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How Our Club in Israel is Creating Connection, Even During COVID-19

In April 2019, 16 boys and girls from Israel’s Youth for Change Galilee club participated in a 10-day cultural exchange with the KJR Neumarkt youth center in Nurenberg, Germany. Led by club founder and mentor Sa’eed Diabat, the goal of the program was to encourage cultural understanding and exploration, as well as an exchange of knowledge. Throughout the trip, the group engaged in activities and discussions around issues about society, the environment, the economy, and history.

According to Sa’eed, who started the Play for Peace club exchanges in 2016, the group took part in the exchange to give local Arab youth the opportunity to see a different community and explore a new culture. In the process, he realized that the trip had a much greater impact. 

“We found out that these exchanges allow youth to express themselves in a place where they don't feel limited or tied to a certain system,” he said. “Our youth come back from these exchanges stronger, braver, and better at expressing the issues they care about and the goals they want to act for.”

One such youth is Jana Nassar, a 16-year-old student originally from Turaan. She joined the Youth for Change club in 2019 as a way to create a better world, make positive change, build new friendships from other cultures, and create a platform for youth to be heard.

“It was great exposure for me to get to know different people,” Jana says about the exchange. “I remember we went to one of the host’s houses and all sat in the grass in a circle. One of the counselors gave us a sentence and whoever wanted to [could] talk about how it applies in their country or how it is said in their culture. I liked this activity very much. It was a really good way to understand the other side.” This activity, Play for Peace’s “People to People” game, is used across the organization to help people learn about and appreciate cultures that may be different from their own.

Elias Simaan, another member of Youth for Change and a recent high school graduate, also participated in the group exchange and is extremely grateful for the opportunity and the way it has strengthened his values and morals. He initially joined the club in 2016 after seeing how it could help him create positive change in society, and since then has been on several exchanges that have positively impacted his life.

“I’ve met many people, made new friends, and, most importantly, I made relationships that will last forever,” Elias says. “Each exchange taught me new values and got me in touch with new ideas and perspectives that I can use to better myself and my life, so I can be the best version of myself.” During the trip in April 2019, one of Elias’ fondest memories is from the first day, where both groups sat across from each other at a long table. The hosts, who were from Germany, continuously switched places to get to know each club member. The activity was a great way for them to get to know and connect with the group. Elias is now a part of the team organizing the next youth exchange and supports the project leaders by brainstorming new ideas and creating new activities.

Fast forward to April 2020, when Youth for Change and KJR were supposed to meet again, this time in Israel. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the in-person exchange had to be postponed. Knowing how important this connection was to everyone involved, the group decided to host the meeting virtually.

“We tried to keep the youth connected and engaged with the exchange vision [through] virtual activities, presentations made by the youth, and discussions about the COVID situation, Sa’eed said. “We tried to lower the anxiety and stress we felt among the youth during COVID-19.”

Meeting monthly over the first five months of COVID and then transitioning to sessions every other month, the group has faced some challenges, unstable internet connections, a lack of computers, and the struggle to find activities that work well in a digital forum have been some of their biggest hurdles. Sa'eed shares, "I would like to add a thank you for our partners in Germany, which together we continue on our vision of building bridges between societies, youth, and cultures." 

Youth for Change has continued to work on making these virtual meetings successful and impactful for all, in hopes that they can continue to connect with and learn from other cultures and youth like themselves. Sa'eed says, "After 15 years of engagement with the Play for Peace community, I feel that fun, joy, and compassion is a way of life that I practice each day, and work to bring more people to be connected to it."