Lending Her Ears to a World Conflict

By Janie Har, The Oregonian (April, 2001)

Summary: A Portland State senior leads a group to the Middle East, hoping to find an avenue for peace.

For two weeks this spring, Munteha Shukralla, a Portland State University senior, lived among tanks and shelling and spent 14-hour days listening to Israelis and Palestinians pour out their hurt.

“The job of the listener is to listen past the words, underneath the words,” says Shukralla, 24, a co-leader of a delegation to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in March. “What’s clear is they’ve been through so much.”

After graduating from PSU in June, the Eugene native will return to the Middle East with another citizen delegation, a peacemaking mission sponsored by The Compassionate Listening Project, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington.

The delegation will spend about two weeks meeting with Israelis and Palestinians, who have been warring for 50 years. Violence in the Middle East has escalated steadily in recent months, quashing hopes for a peace settlement. “All we want as human beings is to be heard,” says Shukralla, whose father is Kuwaiti and mother is American.

Shukralla has twice traveled as part of the delegation to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. On the most recent trip, the group met with government officials, Israeli hardliners, Palestinian militants, human rights workers from both sides and a commander for Israeli defense forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The goal of the Compassionate Listening Project is to promote reconciliation by encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to talk about their frustrations and hopes. It’s a chance for people living in the conflict to let loose what’s bottled up inside. But the group also hopes that by building trust, it can act as a bridge for individuals who can’t or won’t talk it out.

For people reluctant to meet face-to-face, the delegation has started videotaping sessions for people from other points of view to watch.

Like Shukralla, many of those who pay to go on these trips are interested in improving listening skills in their own lives.

Shukralla is only the second person to be invited to lead a delegation, says Leah Green, founder and director of The Compassionate Listening Project. The group was formed in 1990, and the listening project began formally in 1997, she says. Green says Shukralla’s family background and her experiences during the Persian Gulf war probably helped nurture her leadership and diplomacy skills. “I think that really produced in her an incredible awareness and empathy and sense of compassion for people who suffer,” Green says.

Shukralla grew up in Eugene, raised by a single mom who stitched together jobs to support the family. Once a year, Shukralla visited her father, a geologist, in Kuwait. She championed causes from an early age.

At 7, she plastered “Save the whales” stickers on her windows, she says. At 10, she read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and flinched at examples of human cruelty. But perhaps the biggest turning point was at age 13, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Many of her neighbors and schoolmates in Eugene said the United States should stay out of the war. But Shukralla — worried about her family — plastered Kuwaiti flags all over her home and wrote President Bush, asking that the United States do something.

“She wanted people to understand war is not just about property and nations and oil,” says her mom, Barbara Castleton. “War is about people.”

An English teacher asked Shukralla if all her relatives in Kuwait owned BMWs. Friends asked if her father owned an oil well.

“I grew up with people’s ideas of the Middle East,” she says. “I always felt I had to carry the torch and enlighten people.”

Shukralla had always wanted to visit Israel, and she jumped at the opportunity to do so with the Compassionate Listening Project about two years ago.

The first trip to Israel was hard, she says. She bit her tongue countless times, squelching her desire to argue politics with Israeli conservatives. But her second trip was easier, in a way.

“I came back from the first trip, and I was full of anger and pain,” she says. “This trip, instead of being angry, I was just sad. I was happy I had grown to that point.” Her mother has noticed the change.

“It’s youthful passion, tied with an awareness of reality,” says Castleton, who now teaches English as a Second Language to international students at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro.

Closer to home, Shukralla, who is majoring in international studies with a focus on the Middle East, volunteers with at-risk teens through Western Youth Development, a Portland nonprofit, and also conducts leadership training classes.

In October, she will travel to Syria and Lebanon as part of a delegation to form contacts for the future. The trips are draining, but it is her passion at the moment, she says.

“I go to these places, and I see with my eyes what occurs when people want to be right about something,” Shukralla says.

“I’m not resigned to the fact that people are meant to war for eternity.”

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