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By Eric Weld   Date: 5/5/10 Bookmark and Share

Where Peace Begins

For many of the women sitting in a circle with Hannah Belsky ’10, it was the first time they had ever met a Jew.

Smith women in Dubai (left to right): Ayla Qais ’11, Hannah Belsky ’10, Paola Tineo ’11, and Ilana Alazzeh ’11

Belsky, who will soon collect her degree in economics with a minor in the Study of Women and Gender, traveled last month to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with five other Smith women to attend the Insight Dubai Conference, an annual gathering at Dubai Women’s College (DWC). The conference aims to give attendees exposure to students from other countries and cultures in order to enhance global awareness while teaching leadership skills. This year, the leadership conference hosted 65 students, who met and interacted with 65 DWC students.

Before going to the UAE, an Islamic country, Belsky was advised not to mention that she is Jewish. She heeded the advice throughout the majority of the conference, until the final day when, seated in a small circle with her facilitated group filled mostly with Muslim women, another student turned to her and asked, “What about you? Are you Christian?”

“No, I’m Jewish,” Belsky responded.

For Belsky, the Muslim students’ surprised, supportive and curious reactions to her divulgence became the highlight of the conference. “In every direction, we dispelled myths and stereotypes we had previously held of each other and we quickly became friends,” she recalled.

In some ways, that incident illustrates what the Dubai conference is about. If its intention is to foster understanding among populations by forging relationships on a personal level, it succeeded in that moment.

Insight Dubai hosted women from more then 35 different countries on six continents. For some, the international exposure and insights that attend meeting people from other cultures defined the experience.

“This was the first time I had ever flown out of the country,” said Raquel Ortega ’13, another Smith student in attendance. “The most significant thing for me at the conference was the feeling that I was part of a global community. I found myself having the same concerns about issues in my country that my Emirati buddy had about the UAE.”

Ortega, like Belsky, came away from the conference with her own anecdote of commonality among people of disparate cultures. “We spent one night in the desert dancing to a mixture of music from all over the world,” she said. “We were all dancing together, completely free from insecurities—just dancing for hours, celebrating being women, celebrating the unification and acceptance of differences, celebrating life.”

The conference focused on issues of particular interest to Arabic and Islamic cultures. Activities included role playing to simulate a Sharia Court case and a poster competition about human trafficking issues. Participants also debated leadership issues, including female leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Other Smith students who attended were Ilana Alazzeh ’11, Hannah Brower ’13, Paola Tineo ’11, and Ayla Qais ’11.

“This conference is a very unique opportunity,” said Qais. “It gave us a chance to interact with women from different parts of the world and try to understand each other’s perspectives regarding important global issues.”

“In an environment where the ‘War on Terror’ still looms large and Arab and/or Islamic cultures are deeply misrepresented, I was excited to circumvent mass media and accomplish my own education by spending more time in the Middle East and forming meaningful connections with Arab women,” said Belsky, who spent a semester during her sophomore year at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel.

Perhaps more important than the leadership skills sharpened by attendees of Insight Dubai are the lasting friendships across cultures they came away with. It is there, as Belsky points out, that peace always begins.

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