Portraits of Peacebuilders

Inspiring Stories for International Day of Peace

Photos by Bobby Neptune for USAID

It’s not a simple task telling the story of a peacebuilder, especially when it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After more than six decades, this complicated conflict is ongoing, leaving many Israelis and Palestinians more distant from one another and more disillusioned with the peace process.

USAID projects bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, in many cases, to meet for the first time, have become more and more critical to break stereotypes and allow both groups to see the humanity in one another.

By supporting people-to-people peacebuilding efforts worldwide, USAID brings together individuals of different backgrounds from areas of conflict to participate in reconciliation activities promoting democratic and resilient societies.
Illustration by Daniel Vyshemirskyi. Design by Sahar Kalifa.

But what exactly does this mean? How is this implemented? What is the impact?

Part of my job is to tell the stories of the individuals, families, and communities impacted by USAID’s work. I don’t have to look far to do so. There are millions of stories around the world on the work USAID and partners are doing to benefit people and communities every day.

In an effort to capture this work through video portraits, at the beginning of this year, we traveled around Israel and the West Bank to share some amazing stories of peace, friendship, and hope.

We joined six individuals on their journeys and witnessed their everyday attempts to promote tolerance and peace. Hearing their stories, following their everyday routines, and seeing their daily struggles left us drained at the end of each day, just from that snapshot of their lives. But more than that, it inspired us.

This week, as world leaders gather at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, they are also marking International Day of Peace on September 21. This year’s theme, “The Sustainable Goals: Building Blocks of Peace,” recognizes that global development and peace are mutually reinforcing and that peace runs like a thread through all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations’ 193 member states.

Photo from the film shots in Israel and the West Bank. / Photo by Bobby Neptune for USAID

To celebrate this year’s International Day of Peace, we share with you a behind-the-scenes look at peacebuilders — the inspiring stories of the people we work with.

Jerusalem’s Peace Players

We first met Jinan and Liraz at the basketball court. When the two girls are together, they playfully tease each other and erupt in giggles. When apart, they constantly text each other. Jinan is a 14-year-old Palestinian, and Liraz is a 16-year-old Israeli. They were introduced through PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit organization supported by USAID that uses basketball as a tool to bridge divides. Born on opposite sides of the conflict, the pair met when they joined the same basketball team, and they instantly bonded.

Now Jinan and Liraz are role models to their peers and families. Both dads said that PeacePlayers has had a positive affect on their daughters. They talked about their relationship outside the court, sharing anecdotes like when Liraz’s family hosted an Iftar to break the fast with Jinan during Ramadan.

Liraz says Jinan is like the little sister she never had. The obvious sisterly bond the two have was fun to watch.

“At the end of the day we’re both human, and I don’t feel like there is a difference between us. We make a perfect team.” — Jinan

Our Power Is Our Pain

Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Bassam Aramin are unlikely allies. But they share a powerful bond — the loss of a child to the ongoing conflict.

Robi’s son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. Bassam’s young daughter Abir was killed by an Israeli border guard in 2007. Today, the joint spokespeople for the Parents Circles Families Forum travel the world sharing their personal stories. The Forum, a nonprofit organization supported by USAID, is made up of more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families who lost a family member to the conflict. Transforming their incredible loss and pain into a catalyst for dialogue, its members operate education, public awareness, and advocacy projects that foster humanization and empathy towards both Israelis and Palestinians.

We couldn’t help but be awed by Robi and Bassam’s mission and passion, traveling everywhere, speaking to anyone who would listen. Despite their tragic loss, they dedicate their lives to advocating for peace, reconciliation, and tolerance in the region. Seeing the interaction between the two, the mutual respect and genuine care, it was evident that their friendship was above the conflict.

“If you go into an average Israeli classroom, and you ask the kids, ‘who of you have ever met a Palestinian?’ Nobody. Or maybe one in the class.” — Robi

An Olive Peace

We traveled to Ayala Noy Meir’s mill on a Friday. Ayala’s family owns a small olive press in northern Israel. Khaled Hasan Hussein Yaseen Al-Juneidi, a Palestinian engineer and olive oil expert, planted his first olive tree with his father when he was 5 years old and, since then, he’s had a passion for learning how to make the best olive oil.

They met through Olive Oil Without Borders, a USAID-supported project implemented by the Near East Foundation that brings together Israeli and Palestinian olive farmers, mill operators, and olive oil distributors to share farming methods in workshops, introduce innovative techniques of the business, and produce better olive oil.

This helps to increase production and profit but it also gives participants an opportunity to learn about each other, build mutual understanding, and promote peace.

Khaled and Ayala are just two of many who have forged a unique friendship and an important connection through this project. They both shared a love for their profession and wanted to learn from each other’s expertise.

And yes, we did taste the olive oil. It would probably pass the test of the most discerning olive oil sommeliers. Maybe it’s the peacebuilding element.

“The olive branch is a symbol of peace in the world. My wish for this land is an olive peace.” — Khaled

Thanks to Kelly Ramundo, Nicky Corbett, Bobby Neptune, Brian Hill, and Jeremy Hayes for joining the adventure.

About the Author

Sahar Kalifa is the Director of Communications at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission to the West Bank and Gaza. Most recently, she led several campaigns for USAID including the agency’s first regional communications initiative. In this capacity, she produced new content for USAID’s storytelling and multimedia platforms focusing on human interest stories from around the world.