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Queens teaches diversity for international fellows

Eyal Milles and Sahar Natsheh live less than 40 miles from one another in Israel.

The Jewish journalist and the Palestinian community activist had never met until recently, and it would have been easy for them to have stayed strangers until they arrived in New York last week for an international fellowship program.

But somehow that just didn’t seem right.

“It was kind of a symbolic act that eventually we met there and not here for the first time,” Milles said Sunday as he rode a chartered bus from Flushing to Jackson Heights, where he and 22 other fellows were scheduled to see firsthand the diversity of Queens.

Milles and Natsheh were selected to participate in the Ford Motor Company International Fellowship Program of the 92nd Street Y, an international exchange designed to educate community leaders from countries torn apart by violence about fostering communication between cultures.

On Sunday they came out to Queens, the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the country, to see how ethnic groups with long histories of discord have settled into a peaceful — and productive — coexistence.

The 23 fellows from Algeria, Colombia, Israel, Romania, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe spent the morning in discussions at the Flushing Jewish Community Center, then toured the streets of Jackson Heights before finally sitting down to lunch at King’s House, a Bukharian Jewish restaurant.

“They were very excited and they were also really impressed by the way different groups that are warring back home manage to get along and find a way to coexist, and coexist productively,” said Alison Gardy, the director of international relations at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. “That’s part of the reason why we went in particular to the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi community of Jackson Heights, which is all the more fascinating by the fact that Colombians and Mexicans are kind of thrown into the mix there.”

Ana Lebl, a fellow from Croatia who works to improve relations between the Jewish and Christian communities in the city of Split, said she was impressed by the fluidity of neighborhoods in New York.

“It’s all so intermingled today, it’s incredible,” Lebl said. “In Europe, I suppose we are more traditional, narrow-minded.”

At the corner of 75th Street and 37th Avenue, the fellows spontaneously paused to enjoy an Indian ice cream delicacy called Kulfi after tour guide Mitra Kalita described it in delicious detail.

Immigrants from countries battling over boundaries overseas are united in Queens by the cultural similarities they share, the fellows observed.

Meanwhile, immigrants with no history of involvement — and seemingly nothing in common — have learned the power of pooling their voices to achieve a common good, coming together by necessity.

“The communities that are most civically engaged also receive the most resources,” explained Bryan Pu-Folkes, the founder of a group called New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, who spoke to the fellows Sunday morning. “When you work together, each individual community gets more than the individual communities working alone.”

A group of five students from the Academy for New Americans — a middle school in Long Island City for immigrant students who have lived in the country for a year or less — told stories about how even the newest arrivals shed prejudices from their home countries.

“I don’t care, I’m friends with a Pakistani guy,” said Aditya Venkat, 13, who is from India, which has lined its border with Pakistan with troops. “We are human beings — we look for the same goals.”

Milles, an editor of two newspapers in Tel Aviv, noted how well the people of New York get along with one another, even though the city is denser and more populous than all of Israel.

“There is a mutual basic tolerance and it’s great,” he said. “In Israel you come and you feel the tension of coexistence.”

But even before he reached Queens, the spirit of ethnic cooperation had already moved him. Dissatisfied with the idea of meeting in New York someone who lived so close to him in Israel — but happened to stand on the other side of a long-standing ethnic conflict — he set up a coffee date with Natsheh, who works to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, before they left.

“I think it’s very good to listen to the others,” said Natsheh, as she walked past the sari shops in Jackson Heights. “You have to get to know the others in order to deal with them.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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