Nir Oren addresses a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth. Behind him, a banner reads, “It won’t stop until we talk.” Though he speaks of peace and reconciliation, it is conflict and violence that have brought him to this room.
Born in 1960 in Tel Aviv, Israel, Nir has never known what it is like to live in a nation at peace with its neighbors. “In the early 1980s, after I finished my compulsory military service,” he says, “I traveled to America. On the day that I crossed the border between the U.S. and Canada, I looked for the fences and mine-fields, but all I could see were fields and open space. To me, a border without fencing was incomprehensible.”
When he returned home, Nir became a social worker, group facilitator, and therapist for addicts and the mentally ill. “I have a tendency and ability to find the good in any person,” he says. “It’s almost a need for me to see people and the world in more colors than black and white.”
Like most Israelis, Nir lived with the under- standing that his Palestinian neighbors lived under Israeli occupation. He also experienced the very real fear of living in a land subject to terrorist attacks, and the proclamations of leaders who vowed to destroy the Jewish people. Nir knew what he refers to as “the other side” only as enemies, an image reinforced by contact he had with Palestinians during his military service.
But in 1995, Nir’s ability to separate the national conflict from his personal life was forever destroyed when his mother Zahava (Golda) was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber who boarded the bus on which she was riding. What followed for Nir was nearly a decade of despair and pain. “I might still be completely without hope,” he says, “but in 2003 my family found the Parents Circle Families Forum—a network of Palestinian and Israeli families, all of whom have lost a loved one to the conflict, who are working together for peace and reconciliation.”
Introduced to Parents Circle through a summer camp attended by his son, Nir began to meet his Palestinian neighbors. “It was completely different than I expected,” he says. “I told my story and the same people that five minutes earlier I considered enemies were attentive to my pain, dropping a tear. I could listen to their stories of bereavement and pain and feel compassion rather than animosity, belonging rather than alienation.”
Through this encounter, Nir recovered the hope he thought he’d lost forever. For six years, with his Palestinian counterpart Mazen Faraj, also a 2014 Unsung Hero, Nir co-led the Parents Circle, overseeing reconciliation dialogues and projects for a community of 600 bereaved families who in turn reach out to thousands of individuals each year. “To my knowledge, we are the only organization of be- reaved families from both sides of the conflict struggling to create a framework for reconcilia- tion while the conflict is ‘alive and kicking,’” he says. “In other places, like Ireland and South Africa, such a process occurred only following a peace agreement or ceasefire.”
Nir passionately believes that there is no way other than through reconciliation to resolve the widespread suffering in the region. He explains that, “for years, I was captured, like most of the two peoples in Israel, by the idea that the other side is our vicious enemy and hatred and fear are a must. But we are all victims in this conflict.”
Nir readily acknowledges the enormous challenges of peace-building, particularly given the harsh day-to-day reality of the region, but is unwavering in his vision for peace. “By sharing our stories, learning and acknowledging each other’s narratives, changing opinions on social networks, and more, we are trying to change peoples’ minds and confront them with the need for and possibility for reconciliation,” he says. “If we, Palestinians and Israelis who lost our loved ones, can sit together and talk, than anybody else can.”