“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.[1]

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.

I cannot preach about these values and do something else. Then I might as well not teach them this program, they will not believe me. I have to act upon what I preach, then they will trust me.

 

What were the challenges in the first year?

Veronica: a few students refused to participate.  “Why are you teaching us this, what use is it in this time and in the future for my studies?” At some point they realized, not from peer pressure, that this is something they do not get at home and that the teachers want to transfer something to them for their wellbeing. We are not only teachers, we are educators, mentors, and at some point also healers.

Some did want to engage, some just slept, others doodled things in their notebook.  But it was all in the classroom, and they behaved and were asked to not show disrespect.

Then they started to engage in the program in the class, and some of them forgave each other, and a few forgave a few things from the past. All because they could see how they could apply it in their lives.

Isar: The challenge is to get them engaged and participate in the lesson-plan, it is something I had to work on. Because I decided to implement the program in the 9thgrade, I saw the challenge was that the language of the workbook was high level… The children were new at the school, not yet defined as high school students… Some of the text was difficult for them. As we wanted to have them engaged, they had to be able to understand what they are reading otherwise we would lose them. I had to make things easier, more accessible, also content wise. There was for example an item about life decisions, which is not something generally a 9thgraderwould need to do…

 

Could you mention some highlights of changes in the students during the year?

Isar: Generally speaking I see students being more involved in the lesson. And when they are more involved they are more open. It means it did something for them. You cannot open up when it does not touch you. Towards the end we have more students in the classroom and more students raising their hands.

They are all more involved. They do not have to say “this program touched me”. At the age of 15 they do not express themselves in this way. They are not open about their feelings. The fact they want to answer a question says that it meant something to them. Their answers change, showing more tolerance, they speak in a quieter tone. All these things matter, it all helps me to see that this program did something.

 

Are some tools from the curriculum used to settle conflicts between students?

Isar: Forgiveness is not only applying it because we teach it. It is a core concept in this school, it is indispensable. The concept was there before the program, it is one of the main core values.

In this school we do not accept violence and take these things very serious. If a student is violent or hurts somebody else, if there is a violation of rights, the Principal, the Counselor staff and the teachers are immediately involved. We have a zero tolerance policy for violence. With the forgiveness program forgiveness became more important and emphasized more in the school. So it has always been a core concept, and further highlighted since the forgiveness program.

 

Hope for the future

Forgiveness is one of the best kept secrets of the human race. We all walk around like we have our act together, that we are OK. But there is not a single human being on this planet who does not have issues, had issues and will have issues of forgiveness. It is part of our human existence on this planet.

Emil: About the younger generation, they are very open. They have come to a natural realization that in order for them to live in peace they have to behave differently than the previous generation. This is my hope for the next generation of this country.

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[1]For more information see https://internationalforgiveness.com/curriculum.htm

“To build peace on desktops” – Interview by Vera de Wit and Eileen McGowan with Emil Haloun, Veronica Tabrani Abu Rahmon and Izar Taha