By Lauren Foote
Nayef Zarrour is a 29-year-old Youngstown native who spent most of his teenage years living in Youngstown, Lebanon and Brazil. The Youngstown State University graduate said travel has shaped his perspective and changed the way he views the world.
Zarrour works as a financial consultant and entrepreneur, which continues the theme of travel in his life, this time between New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He has recently settled in New York.
He operates a hedge fund, teaches acrobatics and yoga, works with the homeless and tries to be involved in Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Arabic communities.
Zarrour was invited to participate in TEDx Youngstown because of an interaction with an Israeli woman he shared on Instagram.
While living in LA, he approached a neighbor with an Israeli flag on their porch.
“I wanted to interact with this person because I love challenging the barriers that are found in the Israeli, Muslim and Arabic communities in a non-combative way,” Zarrour said.
When Zarrour revealed that he was Arabic the woman stepped away from him and asked if she should be scared of him.
“[She said] she was told that all Muslims and Arabs hate the Israelis and the Jews and they want us dead,” Zarrour said. “After some more talking, the next day she came to my house and brought over her crystals and wanted to get to know me better.”
This desire arose from an experience Zarrour had in 2006. He had spent most of the year in Brazil, and arrived in Lebanon a few weeks before war broke out.
“At 19 years old, having the experience of helping people through wreckage, trying to survive, trying to find survivors is a powerful experience,” Zarrour said.
Zarrour fled Lebanon to Syria for a week, bouncing around from place to place because he didn’t want to burden anyone.
“Two hours after I left Syria, my house got hit,” Zarrour said. “One of my cousins was killed, most of my family was badly injured. I just remembered I had so much hate in my heart, especially towards the Jewish people and the Israelis,” Zarrour said.
Following that experience, he returned to the United States. Zarrour said that through his anger and pain arose a desire to understand the Jewish community and the Israelis. He wanted to understand how the war could have happened.
“I kept seeking out people of Jewish and Israeli decent. What was fascinating to me, when I was asking questions like: how can you justify killing, how could you justify this, they in return would ask this question word for word to me,” Zarrour said.
He said he realized that both groups see the other as their persecutors because they want peace.
“We both wanted peace, and we all wanted this violence resolved,” Zarrour said. “The difference between the two groups is that the Israelis and the Jews wanted peace for themselves. The Arabs and Muslims only wanted peace for themselves. No one wanted collective peace.”
Zarrour said he wants to help bridge the gap between the cultures, to help people change their hearts and help people.
“I am glad I went through this experience because it made me the person that I am today. No matter how hard or difficult a day I might have had, I realize it is not a bad day,” Zarrour said. “I know what a bad day is like; I have lived it.”
He said his TED talk will focus on developing empathy when the world presents you with hate.
“What were the thought processes that were going through my mind during those events that helped me develop empathy? I want to talk about how through traumatic, significant events that can make us develop hate, we can shift that and become empathetic,” Zarrour said.
Zarrour said it saddens him to see close-mindedness and ignorance in the community around issues like LGBTQ rights, racism and culture in general.
“I am very confident in putting myself out there and being a target,” Zarrour said. “I am comfortable telling people about being a refugee due to a conflict. I want to attack this hatred in Youngstown and address it and maybe open people’s minds.”
He said he’s had the experience of a refugee.
“I don’t know the years-on-end experience because I was lucky enough to have my family get me out, but I have tasted enough of it to say, ‘Wow, I can probably change things and perspectives a little bit,’” Zarrour said.
Zarrour said he strives to better Arab-Israeli relations through empathetic, safe communication and culturally conscious actions.
“I want people to walk away from this TED talk with three things: how to develop empathy after a traumatic experience, belief that they can change something and how to get about getting involved,” Zarrour said. “One person can make a change. I want people to walk away from this understanding that.”
He said he and 11 other people will be wearing T-shirts he created stating “I am the change.”
“We cannot rely on other people to be the change; we have to be the change and make a difference,” Zarrour said.