As we emerge from our Covid-19 Pandemic cocoons this spring and reignite old friendships, we may find ourselves being a little cautious about forming new ones. Spotting a familiar face at the store or dog park has been tricky when obscured by masks, and don’t even get me started about the challenges of chatting through muffled cloth. It almost makes me wonder if we’ll ever again feel bold enough to reach out to meet new people, especially those who look different from ourselves.
Yet, the events of this past year—from police shootings of unarmed black men to vicious violence against Asians—underscore the power of expanding our friendship circles, especially to include those we may think are different from us. From hate crimes to microaggressions, bias often stems from a lack of foundational understanding or empathy for another group.
Replacing hate with understanding was a powerful motivation for Gretchen Grad, a Chicago-based bond trader and mother. Gretchen is also a Christian woman of faith, who was deeply troubled by the events of 9/11 and the xenophobia that followed it. She couldn’t help but wonder: What if dialogue between youth in the Middle East and the United States can replace some of the fear or hate with understanding?
Gretchen reached out to Muslim and Jewish women, and their conversations led her to create the nonprofit Hands of Peace. Since 2003, the organization has annually brought together teens from Israel, Palestine, and the United States. Glenview Community Church, where Gretchen is a member, served as an incubator for the program which centered on three intensive weeks of ‘cross-cultural dialogue and transformation.’ Gretchen encouraged church members to open their homes to visiting teens each July.
After watching a video about the program, Glenview resident Debby Fosdick was inspired to get involved. As a human resources professional in the Fortune 100 tech industry, Debby has always connected well with others. She enjoys getting to know individual’s stories, and was curious about meeting these teens and volunteers who were coming together to engage in ways that was nearly impossible to do otherwise.
She reached out to Gretchen, who was thrilled to recruit an enthusiastic volunteer with corporate skills. Before long, Debby was helping coordinate aspects of the summer intensive and hosting teen girls in her townhome each summer. In 2013, Hands of Peace found itself with a shortage of host families available for boys. While Debby initially hadn’t been comfortable hosting a male student, someone ‘twisted her arm’ and she acquiesced. Eight years later, as Debby and I talked about that moment on Zoom, she said gravely: “Just imagine if I hadn’t done that.”
Debby has opened her home and her heart to many teens over the years through Hands of Peace, but it was Basil Arafat, a 15-year-old from Palestine, that she formed the most lasting bond with. Arriving in July 2013, this was Basil’s first time in the United States. His parents agreed to his participation only because his cousin worked for Hands of Peace in Palestine, and his mother’s extended family lived in Chicago. As Basil remarked, “Palestinians trust people, not institutions. My parents were comfortable with the program since my cousin was involved and would be there.”
Basil quickly found the program delivered on the promise of open dialogue and activities. Debby and Basil were able to connect deeply, and his Basil’s earnest nature allowed him to openly engage in thoughtful debate about Middle East politics. As he recently told me, “We live in the conflict, but we don’t get to talk about it, and we see the other side as just that, ‘the other side’, as military, not as individuals.”
Debby’s caring and people-oriented personality complemented Basil’s and helped draw him out. In Basil’s words, even if she disagreed: “She showed that she cared, she always listened.”
When Basil returned to Palestine after his first summer in the United States, Debby felt a parental-style bond with him. They kept in touch through Facebook and occasional Skype calls. When Basil returned for a second year in the Hands of Peace program, it was a given that he would live with Debby again. Debby’s support for Basil gave him the confidence to explore life in the United States further. He returned a third time as an exchange student in Arizona, and eventually decided to attend college in Virginia.
As a “second mom” to Basil, Debby was able to help him through the American college application and selection process. As a first-year student at the University of Richmond, Basil returned once again to the Midwest, this time to spend Thanksgiving with Debby’s extended family. “They were my second family, and I could feel more at home, having an American family,” he says.
Debby felt a similar connection: “I had always thought of myself as Basil’s second mom, but when I met his actual mom I realized, no, I’m like Basil’s second grandmother! I could be his mother’s mom!” Basil’s own mother opened her heart to Debby in much the same way as Debby had for her son, never feeling envious that another woman felt almost as motherly toward her son as she did.
Basil’s American family came through during the pandemic as well, reaching out to him even before his university opted to close down. Debby had reminded him to think of her house as his own, so it seemed natural for Basil to move back into his old room at Debby’s in early 2020. What they had expected to be a relatively brief visit turned into six months.
Basil ended up celebrating his college graduation in Debby’s living room. Shortly after that, Basil found his first job in Virginia. Although he left for Virginia to start his new job and his life as a working adult, Debby was never far from his mind. As her birthday approached, Basil instructed Debby that two packages would be arriving at her home.
In the first box, Debby found a large, empty frame. The second package contained an expansive photograph of a night sky. Debby was struck by the beauty of the image, but it was the caption that tugged at her heart. Basil had special-ordered a photo of the night sky from the day they first met, with this inscription: So the adventure begins, Basil and Debby: July 5, 2013 5:30pm Chicago, IL.
If Debby had never taken the leap to host this young Palestinian boy in her home, then July 5, 2013, would have been just like any other night. It pains her to imagine never having had this unique cross-border, cross-generational and deeply meaningful friendship in her life.
As we emerge from our social isolation in a post-pandemic world, Debby and Basil’s friendship can serve to inspire us to reach out of our comfort zones to find meaningful connection. And, if you’re inclined to follow Debby’s example to support Hands of Peace, more information is available at handsofpeace.org.