I have heard Mohammad Fahili’ story – known as Fahili – four times now and each time fresh details emerge that that make me realise this man is a star.
1948 was a chaotic time. Fahili’s family was one of five families living in a village on the Syrian border. His family along with the others were moved by the Israelis to houses in Akko. Houses recently vacated by Arabs that had moved to Lebanon. Fahili was the seventh child born after six daughters. The family were poor especially after his 43 year old father died. Fahili left school to find work. One of his jobs was on a nearby kibbutz where he worked 8-10 hour shifts. Fahili noticed that many of the boys working were wearing ‘Ha’Shomer Ha’Tzair’ t-shirts and that these boys disappeared after 4 hours work. He asked where they were going and if he could join them. They took him along to their club, gave him a t-shirt and invited him to join their activities. Fahili was now an official member of the youth movement.
Every Friday the kibbutz kitchen gave Fahili bags of food to take home. The family couldn’t eat it all so Fahili asked if his mother could sell the excess at the market. This money enabled Fahili’s mother to send two daughters to school. Fahili went back to school and saved his money to go to university. One of his friends was going to the United States and Fahili went with him to study engineering at the University of Houston. Again Fahili needed to work as well as study and as the best job for someone with very little money is in a restaurant where you are sure to be fed, Fahili found a job in a hotel as a waiter. One Friday night he noticed a man wearing a kippah making Kiddush and blessing his children. He went over to the table and said ‘Shabbat Shalom’. From that moment developed a firm friendship. This man was the proprietor of the hotel and Fahili ended up baby-sitting, teaching the children Hebrew and living in the hotel rent-free. Fahili was able to send money home so that his mother could pay for two more of her daughters to study and when Fahili finished his studies and was about to return home, the owner handed him an envelope with enough money to buy the house in the neighbourhood he had always wanted.
This experience triggered Fahili’s dedication to break down the barriers of hatred between Arabs and Jews. Returning to Israel in 1978, determined to work with Jewish and Arab youth at risk, Fahili settled in the Wolfson neighbourhood of Akko, the city’s only mixed Arab-Jewish neighbourhood. Life was hard then as it is now, especially for Arabs, and unable to find work in his profession, he spent the next 12 years working as a bank clerk, in a paint factory, as a furniture warehouse manager, all the while devoting his free time to local children and youth at risk, arranging excursions, activities and community projects. In 1990 Fahili’s dream began to come true. He laid the foundations of what would become the Jewish-Arab Community Association in the local bomb shelter. Now the Centre is in a purpose-built building and buzzes with activity for all ages including pre-school day care, after school activities, summer camps, a Women’s Centre and a Pensioner Programme. In 2000 Fahili was invited to the Knesset where the Speaker of the House Avraham Burg honoured his work with a presentation to the Centre in recognition of its outstanding contribution to Arab-Jewish relations.