Queens College honors Mid-East peace advocate

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After spending much of his life advocating for reconciliation between his native Palestine and Israel, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s faith in humanity was nearly shattered when his three daughters and a niece died last year after an Israeli tank fired on his house in Gaza.

But the doctor, who has spent decades treating and working with Israelis and Palestinians and is now nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, did not give up on promoting peace. Instead, he continues to urge Palestine and Israel to heal the gap between them and founded Daughters for Life, a group dedicated to providing education and health services for women and girls in Gaza and the Middle East.

Last week, Queens College honored Abuelaish during its first Awards in Recognition of Uncommon Courage and the Fostering of Understanding Between Peoples ceremony.

“Peace is possible, even with this tremendous loss,” Abuelaish said. “Let us move from here and open our hearts, eyes and minds.”

Abuelaish’s daughters Bessan, 20; Mayar, 15; and Aya, 13, were killed instantly when an Israeli tank fired on his house in January 2009 during a three-week military conflict that Israel staged in response to rockets fired into Israel from Palestine. His niece, Nur Abuelaish, 17, was killed in the same attack.

The college’s Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding sponsored the May 26 event, during which Abuelaish was recognized alongside Lewis Bernstein, a Queens College alumni who has worked to promote peace and education through the children’s television program “Sesame Street.” Bernstein helped to bring the program to Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany.

“When ‘Sesame Street’ went on air in 1969, I recognized its power as a show that could model profound social change for children and their parents,” said Bernstein, who establishes the educational agenda for all Sesame Workshop productions and oversees the development and analysis of research studies that assess the outcomes of the Sesame Workshop projects.

Dear Aunaetitrakul, who graduated from Queens College last week, was also honored. A double-major in political science and media studies, she coordinated the school’s annual War on Hate series of student events which are meant to combat bigotry, homophobia, racism and other hatred.

Aunaetitrakul brought a number of speakers to campus as part of the events, including Philip Gourevitch, the author of a book on the Rwandan genocide in 1994 entitled “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.”

Aunaetitrakul praised the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding, which was formed last year thanks to a multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The center has worked on a multitude of efforts to promote understanding between cultures on campus and in the community.

“When we have conflicts, it starts with people not listening to the other side,” Aunaetitrakul said. “When you listen, you can start to think creatively to solve the problem or at least address the issue.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:46 pm, October 10, 2011
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