In a fashionable striped shirt, his short hair spiked with gel, Abed Rahman looks every bit the university student. But it does not take long with Abed to discover a young man passionate about his future, committed to change and sure of the role he plans to play in shaping a peaceful tomorrow—starting right here on the streets of the West Bank town of Aboud.
"I believe that religion should not be the basis of relationships—how people choose their friends," Abed says. "So by joining this group, I hoped to be able to spread that message to others."
The group Abed speaks of comprises volunteers of the Youth Voices for Community Action project—24 members aged 18 to 25 who meet regularly here in the mixed Christian and Muslim community of Aboud to break down barriers of religious mistrust. Launched by Catholic Relief Services in 2009 to develop a cadre of young Palestinians who address conflict with nonviolence, the YVCA project provides an outlet for residents long beset by violence within the West Bank.
In Aboud, Abed's hometown, tension between Muslims and Christians has been evident for years. It is that situation that drew him to volunteer for the YVCA project in late 2010.
"We teach tolerance and we break down the barriers between the two groups," Abed says. "We take every opportunity to get these groups together."
In Aboud, YVCA volunteers, who include Muslims and Christians, regularly meet to work on activities that benefit the town itself, like painting local bus stops with brightly colored spray paint or replacing broken light bulbs on the posts that line the town's main street. Although he was raised in an open-minded Muslim family, Abed says that reaction to his work with local Christians has been mixed among his friends and neighbors.
"People have different opinions about my work," he says. "Some encouraged me, some want me to fail. But I think my will is stronger than theirs."
The CRS project involves training more than 5,200 young people in leadership and nonviolence as well as hands-on, face-to-face experiences like those carried out in communities such as Aboud. By identifying and cultivating young leaders like Abed, CRS hopes to sow the seeds of a future peace through which young Palestinians can connect directly with Palestinian leadership.
The path, Abed says, is made difficult not only by religious divisions but also political and ideological differences that have corroded personal relationships—even within many West Bank families.
"We inherited these barriers, and some people instilled bad ideas in us—both Christians and Muslims," Abed says. "But after experiencing Christians, I feel we are the same and that they share the same goals as me, which is to see this relationship improve."
David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.