A Program for All Seasons

text and photos by Joseph Cornelius Donnelly

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No matter the season, New York buzzes with visitors. People from the four corners of the globe converge on the city and bring unique and often diverse points of view.

Last winter an Arab doctor from Egypt, an Israeli expert in volunteerism, an Arab social worker from Nazareth and another from Jordan, an expert in child-care programs for the handicapped came to New York to meet with John Cardinal O’Connor on his weekly television program. Since the Fellowship Program began in 1987, Cardinal O’Connor has been chairman of the Advisory Board. “We desperately need people of all political and religious persuasions who are dedicated to alleviating human misery in the Middle East,” said the Cardinal. “The Middle East Educational Fellowship Program is a harmonious inter-faith effort. If we can bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together, who knows what we may do in the long run?”

These students visited the staff of Catholic Near East Welfare Association shortly after they arrived at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The Middle East Fellowship Program was designed to bring together skilled human service professionals from Middle Eastern countries to live and study together in the United States and then to return to their countries to work collaboratively for peace and justice.

The Fellowship Program was designed to help Arabs and Israelis continue their professional education. This good intention met numerous challenges.

At our first meeting in New York, the Fellowship group were all strangers to one another. Raja Kamal, director of the program, and a native of Jordan, was the link. He created an environment where people could come together. Even so, there was uncertainty in the air. There was politeness, interest and insight, but little overt openness. Introductions and program explanations completed, the tensions rose to the surface.

“I never met an Arab Palestinian before. This is a completely new experience for me. Maybe it should not have been this way, but that is the way it was at home.”

There were candid statements about prejudice, injustice, historical facts of life and assorted attempts to prove the other’s lack of understanding. Frustration was not easily masked. Respect, however, was never forfeited.

Throughout the lively exchanges, all parties agreed the Fellowship Program was vital and helpful and filled with potential. Each of the students offered suggestions about how to improve it in one way or another, and how to maximize its effectiveness for future classes. It is actually quite rare that professionals from such contrasting views and backgrounds have an opportunity to create something together. Such fellowship is earned and learned through patience, humility and academic work.

The other strangers in the room, namely, staff and reporters, were able to observe a group and a program being born. Something most worthwhile was happening. I became eager to understand more of the challenges, to befriend the participants and support the efforts at fellowship.

This past spring I again had the opportunity to visit with some of the students I met last winter. I met at Harvard with four women from the group of six. With them that day there was another woman, an educator from Massachusetts, who volunteered to work with the program as part of her own sabbatical activities. There was a marked contrast in our reunion.

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Tags: CNEWA Education Unity Interreligious John Cardinal O'Connor