Read what the winners of a teen essay contest have to say

A group of 12 teen judges evenly divided between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States selected the best three submissions from each society for publication.

 Person writing (illustrative) (photo credit: FLICKR.COM)
Person writing (illustrative)
(photo credit: FLICKR.COM)

Heart of a Nation – a nonprofit organization in the United States – launched a teen essay contest this summer. The organization’s goal is to bring together Americans, Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to making their societies better. For the essay, teens were asked, “What do you most want to improve about your own society and how?”

A group of 12 teen judges evenly divided between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States selected the best three submissions from each society for publication. The criteria for the selection of winning submissions included passion, eloquence, pathos, idealism, practicality and optimism.

The winning essays are being published by ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ ‘Al-Quds’ in the Palestinian territories and ‘The Christian Science Monitor.’

Respecting women

By BELLA HYLO Nablus, Palestine

My society is a society of religion, books and the past. We are still stuck in a scary time. We take the rules and ways to live our lives from the commandments of the Messenger and that applies to education, communication, lifestyle and everything else.

These commandments dictate how we should live – after all, we have learned before them but we feel the contempt of other societies. Other societies see us as horrible, infidel and murderous. How did we not recognize what is lacking in Arab society? Where did we go wrong?

My society is degrading to women. It sees a woman as a private thing to hide and be ashamed of. It sees her as less than, incomplete and only suitable for the kitchen.

She is forced to marry young to a husband who is her father’s age. My society has insulted, despised, beaten and killed her with pathetic excuses to justify such disgraceful acts.

You argue that this is what the Messenger taught us and what he commanded us to do that we, as Muslims and Christians, have the right to transcend women. They are disgracefully wrong.

The Messenger taught us to protect women, put them above our heads, treat them with kindness and love, and forbid causing them pain. Our society lacks humanity. Religion doesn’t matter; we are all humans after all.

There is no solution but to remind these men of humanity. They will not learn or change; we will not influence them except to remind them that we, too, are human beings and that what they do is contrary to Messenger’s commands and other religions. They are making a terrible mistake.

What I can do is write down what I see in our society, point out who doesn’t believe in humanity and push change for these mentalities.

What I can do is say out loud that we are not something to hide. We are bosses, teachers, managers, doctors, mothers and sisters. We can reach space if we want. We can write a book or make the impossible happen.

Don’t underestimate a woman. Make her a crown on your head and she will be your princess. She will complete your religion’s text and be your other half. She will be a haven for your children. Remember humanity and remember how you came to the universe safely.

Transforming urban environments

By ASHER WEED Austin, Texas

More than four billion people live in urban environments globally. This is projected to increase to nearly seven billion by the middle of the century.

Not only are cities detrimental to the environment but also pose serious health risks. If urban spaces are necessary for the projected increase in population, we need sustainable solutions to these problems.

This is where urban greening steps in. Urban greening is the incorporation of natural infrastructure into urban environments, such as green pedestrian and bicycle trail systems, urban street canopies, green roofing, living walls, community gardens and natural stormwater features.

Green spaces are proven to lower stress and anxiety.

These are major causes of physical and mental health problems. Across Europe, approximately one in every 15 deaths is associated with a lack of physical activity. Providing access to parks and gardens can mitigate the associated health problems of not getting enough exercise.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 3.7 million deaths per year are caused by exposure to poor air quality.

This is created by cars and industrial emissions. Taking cars off the road and limiting emissions should be a priority. However, in the short term, trees, bushes and living walls can clean the air of pollutants. In addition to filtering Co2 through carbon sequestration, cleaning the air of pollutants increases the quality of life in our cities.

Urban environments are typically around 1°C-2°C hotter than surrounding landscapes. This can increase the likelihood of heat-related injuries. Urban areas integrated with natural infrastructure average around 1°C cooler than their traditional counterparts.

Rainwater collection systems also pose an issue; they can be easily overwhelmed when heavy rain occurs over a long period. When this happens, flooding ensues, which causes damage to property and people. It also delivers harmful pollutants from roads to local environments.

Instead of these collection systems, we should invest in natural stormwater infrastructure, such as filtration marshes and watersheds that can filter impurities.

A study done in New York City found a new water filtration plant costs $8-10 billion (NIS 28.6 b.), while watershed conservation costs $1.5 b. (NIS5.4 b.). Prioritizing natural infrastructure cuts down on expenses, damage and loss of life from water-related incidents.

Urban environments can help bring back local ecosystems. By using regional plants in roundabouts, roadsides and green roofs, cities can be as biodiverse as their surrounding countryside.

If the correct plants are used, cities can provide food for declining bee and butterfly species, which in turn will have massive environmental benefits.

Our choices today will have huge impacts on generations to come. Not only are green urban spaces more economically and environmentally sound but healthier for the human experience.

Asher is a home-schooled teen who has traveled full-time in an RV his whole life. He enjoys graphic design, filmmaking and photography, and is committed to making the world sustainable.

Connecting through language

By NOGA NOVIS DEUTSCH Kibbutz Hannaton, Israel

Earlier this year, I was waiting at the train station when I heard a little boy crying. I walked over to see if I could help but when I asked him what was wrong he responded in Arabic. I couldn’t understand him, although I assumed that he was lost. I felt helpless.

Eventually, his mother found us and thanked me in Hebrew. We were able to communicate because she knew my language.

Arab Israelis make up over 20% of Israel’s population. However, less than 10% of Jewish Israelis speak Arabic. None of my Jewish friends speak Arabic. The adults in my life only know a few phrases but from their army service. “Jib el awiah” (Pass me your ID) and “Wakf walla batuchak” (Stop or I shoot) do not make for civil conversation.

This language barrier is significant. It bars us from being able to communicate with our neighbors and fellow citizens in their native language. Jewish Israelis expect Arabs to be fluent in Hebrew but we don’t hold ourselves to the same standards.

We strive for peace in Israel and intend to see each other as equals but most of our population can’t even hold a simple conversation in Arabic.

I believe that there’s a simple solution: we need to start teaching Arabic again! Arabic used to be a compulsory course but even the schools that still teach it now only offer it to older students, which is more ineffective. It isn’t a high-priority class and is mostly taught as a literary subject.

This prevents the students from having a large vocabulary because it prioritizes learning the different letters rather than the relevant words for day-to-day life.

I propose that students start learning Arabic in kindergarten and focus on expanding their vocabulary.

The lessons should be prioritized, especially in the younger grades. Classes should also be taught in experiential and innovative ways that will provide positive experiences for the students.

For example, movies, podcasts and other media have proven to be effective in teaching and immersing in new languages. Students can put on plays in Arabic, create pop-up museums using Arabic and engage in other activities that prompt the creative use of the Arab language.

Arab and Jewish schools should also interact more. We can pair schools, and once a month the schools would meet and engage in communication so that they can experience in-person conversation with their peers.

In order for us to work on our society’s big issues, we first need to break down the barriers we’ve erected between us.

Noga is a high school senior who lives on a Kibbutz with her family and cat.