There’s a bullet lodged in Yousef Bashir’s spine. It’s been there for 13 years and he feels it every day. Though he has regained the ability to walk, there are still days when the pain is excruciating.
But rather than succumb to the siren song of revenge, Bashir, SSH’13, uses that bullet to remind himself why he dedicated his life to promoting forgiveness and peace among sworn enemies.
Yousef is Palestinian. The man who shot him was an Israeli soldier.
“I forgave that soldier,” he says. “I believe he was a victim just like me.”
That is a rather remarkable reaction when you consider the circumstances under which that bullet became lodged in Bashir’s back.
Growing up in a War Zone
Bashir grew up in the Gaza Strip, where his family’s land abutted the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom.
“We got used to the crossfire every night,” says Bashir. “We’d be watching a movie or cooking a meal or studying for an exam, and the bullets would be flying outside.”
When Bashir was 11 years old, the Israeli army seized the family’s three-story house and transformed it into a sentry post. They installed machine guns on the roof, occupied the top two floors, and confined the Bashir family to the living room. To use the bathroom, they had to seek the soldiers’ permission, arrange an escort, and leave the door open at all times.
Despite the hardship, Bashir’s father remained a model of tolerance for his family.
In 2002, after a CNN news crew visited the family, Bashir’s father was hit in the neck by shrapnel and rushed to the hospital. The next day, the CNN team returned to ask him if he still believed in peace. His father told the American film crew that his injury made him believe in peace even more.
“My father was a man of peace. He would tell me that those soldiers are just kids. They are just following orders, and I shouldn’t judge them by what they do. That was very hard for me to understand.”
On Feb. 18, 2004, a United Nations delegation had just completed a visit with his father. Bashir was in his front yard waving goodbye. There was a single gunshot and Bashir crumpled to the ground. He couldn’t move or speak.
An M-16 bullet, fired by an Israeli soldier, had hit him in the spine and shattered into three pieces. Bashir was rushed to a Gaza hospital and then transferred to an Israeli hospital in Tel Aviv. It was in that hospital that he saw the other side of Israeli culture for the first time.
“The only Jewish people I had ever met were soldiers,” he recalls. “I assumed they all carried guns. But now I could see that while one Israeli soldier shot me, many other Israelis were working tirelessly to save my life. My father told me to look at this as an opportunity to make a difference—to look at it as a door that had been opened. I realized at that moment that I wanted to be like my father. I wanted to be a peaceful man. I wanted make an impact.”
After four months recovering in the hospital and a year in rehab learning how to walk again, Bashir vowed to go to school in America. He got a scholarship to a private high school in Utah, but while searching for ways to finance college, his father died of a stroke at age 50.
It was a devastating blow, but rather than see his father’s life as tragic, Bashir sees it as a monument to peace and tolerance.
“My father was the only one who won anything,” he says, noting that four years before he died, the Israelis left the family house and withdrew from the Gaza Strip. “He was the only one who never fired a shot. He was the only one who didn’t hate. He taught me how to be a human being.”
Bashir responded by recommitting himself to his mission. He found private sponsors to fund his education at Northeastern and dedicated his life to ending the cycle of hatred and revenge between Israel and Palestine.
He has given talks at more than a dozen colleges throughout the country, including Harvard, Berkeley, and U.C. Davis. This fall, he enrolled at Brandeis—he specifically wanted to attend a Jewish university—where he will earn a master’s degree in conflict and coexistence.
“It’s perfect,” he says. “I will spend the rest of my life talking about peace and forgiveness.”