Kiki Nakamura-Koyama, 19, arrived in Jerusalem at the same time the bodies of three kidnapped Jewish teenagers were found.
The Bend High School graduate was in Israel to work at an integrated Arab and Jewish school dedicated to peace and to conduct a writing program that would connect the teenagers she taught with students back home in Bend.
Her time there, however, has become complicated by the sirens, increased tensions and overhead missiles that have come along with the escalating conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Nakamura-Koyama had originally planned to travel to Uganda this summer to implement the creative writing program in that country. But safety concerns forced her to switch locations, so she headed to what was supposed to be a safer spot — Jerusalem.
“Being here, watching rockets fly over my head, was a wake-up call that these kind of conflicts exist,” said Nakamura-Koyama in an email interview from Jerusalem.
Though she’s only been there for a handful of weeks, Nakamura-Koyama believes the experience is shaping her.
“I am still the same person, but being here has perhaps changed the direction of where I want to take myself in the future. The world is dynamic standing in Israel right now. This is where I want to be for the rest of my life — maybe not Israel, but somewhere where the world is moving,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
She and the teenagers in the Bend writing program feel inspired by the students in Jerusalem.
“They are mature beyond their years. If you met them you would not believe they are 14, 15, etc. They have more experience with hate, fear, racism and this absurd fresh kind of hope than most people I know,” Nakamura-Koyama said.
“They have been spat on in the public bus on their way to school, stopped at borders in the West Bank, curled up (in) balls on the sides of Israel’s streets when sirens go off, but always, always, always insist there is a way towards peace — they really are something,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
Nakamura-Koyama, an incoming sophomore at Bowdoin College in Maine, is working at Project Harmony Israel, an integrated Arab-Jewish summer camp that takes place at a school that is also integrated. During training, Nakamura-Koyama, says the founders told the counselors that “we are not here to solve the conflict.” They cautioned the counselors not to expect too much in terms of harmony and change. Nakamura-Koyama, however does see some positive signs.
“They play soccer together, have (secret) handshakes, scheme ways of how to frustrate the counselors,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
She sees problems too, including two girls who do not believe in coexistence between the two sides. Four students were kicked out of camp due to racism. Another girl, a Palestinian who crosses the border from the West Bank to attend camp, told a counselor that she hoped rockets would hit the school. “I don’t think she really meant it … that was the most negative interaction I had within the camp,” said Nakamura-Koyama. She also sees the hard-wired prejudice the students face. Two of her female Arab students were spat on at a public pool and another was surrounded by Jewish boys who hurled insults. “She was almost crying and I felt totally helpless … there was nothing I could do. (The boys’ counselors from another camp) wouldn’t care, the lifeguard wouldn’t care. At those moments I feel devastated and to my core I believe there is no solution, but then I play in the pool with Jewish and Arab children and I just have to hold onto that,” she said.
The children have also become desensitized to the warning sirens of incoming missiles. “Sirens are so normal for these kids, they think it’s funny now. Something is wrong with that,” Nakamura-Koyama said.
A boy in a neighboring class installed a realistic siren app on his phone and played it — the counselor, believing it was real, tried to rush everyone to nearby shelter until the boys started laughing. Nakamura-Koyama remembers telling the girls in her class that sirens don’t go off in the U.S. “They were dumbstruck.”
Having now heard the sirens go off numerous times, Nakamura-Koyama is beginning to understand how the students become so desensitized. Only once did she feel real fear. It was late in Tel Aviv and she was looking for a youth hostel, but everything was closed and deserted. Suddenly the sirens went off and “a little fear crept in,” but then she saw red rockets in the sky — it was the Iron Dome, the Israeli missile defense system, at work. The missiles were intercepted. “I have never seen something so profound in my life,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
Most of the teens she works with are optimistic and have passionate beliefs about peace. “They are ready to conquer the world,” said Nakamura-Koyama. She says many of the teenagers walk in demonstrations for peace each night. “And they aren’t doing it for college resumes because many of them aren’t going to college. They’re doing it because they want the world to be a better place,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
Mostly she has been shocked by how “normal” the kids are. “My girls try to wear lipstick, choreograph dances, make up handshakes, create the classic friendship bracelets,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
One of the bigger conflicts in the school involves students upset because they are not getting falafel on Tuesdays, as they were promised. But the shop that makes the falafels keeps shutting down due to all of the protests. “A group of kids went around the school with petitions captioned ‘FALAFELS FOR PEACE.’ They were making a ruckus, but it was so adorable … and wonderfully fitting,” said Nakamura-Koyama.
The writing program between the two groups of students works like this: Each student was paired up with a student on the other side of the world. The students began by reading a passage from “The Things They Carried,” a collection of short stories by Tim O’Brien about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Then the students in Israel began a story of their own based on that work. Then the students in Bend took over the story and added their own voice to the piece, then passed it back to the students in Jerusalem, and so on. Back and forth the stories traveled, with each student adding and shaping to the piece. They shared personal information with one another and have gotten to know each other through writing together.
Local class instructor Chantal Strobel, the communications and development director for Deschutes Public Library, said the six Bend students have been “really interested and really curious to learn more” about life in Jerusalem. “This is one of the most valuable things I’ve been involved with,” said Strobel.
Several Bend students said they didn’t really know much about what was going on in the Middle East before the class. But this experience has changed that.
Strobel, whose two daughters are in the program, said she was struck by how many similarities the students shared. “They all liked the same music; they have crushes on cute boys,” said Strobel. That said, she calls the students in Jerusalem mature, intelligent and very passionate.
Since beginning the writing exchange, Chantal Strobel says she is much more focused on the conflict in Israel. The difference is knowing students who are there. “It touches me deeply,” said Strobel, who says she has ended up in tears many times during the classes.
She also feels affected by how the program has touched the Bend students. “Watching our kids respond is an extraordinarily moving experience and surprising,” said Strobel. “It has made our students in Bend much more curious and curiosity is a very good thing.”
Chloe Miller, 15, has been writing with 14-year-old Naomi in Jerusalem. The pair both play the drums, both like the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and both like reading. “We have a lot in common; I didn’t expect that.”
But Naomi describes her home this way: “I live in a hellhole.”
“She was very blunt. It’s kind of hard to hear,” said Chloe. “I can’t imagine not loving where I live.”
Chloe believes the conflict seeped into Naomi’s writing, as each week the story they are writing together became more intense and characters became more uneasy.
Mia Strobel, 15, feels a strong connection with the girl she is writing with. They both like boy bands One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer. “She’s very expressive and has a lot of energy. I like writing with her,” said Mia. “She feels like she could be my friend.”
Mia feels as though the experience has changed her view of the world and also how she writes.
In a way, the similarities the students shared drove home how vast their differences were. Many of the students in Israel are struggling with the knowledge they will soon join the armed forces. All citizens are required to serve for two years — or four years if they defer their time to first attend college.
“They have no choice really to go to college or have a normal life,” said Mia Strobel.
Emma Strobel, 17, likes being able to connect with someone on the other side of the world and to hear her perspective. She has been working on a story with Inbar, 14, and is impressed with her view of violence.
“All of the kids hate killing and hate murder. Most are vegan,” said Emma. “I feel like that is how countries should be run — by children.”
Emma says now the conflict feels more personal. When she hears a news report about missiles she thinks “that could be by Inbar.”
Since officials brokered a 12-hour cease-fire starting today, Nakamura-Koyama and her students should get a brief reprieve from hearing sirens and seeing rockets.
Nakamura-Koyama will be in Jerusalem another two weeks.
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org