Seeds of Peace Dissolves Friction into Friendship | THE SAUDI GAZETTE
BY BARBARA G.B. FERGUSON | Dressed in their T-shirts and blue jeans, the look just like any other children attending a summer camp but, despite appearances, this unique camp has been created to bring children together than have been taught to call each other “enemy.”
This is the third summer that Seeds of Peace has hosted a group of 130 children from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Israel, and Morocco at Camp Androscoggin in Maine.
The founding principle of Seeds of Peace is simple and remarkable: Offer children of the Middle East—aged 13 to 15—the opportunity to put ancient hatreds behind them, and give them a chance to cultivate new friendships. The founders of Seeds of Peace hope that, as a result, these friendships will become the seeds from which an enduring peace in the region can grow. This year marks the first time that a delegation of Muslim and Serbian children from Bosnia-Herzegovina have been included at the camp.
Seeds of Peace camp, is the only program of its kind designed to transform the treaties signed by political leaders into real peace by grounding it in the hearts and minds of the people.
“Beginning with the next generation is the only way to lay rest to the heritage of hatred and propaganda that each of these peoples have inherited,” says Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach.
“Unfortunately, because real peace has not yet come to the Middle East, this camp in the middle of the Maine woods, is the only place where hundreds of young Arabs and Israelis can get to know one another. It is an oasis of tolerance.”
Wallach, a former foreign editor of Hearst newspapers, says he wanted to do what all the peace treaties could not: bring together young people who have been taught to hate.
“Our aim is to provide each child with the tools of making peace—listening skills, empathy, respect, effective negotiating skills, self-confidence, and hope,” Wallach says. We try to teach youngsters to think of others as individuals and not as members of political, racial, or religious groups. The program fosters education, discussions, and emotional growth through both competitive and cooperative activities—and emphasizes the importance of developing non-violent mechanisms of resolving disputes.”
Wallach says he got the idea for Seeds of Peace following the New York World Trade Center bombing in 1993. “It occurred to me that the only real response to this kind of terror was to begin a program that would get the next generation of Arabs and Israelis together. If peace is going to have any chance,” he says, “it must begin in the hearts of both peoples when they are young.”
While at Camp Androscoggin, the youngsters enjoy a full sports, arts, drama, and computer program. “They don’t even notice they’re playing sports with their enemies,” Wallach says. The children also spent 90 minutes every evening in intense coexistence workshops exploring their innermost feelings and fears about each other.
As can be expected, the task of getting along together is complicated by sharp political, ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Nothing, not even swimming, is simple. Girls and boys, for example, must swim separately in deference to the Muslim children.
But evenings are a different matter, says Wallach. Youngsters from opposing countries tell stories of loved ones who have been killed—while facing the children of the very people their grandparents, parents, the media and their government may consider, their enemy.
“People can’t kill unless their enemy is dehumanized, now the enemy is sitting across from you and they look just like you. Wallach says, explaining that typically, the evening sessions go through three stages: “We’re going to make peace. This is easy.”
“Finding out they don’t like each other very much. “This is the most difficult stage,” says Wallach. “The differences are really deep. They have to make a real personal effort to each out to the other side.” There is a lot of crying, he adds, and each side sees themselves as the only victims.
“Those tears have to flow,” Wallach says, “You have to get out your own tears before you can empathize with the tears of others.”
“Then when you hear them tell the same story about their father or brother, who was killed by your people, you can begin to understand—and achieve the breakthrough so vital in this whole process.” Stage three, recommitment, occurs during the second week, “when they discover they can like and trust each other, find more in common and that they really can be friends.
“This is not a summer cam,” Wallach summarizes. “It’s a very profound experience.”
It is arguable whether bringing 130 young people together in the woods in Maine can eventually improve Mideast stability. But any visitor who witnesses the interaction between these children, feels convinced that change is occurring, and, that genuine friendships—and respect for the other—have formed.
Yet there is no denying the initial fears they feel about each other are real. The first year, a couple of Israeli children were found walking in the woods at 2 a.m. “We’ve never slept in the same room with Palestinians,” they told their counselors. “We are afraid to go to sleep.”
According to the children themselves, they were all afraid of each other when they first arrived to the camp. And yet, after less than three weeks together, all of them speak of the incredible transformations their lives have undertaken as a result of their experiences.
Some of the children are here on scholarships, at a cost of $2,000 per child, raised through private donations. Others, whose parents can afford it, pay for the airfare.
“Each of these youngsters is special and is selected in a highly competitive process,” explains Wallach. After an initial recommendation by their school principal, each boy or girl must respond in English to the essay question: “Why I Want to Make Peace with the Enemy” which is followed by a personal interview.
Each child is interviewed following the essay. Competition is quite intense, with over 1,000 children competing for the 130 places available at the camp.
Scholarships are provided to assure that children from refugee camps and other less fortunate youngsters are included.
The children that are chosen are offered an opportunity of a lifetime—they are flown to New York, then on to Boston for a couple of days where they visited places of interest, including a private session at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, before departing to Maine.
At the conclusion of their summer camp experience, they visited the nation’s capital. This summer the Seeds of Peace children met with Vice President Al Gore at the White House. The youngsters also met with Secretary of State Warren Christopher at the State Department, and were hosted to a Congressional luncheon in the Senate Caucus Room which was chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat, Vermont.
The camp’s director is Tim Wilson, who teaches language, arts and social studies to seventh graders in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the school year. Wallach says the kids love him, and just as importantly, they respect him.
Wilson laughs when the Gazette asks him how he managed to gain both the admiration and affection of the children. “The kids are like open books for me, but I had to learn how to stand in the middle.”
“I have seen kids with huge schisms in their lives become close friends. I am really proud of what occurred between these kids.”
Wilson says he developed an appreciation for the Middle East when he served in the Peace Corps 30 years ago and had the opportunity to visit Lebanon, Yemen, and Egypt. The trip, he said, “had a tremendous effect upon me.”
Wilson said that as a result of spending three weeks with the children, “they become an extension of my family—and of our lives.”
The Camp’s counselors and escorts are also a reason for success of Seeds of Peace, Wilson said. The escorts – who are also chosen by each country—accompany each group and serve as their “parents” in the camp. “I found the escorts are tremendous people,” Wilson explained, “Some are like Mother Theresa’s, others keep a slight distance … And a couple have become real friends.”
Reflecting on the camp, Wilson said that some US educators – have only heard about, but not seen, the camp—have been critical of the camp’s methods. Wilson regrets their unwillingness to learn from the camp’s experience. It’s really been difficult at times for me, that we can’t seem to do the same in our own backyard, what these kids are able to accomplish between nations.”
“The camp has changed my life in a lot of ways. The things I’ve seen these kids try to accomplish only makes me wish we could attempt the same objectives here in The States,” Wilson said.
During the luncheon at the Senate Hall, where the Gazette finally caught up with the youngsters, the gallery was packed with Washington’s political leaders: Senators, congressmen, ambassadors and politicians—but the one that most impressed the children was basketball player from the Denver Nuggets, Tickley Loemombo. “You guys represent a great future,” he said during his short speech. The children gave him a standing ovation.
Two children—Laith Arafeh, a Palestinian who lives on the West Bank; and Yehoyada Mandeel, who is known as YoYo and lives in Israel—typify the tragedy of their lives and the success of their Seeds of Peace experience. Laith and YoYo live less than 15 miles apart from each other, but they had to travel thousands of miles to the Seeds of Peace camp to meet and talk, and become friends. This is their third summer together in Maine. They are now both junior counselors and have become fast friends.
Recently, during an official visit to Israel, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, asked to meet Laith and YoYo again. From the balcony of the secretary’s hotel, both children were able to point out their houses in the distance. It has been said that this incident really helped put a human touch on Christopher’s understanding of the Palestinian and Israeli problem.
While they were in Washington this summer, Christopher made sure to invite Laith and YoYo, and all the children in the Seeds of Peace program, to a special reception at the State Department.
The children themselves are best qualified to explain the value of the Seeds of Peace experience: “In the beginning, it wasn’t easy,” says Tamer Nagy, a 15-year-old Egyptian boy who is back for his third summer. “It wasn’t like we said ‘Hi. We’re friends.’ All my life, what I’ve grown up on, (is that) Israel is our enemy. Then we begin to talk.”
Mohammed Abdul Rahman, 15, is also from Cairo. This is the first year he has come to the States and participated in the Seeds of Peace camp. “These were the most wonderful two weeks in all my life,” he told the Gazette during lunch on Capitol Hill. He admitted, however, that the first day he arrived in camp; he wasn’t really mentally prepared for a camp experience and was somewhat “shocked” when he saw the living conditions—bunk beds and “shower facilities that seemed out in the woods.” He shared his cabin with Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and Israelis. “The first day we were really uneasy, but then we started talking … by the second day we were all friends.”
“We played together, slept and ate together, and even showered together for two weeks, we became more than friends, we became brothers.” Abdul Rahman said.
He explained that the “co-existence meetings”—where the youngsters discuss political issues—were sometimes difficult. “Sometimes there was tension—I remember once I tried to calm my friends down who had disagreed on a subject—but we were able to reason out the issue immediately.”
Mohammad said the most touching incident for him was an incident that took place between a Serb and Bosnian child at camp. “I didn’t know much about this problem. At one point in the discussion a Serbian boy started to discuss his problem, and he told us that he really was a Croatian who had been forced to leave Croatia, and then he started to cry. We were all very moved.”
AlyEl-Alfy, 15, is from Egypt, and this also is his first time at Seeds of Peace Camp and in the United States. He told the Gazette, “Before I came here I thought I would not get along with the Israelis, but after I came to the camp and sat with them, I found they are just people … like me—they just come from another country.”
Aly said that his cabinmates were Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. “Before I came to camp, I didn’t realize what danger many of them have to live with daily, and they explained to me what their lives are like for them, now I really feel—through the sympathy I feel for their situation—that I have to know more than just what the headlines in newspapers tell me. I have to be more receptive … their problems really moved me.”
Aly said that they prayed regularly. They made us go to Friday prayer.” He added that the Christians and Jews also had their services. “I went to a Jewish service and found it very interesting. Every religion has its commonalities,” he said.
When asked if the camp really made a difference in his attitude, he was adamant: “Yes, it really has.” His most special memory? “My short discussion with Laith from Palestine, he told me thing I never know about the Palestinians.”
Aminaben-Kinen, 15, is from Kenitra, Morocco. She told the Gazette she didn’t know anything about Seeds of Peace before coming. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get along with other Arabs,” she said, “because I was brought up in a French speaking family. I knew there would be a language barrier, because I don’t speak Arabic—Classical Arabic—very well. But I found we are all the same.”
“Everyone spoke to each other, sometimes there were shocks and tension, and even crying, but everyone consoled each other,” Amina added. “We all became very close friends.”
“What I learned is that we are all the same. It really marked me.” Amina said that one of the most touching moments of the trip for her was one evening when the children were given the opportunity to sing their national anthems. “The Serbs and Bosnians sang the same national anthem. It was very moving.”
“There was no religious barrier,” she said. “Everybody was tolerant. And if someone felt wounded about what was being said, the counselors were wonderful because they really put in a lot of time and effort to make us feel really comfortable.”
One such counselor is Anil Soni, a sophomore at Harvard. Anil said he also wasn’t quite sure as to what to expect. “I had my hesitations about how effective it could be—there is a fine line between talking about political issues and forming friendships.”
Anil said the formula worked for the youngsters because they played games together. “The common denominator was through sports, and playing games. So when the evening came and they talked about political issues, they found it was hard to hate the person they had been playing with all day long. It was the dynamic that was very effective.”
“I don’t know if the kids realized this or not,” Anil told the Gazette, “but Seeds of Peace is a strategy … They seek to decrease the amount of hatred and prejudice and increase the amount of hope.”
“The strategy in a nutshell,” Anil continued, “is to let them get to know each other, and then sit them down and let them talk. When you listen to your friends you care about what they have to say. First you sympathize with them, then you empathize, and then it all turns to friendship. Empathy is the key to friendship, which in turn is the key to peace.”
President Clinton told the kids, when he met them at the White House last year that: “Leaders make policy, but people make peace.” And that’s the idea behind this whole experience because these will be the people who will have the responsibility of making or breaking peace.
“Our hope was not to give the kids resolutions to their conflicts,” Anil said, reflecting on his role as counselor. Because that would be a deception—we cannot give them any solutions, but we can create an environment in which they learn and listen and empathize with each other. They will return [to their homes] more open-minded. And being open-minded is a quality that is easy to recognize and emulate.”
Daniel Shinar, 14, is an Israeli from Jerusalem. This is his first year in the Seeds of Peace Program and first time to the United States. Daniel told the Gazette that before he came to camp, he didn’t have any Palestinian friends, even though they share the same city. But now, he said, he has close friendships with Palestinians, and he believes they could talk about anything together.
When asked how he thought his Israeli friends would react when he told them he now had Palestinian friends, he said, “Most of my friends won’t understand. But I have some smart friends who will understand. The sooner we make friends with Palestinians the better it will be for us.”
Daniel said the most discussed question was “can we share Jerusalem?” He said the group decided that it was best to leave it as it is now—part for Jews and parts for Muslims and Christians. He said he didn’t agree totally with this, but that, as a result of being at camp, it “changed my mind. We have the same God. There are so many things that we have in common.”
When asked about what had touched him the most during his Seeds of Peace experience, he spoke about a Jordanian friend he had gotten to know. Halfway through the camp stay, his friend had come to him and said he was going to miss him. Daniel said he didn’t understand the point his friend was trying to make, because they still had one more week together in camp. But his Jordanian friend explained he was already missing him because they may never meet again. “We really became good friends,” he said. “I could never have believed that an Arab would say he would miss me, it really touched me very much.”