An interview with Mai Shbeta on the International Day of Peace by Charles Falajiki
Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Mai Shbeta and I am Social Entrepreneur, Human Rights Lawyer, and Mediator. I was born and raised in Wahat Al Salam-Neve Shalom, the only community where Israelis and Palestinians choose to live together with mutual respect. My father is Palestinian Muslim and my mother is Jewish, originally from Switzerland.
Growing up in Wahat al Salam-Neve Shalom, peacemaking was not a new concept to me. Since I was young, I’d been active in programs that promote peace, leadership, and human rights in different organizations around the world, and worked with several NGO's in a variety of fields to this end.
I graduated law school a few years ago and did my internship at a Human Rights Law Office. In the last two years, I’ve been working with an initiative together with the academic sponsorship of the Harvard Negotiation Project, aiming to bring negotiation skills to leadership in the Middle East.
Why do you do what you do? What motivates you?
Starting out, working for peace was something that I fell into almost automatically. I felt that the place where I was born, and the makeup of my family made me the “peace girl”. That working for peace is what I have to do and that would be a waste and a shame if I didn’t. A lot of my motivation came from the feeling that I was perfectly placed to do it and that people were expecting it from me.
In the last few years however, I have been thinking about what my real motivation is. What is it that gives me the joy of doing what I do? In this process I actually stopped working for peace for a while and I went into film making and theater just to try to find out what I really want to do. Though this I realized that what gives me joy is helping other people become happier, live a better life, have equality of opportunity and to help there to be more justice in the world.
From that point my work shifted to a place of real care for people and interest in other conflicts, not just my own conflict in Israel/Palestine. I now work on other international conflicts and what makes other people feel better about themselves; whether at a personal or national level - anything that brings more peace to this world, makes people happier and makes the world a better place.
What is the impact of your work?
In the early days of my peace work I worked with an organization that facilitated meetings between Israeli and Palestinian girls to create understanding and support the peace process. I am still in touch with some of them today and act as their mentor. The peace village where I am from is also doing impactful work every day and I see myself as an ambassador of the village.
Today I work for an educational organization that is operating under the wing of the Harvard Negotiation Project which works to develop the negotiation and leadership skills of leaders in the Middle East. Through this we hope to strengthen peace processes at an international level.
What is your interpretation of a peaceful world?
To me, a peaceful world is a world where our leaders and the people are not just worried about how to gain more power or how to gain more money but actually care about everyone’s best interest, thinking of how to enable people to live their normal life without fearing violence or not having money to feed their children. A world that is led by care and by equality rather than money and power. A world where you think of the other the way you think of yourself. A world where we don’t do wrong towards others. A world where our leaders make decisions for the good of all, not just themselves.
Why should the international day of peace be celebrated?
I see many reasons why the International Day of Peace should be celebrated.
First of all, I believe that in every journey, including peace building, there are so many steps and each step, as small as it may be, should be celebrated. Even though we are far from having world peace, there are people and organizations that are working day and night to bring us even one step closer together and these people and those actions should be celebrated.
Secondly, I believe that celebrating the International Day of Peace is about giving hope and inspiring people. It is an opportunity to hear about people and causes that are working for peace and to support them, giving people the inspiration and hope that peace is possible.
Thirdly, it is also a reminder that we are still far from international peace. There is still so much to do and this should be a priority to all of us.
How do you think we can achieve goal 16 of the sustainable development goals?
After working on peace from many different angles - from grassroots activism to working with influencers and decision makers - I realize more and more that the conflict that we suffer from is all connected to money, power and corruption - to putting political and personal interests above the good of the people. I think there should be a big focus on changing this, to leaders putting their people above themselves to achieve SDG 16.
We can do this is by making people and their leaders understand that living in a peaceful world is for the good of us all. I believe that this is hard because money and power are very hard to resist once you have it and are able to get more of it. If everyone is strong enough to resist, which I believe they can, everyone will be better in this world and peace can work.
What has been your greatest challenge as a changemaker?
There are challenges that anyone in peace building faces. For example, someone recently attempted to burn down the peace school in my village, a place where they hold peace talks and hold workshops, in order to stop the peace process and maintain the status quo.
Personally, I face other challenges. The feeling that the problem is too big. The feeling that even if I wake up every day and work for the same purpose, I still will not see change in my lifetime. War and conflict are so much bigger than me, so much bigger than my organization and so much bigger than my country- so big it seems like the goal of peace can never be reached.
Even just thinking about achieving world peace leads me to think about other issues like hunger and racism. What about those issues? There are so many problems and focusing on one thing and only in one small place, makes it really hard to do my work when I feel so small and the problems of the world so big. Feeling like there is always more that I can do. A big challenge for me has been overcoming these feelings.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like just living and working to make money, instead of working to make a difference. In moment like this I remember that it’s the small things that make it worth it. The one person that you help. The one person whose life you change. The one person you inspire to live differently. That one person is everything.
How do you overcome challenges?
My number one way of confronting challenges is consulting with other people who have overcome similar challenges, who have the experience, who tried it before. I always know that I don’t have to do anything alone. Anything that I am going through or any challenge that I may face, someone else has probably experienced it as well.
I then make a plan, I look at how I can approach the challenge step by step, how I can break it into smaller problems and smaller steps. I focus on the next thing I can do, instead of the big, intimidating challenge as a whole. I also remind myself how I am going to feel when I achieve my goals or overcome the challenge and I am driven by that feeling.
Where do you see yourself in the near future?
My work used to be public speaking and inspiring people to promote peace, but now I am focusing on making more of an impact. I want to establish myself in the work I am doing now, to join forces with other people who are more experienced than me and learning from them.
What advice would you give to other changemakers working to make the world a peaceful place?
Take it step by step and always focus on the next step not on the end goal, because otherwise it is going to seem too big and too frustrating.
Know you are probably not the first (or the last) person who is trying to make an impact in your chosen area. Do research about what has and what hasn’t been done before, what has worked and what hasn’t. Learn from other people’s mistakes and successes.
Join forces with likeminded people, with organizations, with people who work in your chosen area, people that have experience. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel unless you have something brilliant that has not been implemented before. It is always better to work as a team and to choose your team wisely. Work with people you trust, people who inspire you, people who complete you, people who make you happy and believe in you.
Lastly, keep believing in yourself and don’t let others push you down. Listen to your inner voice, you know that you are capable of, not them. Believe that you are not too young, you are not too small and you are not naïve. You are a leader and a changemaker who just happened to start early!