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The British government, the descendants of former US President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally

Crossing borders

Muslim American builds global interfaith movement that brings together youth for cooperative service.

By Naazish YarKhan – CHICAGO, Illinois

Hemings, the Mathare Youth Sports Association in Nairobi and the multi-media organisation Just Vision may at not, at first glance, seem to have anything in common. But on 11 November at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC, it became clear that they have all chosen to build bridges between individuals and communities where barbed wire, darkness or ignorance had divided people.

The non-profit organisation Search for Common Ground, itself committed to resolving and preventing conflict by understanding differences and acting on commonalities, honoured them for leading by example.

Awardees David Works, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerin – all descendants of a relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, or Jefferson and his wife Martha – were recognised for striving to bridge the chasm between black and white America. They began by promoting racial tolerance and acceptance within their own fractured family, and it was not until Banks-Young and Westerin’s efforts to promote common ground by speaking publicly about the need for racial reconciliation had taken off that the Jefferson-Hemings descendants were acknowledged as family by the Jefferson-Martha clan.

Divisions along racial lines are only one divide in the United States. If you read various online news outlets or tune in to radio talk shows in the United States, you know how vitriolic public discussion has become. Jim Leach, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was awarded for his national tour calling for the restoration of mutual respect and civility in public dialogue.

None would agree more to such a movement than Eboo Patel, the visionary behind the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. Not yet 35, this Muslim American has already built a global interfaith youth movement that brings together youth with different faith traditions and beliefs for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values. In his acceptance speech, Patel drew on a story from Italian author Italo Calvino about stones being used to build a bridge – rather than walls or weapons – which was especially powerful.

Ronit Avni, Founder and Executive Director of Just Vision and Julia Bacha, Producer and Media Director, were recognised for their new documentary film Budrus which shows non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. According to The Boston Globe, "This film will single-handedly change how many people view the conflict. It's that good, and that important."

The documentary brings into focus an untold tale, one unheard of both in the US mainstream press and on the world stage. It chronicles the efforts to save the Palestinian village of Budrus from being walled off by the construction of the separation barrier, by uniting local civic and political leaders with Israeli and international supporters. Americans can watch the documentary in theatres until mid-February. Queen Noor of Jordan, who is actively involved with a number of peacebuilding organisations, presented this award to the recipients.

Before an audience of nearly 350 people, Search for Common Ground also honoured the South African 1995 Springbok Rugby Team for nurturing unity in the racially divided country. For non-white South Africans, the Springboks symbolised the nation's history with apartheid. Under then President Nelson Mandela, both blacks and whites celebrated the Boks’ and South Africa’s first World Cup title in 1995 as united citizens of one country.

The Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in Nairobi also uses sports as a catalyst for change, crossing religious, political and tribal lines. MYSA was given an award for its inspirational work, which touches nearly 25,000 boys and girls in Africa’s worst slum every year with community-based programming, including environmental cleanup, AIDS prevention activities and leadership training.

The British government was also recognised for apologising earlier this year for its role in Bloody Sunday, a tragic 1972 incident in Northern Ireland in which 13 unarmed civil rights protestors were killed and several more injured by the British army.

Last but not the least, the Pennsylvania-based manufacturing company, Center Rock, Inc., received an award for having committed itself to providing innovative equipment that led to the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners from their recent ordeal. It was their persistence in finding a solution to a seemingly intractable problem that reunited these men with their loved ones – and served as an inspiration to us all.

The awardees themselves crossed borders to be honoured for their achievements. Each one demonstrated that conflicts and divisions do not have to be permanent, and that no matter the odds, there is hope.

Naazish YarKhan is an editor, social media/content strategist, NPR commentator and Huffington Post blogger. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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