9780385494229Erin Gruwell, author of The Freedom Writers Diary (Broadway Books, October 1999) reflects on her recent trip to Israel

I recently returned from the Middle East, and I feel compelled to share. My trip to Israel and the West Bank was inspiring and eye-opening. I did over 20 events in Israel on behalf of the U.S. Embassy and 7 events for Palestinians Authority in the West Bank on behalf of the U.S. ‎Consulate General.   All told, I worked in over a dozen cities, addressed audiences of thousands and hugged hundreds. I will never forget the faces, nor the stories they shared.

I was fortunate to present workshops at major universities in the region, engage in difficult discussions with thought leaders, motivate high school students, ask and answers complex questions with NGO’s and banter with both Israelis and Palestinians–many of whom are talented teachers, intellectually curious students and passionate people who are hungry for peace. It is possible.

Although it is a complicated and complex region, I remain realistic, resolute and oh, so optimistic.

After working with the Diplomats, Consulates, Cultural Attaches, and educators of every ilk, I am committed to modeling what the Freedom Writers were able to accomplish through education. I was able to show our documentary “Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War” to every audience (translated into both Arabic and Hebrew)–and then have the privilege to listen to their narratives, learn about disparate stories, and validate their truth. Then, and only then, would they let me in, allow me to bear witness, to cry, to feel, to hug, and to hope! The seeds of peace were planted in classrooms and university auditoriums–and now, may empathy, compassion and acceptance begin to grow.

The trip made me nostalgic, for I found similarities in the region, with my first foray into Long Beach after the Rodney King Riots. Both communities had been plagued with misunderstandings and gross stereotypes. In both scenarios, people were anxious for the world to take notice of their plight and humanize their existence. My trip abroad gave me a glimpse of a bigger story nestled deep in these faraway lands, and how it is imperative that people have a part in the narrative about their own ground, their own home, their own story, to fight against biases and bigotry.

To be able to do workshops in the West Bank (in contentious cities like Nablus, Ramallah, Abu Dis–along with a digital video conference with educators in Gaza) I had to have a security debrief–with code words, potential meeting sites and catastrophe drills. Truth be told, I was scared. To travel the Palestinian region, I had a four car motorcade, a Palestinian Police escort and two roaming Collateral-Assault-Teams (CAT) performing armed coverage. I was assigned 13 armed security officers, rode through check-points in a bullet proof SUV, and at one point, my leg was actually touching a machine gun as we navigated the winding roads. Initially, it was a deja vu moment, similar to the scenario of walking into Room 203 for the first time and meeting the Freedom Writers. And yet…the people I did workshops with were beautiful and brilliant.

To foster an open dialogue, we played the “Line Game” and even did our signature “Toast For Change!” I even had the privilege of speaking to college professors and educators in the Gaza strip via a Video Conference at the American House in Ramallah, since Gaza was deemed too contentious at the moment for me to travel to with the U.S. Consulate. Like many of the educators I interacted with in Israel, these particular Palestinians repeated the sentiment that they would like to be seen for who they are, and not who they pray to. One professor begged me that when I reflect upon our time together that I do not speak of him “as a Palestinian from Gaza,” but instead, “please refer to me as a human being.” And I will honor his request–because I saw humanity, everywhere I went, and with every person I met, on every side of the equation, and on both sides of the wall that separated them. In the same spirit my students learned from Anne Frank, that “in spite of everything, I truly believe that people are good at heart,” that sentiment is what I want to remember–the musing of Anne–that there was and is so much goodness.

At one event at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a young Palestinian student stood up to comment. She reminded me of the feisty Freedom Writer, Maria. This young college student desperately wanted me to know that the Freedom Writers story inspired her and that she had great aspirations for herself and her community. She admitted she had seen the film, “Freedom Writers,” over twenty times, and could recite every line of dialogue. She said the Freedom Writers inspired her, and now she has aspirations of being the first female president of Palestine someday. In addition, she requested that the audiences abroad not jump to conclusions about her and her community. Regardless of where she was from or what she believed, she believes that education can change the world.

My extensive trip was organized by Michael Bandler from the U.S. State Department in Washington DC. While Bandler and I have worked together for nearly a decade orchestrating workshops with Embassies and Consulates abroad in England, France, Scotland, The Netherlands, Taiwan, and even a video conference in Russia, this comprehensive tour to the Middle East allowed the Freedom Writer message to penetrate deep and wide. I may have ventured there as a teacher, but humbly, I returned as a student. The lessons I learned from this complex region were not political, but rather a celebration of diversity and the dispelling of stereotypes. In fact, it was so impactful that I have been asked to come back–by both the US Embassy and the Consulate General. At my urging, Ambassador Dan Shapiro and I did a pinky swear to seal the deal, which Freedom Writers consider a binding contract.   So even though my trip has ended, perhaps now, the real work will begin. Sometime, in the near future, the Freedom Writers Foundation would like to bring seemingly different educators from this region to Long Beach, California to learn the lessons from Room 203 and the original Freedom Writers at our Teacher Training Institutes. This inclusive Institute, like all others, could act as a neutral, safe space for open discussion, understanding and acceptance. Together, we can plant more seeds, and shatter more stereotypes.

Click here to view pictures of Erin Gruwell’s visit to the US Embassy

Click here to watch a clip featuring Erin Gruwell and “National Teacher Appreciation Day” in Israel

52953_gruwell_erinERIN GRUWELL, the Freedom Writers, and her nonprofit organization have received many awards,  including the prestigious Spirit of Anne Frank Award, and have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Prime Time Live, Good Morning America, and The View, to name a few. All 150 Freedom Writers went on to graduate from Wilson High. She lives in Long Beach, California

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