Mazen Faraj

Mazen Faraj

Mazen Faraj

The most important choice Mazen Faraj ever made was whether to succumb to despair or embrace hope, even when all seemed lost. Choosing the latter saved Mazen from what he knew would be an existence filled with misery and rage. It also made it possible for him to proudly say, “I have ultimately changed from a person who was full of hatred, revenge and suffering to a soldier who serves humanity.”

Born in 1975, Mazen has lived his entire life in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank. His father was one of 700,000 refugees forced into the camp after losing their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Mazen’s mother died just six months after his birth; his father remarried and the family grew to include a total of 14 children.

At seven, Mazen remembers asking himself, “What is behind all the pain and suffering we endure daily? What is the reason for us not having water most of the summer or electricity in the winter? Why don’t we have a playground to spend the joyful time of our childhood? Why are we deprived of the natural rights which every human in this world has the right to enjoy—the human rights that are so distant from the Palestinian people?”

As he grew older, Mazen came to realize that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank prohib- ited everything that gives a life dignity—the ability to dream, travel, learn, and make choices like free people in the world are allowed to do. Filled with frustration, and without any other outlets to express his anguish, Mazen began to participate with friends in demonstrations against the Israeli army. His activities led to a string of arrests, and during his teens Mazen spent three and a half years in Israeli jails. “I lost my education, or to be more accurate, I lost my life,” he says, “let alone the psychologi- cal impact this experience had on me.”

In 2002, Mazen experienced an even greater trauma; his father was shot more than 60 times while walking home with a bag of groceries after curfew. Mazen and his family were not allowed to leave their homes until morning, and therefore missed the opportunity to say goodbye as their father passed away. “Losing my father left me confused and down to the degree that I did not know what to do,” Mazen says. “After that, a new journey of pain and suffering began.”

Yet Mazen never considered surrendering to hatred or to the hunger for revenge. “This was not because I feared Jews or loved them,” he explains, “but because I believe in the justice of my cause and that violence can only bring violence.”

Three years later, a friend convinced Mazen to attend a meeting of the Parents Circle Families Forum, at which Israeli and Palestinian families would share their stories and have the opportunity to meet as humans rather than adversaries. “This was the first time in my life I had encoun- tered the ‘enemy,’” he says. “Throughout these meetings, I had the chance to compare my life with theirs. We walked in each other’s shoes.”

The compassion and empathy expressed in the Parents Circle meetings gave Mazen an unlikely sense of belonging, and he seized the opportunity to work towards Palestinian independence with Israelis who had also lost loved ones to the conflict. “Instead of going for the path of revenge,” he says, “we choose the path of reconciliation.”

Mazen now co-leads Parents Circle and says his strength in this work comes from his belief in humanity, equality, justice, and in the healing power of compassion. “Compassion can be successfully developed when each one of us aspires to overcome the sufferings that have been going on and look forward to being free,” he says. “Only then can we be compassionate towards others; only then can we be happy and help others to be happy as well.”