“To build peace on desktops”… Is the motto of the Mar Elias High School in Ibillin, a small Arab Village in the Galilee, where Christians and Muslims have lived together peacefully for hundreds of years. Founded by Father Abuna Elias Chacour more than 30 years ago, the school hosts Arab students, mainly Druze, Muslims and Christians, from various backgrounds from towns and villages around Ibillin. After the second intifada Jewish students no longer attended the schools, although there are some Jewish teachers. .The cluster of schools now serves more than 3000 students from pre-school to High School. Three years ago the school introduced a forgiveness curriculum with the 9thgraders (15 years old) based on Dr. Robert Enright’s forgiveness curriculum.
Through its international Forgiveness programme, Feminenza has experienced in the past ten years the impact and remedy of Forgiveness in women and men of all ages and walks of life.In reaching out to others in the world who are implementing forgiveness into their communities and / or schools we came across a special initiative at the Mar Elias School.
In September 2018 Feminenza met with Emil Haloun (English teacher and coordinator for the volunteer programme) at the school, together with two of the three English teachers of the faculty, Veronica and Isar, who teach the forgiveness curriculum.
It was a privilege to meet these driven and passionate teachers, who, in these turbulent times where often the rhetoric of hatred and anger prevails, give young lives a chance to get a different perspective, of tolerance, respect patience and…. Forgiveness.
Why did you introduce the Forgiveness curriculum?
Emil: Forgiveness goes hand in hand with the core foundations of the school. This morning Father Chakur reminded us about the importance of ‘Unity and Diversity’. Forgiveness contributes immensely to the education of this motto, especially in these not so easy times, not only in this country, but elsewhere too.
Our students are influenced by social media with Facebook, Instagram and when lacking critical thinking they can easily buy all that is represented in these media. We remind them that in the classroom we have a different mission, we have a different quest. The quest is ‘to meet the other and to know the other’.
How did it start?
Emil: Four years ago the curriculum was introduced. We read the syllabus and the content of Dr. Enright and were impressed. We attended a conference in Jerusalem and were equally impressed. Because the content is in English we thought to combine the English lessons with the forgiveness program. An open invitation was sent out to the English teachers, they responded very positively and said “we are in”. The students liked it because it was something different than what they were obliged to study in the classroom. The Archbishop, having read two of Dr. Enright’s books, gave his approval and so there was a green light!
Before starting with the 9thgraders we modified the curriculum a bit. In the first year we saw what things were appropriate for the class and what needed slight modification for it to be useful for the students. The content was simplified, was made more appealing and brought closer to home.
To the teachers: What motivated you to participate in this program?
Veronica:After reading the title of the booklet ‘The Anti Bullying Forgiveness Program’ I found it very interesting for me as a teacher and as a new mother to get tools for how to help my students, my kids and myself in this specific field of anti bullying I read the booklet 4-5 times to get a grasp on it.
I was motivated to try and give them values and insights that might be useful for them. Most of the students mentioned later, that it was useful outside the classroom, not inside, as they were not bullied by their classmates. Some of them have problems with parents, siblings, or, as one example, with an uncle from their mother’s side who used to abuse them when they were 10 years old.
I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, I am a normal person like you, but where I come from in myself is that ‘I understand you and I am here to embrace you.’
Isar: The programme reminded me about why I had chosen to become an educator. I am not only here to teach them grammar and spelling. I am also here to connect the students at a different level.
It is also important of course to teach them English, that’s why we are here. But I also want to teach them about life, to develop as a human being too. It is not about an “A, B or C”, it is also about respecting the other. Some do not learn this, because some of them go through a lot of hardship and tend to put these things aside. It is not because they are hard people, but because they have been through a lot.
The forgiveness program really helped to turn my English lesson into something that is more relatable to their lives, to something that is more relevant to them.
I also hoped that the program would help my students think in a different way, be open to other ideas. For them to know that they have a choice to forgive – or not. Sometimes they think they don’t have a choice…
Also for me as a teacher. We live in such tense conditions and things are not very joyful all the time, there is a lot of horrific and violent news all the time. We are all affected by it whether we know it or not, and we can easily drift to use a statement of violence or to be violent.
We had a chance in the program to dedicate a few lessons about forgiveness. We would discuss forgiveness, discuss tolerance and respecting the other. These things are important. Not only for the students to be better in their own personal lives, but when teaching them to have respect and tolerance they are also better students.
How would you define forgiveness?
Veronica: We have taught this in a few classes in the past 3 years. I would write forgiveness on the board and they could jot down their ideas. It was never one thing. It was accepting the other, accepting the difference, it was love, it was care.
And even for me Veronica, to define forgiveness was very difficult. Because it is everything together, and not just one thing. We could not reach one definition. Even the definition in the dictionary is not enough for me. Not only one religion defines forgiveness.
We have many religions represented in this school and we have 2 Jewish teachers. There was an issue at some point about respecting these teachers. We decided to talk with the children about respect, and they realized that one person does not represent the whole group and vice versa. It was a point for them to realize.
Do you connect forgiveness with the student’s religious background?
Isar: We connect it briefly to religious ideologies and how forgiveness is discussed and preached in different religions. It is not only because of religion we are teaching this, but we are teaching it also because it is helpful for their personal lives.
Students who choose to not believe also relate to the curriculum we teach. I do not do it because my religion tells me to do so. Then it is not honest, not real, not coming from the inside and you are just following the orders. You are doing what you are supposed to be doing.
Forgiveness is not something you are supposed to be doing, you can either do it or not. We teach it as a human value.
Emile: programs of forgiveness go hand in hand with what the church teaches you, what the Imam and the Rabbi teach. Forgiveness has a place in the core of all major religions.
How do you maintain the culture of forgiveness in yourself?
Isar: You have to forgive yourself first, that is what I always say, and then start to forgive others.
Veronica: It is difficult. You teach them about forgiveness, tolerance, care and respecting the other. You are a role model for the students and you have to keep up with those high standards you set and discuss with them at the beginning of the year.
Sometimes, to be honest, students drive us crazy and we ask them something for the 100thtime and they still would not do it. It is easy to snap. Or as a teacher to raise my voice a little bit and it’s all good. But you are talking about forgiveness, tolerance, accepting the other and you talk about patience. So forgiveness also helped me as a teacher, not only outside the walls of this school. As a teacher I am more patient and I am more tolerant.