Reflections on Hosting Arab Israeli Visitors from Ilut Middle School

In early 2016, Brookwood sixth graders began sharing aspects of their lives and culture with a group of Israeli Arab eighth grade students from Ilut, a small village in northern Israel near Nazareth. Using an Israeli Ministry of Education website, food preferences, music, daily activities and school life were the staples commonly traded. The kids were excited to connect and learn from each other.

Then, during a trip to Israel in March 2016, I got into a car with my wife and 24-year-old son to drive two hours north from Tel Aviv to visit our new friends in person. Though I had lived in Israel decades earlier, I had never developed a relationship with any Israeli Arabs. I was very nervous, feeling like I was stepping into the unknown and taking a big leap of faith.

Any assurance I felt was due in great part to Kefah Lahwani, an English teacher at Ilut Middle School and Nofuz Khateeb, History Teacher and Grade Seven Team Leader. Kefah Lahwani and I met via after I sent a request for our sixth grade students to ask questions about the conflicts in Israel. Brookwood sixth graders study the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and we were hoping to gather perspectives from various students in that region. Kefah replied almost immediately and loved the idea! However, despite how sensitive Evan Diamond (Grade Six World Cultures Teacher and Upper School Division Head), Maile Black (Grade Six English and World Cultures Teacher) and I tried to be as we crafted the questions we wanted to ask her students, Kefah informed me that we had left out the most important question. I felt awful that we had missed something important but could not imagine what question we forgot. “Ask the students what it feels like to be an Arab citizen in Israel,” she told me via Skype. Her simple but important request reminded me that I still had so much to learn about the complicated layers that make up the history and people of Israel.

Kefah and Nofuz were gracious enough to invite my family to visit her school. As we approached the village of Ilut on a hillside, we were instructed to pull into the only gas station that served the town and text Kefah using WhatsApp. Kefah told me that Ilut had no street signs and it would be easier for me to follow her to school than try to locate it myself. As we pulled up to the parking area at the front of a large concrete building with a small asphalt playground, I felt that we could be in front of any typical urban, land-locked middle school with few resources and large class sizes. Students stopped and stared, filled windows and pointed at us as we walked from our cars into the courtyard and up the main flight of stairs. As I later learned, we were some of the first U.S. citizens ever to visit the school. Most importantly, I was the first person to come to their school because I valued their opinions, their voices about the Palestinian Conflict and what life was like for them as Arabs living in Israel.

Thinking I would simply be interviewing Kefah’s eighth grade class for 45 minutes, I was surprised at the ceremony and significance of our visit. We were officially greeted by the Principal and sat down for tea in his office, followed by a tour of the school with an entourage of teachers and several students. Finally, when I met with the eighth graders in a classroom, filled with many other teachers and the Principal, we were also greeted by the Mayor of Ilut. He had come to present me with a plaque for honoring his school and his students by our visit. It reads: “To our friend Doug… It was an honor to have you as our guest. We appreciate your efforts, partnership, and friendship.”

I was allowed to video groups of students as they addressed the questions we had prepared. The students were proud to share their opinions and I was honored to collect them. At one point during our interaction, one young man was encouraged by all to sing a song about the Palestinian conflict, which he did enthusiastically! After all students presented their views and I gave them gifts from Massachusetts (a picture book about New England and lots of salt water taffy), Kefah told us that the Principal had arranged a special luncheon at a nearby restaurant for my family, some teachers and about a dozen students. It was a generous and delicious multi-course meal of many traditional Arabic dishes. Most importantly though, it was a time that my colleague Kefah and I began to nurture the new found friendship between our schools and imagine where it might take us.

A few weeks later, back in the U.S., our students wrapped up their online project. Kefah then suggested that she bring a small group of students to Brookwood. I loved the idea! Very generously, Kefah informed me that her school and their parents would bear the cost of getting to Brookwood. As I have come to know Kefah Lahwani and Nofuz Khateeb, Ilut’s seventh grade Administrator and History teacher, I learned that they are two very dedicated teachers, generous with their love and time they devote to their students. As does Brookwood, they deeply believe in the education that comes from building bridges between people.

Fast forward to April 2017, and imagine a busy beehive of activity as Brookwood prepared itself to receive six Israeli Arab Muslim students (three boys and three girls) along with two teachers. Our host families spent time getting to know the children they would eventually welcome into their homes by using Skype and WhatsApp. In order to be gracious and respectful hosts, we learned about Muslim prayer practices, Halal dietary guidelines, and common Middle Eastern foods. Our students tried to put themselves in the shoes of our guests. What would make them anxious? How could we help our guests feel more comfortable here? How could we best make them feel welcome and part of our community? Everyone was excited and nervous. The preparation and planning would be nearly as rewarding as their visit.

When the time finally came for our eight guests to arrive at Boston Logan airport on the evening of April 3, Brookwood was excited and ready! At least 30 people were waiting at the customs arrival door with signs, flowers and even a ukulele to greet them. We exchanged texts every 10 minutes or so to gauge their progress through customs, until finally, they appeared through the glass doors and were greeted by cheers and hugs.

During their two-week visit, the students spent most of their time in classes with our sixth and eighth graders, and lived as new family members with their hosts. During the school day there were many opportunities to meet with different grade levels to exchange ideas, ranging from cooking to playing games. For example, our guests taught Pre-Kindergarten students how to bake bread with zaatar, a mix of middle-eastern spices. They also taught many of our students hand games and how to dance dapka.

And we all asked questions of each other. During one open question session between our seventh graders and our guests, a Brookwood student asked “did you have any stereotypes of Americans before you came here that you now think are wrong?” One of our guests, also a seventh grader, didn’t hesitate. “I didn’t think Americans were kind people. But it’s not true. You are all so very kind!”

Many gifts were exchanged, such as an official plaque for our school, delicious pastries homemade from their families or purchased from the Arab shuks, traditional Arabic clothing, and beautiful ceramic oil decanters.

Other gifts live in our hearts and memories as our friendships quickly grew over the course of two intensive weeks of activities and sharing. Kefah Lahwani, Nofuz Khateeb and Ilut Middle School sent us the very best global ambassadors we could ever have hoped to receive.