The Children of the Earth Prize for 2014 was received by Alaa Alshaham (left) from Ramallah on The West Bank and Paz Cohen from Jerusalem during a ceremony at North Cape on June 5th. The prizewinners were honored for their efforts to create increased trust and understanding between Arab and Jewish children in The Middle East. 500 pupils from the schools on Magerøya were present when the prize was awarded for the 26th time.
For a number of years, the prizewinners, each in his own way, have made path-breaking, long-term and courageous efforts to make it possible that children and parents on both sides of the conflict lines can get to know, understand and respect each other – and not be dragged into the same emotional trenches that earlier generations have not been able to get out of.
Through their activities to create mutual contact and insight, this year's prizewinners have promoted all children's natural desire for unity, solidarity and cooperation across any kind of boundary when they get to know each other first hand, uninhibited by prejudiced attitudes. The work by these two long time friends is characterized by innovation and a go-ahead spirit that is steadily producing visible results.
Alaa Alshaham and Paz Cohen who share this year's prize of 150.000 Norwegian kroner (about 23.000 USD or 17.000 euros), also share a common background as members of The Middle East Program (MEP), a long term relation-based leadership training program established in 2002 by Mr. Asgeir Føyen, a Norwegian with solid experience and insight into The Middle East. Today, the MEP has Arabic, Jewish and Norwegian participants. The ultimate goal of the program is to provide future leaders in various sectors of society in the region an opportunity to jointly decide on a new course, in line with a common vision and action plan for democracy and coexistence.
The MEP process is meant to encourage and prepare young men and women to accept community responsibility in a way that contributes to peace and reconciliation.
In 2009, the MEP group took a new step by inviting proven track record music artists from the Middle East, the United States and Norway to participate in the joint effort. They formed the group My Favorite Enemy (MFE), which has staged concerts for important public groups on different continents. Several members of MFE performed in the schools on Magerøya and at North Cape in June..
Prizewinner Alaa Alshaham (34) is a songwriter, guitarist and singer in MFE. Originally a Palestinian refugee in Jordan, he moved to Gaza in 1996 (in the wake of the Oslo accords), and lived there for about a decade before Hamas pushed Fatah aside and assumed power in 2007. Soon thereafter, Alaa moved on to Ramallah on The West Bank, where he could work under more liberal conditions.
In Alaa's opinion, improvement of social conditions must start with the children. They must be allowed to communicate freely, in their own way, about peace without violence and fundamentalism, so that they want to live, not die, for Palestine.
As a major project, Alaa has established and developed a steadily growing children's choir where young Palestinians on the West Bank use song and music as a constructive common denominator. Today, the choir has some 350 members, but Alaa hopes to expand it to 500 and even 1000 members. The basic message provided by the choir is one of peace, understanding and coexsitance.
Already as a young political activist, Alaa Alshaham decided to fight for human rights and values by using music and lyrics as tools to make a positive change. Still prefering these peaceful means, he will continue to help create a future democratic Palestinian society for today's children.
Prizewinner Paz Cohen (39) has been an active participant in The Middle East Program since 2002. He is a Jew, living in Jerusalem, and has a deep understanding of the need for mutual contact, trust and peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians – starting with the children on both sides.
As parents, Mr. Cohen and his wife Keren decided to send their children to the path-breaking Hand-in-Hand Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem, where he soon became chairman of the school’s parents association. The school now has some 600 students from Kindergarten through 12th grade, half of them Jewish, half of them Arab. In February 2012, Paz became chairman of the Parents Association of the Jerusalem Municipality, which has created a unique collaboration between Jewish, Muslim and Christian parents and children from throughout the city through cooperative programs involving team sports, arts and culture workshops, Jewish-Arab festivals, etc.
Paz has also established the Center for Parents with Special Needs, serving individuals of all backgrounds. In 2012, the Jerusalem City Council appointed Mr. Cohen to two additional municipal bodies: The Jerusalem Education Council and The Jerusalem Committee for Ensuring Childrens' Rights.
He receives support for his efforts from all communities, Arab and Jewish, including Jewish orthodox and ultra-orthodox groups.
With his combined experience in the world of entrepreneurship and public service, Mr. Cohen has taken part in the establishment and leadership of several NGOs, institutions and other enterprises, among them The Israeli Centre for Nurturing Leadership and Promotion of Collaboration in The Middle East. This experience positions Mr. Cohen to be a unique convener of local authorities, the private sector and the community.
The Middle East Program has formulated the following vision for its activities:
“We believe that it is possible to create a Middle East that is peaceful, open and prosperous.
A place where human life is highly valued and the quality of life is steadily improving; where justice and human rights are respected; where religious, cultural and political diversity is both appreciated and secured through mutual trust and freedom of expression.“