Sarin Gejekoushian and her Armenian family grew up in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Now a student at the Hebrew University, she credits Jerusalem Peacebuilders' summer institutes with giving her life skills and experiences that have shaped her personality.
Sarin was a JPB learner twice, first in the Service-Learning Summer Institute in Connecticut and then in the Leadership Institute in Vermont. Thinking back on the experiences at camp, she realizes how they have expanded her ability to be socially engaged and outspoken. She now sees herself as someone who is able to feel comfortable with people across religious and ethnic divides.
"I feel more comfortable approaching people from different races, different backgrounds, people who dress differently," she says, "before, it wasn't like that. Before, it was a bit scary. Because again I didn't grow up around Jews, despite the fact that I live in Jerusalem. But ever since the program, my opinion was very different."
But the experiences also taught her something about her own limitations. Particularly, how difficult it can be for her to take a stand or to voice her opinion for fear that it might hurt someone's feelings.
"The dialogues were a little scary, because everyone heard what you had to say. And sometimes, I didn't want to share my opinions with everyone. Maybe, because.... I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings or make them misunderstand my point, so I didn't talk a lot for that reason. We get so close... Because we get so close as people, we were at that point when we didn't want to say what we really thought in order to not hurt each other's feelings."
Sarin noticed this tendency in herself, especially around the dialogue sessions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As an Armenian, she saw herself as someone who was in many ways outside of the conflict, being neither Arab nor Jewish-Israeli.
"The people I was with, they were more into the dialogues, because they each had personal stories which were very related to the dialogue, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Honestly, honestly... they were more into it than I was, because of my background. I didn't grow up with that conflict around me. I knew it existed, but it didn't affect the way I lived. That's different, because of who I am and where I grew up. So, where I stood was different from where they did. I looked at things differently. Sometimes they were attacking each other, and both of them were my friends."
But the experience and the feeling of being on the outside also taught her how to see multiple sides of a story. And how being able to do that is really a gift and a privilege.
"I think of both sides, not only where I stand, but also where the other person stands...It was one way of learning how to consider other people's opinions and their situations. "
Besides learning more about her role in the conflict, she also expanded her interpersonal skills. She remembers several activities that deeply impacted her. The first memory is of a mask making activity that challenged students to express their true identities using the masks as a medium.
"At the end, everybody had to describe why they painted theirs the way they did, why they chose the patterns they chose. For some people, it was a way to confess things they haven't shared with their parents. I really appreciated that. It is easier for some people to express themselves ways other than talking. Maybe art, they write it down, it's one of those ways. It was emotional and everybody was really into it."
In two other activities, she was struck by how much she learned about the benefits of collaborative working. In a speech writing activity, she was teamed up with a Muslim Palestinian participant, Muhammad with whom she is still in touch, years after their shared camp experience.
"And then my favorite activity was when we had to write a speech. I still remember what it was about, and I still remember some sentences from it. And my partner, Mohammad, we got closer and we still talk because of the speech. It was one of the best experiences I've had.
And in another activity, they were role-playing negotiation scenarios.
"One activity I still didn't forget was a negotiating activity. We were separated into two groups, as if one group was attacking our planet and then we had to save it. So, we [learned] how to negotiate! And work as a team. I feel like each activity was mostly being focused on teamwork. And that is what brought us closer to each other, because we had to work together all the time. "
Sarin talks about her experiences with JPB with a great deal of passion and animation. And with a recollection of the activities and her fellow students that makes it clear how deeply impactful the experience has been. The conflict in the Holy Lands impacts all her residents and though we often hear stories from the Muslim and Jewish communities, its important to remember to include the voices of Christian Arabs, Bedouins, Druze and Armenians who are vital part of the Holy Lands' social landscape. Sarin's story with Jerusalem Peacebuilders demonstrates the important work that can be done when we purposefully include young people from these often marginalized communities.