Aziz Abu Sarah Named National Geographic Emerging Explorer
By James Greif
Aziz Abu Sarah, co-executive director of Mason’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC), was named one of National Geographic’s 2011 Emerging Explorers for his education and peace-building efforts in the Middle East and other conflict regions.
The National Geographic program recognizes and supports early career scientists, photographers and researchers who are making a difference in their field. The recognition is decided by an internal nomination process, and each explorer is given $10,000 to support research and future breakthroughs.
As part of the selection, Abu Sarah presented and participated in the National Geographic Explorers Symposium held in Washington, D.C., last month.
“The symposium was a fantastic experience and gave me the opportunity to meet amazing and talented people,” Abu Sarah says. “I am quite honored by the selection.”
At CRDC, Abu Sarah builds connections between Jewish and Arab Americans and organizes CRDC’s overseas education seminars that bring students from Mason and several other universities to the Middle East and other regions around the world. The seminars educate the participants in narratives that equally represent each side of a historical conflict.
“By meeting citizens from both sides of the conflict and hearing different firsthand perspectives, the participants learn so much in such a short amount of time,” Abu Sarah says. “Doing this kind of cultural education on a worldwide level is an innovative approach and different from most study-abroad programs held at other universities.”
Abu Sarah has been conducting such tours for 10 years. He founded his own local tour company in 2004 and today operates Mejdi Tourism Services with his CRDC colleagues Marc Gopin and Scott Cooper.
Abu Sarah joined CRDC in 2009 as director of Middle East projects. Gopin, professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and founder of CRDC, was familiar with Abu’s work in tourism and education and asked him to join the center.
“Aziz Abu Sarah has been an essential linchpin of our work at CRDC,” Gopin says. “His experience as a leading Palestinian advocate of justice and peace and his many years of experience in tourism have allowed us to massively increase our offerings at CRDC and, in particular, our way of just and honest engagement with local populations.”
Abu Sarah’s interest and approach in conflict resolution education comes from his personal experiences growing up as a Palestinian in Jerusalem. When he was a child, Abu Sarah’s 18-year-old brother, Tayseer, was accused of throwing stones at Israeli cars and was taken in for questioning by Israeli soldiers. Tayseer was held without trial for 11 months, and shortly after being released, he died from complications from beatings he received at the hands of soldiers.
Abu Sarah spent his high school years writing anger-filled articles aimed at the Israeli government and its military, and he even briefly joined a youth movement related to Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
However, Abu Sarah’s attitude changed after he graduated from high school and felt the need to improve his options for collegiate education.
A Hebrew class provided his first interactions with Israeli civilians. He began to build friendships with the Jewish students in the class who shared stories about the struggles from their side of the conflict. Until this time, Abu Sarah’s only experiences with Israelis were with soldiers, such as the ones who took his brother or administered the checkpoints at the borders.
“One of the biggest problems in the conflict is that Israelis and Palestinians do not really know each other,” Abu Sarah says. “Their limited perspective affects how they see the other, and it is this ignorance and fear that becomes violence. Unless you learn about the experiences of the other, you will never have peace with them.”
Breaking the Circle of Violence
Abu Sarah’s own learning experience has become part of his mission: to bring people together to learn about the shared pain and suffering caused by conflict, and to organize like-minded individuals who wish to break the circle of violence.
“If I can change and work for peace, others can, too,” Abu Sarah says.
Prior to joining Mason, Abu Sarah served as director of international relations for Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Palestinian–Israeli organization of people who work to end the fighting through peaceful means. In this capacity, Abu Sarah arranged community speaking engagements and trained members on public speaking. He also served as chairman of the organization from 2006 through 2010.
Abu Sarah also co-hosted a bilingual radio show in Jerusalem on Radio All for Peace. The show was broadcast in Arabic and Hebrew with simultaneous translation, and the program gained popularity as a way to learn the languages. Abu Sarah continues to sit in as a guest host when he is in the region conducting CRDC’s overseas seminars.
In his role at Mason, Abu Sarah also has commented on the revolutions currently taking place in the Middle East through international and local media such as Al-Jazeera, Russia Today, Jerusalem Post, News Channel 8 and Fox 5 News.
Abu Sarah is currently writing a book with Kobi Skolnick, Israeli peace activist and director of leadership development at CRDC. The book will detail their shared experiences on each side of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and how they became close friends.