‘The media bombarded me with stereotypes… Encompass crumbled them to pieces.’
‘February 2008: after waiting and waiting at Heathrow baggage reclaim, we realised that our luggage wasn’t coming. As tropical beings, losing all your warm clothes in the savage winter of Britain is a real problem! All we had were the clothes we were wearing and a few things from our cabin bags.
While I was excited to meet the other participants, sleeping in the same room as the Israeli girls, Noa and Bat Chen, was the last thing I wanted to do that day. Yes, that was me. The media had bombarded me with all the stereotypes of Israel; it made me believe that Israelis were not human. And Encompass made me be with them.
As we got into the room, Noa and Bat Chen realized that I didn’t have my luggage, and I told them what happened. Right away, they offered me their scarves, socks, jackets, toiletries… just like that, the high wall of my ignorance crumbled to pieces.
We started talking; we got to know each other. As the program continued, I was in awe that during the outbound activities, the Palestinians and Israelis helped each other. I remember when we went kayaking in Aberdovey, one of the Israeli girls fell from the raft. And the Palestinian boy just jumped to help her right away.
The friendships we made on the programme did not end there. When I studied in the US, one of the American participants invited me to spend summer and Thanksgiving with her. Being away from my own family was not easy, and Hayley’s family – the love and care they shared – became a second family to me. I’m still in touch with them to this day.
Encompass has given me so much. I just wish that this life could be that simple, that we could be kind to one another regardless of the background we have.
After moving to several different countries, finally I find myself back in London, the place where I started my journey. I am hoping to reconnect with Encompass again so I can give back. The life after the program is usually the hardest one. What should we do next?’
‘I started to believe that I am capable of creating change.’
‘I was both excited and nervous about Encompass – excited to meet people from all over the world and learn about their cultures, but nervous to open myself up to so many strangers; nervous to offend. As an out member of the LGBT community, I wanted to share this part of my identity with the group, but I was reluctant to come out, fearing the possibility of not being accepted.
It was a couple of days into the program that I opened up to the group. That night, we did an activity in which participants crossed over a line in the centre of the room if a statement applied to them. One statement struck close to home. “I have a friend or family member who is openly gay.” When we all found our places, I did not expect so many members to be on the other side, since homosexuality has been such a big part of my life.
That night ended with controversial, yet imperative discussions. We were all taken out of our comfort zones, defending what we believed in. But these participants, some who once stood on the other side of the line, are individuals who I can now call my brothers and sisters. That week, we opened up to one another, sharing our lives, hopes and dreams. The bond created among us is one that can’t be compared to.
At the end of the program, a participant told me that I had changed her perception of homosexuality. I couldn’t help but burst into tears, as I started to believe that I could actually do something good for this world. That I am capable of creating change.’
‘When I joined the army, it was time for revenge.’
‘I looked at the Arabs as enemies, and as I grew up, I developed a hatred of them. 10 of my friends had died in the conflict. When I joined the Israeli army, it felt like time for revenge. I had a weapon, and I had power.
I left the army in 2006 and went on the ‘Journey of Understanding’… and I came face to face with the real tragedy in my life: it had taken 24 years to come into contact with Palestinian people.
I made an enduring friendship with a religious girl from Hebron. I spoke the language of Judaism, she spoke the language of Islam. But our contact to the earth, to the ground, to this land we are fighting over is the same. We think the same – it’s just that I am here and she is there. That is the only difference… that’s all…’
‘We are fighting … but now it’s a different battle.’
‘My father was in a taxi, going home. There was a special force from Israel, standing in the road and they started shooting at the taxi and the driver and my father died. It’s hard for me … I lost my father, and I also lost my brother. I absolutely hated them all. Anyone Jewish or Israeli… I hated them.
Now, though, what I learned with Encompass is something I share with all who will listen … and those who don’t want to at first. I say there is hope for living, side by side. There are good people there. They are fighting, but it is a different battle. It is a battle that we are fighting to live in peace together…’
What happens when you forget what you’re supposed to be …
Somalian Almaas (21) was born in Finland. She came to England at the age of 11, speaking only Finnish and Somali. But seven years later, she was taking up a university place studying computer science.
As a volunteer at the Help Somali Centre (HSC), she saw an Encompass presentation. Inspired, she applied. Accepted, she embarked on the “Journey of Understanding”. Reticent at first, she rapidly became immensely engaged. For her what stood out most was different people’s personalities. “I was not talking to a nationality: I was talking to individuals. Some loud, some shy, some funny. Different characters. And the same with everyone. We forgot what we were “supposed” to be. We were just people”.
She returned to volunteer at HSC. She received a £300 O2 “Think Big” grant to run a week of playgroup activities for Somali children aged 4-12, with a complementary English teaching programme for their parents, isolated from the wider community and their own children by lack of language skills.
Now Almaas is upping the tempo, with plans for a new youth group and programmes to promote entrepreneurialism and cultural awareness. She’s started a journalism course, and has already been commissioned to write about the Somali community’s experience of the UK. What Almaas has achieved is exemplary. It perfectly embodies the trust’s vision because, right now, hundreds of Somalis in the UK are benefitting from the understanding she acquired through Encompass.
‘I felt untouchable. Then my brother took five bullets.’
Danny (Manchester, UK):
‘When I first started school, I was in higher classes in everything. Then I just started wagging off and smoking weed and from there it just faded away. So I turned to the streets and gangs… you see all these guys… and it’s what you want. You feel like someone with power.
Girls fancy you, you’ve got money, nice clothes, a flash car… you feel untouchable. But obviously you aren’t because people are shooting at you. My brother took five bullets. By a miracle, he stayed alive.
That changed a lot for me, and then I did the “Journey of Understanding”. Now I do youth work, and it’s making a difference… it’s a starting point. You befriend young people. It’s not something you do overnight – it’s a long process. But when these kids were ten or eleven, they saw me the way I used to be. To see me now, and to see what I’m doing, sends out a clear, positive message. I’ve changed: they can too…’
‘Life after Encompass: it isn’t all sparkly and perfect.’
Patty Hodapp (USA)
‘This programme wasn’t meant to teach us all to be best friends and life is all sparkly and perfect. It was meant to open doors of communication that were blocked by racial, ethnic, religious, political or economical barriers. I learned that it’s vital to challenge perceptions and views of people different from myself.
But the rhetoric and the reality are sadly not always synonymous. Now that Encompass is finished, perhaps I face my biggest challenge yet: the challenge to ensure that the journey isn’t over. Encompass is not just a programme or a trust or an organisation. It is a way of living. It taught me the power and importance of understanding. It taught me that until there is a desire to understand, we will all of us – each and every one of us – live divided in a world that aches to be communal.’