Palestinian from the Bethlehem, Sami Awad is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust. Like many Palestinians, Sami has lost family members as a result of the conflict in the Holy Land. His grandfather was killed in the 1948 war.
While he holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the American University in Washington D.C. and an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Kansas, his philosophical underpinnings for peacemaking were formed and molded by his family.
While Sami has worked all over the world to promote the vision of peace through nonviolence and community-building in places such as India, South Africa, the United States and most recently Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan, he remains at work mending historical traumas in the Holy Land.
In this short interview, Sami talks about his journey, Holy Land Trust’s framework for peace and the role of the Christian church in peacemaking and community building.
CO: What got you started in peace work? Was there a defining moment in your life that made you decide to take this course?
SA: When I was 12-years old, growing up as a Palestinian and witnessing the Israeli oppression of my family and my community, having a family that never thought violence was an answer shaped me.
It was at this age that my uncle began working with Palestinians and Israelis in nonviolent resistance. So at the age of 12, I started to understand my life’s path because I realized that we have a right to resist occupation as Palestinians and to live in dignity, freedom and respect, and we could do that through nonviolence.
This materialized a few years later when the Israeli government arrested my uncle. They put him on trial and deported him from the country because of his nonviolent commitments and work. From there I dedicated my life to understanding the power of nonviolence. I wanted to understand how a country as powerful and as strong as Israel could see in this one peace activist a threat to its national security.
CO: How did Holy Land Trust find its beginning?
SA: Holy Land Trust started as an organization in the late 1990’s as a response to the Oslo Peace Process. The reality on the ground was not changing. Leaders on both sides were failing. We saw Israel’s military occupation reshaping its structure and format, but it nonetheless remained.
The biggest symbol of that process was the growth of Israeli settlements. How can you be negotiating a political peace process that was based on giving the Palestinians the land to establish their independent state while at the same time taking pieces of that land and moving Israeli citizens onto it? It was going to make it difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate these areas in the future. We saw no real intention to make peace.
The second reality is that the Oslo Accords were a process of separation and segregation of the communities rather than bringing communities together, which is what peace should be about. How do you build relationships between communities when you are separating them?
CO: Can you give us a little bit of the context for your recent trip to Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan?
SA: I went there on the invitation from an organization in the UK called The Tear Fund. The Tear Fund understands that peacebuilding needs to accompany relief work. They have been aware of our programs and invited me to do a program in Egypt for leaders that represent seven different Arab Countries. So the connection with Erbil was made there.
CO: What message and training did you bring to this group and are there any significant differences that you made in your approach?
SA: What we did for these leaders is created a space for them to be human again. These are leaders who have been working day and night tirelessly for three or four years in the crises of Northern Iraq and Syria. They are helping and giving to the point of being worn out without realizing it.
This was a space for them to look into their pais, struggles in their personal journeys and how this regional conflict has affected them personally and how their personal conflicts are impacting their work.
CO: Can you talk about the similarities and differences between that conflict and the conflict here in the Holy Land?
SA: The commonality that I see is that these conflicts, like many conflicts around the world, are motivated by mistrust and fear of the other. In the context of the Holy Land and Iraq, people’s fear for their lives is a real existential threat. In Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan, we are witnessing cases of actual genocide. We see groups people, whether Kurds, Iraqis, Shi’a or Sunnis who feel like if they don’t do something, they will cease to exist.
Fear has become an epidemic that is spreading all across the world and people are dealing with fear mostly through violence, instead of seeing that building relationships of trust and respect, engaging in community building, and seeking to understand the other and the grievances of the other is the better way to achieve real results of peace.
CO: What are you taking back from your experience in Northern Iraq and how do you see your work there being linked to the work in the Holy Land moving forward?
SA: I come back from that experience with a lot of hope. Even in the midst of the conflict they are living in, even in the midst of the most atrocious act of violence in modern history, there are people that are doing everything they can to end this violence.
CO: When you look at a conflict like what is going on in various parts of the Middle East and the Holy Land, what role do you think that Christian communities should take in being peacemakers?
SA: I think the Christian community has a major role to play in the field of peacemaking and in areas of conflict, whether it is the local Christian population that is suffering from conflict or the international Christian population that is observing the conflict. Christians are called to be peacemakers. The Christian understanding of peacemaking is about how you bring communities together and build relationships trust and respect between them. This is what Christ did. He went to these communities, he went to his enemies, and he engaged with them and never marginalized anybody. He had compassion, he had understanding, and he created a space for healing to take place.
CO: Are there particular teachings that guide your framework for peacemaking?
SA: The Sermon on the Mount when Christ called his followers to love their enemies. I think many Christians are proud of a statement like this, which is unique to their faith. But when we ask the question of how many people are living this principle out, it breaks my heart to see that very, very few are engaging in loving their enemy. This is central to what we are doing here. We are asking ourselves these questions: What am I doing to understand my enemy and the pain of my enemy? Because we understand that oppression comes from a point of pain that has not been healed. And then this is where justice comes in.
CO: Should churches look at boycott, sanctions, and divestment as a useful tool for peacemaking?
SA: Churches need to be a place where it is clear that we refuse oppression, we refuse occupation, we refuse injustice and we will not cooperate with institutions and organizations that commit human rights violations. This is the basic moral understanding that we are responsible for and we are called to stand in the face of those who are committing atrocities and say to them “NO.”
CO: The Mennonite Church USA tabled a resolution that included mention of BDS recently, but the church body failed to move forward on it. What would you say to the people who didn’t support it and what would you say to those that did?
SA: The challenge of this work is the pressure these churches, especially the Mennonite Church, get from outside the church body. The Mennonite Church, as a historic peace church, needs to be a leader in peace movements. So I encourage the church to continue the debate and to continue to tweak the resolutions, not so outside critics will accept it, but in light of the moral obligation of being spiritually present in these times.
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