Dr. Izzeldine Abuelaish, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, is an internationally recognized activist for peace and justice in the Middle East. He grew up in a refugee camp in the city of Jubalia on the Gaza strip and knows firsthand how education and freedom can change the world on micro, mezzo and macro levels. Against many odds, Dr Abuelaish rose above his dire surroundings to achieve top marks in his classes granting him a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo, Egypt. Upon completing his studies in Egypt he moved to Saudi Arabia where he specialized in fertility and In-Vitro Fertilization. In a bout of homesickness and a desire to be near his family, Dr Abuelaish returned to Gaza to become the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital. In 2009, Israeli TV broadcasted a live reaction from him minutes after an Israeli tank released a shell that took the lives of his three daughters, Bessam, Mayar and Aya, as well as his niece Noor. Rather than taking the road of revenge, which any one of us might have done in his situation he decided to continue to promote his message peace and justice.
In March 2014 I spent four weeks reading and discussing Dr Abuelaish’s book entitled, I Shall Not Hate; A Gaza Doctor’s Journey; on campus at the University of Regina with a group of student’s from various faiths, religions and backgrounds. The book club was facilitated through Luther College and led by Dr Brenda Anderson and Reverend Cheryl Toth. For one month our group engaged in discussions surrounding such themes as home, displacement and trauma. While we spent much time talking about Dr Abuelaish’ experiences, our discussions did not focus on blame or politics; rather attention was given to thoughtful listening and reconciliation. For weeks each participant practiced active listening, rather than reflexive quick and unthinking judgement. For me, the following quote sums up the important message contained his narrative, “I ask for a decent life for Palestinians. Instead of building a wall, we need to build a bridge.”[i]
On the morning of March, 26, 2014, our book club had the opportunity to sit down with Dr Abuelaish and discuss various topics over breakfast. For me, the experience was truly wonderful as his presence is very inviting and his point of view is refreshing and rejuvenating. Although I was not armed with my trusty pen and paper I was able to capture a few of his ideas that are worth sharing. Before anything we must make an honourable intention towards the good of everyone. When you do this, God will put the right people in your path to help you. They don’t have to be the same religion as you; they may not even have a religion, but people coming together for justice, peace and love will always be a magnetic force. The second gold nugget that I took away was that everyone’s health and well-being is interconnected. If I am not well, then you will invariably not be well also. Peace, justice, harmony and balance are determined through the interconnection of our humanity. Good health is a primary need for everyone that can bridge peace and break down boundaries and misunderstandings.
This year’s Forward Together Lecture presented by Dr Izzeldine Abuelaish was the highest attended event in the series to date. His method of storytelling captured his audience with intrigue, laughter and tears. His overall answer to the disease that has taken over Palestine and Israel is to call for peace and reconciliation through knowing and understanding. In order to achieve peace in the broader spectrum we must first reconcile with our Creator and then reconcile with ourselves. Furthermore, we must understand our personal narrative and identity and then get to know others intimately. In understanding one another’s stories we will see that our universal values and similarities will supersede our differences. We can never accept something or someone if we do not understand them, therefore it is imperative to make a concerted effort to get to know the people around us and make meaningful connections. During his lecture, Dr Abuelaish told the story of when he met his new neighbor in Canada. It was suggested to him that they tear down the fence that separated their yards so that their young children could play together. This incident, he said, affected him deeply because he was so used to building barriers and walls and here he was in Canada tearing one down.
Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish’s story is extremely powerful. We can gain so much from learning about his experiences and the approach he has taken to his difficult situation. It is my hope that in getting to know his story, his important message is not lost. It is everyone’s responsibility to work for the freedom of all people(s) no matter what religion, race, or gender. We all have a part to play, whether it is good people keeping silent (perpetuating the problem) or those standing up for true justice, equality and liberty; each individual contribution to the benefit or detriment of others with come through depending on how we approached this situation. Our action and inaction both play a role in the pain or well-being of others. Dr Abuelaish’s ability to reach others, regardless of their religious beliefs or political background is a rare gift that not many possess. I would like to thank the cooperation between the four universities, the University of Regina, Luther College, Campion College and First Nations University, for bringing Dr Abuelaish to share his beautiful message with us. I intend to use my experience to further engage dialogue and continue to promote peace and justice for everyone.
[i] Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate, Toronto. Random House, 2011. page 141, Print.
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