As a third-generation Arab-Canadian, I’ve long been troubled by the conflicts in the Middle East. When I read about riots, fighting, hatred and killing in the land of my ancestors, I experience an odd mix of emotions. Sadness, anger and love all broil inside me, demanding to be heard.
My Syrian grandfather left Aleppo and arrived on Ellis Island in New York harbour in the early 20th century. As a Christian, he was fleeing the oppression of Ottoman Muslims, the same regime that was responsible for the Armenian genocide. He eventually brought most of his family to the United States.
Life in North America has been very good to us and we’ve thrived.
My understanding of what my family went through is admittedly a patchwork. It’s a collection of anecdotes passed on by my father’s generation, confirmed by limited research. I only have one surviving great-aunt from Syria. When I asked her about Muslims in her country of origin, all she said was, “We didn’t do anything to those people.”
I know a great deal of pain has been inflicted on the people of the Middle East through the centuries. I feel the pain that Christians endured, just for being Christian, that Jews endured, especially in the Holocaust, and that Muslims have endured. I comprehend the desire to protect what one has and to get back what was lost. I also understand the need to be heard.
I’ve never been to the land of my ancestors but I know the beautiful feeling of belonging, of being home. This isn’t restricted to when I’m among Middle Eastern Christians. I feel the same among Jews and Muslims. We are indeed family. Perhaps more than 100 years in the diaspora has allowed me to understand the essence of being a Semite.
In an effort to understand the region, I’ve amassed a collection of books on the Israel-Palestine issue. One stands out as unique among them. Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour builds on the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all children of Abraham. All are part of the same tree.
From there, Chacour examines the importance of human dignity, forgiveness of our enemies, destroying prejudice and living together in peace.
His writings resonate with me and confirm my beliefs. Despite what my ancestors suffered, I feel a natural bond with Muslim sisters and brothers. I can feel the pain suffered by my Jewish family and I want to build a better world with them.
Chacour has devoted his life to building peace. He opened Mar-Elias School in Israel-Palestine for children of any religion so they can learn together. He also served his Christian church as a bishop, wrote books promoting peace and gave many speeches. He’s received numerous awards for his work and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
There are indeed Christian extremists, Muslim extremists and Jewish extremists who believe in the way of violence. But there are far more people who understand the power of peace.
It’s no coincidence, for example, that one of the strongest voices calling for the respect of Muslims in America is the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded to counteract racism toward Jewish people.
While walls of separation are built, Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents of Israel-Palestine reach out to one another in kindness and build friendships, embracing the true nature of their humanity.
As foreign powers weigh in on conflicts in Israel-Palestine and throughout the Middle East, as we watch our televisions and develop opinions on who is right and wrong, we need to remember that we’re dealing with one people and with many sacred individuals.
We’re children of Abraham, all worthy of dignity and peace.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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