Washington (AFP) - When 10 young Israelis and Palestinians came to Washington in June to talk, listen and learn from one another, the outbreak of war back home was never on the program.
On Friday they bid farewell on the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, having stuck together through a seven-week bridge-building internship overshadowed by the conflict in Gaza.
"Putting aside everything that was going on at home was really hard," said Ranin Faidi, 22, one of the Palestinian participants in the annual New Story Leadership (NSL) program.
"Especially when things (in Israel and Gaza) got really close to our families and friends... those were the most challenging moments," added Asi Garbarz, 27, from a kibbutz in northern Israel.
For five years, the New Story Foundation has brought five Israeli and five Palestinian twentysomethings to the US capital for an intensive program of talks, workshops and Capitol Hill internships.
- Finding common ground -
More importantly, the privately funded program encourages participants to share personal stories in hopes of finding some common ground that rises above the stock narrative that informs the Middle East conflict.
"It's premised on an understanding about the way the world works through the way we tell stories to each other," its Australian-born president Paul Costello told AFP.
"We kind of believe that a war zone like Israel and Palestine and Gaza is a factor of old stories playing out and capturing old-style leadership," he told AFP.
"We're creating an alternative story by opening up a space of possibility for five young Israelis and five young Palestinians with a proven track record of activism who want change."
Sister programs have engaged young adults from South Africa and Northern Ireland. Applicants must be college students up to the age of 27 with leadership potential and a willingness to step out of their comfort zone.
"If you don't want to risk having your mind changed, NSL is not the program for you," its website (www.newstoryleadership.org) warns.
- Never truly far away -
Participants are paired to live with host families in the Washington area -- but in an era of instant news, social media and cheap telecoms, this year's interns were never truly far from home.
"It's been really, really hard. I really wanted to go back," said Nisreen Zaqout, 21, this year's sole participant from Gaza, who worried constantly about her family's safety as the Israeli thrust against Hamas took more and more civilian lives.
Heated arguments broke out, too, particularly during preparations for public speaking events that are a core part of the program.
"At times it's been a shouting match," said Costello as the Middle Eastern Millennials wandered the Jefferson Memorial, a domed, granite monument to America's third president who was just 33 when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Some participants -- Israeli as well as Palestinian -- meanwhile found themselves criticized on social media for supposedly fraternizing with the enemy, after this year's NSL attracted more media attention than ever.
- Taking home 'a lot' -
Faidi, whose Jerusalem home stands a few yards (meters) from an Israeli checkpoint and the West Bank wall, said she'd be taking "a lot" from her Washington experience.
"Maybe we are the solution," she said, referring to her generation and the fact that its opinions have yet to be fully heard.
"We know we can find a way to solve this -- or at least to start solving this."
"Although we have lots of disagreements, we can sit down and we can talk," added Garbarz, who like all the Israeli participants has done obligatory military service.
"First of all, you have to be able to listen," he said. "And then listen again. And then listen a little bit more -- and that makes a difference."