There are no bears in Israel, let alone endangered, rare, all-white black bears. But that was no reason for Canadian environmentalist Salimah Ebrahim to reject an invitation to speak in Rishon Lezion on youth engagement with environmental issues. Ebrahim is a founder and Executive Director of the Spirit Bear Coalition, the world's largest youth-led environmental group. Its aim is to protect the spirit bear, a rare, all-white black bear that lives in the Great Bear rain forest of northern British Columbia in Canada. Today, the more than six million members in over 60 countries far outnumber the 200 remaining bears they are trying to protect. Back in January 2008, Elad Segev, the science coordinator at the Haviva School in Rishon Lezion, was searching the net for environmental organizations that involved youth when he came upon the coalition. While he was interested in the plight of the spirit bear, he was more impressed with what this movement, started by high-school students, had been able to achieve. He wanted that message brought to Israel. Ebrahim, who views the environment as one of the critical challenges of our time, was happy to oblige. Having worked as a journalist in the region she feels attached to it personally, and as an environmentalist knows how significant the issues can be. She notes that in the Middle East, political, economic and human security issues often trump the environment; yet we cannot afford to overlook it much longer. "While I can understand that impulse, it's also becoming alarmingly obvious - from the forced migration due to drought in Darfur to water issues right here in Middle East - the environment is at the center of all of those challenges, and the opportunity to be forward-looking is one that we can't miss." As such, Ebrahim has been traveling the Middle East, from Dubai to Jordan to Israel, in an attempt to learn about environmental issues and youth engagement and see how the Spirit Bear Coalition can help start up local conversations on the environment. This week she met with educators and teachers at Rishon Lezion's city hall to begin building a partnership and collaboration, through spirit bear projects, in order to inspire cooperation amongst Israeli and Canadian youth on environmental issues, both in Canada and in Israel. Segev believes the results will be positive both for the environment and for the students. While being the first to admit that working on environmental issues is not going to bring peace to the region, she does note that the best results will be achieved through cross-border and religious collaboration. "I don't think we have any other choice but to work together. And if the Spirit Bear and issues in the region can bridge dialogue and spark collaboration that would be a wonderful outcome for our efforts here," she said Ebrahim also admits that it is not always easy convincing people to support efforts to save a rare bear in northern Canada. Even fellow Canadians have asked why people in the Middle East would care about the bear. "The Pandas are in China," she points out. But for her, as much as it is about the bear, just like with Segev, it is also about the message. "The spirit bear can be a mechanism of hope; a gateway to show young people they can make a difference. If my coming here, and us collaborating, helps people enliven their environment, we'll have done what we set out to achieve." Besides directing the largest youth-led environmental group in the world, Ebrahim has worked to:
Make the spirit bear one of the official mascots of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Receive the support of high-profile individuals such as Dr. Jane Goodall, Robert F. Kennedy and J.K. Rowling for protecting the spirit bear.
Most importantly, bring the spirit bear to the silver screen. The Spirit Bear - the first major Hollywood animated movie with a mission to protect its namesake and set to open in about a year and half - is being co-produced by Ebrahim.