How Debate for Peace gave me a family when I was alone in Israel
Hey everyone! My name is Mihal Mizrahi and I’m a 16 year old Venezuelan student. Last year I made aliyah by myself in a program called Naale, which brings Jewish teenagers from all around the globe to live in Israel. The program’s name means “Noar Ole Lifnei Orim” which basically translates to “Young people make Aliyah (move to Israel) before their parents”.
So yeah! I live here by myself, don’t worry it’s not as crazy as it sounds: we live in a boarding school and we get to go out on weekends to visit friends or family.
When I got here I felt so lonely, I didn’t want to be here in the first place, even though I knew that was the best decision that my parents could have taken considering Venezuela’s current condition. Life here is pretty hard by itself, and it gets even harder when you don’t have a family, or friends or even the same language and culture.
But then I joined Debate for Peace. It all started when my english teacher proposed to me and another group of girls to join the club of “Model United Nations.” In one of the meetings we had in the club the teacher mentioned that some of us would be selected to join a meeting at the embassy of the Philippines. I still remember that day, I sat alone in the front and I was really nervous, getting there had been such a challenge since I had been learning how to use Israeli transportation (and Moovit was just making everything worse). Everyone there seemed to know each other, but then this really nice girl who sat next to me, her name was Nancy. Nancy and I started talking about a lot of things and somehow the topic of how she was a Muslim came to the surface. I was absolutely shocked, How come I didn’t notice?! I was talking with the “enemy” as if they were my best friends! How come I hadn’t learned anything from all the terrorist attacks against the Jews and everything that i got taught at school?! But Nancy didn’t seem dangerous or anything, she seemed…well… pretty normal.
Then a boy sat next to us, his name was Nico. He, Nancy and I kept speaking about random teenager stuff and Nico mentioned he was from Brazil, Brazil! I couldn’t believe it I was not the only Latino here, I remember screaming at him in Portuguese, Brazil?! I know Portuguese!, he looked at me and asked me where I was from, and I screamed: Venezuela!; Nico told me about how he was Brazilian but he lived all his life in Uruguay, and in that moment it hit me, I had to keep coming to the group, it was the closest thing I had to my home and my friends back in Venezuela, though the idea of being with the enemy didn’t seem very appetizing.
Everything escalated from there, the second meeting was a discussion about the current conflict with Palestine, it was crazy! How could we even be discussing something that was so obvious for me! This was Israel not Palestine, a country built by Jews only for Jews, built up on our stories and only our stories, How could they dare to give their opinion about their issue, Right? WRONG, ABSOLUTELY WRONG. I had lived 15 years in my ignorance, in my own bubble created by the media, by the opinion of the extremists, by what I had learned from school, and then suddenly, BOOM!! that bubble exploded, suddenly, I was not the only one whose family had been expelled from their homeland (in my case the expulsion of Castilla by the Catholic royal family of Spain), suddenly there were others who had lost everything in the Nakba. I was not the only one who had been a minority in the country that they lived in, and I was not the only one with an opinion about this topic. I listened to the stories of the Arab students, who now I called my friends,they listened to mine, and we both realized that we are more than those stories, than those prejudices, that there is more behind our roots or our culture and even our religion, behind all that we were teenagers, human beings, with only one wish, peace.
Those kids, those Arab kids, whom I had misjudged, whom I had been afraid of, became my family (guys if you all see this I love you all), but I’d like to talk specifically about my best friend, Shada Drawshi:
Shada and I met at a delegation that was going to fly to New York City to Yale’s Model United Nations conference. At first I was being distant from everyone, I didn’t know them, yet I had to live with them for 12 days! So I decided to stay with Hanna, a girl from my school whom I had known since 3 years ago when we got to New York. We all ended up sitting together in the train and started sharing stories and many many laughs. Shada and I suddenly ended up talking about our obsession with sunglasses and we became pretty close friends, both of us really clumsy, obsessed with fashion, obsessed with people taking pictures of us, obsessed with Instagram and always happy and in a great mood.
We decided that instead of both Arab girls sharing one bed and both latinas sharing the other bed we would split, so I ended up getting the same bed as Shada, and our friendship resulted from there. We went together side by side all the days, we shopped together, we shared the same money, the same food, we taught each other our respective language. Tt was as if we were twins, we bought the same clothing, we took too many pictures (Sorry Steven for driving you crazy that whole week), we laughed, we cried together and then the trip finally came to an end, but not our friendship.
Shada and I remained in contact, we met many times after that. About two weeks ago her family invited me to spend a weekend at her house. I accepted with pleasure, I was still afraid though, I had never been into an Arab Village, not to mention stayed there for a night, but then I decided it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone, I took a train to Afula and she and her mother received me there, we talked the whole way about the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, and then we got to Iksal, everything was so weird to me, no more signs in Hebrew, everything was in Arabic.
I got down of the car and I got to her house, we talked for a little more while we waited for our phones to charge so we could go out to Nazareth for a little tour. Shada introduced me to her amazing brother and sister, and she showed me many books and pictures in Arabic. To be honest I’m embarrassed to admit how shocked I was when I saw her family was as normal as mine.
And then we took off. Shada took me on a tour through Nazareth, we saw the beautiful churches in there, we saw the city. My favorite part was the International Center Marie de Nazareth, It was a beautiful chapel which is normally full of people, but when we got there it was empty, there was no one there. You could breathe in the peace there, who would believe that a Jewish and a Muslim girl were visiting a Christian place together? We went up on the roof, where we could see the whole city.
Probably the most amazing part was when we went to the Al-Noor Mosque. I got to wear a hijab, and we entered the Mosque with a couple of French families. The Imam received us there with such a warm smile, he was so happy to see that Shada was from Iksal, we told him how I was Jewish and she was Arab, and about Debate for Peace, he was so happy to hear it. He told us how hard his Mosque works in creating the peace between Muslims, Jews and Christians and how close those communities are back there in Nazareth and that “Inshallah” we will have peace in a few years.
After that we went to an Arab cemetery. Shada read some of the gravestones for me (my arabic has to improve) there was one that was dedicated to a “Shahid”, a Martyr. It was impressive for me to learn that not all Shahids are Shahids because they commit a suicide attack. Shada recited a prayer and I explored the place a little bit more. It was impressive how many similarities Judaism has with Islam, we both have simple gravestones, no flowers are allowed, we don’t use coffins and the dead have to be buried as fast as possible, they also have something similar to what we called “Shiva”.
We went for some Arab food which was pretty good and we went to a few more churches in the center of Nazareth, I remember how Shada looked at me and I could see the happiness in her face. She looked at me and told me “Mihal!, Mihal! I’m loving this, please, please let’s go to a synagogue, I want to meet your culture and your religion too.” This lit up my face, my best friend, a muslim! no less, wanted to visit a synagogue! We tried looking for a synagogue close to us but we couldn’t find one sadly. After that we walked for a little more and we saw a mural speaking about the Nakba, Shada translated it for me, and then we met with one of her friends to go to a small coffee shop in the heart of Nazareth, there we tried an amazing chocolate cake arab-style and we read some more about the story of Palestine.
Before we knew it it became dark and we had to go home, we were walking to a bus station when we saw some beautiful arab wedding dresses. Of course as the fashionistas that we are we had to try them on! We went inside the store, and Shada helped me ask in Arabic if I could try on the dress, I did, we laughed with the sales woman some more and then we went back.
In her house we told our adventures to her mother, and we facetimed with my father, turns out he knows perfect Arabic! he was able to speak for a while with Shada, then her father got home and I spoke with him about many things, such an amazing man! We spoke about Venezuela and then he said the most beautiful words someone could say in the spanish language “Mi casa es tu casa, mi familia es tu familia” “My home is your home, my family is your family” and he smiled at me, in that moment my heart felt the fullest that it had felt since I got here, I had a family! An Arab family! and I loved every single one of them.
We sat down to eat some arab pastries that were delicious, my favorite? the Knafee,while we shared our adventures of the day. I never felt so safe and so happy in such a long time. Next day I woke up to a breakfast that consisted of bread with Zaatar, a traditional meal of Pita, cheese and some sort of sauce, kind of like a pizza, chocolates and coffee. The best breakfast that I’ve ever had. Her mother then took us to the train station, I was so sad to leave, I hugged her and I hugged her mother while she whispered to me “You are welcome whenever you want at our house, please come back soon child”, then I left.
I couldn’t have been more thankful, because none of this could have been possible without Debate for Peace, and when I said that I was alone in Israel, I lied. I have this amazing family called “Debate for Peace”, I think the Mihal of the past would have never imagined how far I’d get just for being tolerant and respectful and open to listen to other people and cultures, and I can’t imagine how our country would be if everyone did that! Look at how that changed one person, Imagine a whole nation! Peace is the only road that we will walk by.
This organization inspired me, it inspired my family, it inspired many people, and it will keep inspiring our future generations and orient them towards peace.
To my friend Shada: I love you so much! thanks for changing my life
To Steven: Thanks for creating this amazing organization and for taking me and this whole generation on a road to peace, you are such an inspiration