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A Fresco in Gaza

West Bank and Gaza, August 22, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Albana Dwonch/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Part of the "inclusivity fresco" painted by Palestinian students in Gaza under the direction of Italian painter and humanitarian Bruno Segatta. Photo: Albana Dwonch/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Albana Dwonch/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In addition to this athlete, Gaza students drew a fishermen fishing the sun out of the sea, a column of Palestinian houses topped with a beach umbrella, and an olive tree sprouting from ruins. Photo: Albana Dwonch/Mercy Corps

It came to no surprise to those who know him that the evening after he joined a young couple in Holy Matrimony in Seattle, Father Bruno Segatta traded in his priestly vestments with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, shoved a ticket into a half-empty backpack and set off toward a much different destination: the embattled Gaza Strip.

In between absolving and anointing, baptizing and marrying, this 66-year-old priest is above all committed to celebrating the most important emotion of all: unconditional love for his fellow human beings.

"Padre Bruno" is an Italian native who has practiced painting and art since earning his degree from Northridge University in 1982, mostly at Gonzaga University's campus in Florence. He has traveled the world around with his young students, teaching them not only about art but also about compassion and caring. Revenue from paintings sold on his website, http://www.brunoartforkids.com/, is donated to the Niambani House for Kids orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya.

Even on this trip, the use of art as a therapeutic tool is at the core of his mission: to teach Palestinian youth to use art as a tool for change. "I was offered an opportunity to help other human beings that are in dire need for hope and compassion in their life," explains Bruno. "I said yes to it."

Bruno came as a guest of Mercy Corps' Middle East youth exchange program, "Why Not?", or "Laysh la" in Arabic. The project connects 500 Palestinian youth in Gaza and the West Bank with their U.S. peers at high schools in the American Northwest. It's a way to build bridges between two often-misunderstood cultures and to give the Palestinian youth an outlet to creatively express the hardships of living amid daily violence and oppression.

His first stop: Jerusalem, where he bought canvasses, brushes, paints. Second stop: Eretz Terminal, the often-dangerous crossing that connects Gaza with Israel. He walked through the same long, windy, impersonal tunnel that connects the two checkpoints, and emerged on the other side of the tall cement wall. After introducing himself to the taxi driver with a quick "Ciao, I am Bruno," he rode to Mercy Corps' Gaza City office, gazing out at a surreal environment: destroyed buildings, old cars sputtering along on cooking oil and a worn-down look of a place under near-constant siege.

Bruno arrived with two concrete objectives: to give painting lessons to eight groups of Palestinian students (130 in all) and to help 100 students paint a wall 50 meters long and 2.5 meters high at Al Aqsa University on the theme of inclusivity.

He climbed up on a ladder and divided the wall on 100 squares. Than he instructed to his Palestinian students: think, paint and enjoy. There were few rules; one was that no black color be used. Each of the squares, Bruno explained, should be seen as windows that together would show "Gaza in colors."

At first, the scale of the painting seemed impossible. "But Bruno told them, 'We can do it together' — and they did it," said Nour Al Bassy, a project coordinator with Mercy Corps.

"I wanted all of them to be part of something that they themselves would create," he explained later. Slowly, under a sweltering sun, pictures, images and colors started to emerge.

Most of the images, unsurprisingly, were centered on the separation wall. A horse jumping over the wall was the mural's most obvious window. But other drawings included a fishermen fishing the sun out of the sea, a column of Palestinian houses topped with a beach umbrella, and an olive tree sprouting from ruins.

They were simple images, but also "creative, hopeful and original," said Father Bruno.

I've rarely seen teenagers so full of energy and mirth as these were during their 10 days with Father Bruno. Their respect for the man was obvious in their smiles and their words. "'Use your mind. Think before you paint.' I will never forget that from Bruno," said 17-year-old Mohammed.

While students carried away a picture of a hardworking and always-smiling Bruno, all covered in paint, Bruno put his mental picture of the students to paper. He gave each student a copy. At the bottom of each, he wrote: "I will never forget your beautiful faces."

Beautiful to him, of course, because they are all human.

For more information the Why Not? project, visit the GloPAL Lounge on the Global Citizen Corps website.