OTISFIELD | There were no rockets whistling overhead on Sunday morning at Pleasant Lake. There were no thunderous explosions ripping apart humanity or heavy thuds from tank shells noisily obliterating buildings. The only noise came from chickadees chattering away in tall pines as 182 teens from eight countries sang and chanted wholeheartedly 75 minutes prior to a flag-raising ceremony.
It was their morning rally or ‘Line Up’ as human beings at the Seeds of Peace Camp, a three-week journey into self-identity and coexistence.
For 17-year-old Yuval and Rema, it was also respite and a chance to give back to new seeds attending the camp’s second session of its 22nd summer.
Yuval is an Israeli Jew living in central Israel; Rema is a Palestinian living in northern Israel. In 2012, both first came to the Otisfield camp that is located on 44 acres of tall pine trees on Pleasant Lake.
On Sunday, they returned as second-year, peer-support counselors, traveling with the Israeli delegation. But they were rife with worry about family and friends as the Israel-Gaza conflict continues to rage.
The fighting began on July 8 when Israel launched an aerial campaign in Gaza, trying to stop Palestinian rocket fire on major cities. Israel later sent in troops to dismantle Hamas’ cross-border tunnels that have been used to carry out attacks.
Yuval said he came close to dying in a rocket attack. He flew out of Israel on the night of July 30 and early morning of July 31. It was an 11-hour flight to New York, followed by an eight-hour bus ride.
“A day or two before I traveled here on the plane, (the fighting) kind of intensified all day, with rockets coming near my area,” he said. “One almost crashed into the train station. It fell 20 meters from the train station five minutes before I got there.
“There isn’t a safe place near my home for me to hide, like a shelter, so you just kind of hide under the stairs,” Yuval said. “I’m a little bit afraid of a rocket hitting friends’ (homes) or my family’s home.”
A rocket sometimes falls daily where he lives or once every three days. South of his home, rockets fall three to four times a day.
Rema said Palestinians living in Israel are a minority who are denied rights and existence as Palestinians.
“Like most of our rights, we don’t get them since we’re a minority and a Israeli, and Israel identifies itself as a Jewish state, so by definition, we’re almost like nonexisting,” she said.
“You are just an identity card. You’re just a number. And this is not like (Seeds of Peace). I’m more than a number. I am a human.”
Rema said the people in Gaza and the people in the West Bank are part of her nation of Palestine.
“I am Palestinian — exactly as them — and reading the news each day, and feeling that the people in Gaza are just numbers and treated as numbers, like they’re not human,” she said.
“That’s how people treat them. I’m sitting at home and I can do nothing except praying and writing some stuff. It feels exhausting. I (feel) like I need to do something. I want to do something. I want to save a child’s hurt or a soul, but I can’t and that’s why I came here.
“Seeds of Peace gave me that chance to speak up,” Rema said.
And that’s what eight peer supporters did at the flag-raising ceremony, which was a gathering of campers and counselors who raise their nation’s flags, and join hands and voices in unity singing their national anthem.
The second-session’s 182 campers come from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan and the United States. Of that number, 95 are Israeli and Palestinian.
The internationally-recognized camp was founded by journalist John Wallach and Bobbie Gottschalk.
Leslie Lewin, the camp’s executive director, welcomed the teens who stood in a half circle between Lewin and the camp gate.
“We honor your courage in choosing to be here at this very moment,” Lewin said. “We honor the brave choice that you made 24, 36, 72 hours ago depending on where you live; the choice you made to get on the plane and to come here at such a critical and difficult time.”
A peer-supporter from Afghanistan spoke to the difficulties of living in a war zone. He urged the campers to take advantage of opportunities the camp provides and to work toward a life without discrimination.
A peer-support girl from Egypt told them to be ready to have their beliefs challenged, to let their walls fall down and to listen.
“To make peace with others, you have to go to war with yourself,” Aziz, a peer-supporter from India, said.
Rema spoke to the roller coaster ride of losing all hope where she lives — a place where violence is the day-to-day reality — and then regaining hope by attending Seeds of Peace Camp, speaking up for herself and others.
After the ceremony, Rema said her friend, Ahmad, a Palestinian resident of Gaza and fellow peer-supporter, told her the conflict would prevent him from returning to Otisfield. He asked her to speak for him and the dozen other Palestinians from Gaza who were denied that opportunity by all the fighting.
Rema said when she was a Seeds of Peace camper, she was fearful due to her political opinions. She thought fellow campers would refuse to be her friend, dooming any relationship.
“But then, at some point, I told myself that if I’m not going to speak up with my voice, I’m going back home with zero achievements,” she said. “And so I pushed myself and I’m proud of it, that I’m speaking up and I’m not afraid, because this is my identity.”
Yuval said the Otisfield camp changed him, as well. He said he learned not to judge people of a certain culture based on the acts of their leaders.
“And it also opened my eyes to understanding different views, like before it was like we suffer and they attack us, and now I understand that their side also suffers and that they go through horrors just as we are,” he said.