On the last night of Westgate’s 2023 Middle East trip, students and staff met on the rooftop of the Ecce Homo Convent in the Old City of Jerusalem to reflect on their experiences. Fittingly, their gathering was interrupted by the call to prayer echoing across the city. No one seemed to mind. All of us soaked in the melodic sound, as the call invited people to pause and reflect on the place of God in their lives.
When the meeting resumed, everyone had something to share. Some of the 19 students on the June trip reflected on their time in Nazareth at the beginning of the trip, listening to Waseem, a Palestinian Israeli, tell his story of upheaval and struggle. Others commented on the kibbutz tour with Ellis, a Jewish Israeli man who spoke with pride about what his community had accomplished in northern Israel.
A number of students spoke about their time in the Wadi Rum, enjoying the rocks changing colour as the sun set, sipping on sweet Bedouin tea. Still others reminisced about Petra and its magnificent carvings shaped into the red rock. Many were overwhelmed by the blend between the majestic human made creations of the Nabateans and the awe-inspiring natural formations like the canyon by which we entered.
In thinking about our time in the West Bank, students reflected on their visit to Hebron, walking on streets that were off limits to our Palestinian guide. We spoke about the concrete separation barrier and the graffiti scrawled upon it, graffiti that pleaded for a world in which walls are not needed.
It was in this spirit that trip participants remembered our meeting with Gilli, an Israeli Jewish man, and Laila, a Palestinian Muslim. Gilli shared about the loss of his brother, who went missing in the Yom Kippur War. His body was never recovered.
Laila spoke about her son Qussay who died as an infant in 2002 when Israeli soldiers prevented her from taking him to the hospital for more than five hours.
Both Gilli and Laila admitted that their anger and grief were almost unbearable, but somehow they found a way to use their stories to tell others that the cycle of violence must end. The pinnacle of the sharing came when Laila revealed that she had recently met a soldier who was one of those who caused the death of her son.
The students spoke with reverence about her response and the fact that she could move through her anger to a place of reconciliation.
Reflecting together on all these stories and experiences, we recognized how our time in the Middle East had changed us. We knew we would continue to reflect upon the unfathomable monuments proclaiming the history of the region, the intensity of the current political situation, the openness of religious identity, and the natural beauty of this unique part of the world. With these thoughts in mind, we remained on the roof for quite some time, quietly listening to the street sounds and taking in the nightscape of the city of peace.
James Friesen is principal of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg.