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Journeys of Loss and Hope

One of the pillars of human connection is the recognition that other people have gone through similar experiences to us. Many social groups are formed and united around a shared, often transformative experience. The roots of empathy are in being able to see your experience reflected in another person and vice versa. We were able to see that happen in real time last week when we hosted a Speaker Series event featuring guests from the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and the Parents Circle Families Forum.

Chaplain Clementina Chery, Robi Damelin, and Laila El-Sheikh are all bereaved mothers, and each of them has transformed their loss into activism to build a more just community. Chaplain Chery’s son, Louis, was killed in 1993, caught in the crossfire of a shootout in his Dorchester neighborhood. In the wake of Louis’ death, Chaplain Chery founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and serves today as its President and CEO. The Louis D. Brown Institute is working to transform society’s response to homicide, and they provide a host of resources to families that have survived the loss of a loved one.

Robi is an Israeli Jewish woman whose son, David, was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002 while serving in the Israeli military. Laila is a Palestinian woman who lives in Bethlehem. Her son, Qussay, also died in 2002 after inhaling tear gas and receiving delayed medical treatment. Robi and Laila are both members of the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization composed of more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who are bonded by the loss of a close family member to the conflict. They hope to transform their respective societies by sharing their personal stories, and they understand that this recognition of the other’s humanity is a necessary component of a future political peace agreement.

While each of their stories is breathtaking on its own, something incredible happens when they have the opportunity to interact with each other. It is amazing how a dialogue can create empathy and spark activism. Chaplain Chery had meet with members of the Parents Circle previously, on a trip to Israel in 2018. She remembered feeling inspired by that visit, saying that if the retreat into fear and isolation after losing a loved one can happen to Israelis and Palestinians as well, she needed to double down on her own efforts to make sure that does not happen in the United States. Robi and Laila discussed meetings they have had with other bereaved families, including groups of Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland who have overcome their hatred as well. These exchanges provide an opportunity to learn from the similarities and differences in each case so that every community organization can create change within their own social framework.

All three panelists spoke about how bereavement and trauma are transferred from generation to generation, but they also spoke about how their work can help to break that cycle. Towards the end of the program, Laila talked about how the Parents Circle has helped her change her self-understanding from victim to survivor. As they nodded in understanding, I could see how Robi and Chaplain Chery had also felt this transformation. It was a rare moment where you can see human connection being created right in front of you, and it gave the impression that these women are taking their communities to a place of greater empathy, hope, and love in a way that should be an example for us all.


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