In February 2017, Hand in Hand Alumni Fatima Yahia and Bar Itamari stood together in front of thousands at a gathering for Jewish-Arab cooperation and said: “We are here to assure all of you that living together is possible.”
Bar and Fatima became friends in 1st grade when they started in Hand in Hand’s Wadi Ara School, Gesher al HaWadi in 2004. After they graduated 6th grade in 2009, they went to different schools, but stayed in touch as they grew up and kept the values they learned in school alive in their daily lives.
Below is Bar's story, to read Fatima's click here.
I remember my first day of school in the first grade like it was yesterday. It was so exciting, celebratory, so much energy in the air. At the beginning of the day we walked into the school yard and each student was handed a balloon and was asked to write a wish, and together, we let those wishes float into the sky. Those balloons have stayed with me. As I grew older some of the balloons in me popped, in confronting the harshness that can sometimes be in the world. But as I step into the world of adulthood that is full of contradictions and uncertainty, that first grader is still with me, holding on to hope.
Hand in Hand is a part of me. I tell people about it every chance I get. I’m proud of it - because people in Israel don’t know that this is possible, they don’t believe it until I tell them. It’s really empowering to have gone through Hand in Hand - and a big part of that is the language. Understanding Arabic makes such a difference in my life. I remember sitting on the first day of 1st grade when a teacher started talking to me in Arabic and not understanding anything. And slowly, word by word, letter by letter, what at first felt foreign became familiar. For most Israelis, hearing Arabic is scary, and it gives me confidence that when I hear Arabic on the street and understand it. I remember once being on a school bus with Jewish students. When the Arab driver was talking on the phone, one of the students yelled “he’s a terrorist!” When he was really just having a normal conversation with his wife. I don’t have the fear that others have.
Bar, Fatima, and friends from Hand in Hand in 2008
I also see things differently than other people. At school I learned early on how to be with people who are different from me and deal with different opinions knowing that we don’t have to agree. I remember that in 5th grade, when there was a war in Gaza, we sat and had dialogue. We were young, but still had strong feelings and fears. We listened to each other, even when it was hardest. My teachers taught us to think critically, and even after we left school, we never just accept things at face value, and we learned to fight for things that were important to us.
Right now I’m doing a year of National Service before the army. I live in an Ethiopian Jewish neighborhood, working with at-risk kids in schools, at home, and becoming part of the community. I’m trying to give kids tools to succeed in school and get into universities, empowering them to break the cycle of poverty. I think I’m doing this work because I’m drawn to know more about people who are different from me, and because education is in my blood.
My parents are both from a kibbutz that is part of the Shomer Hatzair movement. My mother is a psychologist and my father is an engineer - but all four of my grandparents were teachers and principals. They always taught me that education was the way to change the world.
My year of National Service has helped me understand that I want to work in education. I feel fulfilled from my work here this year. I believe what my grandparents taught me - that if we want to make change - it needs to be through education. Now that I’m working in schools, i see what is missing in the education that exists today. I want to see each child as their own person, to encourage them and to develop their strengths. I want to teach kids that the world is open to them, even when they can’t see it themselves. I’m trying to open those boundaries for them, like they were open for me.
I’m not sure what I want to do, but I could see myself going back to teach at Hand in Hand when I’m older. It’s interesting now to come back to where I started and to still feel the warmth of a place that is home.