Euphrates Spotlight

#JeSuisCharlie – How I learned about secularism and satire in France

by Natasha Turak on January 9, 2015

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This week’s massacre of twelve individuals at the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was an attack on the very heart of French identity. Having lived in France with a French family for a year as a pre-teen, I have some insights into the culture clash that gave rise to this tragedy.

One was the absence of church. The only time my French family entered one was either when they were showing me some great cathedral in Paris, or when we all attended the communion ceremony of an extended family member. Whereas, I grew up attending services every week without fail, and in a family that regularly turned to God in prayer. I never heard my French parents or their friends or family members talk about religion or God or prayer, except to discuss it from a political perspective. I learned later about the overall decline in church attendance and religious sentiment in France, and also the concept of “secularism” as a treasured, hallowed ideal in French society.

Another closely-held French value was satire. Over dinner the family would often watch a TV show which looked like a spin-off of the Muppets, called “Le Bebete Show,” a political satire program which featured then- French president Francois Mitterand as Kermit the Frog and other prominent politicians as Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear, etc. I recall being shocked at how they could make fun of their leaders so obviously and rudely, and imagining the unlikelihood of then-American President Ronald Reagan being portrayed in like manner.

Another topic I often heard around the table was lamenting the rising tide of “les Arabes,” immigrants from France’s former colonies in North Africa and the Middle East.  I remember wondering who they were and why did they detest them so!  It’s interesting to think that, even in 1988, there was widespread resentment about the impact these people were having on French society and concern that the country’s scarce public resources were being diverted to “foreigners.”

Which brings us to this week’s events of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo perpetrated by individuals in the name of Islam. When viewed through my French immersion lens, I see a tension that has long been mounting between a fundamental clash of values—secular vs. religious, satire vs. sacred, and French vs. ‘Other”. The French have a right to their culture and the right to express it with complete freedom and safety and without fear of reprisal or intimidation. And yet the country also cannot ignore that it forced its culture upon others as it implemented harsh policies of assimilation when it colonized many of the Arab and African countries from which these immigrants are coming.

Europe as a whole is seeing a quickly growing Muslim population, and France’s is the largest in Western Europe, estimated between 5-10 percent. We may see more of these types of acts of terrorism throughout the continent as those of a radicalized minority bent on instilling fear, conflict, and hatred. We believe strongly that the antidote to these three scourges of society is found in their opposites: hope, unity, and fellowship. There are many more Muslims in Europe who eschew violence and terrorism than support them, and that group of moderates is whom the French and other Western nations must embrace.

–Janessa Gans Wilder, Euphrates Institute Chief Executive Officer

For additional reading:

After the attack on the Paris office of the French Magazine Charlie Hebdo, Coexister Interfaith Youth Movement wishes to express its shock, fear and sadness at such an act of barbarism. We are deeply affected by what has happened.

This odious act affects not only journalists, police officers, their families and friends, to whom we offer our condolences. It affects our national community. It undermines social cohesion of our country, our citizenship, France. Freedom of the press and opinion are part of the foundations of our democracy. And this freedom is not negotiable.

We seek to promote respect for all, all faiths, all convictions. We also defend the right to criticism, caricature and derision. Freedom is a precious asset is our common heritage.

Extremism, wherever it comes from, must be fought and put out of harm’s way. Against all fundamentalism, against fanaticism that disfigure the image of the communities they claim to represent. It is urgent to work for national unity. The intolerance must be fought, ignorance defeated.

“They wanted to put France on her knees, instead let us send them a message. We are here in solidarity and united. The goal of terrorists is to divide a population that is the victim. Panic, division, or denouncing a culprit in our national community would prove them right,” said Samuel Grzybowski, Chairman of Coexister.

It is time for the Republic to emerge.

For freedom of expression, brotherhood among citizens
The National Office of the Coexister Association

The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo skewers people of all faiths and backgrounds. One cartoon showed rolls of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran,” and the explanation: “In the toilet, all religions.”

Yet when masked gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Wednesday with AK-47s, murdering 12 people in the worst terror attack on French soil in decades, many of us assumed immediately that the perpetrators weren’t Christian or Jewish fanatics but more likely Islamic extremists.

Outraged Christians, Jews or atheists might vent frustrations on Facebook or Twitter. Yet it looks as if Islamic extremists once again have expressed their displeasure with bullets.
Many ask, Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?

The question arises because fanatical Muslims so often seem to murder in the name of God, from the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people to the murder of hostages at a cafe in Sydney, Australia, last month. I wrote last year of a growing strain of intolerance in the Islamic world after a brave Pakistani lawyer friend of mine, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending a university professor falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Some of the most systematic terrorism in the Islamic world has been the daily persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, from the Bahai to the Yazidi to the Ahmadis.
Then there’s the oppression of women. Of the bottom 10 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report, I count nine as majority Muslim.

So, sure, there’s a strain of Islamic intolerance and extremism that is the backdrop to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was firebombed in 2011 after a cover depicted Muhammad saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.”

Earlier, Charlie Hebdo had published a cartoon showing Muhammad crying and saying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”

Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents. My Twitter feed Wednesday brimmed with Muslims denouncing the attack — and noting that fanatical Muslims damage the image of Muhammad far more than the most vituperative cartoonist.

The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks — except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t even the most lethal terror attack on Wednesday: A car bomb outside a police college in Yemen, possibly planted by Al Qaeda, killed at least 37 people.

One of the things I’ve learned in journalism is to beware of perceiving the world through simple narratives, because then new information is mindlessly plugged into those story lines. In my travels from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan to Indonesia, extremist Muslims have shared with me their own deeply held false narratives of America as an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam. That’s an absurd caricature, and we should be wary ourselves of caricaturing a religion as diverse as Islam.

So let’s avoid religious profiling. The average Christian had nothing to apologize for when Christian fanatics in the former Yugoslavia engaged in genocide against Muslims. Critics of Islam are not to blame because an anti-Muslim fanatic murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011.

Let’s also acknowledge that the most courageous, peace-loving people in the Middle East who are standing up to Muslim fanatics are themselves often devout Muslims. Some read the Quran and blow up girls’ schools, but more read the Quran and build girls’ schools. The Taliban represents one brand of Islam; the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai the polar opposite.

There’s a humbling story, perhaps apocryphal, that Gandhi was once asked: What do you think of Western civilization? He supposedly responded: I think it would be a good idea.
The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who “otherize.”

In Australia after the hostage crisis, some Muslims feared revenge attacks. Then a wave of non-Muslim Australians rose to the occasion, offering to escort Muslims and ensure their safety, using the hashtag #IllRideWithYou on Twitter. More than 250,000 such comments were posted on Twitter — a model of big-hearted compassion after terror attacks.

Bravo! That’s the spirit.
Let’s stand with Charlie Hebdo, for the global outpouring of support has been inspiring. Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world — and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.

–Nicholas Kristof


We’ve nearly reached our goal–last chance to make a gift in 2014!

by Natasha Turak on December 31, 2014

Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

Dear friends,

As 2014 winds down, there’s still time to make a difference. With your help, we’ll raise funds to expand our programs and reach a national television audience in 2015 with our vision of a world with less terrorism, conflict, and fear.


We are so grateful for the donations already received that have enabled us to reach three-fourths of our goal of $50,000. Wow!! We are nearly there and would love your support in attaining this goal for 2014!

Don’t forget to make your 2014 tax-deductible donation online by midnight tonight or sign a check to “Euphrates Institute” dated today and mail to the following address:

Euphrates Institute
P.O. Box 491870
Redding, CA 96049

Thank you so much for your support this year. I can’t wait to keep you posted with all of the developments and progress your donations are making possible!


Janessa Gans Wilder,
Chief Executive Officer, Euphrates Institute

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Euphrates!

by Natasha Turak on December 25, 2014

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Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

On this eve of Christmas and end of Hannukah, I want to wish you all such happy and blessed holidays and to take this opportunity to thank you for sharing our vision of a world with less terrorism, conflict, and fear. I can’t think of a time it has been more needed to see this vision realized and to experience more peace, harmony, and progress in our world today! We would not be where we are today without your support, and I am hoping for your continued partnership as we head into this next chapter for Euphrates.

This Christmas I’ve been thinking about how this holiday is about celebrating a birth. This holds special significance for me this year as I read the Christmas story and am “great with child” myself, preparing for the birth of our second child due to arrive this spring! I’ve also been cherishing the many ways in which Euphrates is about to experience a new birth! As I shared with you last month, we are feeling an incredible sense of urgency and “readiness” to take on a bigger role and platform in response to the events in the Middle East. Please check out our plans and new programs, including increasing our ability to support Middle East visionaries, launching a new website, and airing a public service announcement on CBS! I truly believe the world is hungry for hope and solutions to these daunting challenges in the Middle East that have left many of us feeling overwhelmed and despairing. And we are eager to share this side of the story.

Thank you for nurturing and supporting this growing phase for Euphrates. It is an exciting space to be in, but not without challenges! (Much like actual childbirth, I must say!) We are so grateful for the financial contributions already received this giving season, which will help make our expansions and new programing possible. So far we have reached over half of our goal of $50,000! Wow—we are humbled and grateful!! We thank in advance those of you who still wish to contribute an end of year tax-deductible donation. You can donate online or mail a check.

Wishing our Christian and Muslim friends the blessings of the holy birth this Christmas, and we hope our Jewish friends experienced the infinitude and endless abundance of light this Hannukah!

in peace and fellowship,

Janessa Gans Wilder
Founder and Chief Executive

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National Geographic names Tunis Top Arab World Destination for 2015

by Natasha Turak on December 23, 2014

15811174027_9b7e6eda4d_zA peaceful rooftop in central Tunis’s traditional medina. Photo: Jennifer Ciochon, Tunisia Live

Often overlooked for the sunny beach resorts in Sousse and Hammamet, National Geographic has named Tunis as one of its top destinations for 2015, finally giving the city the attention it deserves.

From the ancient ruins of Carthage to the art galleries and beaches in La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said, these are some of the reasons National Geographic offers its readers to visit Tunisia’s capital.

Away from the dreamy Mediterranean coastline is the heart of the city, where “the coils of the ancient medina and the colonial grid of the early 20th century French city tell other chapters of Tunis’s story of conquest, resistance, flux, and assimilation.”

National Geographic’s fun fact for Tunis is one that might interest many tourists. The brightly painted doors of people’s homes throughout the medina attract many oohs and ahhs from visitors. But as National Geographic mentions, each color has a different meaning– green, the color of paradise; yellow, God’s favorite color in the Quran; and blue inspired by the blue used everywhere in Sidi Bou Said.

National Geographic does offer its own little insider tip. The medina can sometimes be a cause for stress with the haggling and pushing but it is worth it to find El Ali, a little book-filled cafe with a terrace facing the Zitouna mosque. Here you can enjoy a cool glass of citronnade with a view of the medina and the sound of the call to prayer echoing in the background.

To discover some of the city’s other hidden charms, visit any one of the cafes or single-screen cinemas that populate the side streets off Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s very own Champs Elysee. You can enjoy a coffee and delicious French-style pastries while people-watching on the boulevard as a fusion of Top 40 hits and traditional Tunisian tunes emanate from the nearby shops and cafes. To escape the hustle and bustle of Habib Bourguiba, step inside the El-Hana international Hotel to go up to the tenth floor Jamaica Bar and catch a breathtaking view of downtown Tunis.

If you’re looking for a little adventure and wish to go off the beaten path, go beyond the tourist area of the medina and explore where the locals shop, like Fripe el Hafsia or Mounje Slim, or find a rooftop view within the medina overlooking the ancient maze of alleyways. Meander through the old streets of Bab Souika or Bab Khadra to find cheap, mouth-watering food–just keep an eye on your belongings, something National Geographic warns about. The grittiness of the streets provides for some great photographic opportunities if street photography is your thing.

Moreover, Tunis is only a one hour drive from balmy coastal Hammamet, ranked by GoEuro as the second-most affordable resort city in the world. In 45 minutes you can also drive to Ain Zaighouan, which features wild green woods, quiet hiking paths, and cliffs where the more adventurous come to rock climb.

The best beach weather, as National Geographic points out, is from April to October. But the off-season is still ideal for golf or spa retreats.

There is much to see and experience here in Tunisia, and its capital is no exception. Make Tunis your next holiday destination–you won’t regret it!

-Natasha Turak and Jennifer Ciochon, Tunisia Live


#IAmTawfik: Hashtags of Hope in Libya

by Natasha Turak on November 23, 2014

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Tawfik Bensaud leading a pro-democracy protest in Benghazi

When he was 15, Libyan student Tawfik Bensaud began organizing social media campaigns and street protests in Benghazi in pursuit of democracy for his country. His activism included youtube videos urging people to vote, launching peaceful protests for democracy and improved security, and promoting free speech online. The young activist was unafraid of the threats against him and the violence surrounding him. He even lost his father and his home to the chaos that had engulfed Libya, yet he still carried on.

Last September, when Tawfik was 18, he was shot and killed in an attack by suspected Islamist militants who wanted his voice silenced. His best friend and fellow activist, Sami El-Kawafy, was also killed.

Libyans mourned the devastating loss of two bright young people who wanted to change their country for the better. The senseless murders, part of a very violent several days in Benghazi at the end of September, were decried internationally. Human Rights Watch called it a potential crime against humanity. In times like these, the easiest and most obvious option seems to turn to hate and revenge, to give up on peace. But Tawfik’s friends, and every young Libyan on social media who shared his ideals, found another way to react to the deaths, and it was born where Tawfik’s ideas had formerly taken flight: social media.

WATCH: BBC – Libya’s Hashtags of Hope

In a move of defiance, those carrying on Tawfik’s vision created the #IAmTawfik campaign, described on its twitter page as “a daring, peaceful message to all those who kill our dreams.” You can find the hashtag all over Twitter, as thousands have come out in solidarity, taking pictures of themselves holding signs that read “#IAmTawfik” both to mourn the loss and to continue his fight.

The #IAmTawfik Facebook page has almost 10,000 likes. The Libyan Youth Movement, which has over 159,000 twitter followers, tweeted “Nothing will deter those using their voices against violence #IAmTawfik #Libya.” Libyan diplomat Loay Omran tweeted, “You have to understand something… Every day a new Tawfik is born in #Libya. #IAmTawfiq #Benghazi.” Colin Townson from the Canadian Embassy in Libya tweeted, “#IAmTawfik because freedom of expression and freedom from are fear are essential to democracy.” An #IAmTawfik solidarity event was even organized in London, and featured youth activists, politicians, and a major news channel editor as some of the speakers. Find out more about it and read excerpts of the speeches from the event at Libyan Youth Voices.

Tawfik’s cousin, Houda el-Khoja, now lives in London and actively works on the #IAmTawfik campaign, continuing to spread its message from abroad. “Are you doing all of this because you miss him?” a reporter asks her in a video about Tawfik published by the BBC this week. “Absolutely I miss him,” replies Houda, her voice a bit shaky. “I miss him and I love him so much. His voice was strong while he was alive, and it’s even stronger now.”

Online intimidation continues, but activists have been combatting it with their hashtag of hope despite increased fighting and assassinations in the country. Tawfik’s death was not in vain. His dedication to democracy and human rights succeeded in inspiring so many others to carry on his message. So whenever you think of a hashtag, remember that it has more power than we realize—it is keeping the memory of a young democracy hero alive whose vision of a free and peaceful future cannot be stopped.

You can see more on the I Am Tawfik Official Twitter page, whose latest tweet from roughly 24 hours ago reads, “Even if it seems as if there is no more hope, never give up. #IamTawfik #Libya #Hope.”


Tunisia’s Second Free Election: “An Extraordinary Accomplishment”

by Natasha Turak on November 2, 2014

EUPHRATES tunisia votes

A family of voters on election day in Tunis, Tunisia. Photo: Natasha Turak

“To anyone pronouncing the end of democracy in this region, I strongly suggest they visit Tunisia.” These were the opening words of Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, at a press conference for the international election observer missions that came to the country to monitor the voting process.

Last weekend, the country where the Arab Spring began proved that democracy is possible in a region all too well known for conflict and corruption. Three years after ousting longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolution triggered by the self-immolation of an impoverished street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisia’s official democratic transition is close to completion–but not without huge obstacles along the way. Since 2011, the country’s economy has plummeted, terrorism and crime rates have gone up, and the government has suffered frequent deadlock. But since the adoption of a new Constitution in January of this year, widely praised by international governments and human rights groups for its commitment to equal rights and the rule of law, hope for a stable and strong Tunisia has largely been restored. The 2014 legislative election, the country’s second free election in its history, was yet another milestone in its revolutionary journey. And I was there to witness it.

I have been living in Tunisia for ten months now, and began working as a journalist for Tunisia Live, the country’s only English-language news source, two months ago. The work, in addition to being Euphrates’ publications director, has given me the most amazing opportunity to discover Tunisia politically and culturally, most recently as I visited polling stations and neighborhoods in different parts of the capital Tunis.

On the morning of election day, the streets were filled with a quiet anticipation. Flags adorned the palm-tree lined boulevards and I could hear the word intikhabet (Arabic for ‘elections’) everywhere I went. I visited polling stations in upscale suburbs where voters spoke French, wore tank tops, and donned designer bags, and I visited poorer neighborhoods where dilapidated schools housed polling stations, residents spoke only a local dialect of Arabic, and pockets of the community were said to be supporters of ISIS.  Regardless of the territory, everyone I spoke to in the polling stations seemed eager and excited to vote. “This is our chance to make our voice heard, and achieve what we want as citizens, without fear,” Asma, a 26 year old master’s student, told me.

You can check out some of my photos from the historic day here!

Tunisia Votes: IN PICTURES

Anticipating potential terrorist attacks aimed at derailing the democratic transition process, Tunisia’s government mobilized 100,000 security forces including the army, police, and national guard, all of which carried out their jobs in a very calm and professional manner. Going in as a journalist, I was never denied access or forbidden to take a picture–another very positive sign.

After polls closed I spent the evening at the National Election Press Center to await results. The next several days moved so quickly, with interviews, stories, press conferences, and new vote counts coming in constantly. It was exausting, but so exciting. In the end, the result came as a surprise to everyone–the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, who won the 2011 post-revolution elections with a sweeping majority, came in second after Nidaa Tounes, the main secular opposition party. Both parties reacted to the news with grace and professionalism, expressing their gratitude toward and faith in Tunisia and its democratic trajectory. Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahdha, told a crowd of supporters following the results’ release, “Today we are celebrating freedom, and Tunisia’s successful democracy. Tunisia is dearer to us than power and is dearer to us than Ennahdha itself.”

Politicians and voters alike expressed a willingness to work together, and praise was given especially to the civil society groups and independent media that have been so vital in ensuring transparency and fairness. Mehdi, a young business consultant from Tunis, told me this was “a huge win for progressives in Tunisia,” and that his confidence for the country’s future lay “not in the politicians themselves, but in Tunisia’s civil society and the media,” which, he said, were the true indicators of democracy. Mohamed, an English teacher, stressed that “the winning party urgently needs to reform the government institutions, secure the country, lower inflation and unemployment and get confidence back to foreign investors.” Nidaa, the winning party, he told me, “is well capable of achieving those goals and taking Tunisia to the next level.”

Independent international observer groups noted sporadic irregularities during the weekend’s election process, but expressed broad positive feedback overall, with 92% of all polling stations recorded as fully compliant with legal regulations. The National Democratic Institute hailed it as an “extraordinary accomplishment”, and the International Republican Institute described it as potentially representing “the most successful democratic transition in the Arab world.” IRI North Africa Director Scott Mastic congratulated Tunisians on carrying out a process that was “credible, transparent, and genuinely competitive, especially during difficult times and under threats of violence.” An American representative from the Carter Center remarked that for its second free elections ever, Tunisia’s performance was “absolutely astonishing.”

Sunday’s vote represents the second free elections in Tunisia’s history. It follows the ratification of the new Constitution in January of this year, widely praised by international leaders and human rights groups for its commitment to equal rights and the rule of law.  The culmination of the 2014 election season marks the completion of Tunisia’s official transition to democracy, which started with the Arab Spring and will end with the country’s presidential election, to be held on November 23.

While many challenges remain, and a successful election is by no means the end of the road, this represent an incredibly important milestone. I can say from personal experience that the people of Tunisia are resilient, inspiring, and hopeful, and I for one am fully confident that they will only go up from here.


Natasha Turak, Euphrates Publications Director


Cartoonists from Conflict Areas Draw for Unity

by Natasha Turak on October 17, 2014

euphrates wc dialogue_nPeace through Dialogue: Search for Common Ground

Something you learn while studying countries in conflict is that while suffering often creates bonds, it doesn’t necessarily eradicate divisions, even when those suffering hail from the same places. Finding common ground is a crucial pursuit not only among warring factions, but also among the ordinary people caught in the crosshairs, who can still fall guilty of prejudice and discrimination. I have seen it here in Tunis—over a million Libyans have come across the border to Tunisia to flee the violence in their country, and they are often faced with harsh discrimination. Palestinians living in Jordan and Lebanon regularly deal with prejudice, having lived for generations in countries that aren’t their true homes. Even my Syrian friends have met unfriendly or offensive comments while traveling in other Arab countries, especially those that host high numbers of refugees.

On top of that, my Arabs friends coming from conflict countries tell me that they can rarely agree with one another on the root of their countries’ problems, how to deal with them, and how to move forward.

Despite all this, there is a way forward, a way that all parties can find their common ground and approach solutions to their ills. That way is dialogue, and it is a pivotal first step.

The Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit promoting and pursuing non-violent conflict resolution and cooperation, recently helped produce three great videos to promote the breaking down of prejudice and barriers. Four cartoon artists from countries in conflict—one from Yemen, one from Syria, one from Libya, and one from Tunisia, came together for a workshop in Tunis to talk about what they felt were the biggest problems in their countries and what might be the solutions. They quickly found that they couldn’t agree on what to point the blame to—was it poverty and unemployment? No, it was terrorism! Was it the influence of religion? No, it was corruption in the government! And are our countries ready for democracy… or not ? Before they knew it, the four cartoonists were fighting amongst each other—and they were on the same side! Watch the video to see their depiction of the conversation, which they illustrated in cartoon drawings.

Here in Tunisia, I see Tunisians arguing over what is the source of their country’s problems and what should be done about it. Some say that Islam should play a role in the country’s government, while others passionately oppose it, even going so far as calling conservative Muslims “terrorists”. Some hail democracy and the new leadership, while others say the old autocratic regime of Ben Ali was better. And these differences have led to polarization in the country. The space for dialogue, however, facilitated by an environment of unprecedented speech and press freedom in the country and easy communication through social media, has helped ease some of these tensions.

Check out SFCG’s video by a Libyan cartoon artist on the importance of choosing peace. The courage and hope that the artist in the video reveals–knowing that his homeland is being torn apart yet still staunchly choosing peace–is beyond inspiring. Then watch this beautiful video put together by Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian artists calling for and end to divisions and the breaking of barriers within the Arab world. Its message: Conflict and differences are inevitable. Violence is not.

Whether it’s different political views within the same country, or different countries within the same conflict-ridden region, it’s time to look at the bigger picture—and that is the common goal of peace and security. It may seem hard to move forward together in tough times, but alone, it is impossible. United, the impossible becomes possible, and the power of peace can be realized.


Where Faiths Meet – Our Holy Land Journey Continues

by Natasha Turak on October 2, 2014

Euphrates WC sunset_holy land trip part 2The sun sets over Jerusalem on Day 3. Photo: Instagram @Euphrates_Institute

For the last ten days, Euphrates has been on the road discovering the amazing stories of global peacemakers in the cradle of the world’s most ancient religions. If you missed it, you can find out all about the first few days of our journey here, and be sure to check out our short videos to really get a feel for these breathtaking spots!

Day 4 of the trip was particularly special—it was Euphrates’ last day in Jerusalem, the spiritual home of all the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Here we met Lee Ziv, an absolutely inspirational woman who co-founded Musaique, an Israel-based non-profit NGO that uses music to break down cultural and religious barriers. Musaique was founded in 2008 by Lee, from Israel, and Jamil Sarraj, from Jordan, during a United Religions Initiative conference. Their projects include bringing together musicians from a variety of different faiths, countries, and backgrounds and organizing workshops. Musaique’s mission is to “promote trust building between its members, to create a bridge through music that is inspired by peace and brings peace to others, and to learn about the different religions and people in the region through workshops, personal stories and grassroots work”. You can find out more about Musaique and watch a video of their music on youtube!

Our team also had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, who runs a school for Palestinian children in Israel. Dalia is actually one of the characters around whom Sandy Tolan’s award-winning nonfiction book “The Lemon Tree” is based! The book takes place in Israel and tells the story of a young Palestinian man and a young Israeli girl—Dalia Eshkenazi—who meet in 1967 and form a unique friendship amid war and conflict. In 1991, Dalia opened a kindergarten in Israel for Palestinian children called Open House, which operates as a peace and education center. According to its website, Open House works to be “a place of encounter and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in the Ramle area [in Israel] through our Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence.” If you haven’t read The Lemon Tree yet, be sure to put it on your list. You can also listen to Dalia talk about opening the center in her TED talk, “Deciding to Open the Door to The Other”.

Day 6 was International Day of Peace, which we spent in Hebron. It was a beautiful day—we visited the Holy Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of the holiest sites for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. We visited a local women’s cooperative on the Palestinian side and listened as Palestinian locals shared their stories of hardship under the Israeli occupation. We then went to the Israeli side and talked with Rabbis who explained to us why these sites are so important to Jews and their heritage. Check out our video montage of the day’s explorations!

A few days later, on Day 8, we had a visit with Palestinian Antoine Saka, deputy director of the Holy Land Trust. The Holy Land Trust is a non-political organization based in Palestine’s West Bank working with interfaith leaders, grassroots organizers, and women’s groups to deal with past trauma and societal narratives in order to envision a future of peace and possibility.  Prior to founding the Trust, founder Sami Awad, also from Palestine, asked himself, “Where is the voice of the majority of the people on both sides, who demand freedom and peace?”

Euphrates’ media director Ricky Schaberg described Saka as “a breath of fresh air with his de-emphasis of politics and narratives, and his focus on the work that his organization is doing to bring healing and deep transformation to individuals’ lives.”

So what does the Holy Land Trust do to pursue meaningful progress in its community?

“This project basically targets religious leaders of the three communities,” Saka told Euphrates. “We want them to heal themselves and go heal others. Moving from there to dig back in their theology—what does the Bible say, what does the Torah say, what does the Quran say about loving the enemy and how to treat the other in times of war—by preaching love and preaching out of love, not out of hate. And so if those are the people who will lead the communities in the land, if we have the sheikh and the imam and the priest and the rabbi all preaching out of love instead of out of fear, then that’s what we need to start creating some magic here.”

Take a peek at our latest videos to share in our awesome visits to Galilee, the Dead Sea, and Masada, the hideout of the infamous King Herod! Taking the time to reflect at the homes of the world’s oldest monotheistic faiths, and meeting the people who continually work toward bridging those faiths today, we really saw how the spiritual and human stories and histories came full circle. And the awe-inspiring presence of the ancient sites, still standing and still beautiful after thousands of years and countless wars, seemed to resonate with our central theme of peace and resilience. Despite generations of fighting, the physical manifestations of human faith look on quietly, as if in silent wisdom. Or maybe they’re just saying, “Are you guys done yet?” Either way, it is worth lauding and actively supporting the tireless work of our partners and brilliant peacemakers in the place where so many faiths meet. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” could not be more significant.

Keep up with our discoveries! Watch our daily video blogs on our Youtube channel and be sure to subscribe!

Check out our BRAND NEW Instagram account—see stunning pics of the Holy Land at @Euphrates_Institute and add us on Snapchat, Euphrates14, to see what we’re up to in real time!

And as always, you can find even more articles, videos, pics, and information on Twitter @EuphratesTweet and on the Euphrates Institute Facebook page.

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Euphrates Celebrates International Peace Day!

by Natasha Turak on September 21, 2014


Euphrates visits the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Photo: Euphrates_Institute on Instagram

Sunday, September 21st is the International Day of Peace, recognized worldwide for the day the UN General Assemby signed the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace. This year, the world will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing, offering an opportunity to reaffirm its principles and the mission of the UN—and all governments and peoples—to actively pursue peace and human rights for all.

International Peace Day comes at a very important time for us here at Euphrates—we are currently on a two-week trip through Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, meeting peacemakers and inspiring civil society leaders in a part of the world that is direly in need of brave and different thinking. And we are very excited to share with you our new video blogs—check out our Youtube channel, where you can follow our journey!

Check out our video blog from Day One—we met with members of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who have given up their weapons in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. The story of Bassam Aramin, Palestinian founder of Combatants for Peace, is an incredible one. When he was 17 years old and living in the West Bank, Bassam was arrested for planning an attack on IDF soldiers and subsequently sentenced to seven years in an Israeli prison. When he was finally released, he did not have hate for his Israeli captors, but compassion—developing a friendship with an Israeli guard who protected him from beatings, and discovering that Palestinians and Israelis were both victims of a history of abuse and disenfranchisement, he realized that he and his apparent enemy had much more in common than not. He began to meet in secret with former Israeli soldiers who shared his vision, and before long, they had formed what would be the foundation for Combatants for Peace.

Euphrates founder Janessa Gans Wilder praised CFP, saying, “These are people who have realized, through their own experience, that violence is not going to end the conflict.” At the meeting, the former fighters from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides shared their stories and how they came to pursue peace and common ground rather than conflict. “They took the time out of their schedules to meet with us… they desperately want the American public to be more informed about the situation.”

“That’s why you’re here, to see it for yourselves,” Janessa continues, “because the media does not paint a representative picture of what is going on. To hear their stories, to see it firsthand, and to meet people like this who have experienced the conflict… and also people who realize it can’t continue the way it is. There has to be a change, there has to be an end to the cycle of violence. And as Americans, we have a particularly important role to play by spreading the word—to the public, our friends, but also to our leaders in Washington that we don’t support this continuation… America can exert political pressure.” The video shows footage of a CFP speaker saying during a speech, “We want that all children live together in peace. Not with revenge and hate in their hearts, but with forgiveness and love. There is no military solution to our conflict.”

On Day Two of the trip, the Euphrates team got the chance to meet with Encounter, a Jewish-American non-profit focused on teaching Jews and Israelis the cultural history of Palestine, and facilitating dialogue with the Palestinian people. The group believes that Israelis and Jews should take greater responsibility in being agents of positive change, and that face-to-face encounters are the way to go, especially since so many Jews around the world have never actually met a Palestinian before. Encounter actually organizes tips in the West Bank to enable these meetings and dialogues to take place. Janessa tells us, “I’ve always been so amazed at how committed this organization is to educating Jews about what life is like for the Palestinians, so that they’re more informed and aware about the policies they choose to support.”

Watch our regularly updated videos to see snippets of our visits to some of the holiest religious sites in the world, including the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher! Already a breathtaking combination of ancient world-renowned monuments and rolling gold and green landscape, the vision for peace and the mission to enact change are making this trip something momentous and unforgettable. Be a part of it.

See it all and spread the word!

Like and share our work on Facebook, follow us and our partners here on Twitter, and–this just in–you can now find us on Instagram and Snapchat!


Day 2- The Holy City

by Natasha Turak on September 18, 2014

Day 2, the group travels to some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And meets with a very special Palestinian group called Encounter.



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