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'We're all humans, after all'

Mark Halawa was born to a Palestinian refugee family in Kuwait City and was surrounded by antisemitism for most of his childhood until the summer of 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait changed his life forever.

Then only 12 years old, Halawa and his family moved to Canada, where he ended up attending the University of Western Ontario. There, Halawa was looking for a pay phone one day when he ran into Harvard philosophy professor Yitzchok Block, whose line of questions during their brief encounter unearthed the startling fact that Halawa was, by Jewish law according to a line drawn from the grandmother on his mother’s side, a Jew.

The discovery inspired Halawa to examine his Jewish roots, move to Jerusalem and eventually convert to Judaism. Today, he works to connect western companies with the Middle East and recounts his story often as a guest speaker.

He’ll be in Oregon for the first time next week when he’s scheduled to speak at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, at Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland. Registration is available at chabadofashland.org/tolerance.

Halawa spoke to the Ashland Tidings Thursday. The following interview was edited for content and brevity.

AT: You’ve talked and written about how your move to Canada was very impactful for you. How so?

MH: I loved and very much enjoyed being around various cultures and religions — not just one or two or three but many religions, many cultures, many colors, many backgrounds. And everyone was one under the law. And people cared for people. I saw people who were Jewish and Muslim sitting next to each other in the classroom. People who are fighting outside are friends in Canada, and they do not care. I heard even stories of neighbors borrowing salt and sugar and lemon from each other from various opposing religions. That struck me. So I liked the peaceful nature of that approach, and I dreamed if I could just be a fly on the wall with a camera and just film life, how beautiful it is when you get on a train or a bus ... and shoot all the different cultures and colors and backgrounds — people from all over the world getting along. Nobody cares where you’re from. As a matter a fact, they celebrate differences. I wanted to kind of capture that, either in a picture or a video, and put it online and show it to the world.

AT: Describe your encounter with Yitzchok Block.

MH: I just bumped into this gentlemen who was wearing a skullcap, and I thought he was Jewish. I saw this religious-looking guy, and I thought maybe I’ll tell him about my idea. Perhaps I could build an organization, nonprofit. And I just walked up and said, “Please, sir, are you Jewish?” And he said, “No, I just like to dress like this.” I didn’t know he could be funny. They teach you a lot of things about Jewish people in the Middle East, none of them that Jews are funny. I took him at his word and said, “OK, sorry about that. I’m Mark Halawa, I grew up in Kuwait, my parents are from Muslim Palestinian background, and my grandmother is Jewish, so I didn’t really hate Jews 100 percent, maybe 95 percent.” So he smiled, he’s like, “What side of the family is your grandma from?” I said, “My mom’s side.” “Where is she now?” “Florida.” “Oh, yeah? Please have a seat.”

AT: How did you react when Block told you what your Jewish roots meant?

MH: That shook me, and I did not know what to do. So we exchanged contacts, and I ran home to speak with my mom and my grandma. Lo and behold, I discover it’s all reality, and people are asking me why are you asking such questions. Forget about that guy, he’s probably a missionary. But then you sit by yourself, you start wondering. I’m 26 years old, you start wondering. I grew up with hate. I used to chant and cry at fundraisers in front of big crowds. I used to practice for weeks, get up in front of people and make a big claim like we’re refugees. We weren’t refugees. My dad’s a multimillionaire. And my curiosity grew. I started not only wondering about Jews. I started wondering about everybody that we learned negative stuff about — Christian people, Hindus, Shiites. I started to be curious and I wanted to be friendly with everybody finally.

AT: That revelation didn’t lead to an immediate change in your life. What changed?

MH: I went to university again, got myself a degree in international business marketing. And at the same time I connected with the Jewish community there, and while I’m there in school I learned about this thing called the Holocaust that happened that I had never heard of in my life. It just shattered me. Where are you going to hear about it? It’s a new knowledge, a new thought. Even Arabs who speak with me today on social media, people just tell me the same thing that I was telling myself. I lived my whole life and I didn’t know anything about World War 2. So then I started educating myself as much as I could, reading as much as I could. Went to synagogue a couple times. And I just really, really felt bad for hating people and labeling people. So really, it just made me filled with life. I really started to appreciate Canada and North American and the people that I see every day. I was like a madman, just wanting to be friendly with everyone.

AT: You eventually joined a seminary in Jerusalem. Your stay was supposed to last eight months but you stayed there four years. Why, and how did that experience change you?

MH: It’s impossible to describe. (My mom) said go to the wall and ask God to send you a woman. So my mom taught me how to pray. On Friday afternoon it’s so packed by the wall and people are dancing. So here’s this Arab guy, born in Kuwait, dancing with everyone else but nobody knows who I am. They think this guy is just weird or crazy. That was my life for a long time. Somehow, God blessed me with the ability to meet my lovely wife. Her family agreed to let her date this weirdo, and next thing I know I’m getting married and having a Jewish wedding in Jerusalem.

We’re all humans, after all. We all want the same things — want to succeed, want to work, want to raise a family, want to love each other, go after our desires, and I believe in an inclusive world. Especially between those two nations or two peoples that I grew up with — the Arab-speaking people and the Jewish people. There is more to unite us than divide us.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Mark Halawa is scheduled to speak at Grizzly Peak Winery on March 4. Born to a Palestinian refugee family in Kuwait City, Halawa went on a journey that has taken him through continents and cultures. (promotional photo)