OTISFIELD | Only a small percentage of the thousands of children from around the world who apply to attend Seeds of Peace camp each summer are accepted.
When George, a 17-year-old Palestinian, learned he could be a part of that select group for a second straight year, he knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“I came back because I knew coming back to this camp was worthwhile,” George said Thursday prior to the camp’s “Play for Peace” program featuring a half-dozen National Basketball Association players. “It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a camper to come. A lot of my friends back home applied and did not get accepted. I feel sorry for them. This camp should be for everyone.”
George’s friend, Bar, isn’t taking his second visit to the western Maine foothills for granted, either.
“This is like a second home, or even a first home, because you can be who you really are,” the 17-year-old Israeli said. “It’s not like any place in the world. It’s really hard to explain to your friends back home.”
Both George and Bar know plenty of teenagers back home who would like the opportunities Seeds of Peace gives campers—not only from the Middle East but South Asia—to express their views on the tensions in their region and to listen to the other side.
George and Bar came back this year as peer support campers, two of a little more than two dozen campers specially selected to return for leadership development, personal growth and dialogue and to serve as role models for first-time campers.
“It changed my perception about life,” Bar said of his first year at the camp. “I got home and I saw life differently. You get more interested about stuff going on in your region.”
Bar counts Palestinian and Egyptians among his friends which, as he said, “is not regular for Israeli teenagers.”
For George, his first year at Seeds of Peace was his first time encountering Israelis outside of his hometown or a checkpoint, where they are almost invariably soldiers.
“Coming here was like a taste of freedom. This was the way life could be or should be,” he said. “It’s not like the reality of back home.”
One of the ways Seeds of Peace hopes to help its campers confront and ultimately change the reality back home is with daily dialogue sessions.
Led by two trained facilitators, the 90-minute sessions are designed to get the two sides talking about their conflict openly and honestly. Groups of 15 campers talk about their personal experiences in the conflict, which leads to discussion of some painful and divisive issues.
“When you’re in dialogue, you’re facing the other side that is oppressing me back home, and it’s really difficult for me to face that. It’s impossible to do that back home,” George said. “Meeting (Israelis) here and talking about politics and the conflict is hard to go through; but still it’s effective in a way that we can achieve something that the governments have not.”
Campers confront stereotypes and perceptions change in the intense dialogue sessions. Ultimately, they develop the trust and understanding that helps to break down barriers.
“Dialogue was really tough the first two weeks,” Bar said. “Almost all of the experience was really hard; but I think that not all of the campers ‘get it’ in camp. I got most of the things that I learned here when I came back home.”
Group activities such as the basketball clinic complement the dialogue and are, of course, a lot more fun. But Bar warns their importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Dialogue is very important, but the fun side is even more important than dialogue,” he said. “To actually see the other side, to see that he is like you, you need to sleep with him; you need to eat with him; you need to play with him.”
“Play for Peace” has been a part of the Seeds of Peace itinerary for 10 years and is always a hit with campers, even if many of them, like George, had never seen an NBA player before.
They got an equal mix of NBA veterans and newcomers on Thursday. The contingent included former Boston Celtic and current Chicago Bull Brian Scalabrine, Jordan Farmar of the New Jersey Nets, DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers and recent draft picks Brandon Knight (Detroit Pistons), Jordan Hamilton (Denver Nuggets) and Kyle Singler (Pistons).
Scalabrine, who has taken part in all but one of the clinics over the past decade, said he has taken an active interest in the camp’s mission since agent Arn Tellem, a Seeds of Peace board member, invited him to his first clinic nine years ago.
“It’s actually more rewarding now, because you take an interest in it and your interest grows every year,” he said. “I feel like this is something I’m committed to for the rest of my life knowing that one day I hope to see peace in the Middle East.
Farmar ran basketball clinics for Seeds of Peace in the Middle East recently and saw that even though the conflict was closer and Seeds of Peace was thousands of miles away, the camp’s message could still be heard.
“It was a similar message. The kids were very receptive,” Farmar said. “Once you got them mixed up on teams and competing and playing, they forgot all about the fact they were Israeli or Palestinian or their families were enemies or at war.”
That many campers like Bar and George may be more likely to work out their differences on the pitch than the court isn’t the point.
“Me and George have had a really good conversation and we’ve played soccer together,” Bar said. “When you play soccer and you pass it to a Palestinian or a you pass it to an Israeli, you don’t have a chance to do it back home. You’re cooperating, not towards peace, but it’s part of building toward it.”