Roommates Eliran Ben Yair and Abdullah Salha stroked a cerulean sea across a 48-foot canvas sprawled on the New Haven Green Tuesday afternoon.
The boys didn’t sleep very well the night they met. By the time they were painting together, they’d become friends.
That was the point, of the mural project and the summer program they enrolled in.
Ben Yair is from Israel, Salha, from Gaza.
Ben Yair is from Israel, Salha, from Gaza. On Tuesday they and other teens who are taking part in a 12-day Jerusalem Peacebuilders (JPB) Youth Leadership Program — designed to bring young people across a political divide to study each other’s traditions and break down barriers — did it with paint.
“I have new family members, which are my Israeli and Palestinian friends,” Ben Yair said.
The 17 students of the program worked for four hours to produce a large mural designed by artist Russell Rainbolt. Reading “We Welcome Refugees,” the mural depicts a young refugee washing ashore. It is slated to be hung near Exit 42 of I-95 in West Haven.
“I have new family members which are my Israeli and Palestinian friends,” said Ben Yair.
According to Nicholas Porter, president and founder of JPB, the mural is an indirect interpretation of a photograph taken by New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks featuring a young Turkish boy arriving in Greece in October of 2015. Porter said that Rainbolt generalized the image of a boy wading through water to represent the vulnerability and personhood of any refugee.
“One of the key levers to transform conflict, whether it’s between Isreali Jews and Palestinians or the tensions in this nation,” he said, “is that recognition of our common humanity.”
The teens took 14 classes through the program during the school year. They gathered in New Haven during the past several days under the direction of Porter. The students volunteered with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, also known as IRIS. They also visited the United Nations in New York City to meet with diplomats, following in line with Porter’s philosophy that “to change and grow, [the students] must be taken out of their home environments.”
JPB conducts youth classes and programs across the country and abroad. Porter said that New Haven embodies the beauties and challenges of a small city, charming and full of vigor yet plagued with racism, misunderstanding and bigotry. He said that by working with refugees in New Haven, the students are able to connect with themselves and experience the same kind of violence and bigotry which fuels tension in their homelands from a different lense.
“Palestianians of all kinds and Israelis of all kinds understand what it’s like to be a refugee,” said Porter.
Ben Yair said that two years ago, he had not yet developed an open-minded approach to the conflictual intricacies marking his home. He is Jewish, and he also considers himself an Arab in part due to his father’s Moroccan heritage.
“I wanted to meet the other side,” said Ben Yair with regards to his decision to join the program.
Shada Bishara, a Palestinian Christian, said she initially struggled to branch out from the classmates she formerly knew entering the program. The Fourth of July brought her in contact with an American woman, one who was unaware of the inner workings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I had the opportunity to explain my homeland,” said Bishara, who says she will return to Nazareth with increased comfort in sharing her thoughts, informing others and forging friendships like she did through JPB.
Bishara worked with children at IRIS, allowing her to develop a favorite of the refugees, a young Syrian boy nearing 2 years old with whom she played games.
Sham Abu Leil came from Palestinian influences in Ein Mahel that convinced her that people alone were the sole victims of the tense relations hazing the region. Following the classes during the school year and her experience in the summer program, she said, she now sees the Jews on the “other side” differently.
“We are both victims,” she said.
Ryan Abukhadar, a Christian from Nazareth, acknowledged that the two sides still do not agree on many cultural factors. He said they must learn to respect the differences to seek truth.
He added that the ability to volunteer with IRIS had been an “amazing “ opportunity.
“My narrative is completed,” said Abukhadar.