Working with extraordinary students is hardly new to me, but this summer was punctuated by the arrival of two boys I will call Daboud, a Palestinian from Gaza, and Ely, an Israeli.  Jerusalem Peace Builders is affiliated with a successful peace-building program once started in Ireland/North Ireland by a group called the Elders. My husband, Ralph, and I had hosted peace builders twice in the past from Cyprus, a tiny island divided for decades by a concrete barrier and armed U.N. guards. Now jointly called “Creating Friendships for Peace,” the organization facilitates selection of paired teenagers and sends them to the U. S. to live as siblings for a month. They receive training in trust building, speech making, etc.  Ralph’s Rotary Club has provided host families.  We prepared a bedroom again for our two to share, stocked up on food, and I figured out meals for halal and vegetarian kosher…

When they arrived, we showed them around the house, telling them to make themselves at home. We showed them the pantry and other places to snoop and get what they needed. The very day they arrived, as I prepared dinner, they showed up in the kitchen wondering if I was used to cooking alone.  I said I was, particularly if I was preparing for a group or something new.  A few minutes later one wondered if I preferred cooking alone.  I said I did.  They watched me for a bit and then Daboud suggested a compromise: he could make something to go with our dinner.  In an instant they were both cooking along side of me, wondering where this pot was, and did I have a whisk, and what about some spice I didn’t have so they needed to look through the spices, cupboards, and drawers to wonder what might work.  I felt the tension creeping up in the back of my neck.

After six days, they had been to our grocery stores, and I had given up. This was how cooking would be: noisy, messy, somewhat experimental, and delicious. I realized Ely’s dad was a professional chef, and Daboud hadn’t been able to cook meals in his own kitchen for a couple of years.  His family lives in Gaza, and the borders are closed.  He had been in Norway at an international high school before he came into our home.

Our time with them was spent going to Rotary Clubs who also had host families.  There were parties with the Cyprus peace builders, as well as whitewater rafting trip, and a conflict resolution session.  We took them to the “real ocean” at Cannon Beach Oregon where they drew their flags in the sand.  Ely showed off his rock climbing skills by climbing a concrete wall! Ralph took them kayaking and on an exploration of lava tube caves.  They spoke and were literate in English.  Daboud had a conversation with our Finnish neighbor in Swedish.  The boys sometimes had private conversations in Arabic.  Their time with us was punctuated by at least one rather heated political argument between them.  It was also punctuated by the two of them figuring out that their native languages – Hebrew and Arabic – had many words that sounded quite similar. This discovery also involved a noisy amount of opening cupboards and drawers seeking inspiration for more words to find in common.

Shortly before they left, there was a going-away party, and the boys were all supposed to make food for the party.  In a moment of apparent temporary insanity, I told them they could have two other boys over to cook with them.  That night after I loaded the second load of dishes and had the counters and floors clean, I went to bed.  I awoke in the morning to 3 ½ hours of cleaning the stove…  (The party was a raging success!)

Finally the boys prepared to go to Houston for the last part of their experience, living together in a dorm this time. I gave them a biography of Nelson Mandela, and told them the importance of looking forward, not behind.  Looking back is fine for understanding and for learning of successful peace efforts, but looking ahead will be what gets the job done.

It is a great mystery that we were so sad to see them go, but they had captured our hearts. We will miss them and forever care about them.  We also know that they are going into a future with more serious challenges than we have ever faced.  We will keep in touch.  Maybe one day we will see them again.  For now, home feels so quiet, so orderly, so empty.