Aziz Abu Sarah & Scott Cooper | Co-Founders/Co-CEOs, MEJDI Tours, Israel
Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper, co-CEOs and Founders of MEJDI Tours, recognize that allowing people to tell their story is a first step in fostering peace and cultural understanding.
- 1. Some types of businesses, like tourism, are ready-made for fostering interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace.
- 2. Business has unique solutions for some situations – such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which seem to present insurmountable challenges for interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace.
- 3. Hard experiences and difficulties can be the inspiration for impactful new businesses.
- 4. Customers are interested in business with a social mission that involves them.
Main Category of Action
Championing interfaith understanding and peace through a company’s core business operations, including internal procedures, human resources hiring practices, training, product/service development, sourcing policies, supply chains, as well as the development of products and services that promote interfaith understanding and peace.
Aziz and Cooper’s Story
Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper like to joke that they met on JDate, the Jewish-oriented dating service.
They did not. But the joke is typical of these two men who are friends, business partners and, above all, peacemakers.
They met at a peace-building event in New York City in 2009 and quickly realized that even though Abu Sarah is Muslim and from Palestine, and Cooper is Jewish and from Indiana, they shared a vision of how interpersonal relationships across cultures, like theirs, could change the world.
In 2013, Abu Sarah and Cooper started Mejdi Tours, a tour company with a purpose — to expose tourists in age-old conflict areas to what they call “dual narratives” by bringing them together with tour guides from different sides of the conflict. The first tours were to Israel and Palestine, and the company has since expanded to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Ireland.
“You can create a paradigm shift in peace through tourism by offering access to both communities,” Abu Sarah said from his home in Washington, D.C. “They get exposed to all kinds of issues – art, food, politics, religion. Mejdi bridges the gap between going somewhere and seeing stones laid 2,000 years ago and making connections between 2,000 years ago and today.”
Cooper — with his typical concision, put it like this: “Mejdi connects people across barriers.”
The two men, both 36, are familiar with conflict. When Abu Sarah was a child in Palestine, Israeli officials arrested his 18-year-old brother for throwing stones at them. While in custody, he was beaten and died of his wounds.
Abu Sarah became an angry young man, and he, too, wanted to throw rocks, to strike out. But he chose another path. “I decided it doesn’t matter what happens to me,” he said. “What really matters is how I deal with it. So I decided to dedicate my life to bringing down the walls that separate people.”
Cooper visited Abu Sarah’s family and the experience changed him. “I sat in Aziz’s house in the same bedroom he shared with his brother and I saw what his brother’s death did to him,” he said. “I have seen what he did with that tragedy, using it as mission to connect people. Prophets do things like that.”
Abu Sarah is a Muslim who has spent time in Bible college, and Cooper considers himself culturally Jewish. But he sees Mejdi Tours as a mission. “It might not be traditional, religious, dogmatic activity, but I see what we are doing as spiritual work,” Cooper said. “When your child hurts, my child hurts.” Then he said something that might be Mejdi’s motto: “We are all in this together.”
But while Mejdi takes tourists to beautiful places, it provides Cooper and Abu Sarah the financial means to travel to places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, where they work on peace building among refugees.
“We see Mejdi as an avenue for us to make those kinds of projects viable,” Abu Sarah said. “We cannot take Mejdi to those places, but we can go there ourselves and be involved.
“Mejdi is a vehicle, not the destination,” Cooper said. “And in my opinion it is too small of a vehicle right now. There is not enough change that is happening, so it is a vehicle we plan to enlarge. We are driven to create social change as our life mission.”
In many Middle Eastern countries, social and political tensions have spurred violence and unrest along religious and cultural lines.
Each group within this struggle has a different narrative and understanding of what has led to the current cultural landscape and conflict. Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper, co-CEOs and Founders of MEJDI Tours, recognize that allowing people to tell their story is a first step in fostering peace and cultural understanding.
In Israel, for example, their “Dual Narrative” approach allows Israeli and Palestinian tour guides to offer varying perspectives on culture, religion, and politics at each location.
TED Talk: Aziz Abu Sarah
MEJDI co-founder and 2014 TED Fellow, Aziz Abu Sarah, gave this TED talk in March 2014. Aziz is a Palestinian activist with an unusual approach to peace-keeping: Be a tourist. The TED Fellow shows how simple interactions with people in different cultures can erode decades of hate.
“Imagine with me if the one billion people who travel internationally every year travel like this, not being taken in the bus from one side to another, from one hotel to another, taking pictures from the windows of their buses of people and cultures, but,” Aziz Abu Sarah says, “actually connecting with people.”