Yousef Bashir remembers the blue sky that day. As he lay in the back seat of the car, an Israeli soldier’s bullet lodged in his back, he stared up and out of the window at the sky, wondering whether it would be his last time seeing it.
By that time in 2004, Bashir’s family’s home in the Gaza Strip had been occupied for four years by Israeli soldiers, who had converted it into a military post. The Palestinian Muslim family could have moved, like so many of their neighbors did, but Bashir’s father refused. If he left, they would probably never get their house back. So they stayed, confined to a small area of their home and unable to venture upstairs and required to ask permission to use their own kitchen and bathroom.
For Bashir’s father, this small act of peaceful defiance was a lesson to his children that the Israelis and Palestinians could coexist. No matter how uncomfortable or unfair it seemed, Bashir’s father preached tolerance. Even when his 15-year-old son was shot, an injury that would require 16 months of rehabilitation and leave him forever with piercing pain from the bullet still inside him, Bashir’s father taught love.
It took Bashir some time to appreciate his father’s perspective.
“He approached them like guests. What I didn’t understand is how he could treat them as guests when they’re telling us what to do in our own house,” Yousef Bashir said. “And my father said, ‘That’s what human beings do and that’s what people who care about the Holy Land must do even if it’s the most unrealistic thing in the world, we have to do that, because our destiny is to live in peace as the sons of Abraham’.”
Now 28 years old, Bashir is dedicating his life to fulfilling his father’s dream of peace among Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a life mission that brought him to the United States to finish high school, to attend college here and to immerse himself in a country that promises more than he could have ever dreamed in Gaza. He’s interning on Capitol Hill for Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). And he gives talks, taking what happened to him and using it as a way to start dialogues, particularly with Jewish groups.
A gripping and articulate storyteller, Bashir sees himself as an emissary.
But his story is not about being almost killed by an Israeli soldier. It’s about how Israeli Jews saved his life.
Seeing their humanity
Bashir and his father were standing in their front yard waving goodbye to United Nations peacekeepers who had been by to check on them when the bullet struck Bashir. The Guardian reported in 2005 that the Israeli army had taken responsibility for the shooting but never explained why.
The teen was rushed to a hospital in Tel Aviv, where he was treated by an Israeli doctor. His nurses, his roommates, the visitors were almost all Israeli Jews. They cared about his pain level. He saw them celebrate their holidays. Orthodox rabbis would gather around his bed and sing songs to lift his spirits as they did with all the children. For the first time in his life, he saw Israelis the way his father always wanted him to.
“All of those little moments showed me their humanity, and I can’t get over that ever,” Bashir said. “I still disagree with Israel fundamentally, but I don’t hate them in my heart. What my father was teaching me all my life was that although an Israeli shot me, many Israelis were there to save my life. Suddenly now I understood my father when he said you have to choose forgiveness over revenge, bravery over fear and peace over war, and this is what any Holy Lander should be doing.”
Once he’d healed enough to leave rehab, his father sent him to a summer camp in Maine run by Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together young Palestinians and Israelis. Bashir was still too injured to participate in any of the traditional camp activities like swimming or sports, so he focused his energy on the daily dialogues. He told his story. Israelis told theirs. Both sides had grievances, but they were learning they didn’t need to be rooted in hate.
After that experience, Bashir was determined to get his education in the United States. He left Gaza to attend a Quaker high school in Ramallah, but he spent his time there singularly focused on getting back to the United States as soon as possible. In America, he said, “if you have any idea and you are passionate about it, you will do it.”
John Hishmeh, a Palestinian American born and raised in Kentucky, was Bashir’s guidance counselor in Ramallah, and the two became close. He wasn’t like the other children, Hishmeh said.
“The Seeds of Peace was so deeply rooted in him, so the intensity in which he wanted to connect with people who were different from him, Jews in particular, it was unmatched by everyone around him,” Hishmeh said. “The energy with which he wanted to connect with his enemies, he couldn’t hold back the way he communicated. He intensely wanted to come to America so he could study and get educated and pursue his dreams, which he has done.”
With an unrelenting persistence, he finished high school at a boarding school in Utah — “It was utterly peaceful. I don’t care if it’s on the moon, there were no tanks or soldiers, and that was my biggest achievement at the time,” he said. He went on to get his undergraduate degree at Northeastern University in Boston, though he had really wanted to go to Brandeis, a college with a large Jewish population, but didn’t get in. But he did for graduate school and received his master’s degree in conflict and coexistence.
Going to a largely Jewish college was, to him, a way to promote peace. He needed to show those who thought ill of Palestinians that he was not brought up to hate.
“I need to speak to the ones who think I’m a terrorist, a threat, a bad guy,” he said. “They are the ones I need to go out of my way to speak to them, to shake their hand, because I am confident that if I get to do that there’s no way they will go to bed that evening thinking that guy was terrible. I’m certain of it.”
Making a life in America
Sitting in Connolly’s office, Bashir told his story. He’d told it the day before at the J Street National Conference. And he’d tell it the next day to a group of Israeli graduate students studying diplomacy. They would invite him to join them for a meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), where he told Sanders he was the most popular Jew in Gaza since Moses.
He’s been in the United States for 11 years now and has not returned to Gaza. Bashir’s father died in 2009, and he could not return to attend his funeral for fear he wouldn’t be able to leave again. He’s seen his mother only once, last year when she received medical treatment in Germany. This week, he applied for his U.S. citizenship. Living in the District feels like home, he jokes, when he sees calls for statehood.
After his father died, his mother sent him the heartfelt letters they’d received from strangers after news of his being shot made international headlines. He sifted through those letters and reached out to those who offered their support back then. Many people have since contributed to helping him achieve his dreams by financially supporting his schooling, hosting him in their homes, helping him make contacts.
One of those people, Ellie Macklin, an 84-year-old retired family therapist, has become a surrogate mother to him.
“It’s been one of the most gratifying things in my whole life, this connection I have with Yousef,” she said. “I’m very attuned to people who have tremendous need but also tremendous determination to make something significant of their lives. I had this bent to do what was needed when others are willing to do their part. He has impressed me from the beginning with his powerful energy to make powerful change.”
For now, aside from his speaking engagements, Bashir’s role in Connolly’s office is no different than any other intern. But he feels the weight of that responsibility profoundly. When he answers a constituent call and soothes a mother crying that her son who has cancer may lose his health insurance or speaks in Arabic to an Egyptian man needing assistance, it feels as if he’s really giving something back to a country that has accepted him.
It’s not lost on him that the U.S. government is largely pro-Israel, and in a way, the bullet that struck him was “authorized by this place,” he said, in reference to Congress’s financial support for the Israeli military. But there’s a disconnect between the rhetoric and the warmth with which he’s been treated.
“It gives me hope that despite it being the place that authorized the M16 bullet that I carry with me every single day, it embraces me, allows me to come in,” he said. “America has been more than generous to me. Every dream I’ve had so far did come true. You know when someone does you a favor you say, ‘One day I’m going to pay you back and that day never really comes.’ Every day I’m here … I feel that I’m giving back to this country.”
(This post has been updated.)
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