine, sung with Bill Clinton, has been inspiring people through the internet.
It is the effect of its work at the ground level which is gaining the organisation respect from both sides. However it is not without its challenges. “The hardest path is the neutral path,” Richard confesses. “But respecting the history, heritage and culture of each community is a starting point that builds trust and enriches us all.”
While Richard feels the media takes sides, he is keen to emphasise that all children suffer in conflict. “It is clear that Palestinian children suffer most deprivation,” he acknowledges, “Gaza children under 16 make up 65% of the population and they are marooned in a world where many families live on less than $2 a day. However, Israeli children suffer too – from stress, anxiety and high levels of morbidity. Those in the south go to school in bomb proof shelters. Imagine that.
“All our work is centred upon opening doors and building bridges between communities,” Richard adds, “but our biggest focus is to draw attention to the plight of the children – to protect them and recognise that they are the future”. This approach has gained global support, including from the charity’s patrons: Madonna, Dame Judi Dench and HH the Begum Aga Khan. However, “the most heartening thing,” says Richard, “is the warmth and welcome our message is receiving across the region.”
Peace in Israel and Palestine is possible in the future, Richard believes, and he is not surprised by the way in which the message of Children of Peace has been received by all faiths and communities. “After all,” he says “we all share the same DNA and hardwired into humanity is a deep sense of altruism and commonality. Most of us want the same things: peace, our health, our children to be secure and safe, to have a decent life, to love and laugh… That’s why we must celebrate our similarities first and not the things that divide us. That’s why we always try to look forward.”