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F. Razak: Transformative Experiences in Religious Youth Service

A long, long time ago, when I was young and beautiful, I was invited to a program in Hungary called Religious Youth Service, where I got to meet 140 young people from about 50 countries! I got a chance to work with these young people, helping to renovate a kindergarten. Working with me was a pretty Jewish girl from Israel. For about two weeks, she avoided me and didn’t want to talk to me. I couldn’t figure out why. At the end of the project, she caught me in one corner and apologized, “Fazida, I am really sorry that I didn’t talk to you.”

I asked her why, and she said, “As a Jewish person from Israel, when I see a Muslim I think they want to kill me.” That shocked me, because I realized that she had a different experience in her country. She continued, “But somehow, you have shown me that not all Muslims want to kill Jews. If you ever come to Israel, you are welcome to my house.”

That statement changed my life. I realized that change begins with me, and I have to do something to change perceptions. That is how I got involved with Religious Youth Service.

Religious Youth Service takes a whole bunch of young people from different countries and different faiths and dumps them in some remote area where they have to do physical work, sleep on the floor, eat simple food, and sit around and talk about peace and the faith they practice. At the same time, they learn to laugh and love together.

Religious Youth Service has been active since 1986. We have carried out projects in 45 countries. We have been to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Mongolia. In the Americas, we have gone to Honduras, Mexico, and Guyana. Among the work that we have young people do are school renovations, building toilets, making a playground, and many other types of physical labor. Besides physical labor, we have a special educational program that includes character development, peacemaking, and conflict resolution. In this way, we hope that young people will emerge with more leadership qualities.

As the years went by, more and more nations have approached us and requested to do peace work with us. We have had a project almost every month. Realistically speaking, we do not have the resources to do such projects in every country. Partners help underwrite the costs. In Malaysia, for example, government ministries arrange for free accommodations, free food, and transportation for volunteers. With this kind of help, Religious Youth Service has been able to do more projects.

Imagine what would happen if every young person in each country attended a Religious Youth Service project! I think the result would be magnificent. If young people have the experience of sweating under the sun with people of different faiths, when they become leaders or politicians, they will be more tolerant because they have a deeper understanding of people of other faiths.

[Source: Islamic Perspectives on Peace. Tarrytown, NY: Universal Peace Federation, 2006.]