The recently launched Lucy Findley Memorial Foundation will help to create a deeper understanding between Americans and Arabs by focusing on bright young students who may become future world leaders
Last July, a month before her death, my wife Lucille enthusiastically endorsed the establishment of a foundation, whose earnings will encourage intercollegiate understanding far into the future.
It will help students at Illinois College, my alma mater, and students in Arab colleges, to study in each other’s countries.
Lucille asked:”Would it [The Lucy Findley Memorial Foundation] help students like the two young men from the West Bank in Palestine we had come to know?” I assured her it would. These two students both from villages in the West Bank of Palestine, had become a part of our family.
Four years ago, just before his freshman year began, one had stayed in our home for several days. Always respectful, courteous and helpful, he was a pure joy to have around.
Two years later, we attended a lecture he delivered in the Illinois campus Commons. To a ‘standing room only’ crowd, he calmly described the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli rule.
By then, another Palestinian youth, had enrolled at Illinois College. Both young men were charming and good scholars. Their visits and occasional phone calls to us were always affectionate. They looked on us as grandparents.
On campus they quickly became popular both with faculty members and their fellow students and they were fine ambassadors for the Arab world and Islam, their religion.
They will, I am sure, become great leaders of tomorrow’s Palestine. One will graduate this May; the other in May 2013.
During our discussion last July, Lucille and I reminisced about my first experience in the Arab world, a seven-day rescue mission I embarked on in 1974.
I travelled alone to South Yemen to win the release of a constituent imprisoned on a false charge of espionage. At the time, I had scant knowledge of the Middle East.
For me, the week was life-changing. I had interviews in Lebanon and Syria before reaching Aden, the capital of South Yemen. At each city, I heard details of Arab grievances. Officials complained of biased US government policies that hindered the implementation of Arab human rights.
That week in the Arab world taught me three lessons: First, biased foreign policies have grave consequences. Second: the American people have much in common with the Arabs — they have similar aspirations and face similar challenges.
Third: Islam, the religion of most Arabs, has many important links with Christianity and Judaism. Back in Washington, I spent most of my remaining eight years in Congress attempting to redress Arab grievances, especially the plight of the Palestinians. I never doubted it was a worthy cause, and when it caused my defeat, I considered the loss a badge of honour.
Today, 37 years after my life-changing week in the Middle East, the scene is worse in both the Arab region and in America.
The horror of 9/11 and the resulting false images of Islam which have circulated have stirred a deep-seated fear of Muslims throughout America.
Meanwhile, the death of many thousands of innocent Muslims, killed during recent US wars in the region has fired anti-American passions worldwide as never before.
After a long career seeking justice for Arabs and opposing the US wars in the Middle East, I conclude that peace cannot be attained until Muslims and Christians gain a correct understanding of each other’s religion and culture.
This belief led me to write and lecture widely and write books on that theme. It also led to the conversation that was the genesis of the Lucille Findley Memorial Foundation.
Now a corporation, it is managed pro bono by our children and grandchildren. Working closely with the Illinois College administration, which is strongly supportive, they will keep it true to its original mission. The college has led a pioneering path in Arab studies, assisted by generous grants from Khalaf Al Habtoor of Dubai.
Grants from annual earnings of the Foundation will let Illinois College students benefit from experiences in accredited institutions in the Arab world.
The students — who will perhaps become future US leaders — will see the Arab world firsthand by studying in Arab classrooms and living in Arab communities. The experience will give them a direct appreciation of Arabs that will last a lifetime. At the same time, their behaviour during the study experience should help to create a positive, lasting view of Americans for Arabs.
Other grants will also help Arab students, to establish a correct, positive perception of the Arab world on a US Midwestern campus.
Fundraising for the foundation is already off to a good start. Current donations and pledges total $135,000 (Dhs495, 900). The foundation needs several times that amount in order to carry forward a full programme. Each study project will cost several thousand dollars.
I am placing a major part of my modest estate in the foundation. I believe it is a sound investment in interfaith understanding and East-West harmony.
Because only endowment earnings will be disbursed, the foundation will bear fruit in perpetuity. I cannot imagine a better legacy to leave for future generations.