THE BLOG
01/26/2015 01:15 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2015

I Am a Muslim and My First Trip Abroad Was to Israel

I always expected to travel to the Indian sub-continent, the home of my ethnic origins for my first time overseas; however, I heard about a unique opportunity through a friend earlier this school year -- a paid trip to the state of Israel.

This last winter break, I packed my bags for the Holy Land. With a group of 37 other college students, I would soon participate in an educational tour of the country hosted by The David Project.

Before my travels, I desired a few things from the trip: to observe and witness an accurate portrait of the nation, explore my own connection to the land, and discover opportunities and room for harmony. After my return to the US, I recognized that I identified a spiritual connection, a role model, and a vision for peace.

Upon arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel, I sensed familiarity. The air smelled and felt too, like Southern California. It was here that we were told that Israel is full of 7 million different opinions. After our time in Tel Aviv, we traveled to the West Bank then to the Arab town of Barta'a. Along the way, we unearthed Israel's nuance and complexity. The landscape shifted continuously, our cameras in hand.

Later, we made our way up north to the Sea of Galilee and paid close attention to Jesus's lessons of detachment, forgiveness, and love. Moving further north, we traveled to Golan Heights, close to the Syrian Border. An Israeli hospital for Syrian Civil War victims neared us. Subsequently, we traveled through the Jordan Valley, passing through Jericho, the oldest surviving city in the world and then to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. For the last days of the trip, we explored the city of Jerusalem. Here, I gained the most insight.

Jerusalem is home to the Western Wall, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and The Dome of the Rock. Religious coexistence decorates the city's skyline. On a Friday after the late afternoon prayer, I visited Haram-al-Sharif -- the home of both the Dome of the Rock and Mosque -al-Aqsa. I walked towards the holy site, the dome rising like the sun. Upon entering, I felt as if I had been there before. Engaging mind, body, and soul, I prayed in the third most holy place according to Islamic tradition. I then viewed the rock, where Prophet Mohammad is believed to have ascended into heaven to meet with God and in Judaism, where Abraham intentioned to sacrifice his son Isaac. I had anticipated this moment and there I was.

Later that day, our group visited the Western Wall on Shabbat. A scene of celebration and community enchanted us all. From having a special individual experience at Haram-al-Sharif and then transitioning to a rich, community-based, and celebratory experience at The Kotel, I embarked on a unique spiritual ride. A beautiful pairing of Islam and Judaism, I thought.

Clearly, I had discovered a profound divine connection. I was further reminded of religious coexistence when I traveled to both the Dome of the Rock and The Western Wall on the same day. I recognized how important Muslims' place is within the Holy Land along with its monotheistic relatives. Additionally, I witnessed people of all faiths and backgrounds discovering a connection. After finding spirituality within the Old City, we would later meet with an individual who soon became a role model of mine.

For dinner one night, our group met with Forsan Hussein. Hussein, a Muslim, was once Chief Executive Operator of the Young Men's Christian Association in Jerusalem. During our visit with him, Hussein spoke of peace, solution, and hope. Breaking down the conflict to the simplest terms, he described Israel's objective of security and the Palestinian struggle for freedom. He stated that these were their main goals -- different, yet each goal interdependent on the other. For the first time, I heard the conflict described in these terms. Israel and Palestine depend on each other.

Moreover, Hussein stated his identity. He is a Palestinian-Israeli, he told us. He hopes to maintain his Palestinian culture yet he very much so considers himself an Israeli citizen. Hussein described how Jewish values are values he shares. I too, feel this way. A Jewish state is by all means capable of meeting the demands of its diverse inhabitants. However, as Hussein stated, things need to change. More needs to be done in integrating Palestinians in a Jewish state.

Transformations must transpire on both sides. Hussein explained how education could repair ideas that each group has about the other. Coupled with education, interaction between both groups ought to take place. When you have not seen the other, do not know the other, the situation polarizes and hardens. Fortunately, education is firmly rooted in both Judaism and Islam. In addition, interaction and being kind to one's neighbor is entwined in both faiths as well.

I had found my role model. Hussein's talk paralleled many of my own thoughts. Within his talk, Hussein displayed strength, eloquence, and strategy. It was then I asked him what keeps him motivated. He always remembers his father who always worked hard, struggling. Today, his son Adam motivates him. I realized that we all should remain motivated and hopeful. We must imagine what peace would look like.

For our last day in Jerusalem, we explored Hadassah Hospital where I contemplated a future of peace and unity. As we arrived, we were told the only enemy of the hospital's is disease. Again, I was reminded of shared Jewish and Muslims values. I recalled talking to my Jewish friend Lea and how we once discussed both of our father's passion for medicine, treatment, and care for others.

Within the hospital, Jews and Arabs work side by side -- equal opportunity for all. The hospital was a microcosm of what I hope Israel will strive to become. I hope to see Israel's democracy in full health. Additionally, in the future, I look forward to a Palestinian state resembling this same concept accompanied by strong and just leadership committed to peace. I desire to see the acceptance of Arabs in a Jewish-State and the acceptance of Jews in a Palestinian State.

At Hadassah Hospital, patients heal. Similarly, the conflict too can heal. It was here where I envisioned what peace would look like. Meanwhile, I await the cure.

On my trip, I felt a spiritual connection, met my role model, and conceptualized a future of harmony. I saw Israel as Israel, with all its nuance and complexity. With my return, I hope to share my spiritual connection experienced there, the importance of education and interaction, and that peace is possible.

In the meantime in Israel and Palestine, the healing process must begin. After a brutal and disastrous summer of war, Gaza must heal. War-traumatized Israeli soldiers must recover. Hatred and violence that has surged across the region has not brought about plans for peace nor negotiations. Clearly, other tactics must be employed. Creative solutions need to be sought while remembering our commonalties.

During my time in Israel, I refused to accept that our values are different, that peace is not possible. I witnessed the similarities of our values and the compatibility of our nature. We must relinquish fear and retain hope. In doing so, coexistence is near.

Thank you to all at the David Project for giving me this special opportunity.