Profiles in Courage

Yousef Bashir: Victim of violence, advocate for nonviolence. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University

THE ULTIMATE BRAVERY might well be the courage to forgive one’s enemies and hold on to hope.

Nelson Mandela famously emerged from 27 years in prison as a reconciler and uniter, somehow free from bitterness and hatred. He was able to put into practice Jesus’ call to love our enemies—and thus became the father of the new South Africa.

Far from the upper echelons of power and fame, forgiving our enemies can be a difficult task, since “enemies,” by their very definition, aren’t easy to love. But in places of oppression, occupation, and routine violence, it’s even harder.

Take, for example, the story of a young man named Yousef Bashir. He grew up in the Gaza Strip, near an Israeli settlement known as Kfar Darom. In 2000, Palestinians rose up in protest against the Israeli occupation in what became known as the Second Intifada. In response, Israeli soldiers came to Yousef’s house and told his family to leave.

His father had dedicated his life to teaching Yousef and his brothers “how to coexist with the Israelis,” Yousef explained over lunch in Philadelphia early this winter, and he insisted on staying in their long-time family home. As a result, Yousef said, Israeli soldiers moved into the Bashir family’s house when he was 11 years old. They occupied the house until he was 15.

“Every night the soldiers would come down, gather the whole family, and put us in the living room,” Yousef said. “Then they locked the door—sometimes for days or weeks. I had to ask the soldiers for permission to go to the bathroom and the kitchen. I was imprisoned in my own living room.”

Yousef’s father continued to model nonviolent love toward those who occupied their home. “One thing that was not easy for me to get used to was the fact that my father was peaceful,” Yousef said. “His reaction to everything that they did to us or to him was, basically, ‘They are just kids.’” A few years later, after he was hit in the back of the head by gunshots from Israeli soldiers, Yousef’s father was asked by a CNN reporter, “Do you still believe in peace after what happened to you?” His father responded, “What happened to me last night made me believe even more in peace.”

And then, at age 15, Yousef was shot in the back. A U.N. delegation was visiting his house. “I remember complaining to my mom about the lunch she was making,” Yousef said. “I went outside and sat with my father and the U.N. [delegation]. As I walked them back to their car, the soldiers were right behind me. As I waved goodbye, I got shot. It was a single shot. Everything was quiet before I was shot.”

After three days, Yousef woke up in a hospital in Tel Aviv, paralyzed from the bullet fragments that had hit his spine. Before the hospital, “I had never met an Israeli who was not a soldier,” Yousef said. “Every day I woke up, surrounded by Israeli doctors discussing how they were going to save my life. I was shot by an Israeli soldier, but saved by a lot of Israeli people. And that’s what changed my life.”

Afterward, Yousef said, “It became my absolute passion to spend and dedicate the rest of my life to the message of peace.”

Yousef, now 24 and pursuing a master’s degree in conflict and coexistence at Brandeis University, finds hope in unexpected places. “Hope is found when you are shot,” he said, “and then somebody else fixes you up, from that same people that is responsible for your pain.”

Violence, Yousef says, is a distraction from hope. “The tanks are a distraction. The soldiers are a distraction. The hatred that has gone on is a distraction,” Yousef said. “We can go with it, or we can stick with the hope. Hope can be found in the worst places ever—that’s the purest hope you will find. When someone is faced with a gun and chooses to respond with respect and love, that’s hope.”

The world, rightly, recognizes the greatness of Nelson Mandela for his ability to respond to violent oppression with transforming forgiveness. But Yousef Bashir reminds us that most of those who respond to violence with love and hope do so in quiet anonymity. They help us to see what real courage looks like. 

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

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