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Mohammed and Me

Mohammed and Me

It's a weekend to take stock. Meera and Ellen are in Spokane, at what is likely Meera's last meet as a competitive gymnast. I've got time on my hands to reflect, and give thanks for the great gifts my wife and children have provided (and continue to provide) to me.

So for a quick report: Aliyah is graduating from Smith College with a double major in music and Italian studies. She is now best fitted (in my judgment) for a career as an absent-minded professor with impossible handwriting. But it looks like the universe has plans for her to fulfill her dharma, for she has received a handsome five-year fellowship to the playpen at Princeton to study musicology and Italian Renaissance Studies, in other words, to prepare for a career as an absent-minded professor with impossible handwriting. I'm jealous, though my handwriting really isn't nearly as bad as hers. But it does mean that now we can take her off our payroll. Together we have formed the "Sophie Chotek Memorial Society for Useless Knowledge". (Those of you who immediately scrambled to find out who Sophie Chotek was, and followed it up with a second websearch about the Second Defenestration of Prague are likely candidates for membership. If you already knew who Sophie Chotek is and the date of the Second Defenestration, you're a charter member! We'll have a website up soon.) Her mind remains, as she wrote four years ago, "an archaelogical dig", and it looks like she will continue to have the luxury of being paid to explore it. (She misplaced her official offer letter to Princeton in the minefield of her room; she remembered where it was while inside a church dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua - the patron saint of lost things - in Sicily. It was in an organizer, absolutely the last place she would have looked!)

If Aliyah's mind is a rich archaelogical dig, Meera's is a laser pointer, trained on a single target. She s headed off to American University in Washington, DC in the fall as a step toward fulfilling her plan with a joint degree in international business/accounting and international service, with more than a little Arabic thrown in. (see plan below). Her high school years were this unusual combination of homeschooling, high school, and community college designed to meet the requirements of the National Collegiate Athletic Association to pursue a college gymnastics career, now clearly not going to happen (hold on for a minute, there's the phone. "She's qualified for the Level 9 National Championships in St. Louis in May." "Oh, and how are we going to fit that in?") At any rate, those of you who live on the east coast and are thinking about inviting me to address your homeschooling group, please know that I will be aching to come!"

Having returned from seven weeks in Cairo last summer with a surprising amount of spoken Arabic now part of her repertoire, she immediately began putting it to use through regular videoconferencing with youth and staff involved with the Rachel Corrie Youth and Cultural Center in Rafah, Palestine. And then, after a more than two-year hiatus, she announced she was performing another benefit piano recital. "They really need the money," she said. Ellen and I tried to appear nonchalant about the whole thing. (NOT!) But she got "her people" to organize the hall, take on the publicity (complete with poster), deal with money, and do just about everything but her hair (that was our contribution).

Sigh. In three months they'll both be gone. But I'm not ready to reflect upon being an emptynester. Not yet. I'm still basking in the glow. Maybe always will - we'll just have to see.

In the meantime, Meera agreed that I could share her college essay with you:

Mohammed and Me

This is my friend Mohammed Asaker from Rafah, Palestine. He is my future business partner. Together we will rebuild Gaza and the West Bank.

I have been preparing myself for this partnership for a long time, although I didn't always know it. Following the events of September 11th, I began attending a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group in order to connect with my community (Olympia, Washington) and to educate myself about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In spring 2003, a young peace activist and college student from my hometown, Rachel Corrie, whom I had met several times at my local Friends (Quaker) Meeting, was tragically killed while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah. Immediately after this incident, I began working with the newly-founded Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, and this is how I later came to meet Mohammed. It took Mohammed three years to get out of Rafah to come and study in the United States. He was deeply moved by Rachel's death, and felt that he needed to acquire skills in the field of economic development to bring back to his home to continue Rachel's legacy.

At a very young age, I began playing the piano and later became a concert pianist. In late 2003, I offered to perform a recital as a benefit for the Israeli-Palestinian Families of the Bereaved Forum for Peace. This is a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a family member to the conflict. They are coming together to try and solve their common problems so that people on either side do not feel they have to resort to violence. Following their three days of presentations in Olympia, I had the privilege to travel with two members of the group on the rest of their speaking tour in Washington State. Rami Elhanan is an Israeli father who had lost his daughter, Smadar, who would have been my age, but was killed by a suicide bombing while she was walking home on her first day of middle school. Ghazi Briegeith is a Palestinian whose two younger brothers were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. After spending time with these two men, I felt (and still feel) called to help end the suffering caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mohammed was attending graduate school, he came to Olympia as a guest speaker at a memorial dinner honoring Rachel's life. He spoke about the work that he hoped would create a more stable economy in Rafah. Later that evening, Mohammed and I had a conversation in which he told me that he needed all the help he could get, and that any skills I had to assist his cause would be a tremendous gift to him and his community. While I knew that I was passionate about this issue, I wasn't really sure in what way I could directly help. That has since changed. I now see using the skills I have previously developed, and those skills I will develop in the future as directed toward this end.

Developing financial skills is a necessary part of realizing my dream. In addition to performing benefit recitals, I have been the treasurer's intern for two non-profit organizations in my town. Interning has been a rewarding experience as I am able to utilize the accounting skills I have been acquiring in high school, as well as being able to observe how finance works in the real world. As dull as it may sound to some, accounting is a subject I enjoy very much. It is the language of business, as it communicates the wants and needs of people and creates a financial structure to measure an organization's performance in fulfilling them.

I am working hard to increase my intercultural communication skills. I have become my community and high school's acknowledged, though unofficial, ambassador to exchange students from around the world -- from Italy and Switzerland to Chile and Thailand. In acknowledgement of my efforts, I was recently awarded my County's "Youth Diversity and Human Rights Award". This past summer, I received a "Youth Ambassador" scholarship from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to travel to Cairo for six weeks to participate in a summer intensive Arabic language institute with 24 other students from across the country. I learned Arabic, experienced Egyptian society, and most importantly, built bridges between their culture and my own. On the way to Cairo, we stopped in Washington, DC. Since I already had extensive lobbying experience acquired as part of my work with the Corrie Foundation, I was chosen to help lead a group in lobbying Congressional representatives on increasing funding for intercultural exchange programs.

In my third year of working with the Corrie Foundation, I helped organize and then attended a major international peace conference focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conference brought in speakers from both Israel and Palestine: politicians, journalists, teachers, activists, students, and others. Taking part in the conference and its evaluation made me realize that peace is possible if we learn to really listen to one another and seek common ground.

Thus far in my preparation for working with Mohammed, I have developed the rudiments of fundraising, accounting, intercultural communications, negotiation, organizational, and governmental relations skills, and have discovered an aptitude for languages. I have a long way to go, and Mohammed and I both understand that in order for our work to bear fruit, the world must cooperate. It will take time, but Mohammed and I are not na´ve, and are in it for the long haul. There must be peace in the Middle East, and I, or shall I say, we, intend to be part of it.