After three years of forging cooperation among Arab and Jewish Israeli children over a shared need to protect nature, an Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) project in Alonei Abba came to an end on Wednesday.

The project, given three years of funding by the German government, brought children from nearby towns and villages such as Beit Lehem Haglilit, Alonei Abba, Ka’abiyye, Alonim, Kfar Yehoshua and Bosmat Tivon to the Alonei Abba Nature Reserve in the Lower Galilee monthly. During those visits and at additional monthly classroom meetings, the children received hands-on education about nature, environmental protection skills and animal and plant awareness, according to the INPA.

“Back in the day the nature reserve suffered from a lot of damage,” Giselle Hazzan, manager of the project and director of the Ein Afek nature reserve, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

People were coming from nearby villages and cutting down slabs of oak tree for heating firewood, as well as throwing their trash haphazardly on the land in the reserve, according to Hazzan.

This prompted Hazzan and other INPA staff members to draft a proposal for grant money toward a cross-cultural cleanup project to the German government’s environmental foundation, Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt, which after 10 years agreed to fund a three-year program.

“We realized that we need the community – we need to work for awareness among the school kids,” Hazzan said.

Although during the decade that had passed, the area’s children had gained more awareness on environmental issues, there was still much work to be done, according to Hazan.

“The unseen target was for the Arabs and Jews kids to get together,” she said.

Rather than expose the children – who were in third grade at the onset of the program – to the intricacies of each other’s cultures, the INPA staff instead chose to focus on shared values of nature and how to hone their environmental skills together.

“One of the things unique in this project was the same kids meeting in the project for three years,” Hazzan said. “It means they grew up together for three years.”

While the children did not all know each other’s languages, the staff members initiated activities that involved less speaking and more hands-on communication. For example, the children participated in music and art sessions, cleaned up the reserve and marked trails with rocks for the reserve, according to Hazzan. They were divided into teams labeled by different colors, each with six Arab and six Jewish children.

At first, many of the children were “afraid of one and other,” as they had never interacted with people from the other culture before, but by the second year “they were working in harmony,” Hazzan said.

“We tried to do things that would stay there for longterm,” she added. “We have one target – to take care of this place because it belongs to us.”

The goal, she explained, was not to make children from the two cultures “fall in love” with each other but rather learn to work together in nature and recognize each other as human beings.

A separate group of students, from the elementary school in the Beduin village across the street from the reserve, Bosmat Tivon, came to the reserve separately from the mixed groups, as their environmental awareness was particularly low at the beginning, according to Hazzan.

Despite the fact that they lived right next to the reserve, they had not learned before about the importance of protecting wildlife and cleaning up garbage.

“When we spread around candies on the ground, everybody picked up the candies but no one would pick up the trash,” she said.

All of the students, whether in the Bosmat Tivon or the mixed cultural track of the program, made strides throughout the three years, and the last day at the park on Wednesday concluded with the children singing a song together in an Indian language – purposely not Hebrew or Arabic, Hazzan explained.

They will get together for an additional closure meeting soon inside a classroom, to evaluate the program they participated in for so long.

“We want to continue this project,” Hazzan said. “It’s going to be a waste if we do not continue because we gained a lot of experience and wrote a lot of educational programs.”

Hazzan said she hopes she will be able to secure enough funding from sources outside the INPA once again, in order to launch another intensive program with new participants.

Although the purpose of the program was to teach shared values of environmental awareness, Hazzan said she felt that the children’s crosscultural experience together will also have an impact on the rest of their lives – depending on the individual child and his or her family, of course.

“Education is one of the things where you can’t see the results right away – you are doing it for the long-term,” she said. “Just the fact that people can be together and sit under the tree and chat and do things together – it’s like a seed we are putting inside the kids.

“In the heart of every one of these kids there’s something special about this nature reserve.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger