Peace starts with the people, not with governments, said Egyptian activist Ahmed Meligy, speaking at the inaugural event of the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME), held June 14 at the History Center in Ithaca.
Throughout his talk and the lengthy Q&A, Meligy encouraged the nearly 100 people packing the room to act, person to person: reach out to Arabs and Muslims over Facebook and Twitter. “Even if you receive some bad responses, keep going,” he said. “Share your side of the story. Reach out to one another for the sake of our children.”
In May, 2011, Meligy helped start what he described as the first peace movement on social media, YaLa Young Leaders. What began with 1,000 followers now has a million. “We collect Arabs, Jews, Palestinians, and help them listen to one another and see the truth about each other,” explained Meligy. The group also runs an on-line university that teaches conflict resolution and peace studies to Arabs and Israelis.
When younger, Meligy said he was full of hatred, brainwashed to see Israel as an enemy to destroy. But then Meligy actually met an Israeli. “She turned out to be a human being, not a demon,” he said. “My curiosity started to grow and I began to question everything I’d been told.”
That curiosity eventually led Meligy to visit Auschwitz and other concentration camps. “To be an effective activist you have to understand both sides,” he said. “Now, when I talk to my people and they say there was no Holocaust, I say stop. I was there, I saw it. They pause – and ask me more questions.
“All you need to do is seek the truth and tell it,” said Meligy.
“Ahmed’s courage is inspiring,” said Ruth Collins, co-chair of ICUCME, at the reception after the talk. “He’s been jailed twice for his peace work, but he’s going right back to Egypt after this trip to continue his efforts. He’s a living example of what we can accomplish if we don’t give in to our fears.”
Meligy’s commitment to respectful dialogue as a way to promote peace and justice in the Middle East was a key motivation for ICUCME inviting him to Ithaca, explained Collins. “Like Ahmed, we’re working at the grassroots level to promote positive, constructive relationships, both locally and in the Middle East. We use our Facebook page to highlight the kind of collaborative projects Ahmed advocates for.”