Solutions exist, peace is possible | THE JEWISH JOURNAL (NEW JERSEY)
VILMA FIRCE | “Treaties are negotiated by governments; peace is made by people” reads the mission statement of Seeds of Peace, a non-profit international organization that since 1993 has set the standard in international peace-building by providing exceptional young people and educators from regions of conflict with an otherwise impossible opportunity to meet their historic enemies face-to-face at its International Camp in Otisfield, Maine.
This summer Andrew Singer, 15, of Toms River, was one of the 211 campers representing 8 delegations: Afghan, American, Egyptian, Indian, Israeli, Jordanian, Pakistani, and Palestinian. Andrew was part of the American delegation.
“It was a deep and moving personal experience,” said Andrew, who knew about the Camp through his father and grandfather, both funding partners of Seeds of Peace since the early 1990s. “I created strong friendships with people from far away countries.”
The selection process to become a “Seed” as campers are called, is very competitive. Through written essays and an interview the applicant must demonstrate proficiency in English and leadership skills.
For three and a half weeks the Seeds are given the opportunity to confront their prejudices and fears through a conflict-resolution program that tackles the issues that fuel violence, hatred and oppression at home.
According to Seeds of Peace, “Every aspect of the program fosters trust and respect and challenges assumptions. The program’s intensity is deliberate.” By the end of the Camp, every Seed had participated in over 25 hours of facilitated dialogue.
“I did realize that as an American Seed we know very little about the conflicts and countries I learned about,” said Andrew.
The campers are grouped by the conflict region they live in. This summer the regions were the Middle East and South East Asia. The Seeds of the same group share a bunk and participate in the same dialogue sessions. American campers are divided into the different groups. Andrew was assigned to the South East Asia group that included campers from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. “There were 15 Seeds in our group.”
Meals and recreational activities are encouraged to be shared among members of all delegations. “We were encouraged to meet and develop a relationship with as many Seeds as possible, doing activities that build trust, communication, and understanding with each other,” said Andrew. “We spent a lot of time outdoors, playing cricket, soccer and Frisbee. I was also able to attend Muslim and Hindu services, besides a Jewish service.”
A typical day at the Camp included 90 minutes of dialogue sessions between members of the same group to discuss their conflict region specific issues. Guided by professional facilitators, Seeds were encouraged to tackle the most divisive issues defining their conflict, share their personal experiences, compare competing historical narratives, and challenge each others’ inherited prejudices. “The set-up was very casual. We seated in plastic chairs around a circle.”
“In my group we discussed the Kashmir conflict and the Durand Line, among other heated topics, but always with respect,” said Andrew. “We also talked about women’s issues and religion. No subject was off-limits.”
The immediate goal of the Camp’s dialogue sessions is not necessarily agreement of consensus, and there isn’t any expectation that the campers should adopt or embrace each other’s viewpoints. “I believe the goal was to plant the seeds of peace within each community allowing them to then spread the knowledge they have learned,” said Andrew.
To the question, “Did you come back a different man?” Andrew replied quickly, “Absolutely,” and then added, “Being at Camp made me realize new ideas and new perspectives; that one should actually listen and to not just hear what someone has said. I know what I have experienced and more importantly felt created a bond that can’t be broken.”
Regarding political views, “My ideas of the conflicts in the Middle East and South East Asia are completely changed since I left for Camp,” affirmed Andrew.
Finally, to the question of what would he tell a disenchanted adult who doesn’t believe there is a resolution in sight for these conflict regions, Andrew responded, “There are always two sides to a story – listen to the other side. I don’t know what the future holds for these regions in conflict, but like everyone else we can hope that together we can try to create a better future. I would tell him what we were told by the camp head, Will Smith, the first day, “You must first go to war with yourself before you can make peace with anyone else.’”
Seeds of Peace does not prescribe or advocate for particular political solutions, nor are they affiliated with any political party or religious institution. The organization was founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach.
Selection of American Seeds is conducted directly with participating high schools, and usually begins in March. For details and more information send an e-mail to: email@example.com