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Embodying Peace and WRAP: A personal re-signification in a pandemic context

Image: WRAP

“The path is narrow, but holding on to the hand of the other, of the companion, one succeeds. Our young people today have to walk with the heart, with a pure soul, above all.”

Iracema Rã-Nga Nascimento (Brazilian Indigenous)

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Despite being irreligious, I became involved in the work of welcoming refugees at the Catholic Church in Jundiaí, São Paulo, that my family attended while I was in high school. At that time and even today, most of the refugees in Brazil fled from Africa and Haiti. Direct exposure to the suffering of these displaced people, impoverished and sickly children in particular, inspired me to acquire the requisite knowledge in order to make a difference in the world. So, in 2016, I began my studies in International Relations at the Faculties of Campinas. 

The extreme right, the Nazism and the human suffering it wrought, sparked my interest in the history of Israel, Zionism, and of the Jewish people. It also prompted me to study Palestine, beginning with its controversial partition. For reasons of academic survival but also out of a deep passion for foreign policy, I decided to focus my monograph research on Brazilian foreign policy in the Middle East, with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, despite my continued work with refugees in Brazil, I always felt distant from the practice given that I merely conducted academic research. 

My academic interest in the Middle East, particularly the subject of Israel-Palestine, accompanied me until the end of the first part of my academic journey. After graduating during the Coronavirus pandemic, I felt almost aimless given the social isolation and nostalgia wrought by Covid-19. What provided me with some comfort amid this despair was my research on gender for the Feminist Center of International Relations in Brazil, of which I am very proud to be a part. It is with great joy that I write of the discovery of my renewed purpose upon acceptance to the Embodying Peace (EP) Fellowship. EP focuses on the power of civil society in advancing peace between Israel and Palestine. For a non-Jew and non-Arab, i.e, a Brazilian outsider, it was an immensely valuable opportunity to learn about Israel-Palestine from EP fellows with family connections and personal relationships to the topic. 

I confess that when EP placed me with the Water Resources Action Project (WRAP) for an internship, I thought that their mission was outside the scope of my interests as it did not include a gender agenda. Gender issues are of great importance to me given that I was born in the most dangerous region of the world, other than war zones, for women (UN Women, 2019). However, the placement was eminently appropriate because my last internship in college was at a relationship firm for senior executives in the infrastructure market, and WRAP builds rainwater harvesting systems in schools in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. I gratefully decided to embrace this opportunity in order to make a material difference and to be able to apply some of my research. With my internship behind me, I can say with certainty that, despite it being remote, WRAP provided me with a proximity to my region of interests that I had never had before. 

Founded in 2009, WRAP is an NGO that seeks to build trusting relationships between teachers and students in Arabic and Hebrew schools in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, through environmental peacebuilding and educational programs. Environmental peacebuilding is a concept that emerged at the beginning of the 21st century in reaction to environmental security issues in contexts of scarcity and conflict. In 2002, the ways in which environmental degradation caused conflicts were summarized by thinking about strategies to prevent environment-related conflicts. In that same period it was suggested that common environmental problems could be entry points for cooperation and even peacemaking. It was then that the term “disaster diplomacy” was coined. Furthermore, 2007 was a key moment because the first United Nations Security Council debate on climate and security was held. This debate continues to this day, especially now amid the global Coronavirus pandemic, an environmental problem of the highest order that requires international cooperation. (IDE et al 2021, p. 1-16). 

The people-to people-approach of WRAP and, indeed, of EP, is effective because it is always easier to make peace between children, as they are not born to hate but are taught to hate. Hence, since WRAP works in schools, it is easier to deconstruct the idea of enmity between Arabs and Jews. WRAP does not directly target the occupation, but tries to instill environmental awareness in children. In so doing, WRAP contributes to the sense that resources belong to everyone, thereby validating the cooperative strategy of environmental peacebuilding. 

In May, in the context of escalating violence between Arabs and Jews, the Alliance for Middle East Peace organized an online event to reflect on peacebuilding actions. I had the opportunity to participate through WRAP, and the speech of the Palestinian Huda Abuarquob, active leader in grassroots Palestinian and Israeli initiatives focused on Feminist Inclusive Political Activism, made a deep impression on me. Abuarquob said with emotion: “if we are not secured you will not be secured […] unless we all recognize that we have the same right to exist on the same piece of land we will never get out of that dark darkness”. This line allows us to reflect on and value the work of civil society in promoting peace, since the State as an institution is limited to the interests of the political groups that mostly operate the state apparatus. This is one of the reasons why I believe in the work of the EP, especially in its long-term impact, when we fellows would be working in the field. 

I began my intern work with WRAP by writing and designing materials to share with potential NGO partners. This work culminated in a grant submission to Youth Water Climate. The project we submitted for this grant is a partnership between WRAP and a young Brazilian woman from my city who developed a low-cost drone to measure water quality. Her scientific project aligns with the principles of WRAP, as her project would allow for the provision of water in school gardening projects and flushing. Also, her project would make possible the development of valuable educational skills in subject areas including, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, sustainability, and the environment. These subject areas can be worked on through the sustainable development goals proposed by the United Nations. In this way, besides contributing to STEM field knowledge, critical thinking and environmental/social awareness will be promoted, transforming students into better citizens. These students will be made aware of the importance of working together, building more honest and resilient relationships, in addition to mere knowledge acquisition and knowing how to care for the environment in which they live. 

As a Latin American, I must note the role of women in environmental conservation efforts. Data from the 2016 Global Gender and Climate Alliance illustrates that women are important agents in environmental conservation, especially in Latin America. Furthermore, the report “Gender, climate, and security: sustaining inclusive peace on the frontlines of climate change,” warns that the impacts of climate change threaten peace and security by increasing competition for resources and forcing people to migrate to regions with more resources. This is important in the context of the Middle East because of the competition for natural resources. Thus, the importance of childhood learning about conservation—internalizing that resources belong to all human beings and that solidarity and respect should be the basis for our decisions—is what I most appreciate about WRAP. This NGO, together with EP, has enabled me to imbue renewed significance into my academic, professional, and personal goals, particularly during the pandemic, as well as to learn a tremendous amount from my colleagues, especially Leora, a WRAP board member. 

I feel extremely honored and grateful for those months that, despite the pandemic and remote work, allowed me to develop meaningful work. Therefore, I strongly encourage more young people to join Embodying Peace, especially outsiders, who like me, may feel that it is not their place to speak. Crucially, however, peace is a collective effort, independent of nationality and religion.

Isabela Mendes

Isabela Mendes is a 24-year-old Brazilian and she studied International Relations. She is currently a researcher at the Feminist Center of International Relations in Brazil and a Water Resources Action Project volunteer. She researches Brazilian Foreign Policy in the Middle East and is particularly interested in the Israel-Palestine context.

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