Peace group helps bring Muslim students to Juneau


December 2002 Juneau Empire advertisement and pictures from various JPPJ activities over the years.

As the world enters a new year, the U.S. is still involved in Afghanistan. Most U.S. troops are out of Iraq, but the future of post-war Iraq is very uncertain. According to the United Nations, the civil war in Syria has killed about 60,000 people. The so-call “Arab spring” countries are still unsettled. The hope for peace seems as dim as ever.

A decade ago, as the United States was getting more and more entangled in war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a small group of Juneau residents founded Juneau People for Peace and Justice. The group continues to be a visible and vocal organization dedicated to cultivating the message of peace.

Amy Paige helped bring the group together, because they were “anxious about what was going on in the world.”

There’s no membership and JPPJ has never organized as a non-profit, but the group has met once a week for ten years. While numbers often swell and ebb with world news, the core has worked to ensure that it’s having some impact. Even if it’s one conversation at a time.

In the last two years, JPPJ has sponsored students from the Middle East at Juneau high schools. Rich Moniak hosted a student  last year. He says the next generation “is part of the hope” for peace.

Moniak started coming to JPPJ meetings after his son was deployed to Iraq for the second time. He’s a firm believer in the sense of hope for peace that such groups can bring.

“What I saw in this group was a lot of people working hard for something larger than themselves,” he says.

Over the years, the group has taken out an anti-war newspaper advertisement, signed by more than 1,000 Juneau residents. A peace march across the Douglas Bridge also drew about a thousand people. There have been demonstrations, town meetings, teleconferences with Alaska’s congressional delegation, and letters to other political leaders. But Judith Maier says affiliating with the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program was “one of the most important things we’ve done. Last year we had four young people here from the Middle East and this year there are three.”

Mohammed Qabani, of Israel, is a junior at Thunder Mountain High School.

Maier says she can’t think of a better use of her tax dollars.  The YES program was founded ten years ago after the terrorist attacks on America. It is funded by grants from the U.S. State Department to provide scholarships for students from countries with large Muslim populations.

This year high school juniors Mohammad Qabani and Ayah Tafesh are studying at Thunder Mountain High School. Hadi Kamj, from Lebanon, is spending the school year at Juneau-Douglas High School, and just enrolled in classes at the University of Alaska Southeast.  They live with Juneau families.  All three are of the Muslim faith.

Other than the cold, Qabani, from Israel, says he likes Juneau and has met lots of people who are respectful to his culture. At first he experienced some bullying at school, including one youth who told him “Arabs are terrorism.”

“But when he like sat with me and we had a conversation, he changed his opinion,” Qabani says.

Ayah Tafesh, of Gaza, is a junior at TMHS.

Tafesh is from Gaza. She also has worked one on one with some students. She likens her experience in the U.S. to a mission.

“I like that I’m here to represent my country and people are respectful to me,” she says. “I think that I have a job to give a better point of view about my country, because I think most of the people either don’t know about it or they have a bad point of view about my country.  So I want to present my country and make them change their point of view, maybe.”

As they meet people throughout Juneau, the Muslim students believe they have helped change some minds about their culture. And it’s one way Juneau People for Peace and Justice believe the group has made a difference since the first gathering a decade ago.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”   (Margaret Mead)

 

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