Laila Alsheikh (left) and Robi Damelin belong to the Parents Circle - Families Forum.
CNN  — 

“She’s like a sister for me,” Laila Alsheikh tells CNN, reflecting on colleague and friend Robi Damelin.

“She’s funny and she laughs and she has a beautiful smile—and she went through a transformation,” Damlin responds. “And for me, I’m grateful to be a part of anybody’s life to pursue transformation.”

Damelin, an Israeli, and Alsheikh, a Palestinian, share intense friendship and excruciating heartache.

Both moms lost their sons to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Today, the two women facilitate dialogue meetings through the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a grassroots organization of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost immediate family members in the decades of strife. The circle seeks to bring about reconciliation, dialogue and, above all, peace.

United in loss

Damelin, who has a background in global reconciliation work, began her journey with the Parents Circle after her son David was killed by a Palestinian gunman.

“David was this lovely, beautiful boy who was studying for his master’s in philosophy of education, who was part of the peace movement,” she tells CNN.

After his death, the grieving mother sought ways to honor her son and shield other moms from similar grief, and publicly shared her journey in a TedTalk.

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    “I knew I wanted to do something that would stop Palestinian and Israeli mothers from going through this pain which is so excruciating. Nobody can understand this and I hope they never have to,” Damelin states.

    Alsheikh understands this pain all too well.

    She says her “happiness ended” on April 11, 2002, when her 6-month-old son died after Israeli soldiers fired tear gas, leaving her son in critical condition. As she and her husband pursued medical care, they were blocked multiple times at checkpoints. When she did make it to the hospital she says she was told to leave her baby there alone. He died later that day.

    “I was very angry and full of hatred, anger, sadness” Alsheikh says.

    “For 16 years, I really refused to have any kind of relationship with any one of them (Israelis). Until I met one of my friends who started to speak about the forum,” Alsheikh explains.

    Upon joining the Parents Circle Forum, both women were touched by the collective sense of pain and unity among Israeli and Palestinian members who were just like them—Innocent people, caught in the crossfire.

    “I saw them hug each other and kiss each other like family members – and that was the first time I saw something like that,” she says, reflecting on one of her first interactions with the forum.

    “When I start to listen to them and start to listen to their stories and how they lost their loved ones, that really touched my heart and for the first time I looked at them as a human, like me. …We share the same pain. We share the same fears.”

    Both women acknowledge that reconciliation work is not easy – and nothing will ever fully take away the profound pain of losing of a child. But both say they have found purpose in sharing their stories to promote peace, in support of those who carry the same invisible scars.

    In a pre-pandemic photo, members of the Parents Circle - Families Forum participate in a dialogue meeting. "Everything from the Parents Circle, all the work is always from both sides," Robi Damelin tells CNN.

    A mother’s journey toward healing

    The friendship between Damelin and Alsheikh represents just one of the transformative relationships between more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian members within the organization.

    “Ninety percent of the work that we do with the general public is for the first time for them to see a Palestinian and Israeli together,” Damelin tells CNN.

    “Everything from the Parents Circle, all the work is always from both sides.”

    Both women emphasize that forgiveness is not a prerequisite of joining the organization. They describe the decision to forgive as a deeply personal and individual process. It looks different for everyone.

    “We don’t have to love each other. We just have to respect each other,” Damelin tells CNN. “It is to be aligned with the long-term goal of this organization to create a framework for a reconciliation process to be an integral part of any future political peace agreement.”

    How to support humanitarian efforts

    In addition to Parents Circle Family Forum, there are several other organizations you can support to foster understanding and cooperation among Israelis and Palestinians:

    • Seeds of peace offers programming within the United States, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe that empowers youth and educators to work toward more inclusive societies.
    • Children of Peace strives to build trust between Israeli and Palestinian children. The organization supports programs working through the arts, sports, health, and education.
    • Women Wage Peace seeks to promote Israeli-Palestinian understanding through the power of women. The organization says it embraces diversity within Israeli society including “right, center and left; religious and secular; Jews, Arabs, Druze and Bedouin.”
    • Tomorrow’s Women develops Israeli and Palestinian young women to become leaders through mutual respect and the promotion of peace, equality, and justice. The organization’s three-pronged approach includes a strong emotional foundation, commitment to societal impact, and the development of leadership skills.