Youth From Nations in Conflict Bond on the Maine Seas | MAINE PUBLIC RADIO
Although they live less than 40 miles from each other, May and Milena would probably not get to hang out together back at home. That’s because 18-year-old May is an Israeli living near Tel Aviv, while Milena, who’s 16, is a Palestinian from Arab East Jerusalem. Every day this month, however, they’re going sailing together off the Maine coast, as a part of a newly-established peace camp for teenagers.
“Here it’s like I’m talking to a normal friend, not like an Israeli,” Milena says. As a Palestinian, Melina says her day-to-day encounters with Israelis are more likely to be at security checkpoints than at sailing clubs.
Melina’s Israeli friend May can’t wait to get afloat. “I’m excited, I’m glad. It’s a whole new experience—I’ve never sailed in my life,” May says.
The two girls are part of a group of 15 teenagers—a mixture of Israeli, Palestinian and American youths—learning how to sail at the first ever Seas of Peace camp. It’s a new program modeled on the successful Seeds of Peace summer camp, where youths from the world’s conflict zones come together to learn leadership skills and engage in discussions about how to work for peace back home.
But rather than being camped in the Maine woods, these teenagers are in the Atlantic Ocean. They were chosen from a pool of some 50 applicants, all of whom have already completed the Seeds of Peace summer camp.
Before they leave dry land, they have to learn a few basics of nautical knowledge: what a halyard is, what a capstan is, and most importantly, how to steer.
“We’re in the boat, and suddenly I see a rock in up front of me. I do not want to hit the rock, or the boat or anything else, so we’ve got to get out of the way,” instructs program director and co-founder David Nutt of Boothbay, a former counselor at the Seeds of Peace camp, and a highly qualified yachtsman.
“Seas of Peace is for second-year campers to come back to the U.S. to continue some of the conversations that they began when they were first year campers at Seeds of Peace,” Nutt says. “And these kids have shown great potential back in their home countries, deserved another chance to continue meeting together, talking together and that the sailing environment would be a great place for them to do so.”
The first 10 days of the camp are based in Portland, where students split up into groups of five and learn how to sail small boats in Casco Bay. After that it’s onto the 140-foot schooner, Spirit of South Carolina. Under the guidance of counselors, this diverse crew will sail down tha coast to Mount Desert Island, and back, going past Portland and onto Boston.
Nutt, who as a teenager spent six years sailing around the world with his family, says during this stage of the camp, especially, the youths will have to rely on each other.
“On the bigger sailboat you’ve to trust that while you’re sleeping, somebody else is running the boat in a safe manner, keeping watch; you’ve got to trust that the cooking is going to get done, that the cleaning is going to get done. And if anybody isn’t a member of that big team the whole thing is going to fall apart.”
Against this backdrop, students hold two 90-minute dialog sessions a day talking about who they are, and where they come from. They’ll also learn about chart-plotting and celestial navigation. First though, they need to be able to hoist a sail, and know how to change direction in a 15-foot sailing dinghy.
Sailors sing: “Haul away your halyard lines, set forth for calmer seas. We’re sailing for a better world with room for you and me. Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me.”
Less than an hour into their first session on the water, and this crew of two Israelis, one Palestinian and two Americans has become a team.
“It’s an amazing camp, Seas of Peace,” says Gabby, left, who is from the Israeli community of Ashkelon, next to the Gaza Strip.
After completing the Seeds of Peace camp last year, Gabby says it was difficult taking the camp’s message of peace and toleration back to his home neighborhood, which had been under frequent rocket attack from militias inside the Gaza Strip. “It’s hard because they said, ‘Oh you go to the other side, you passed to the other side and now you support them and not us.’”
“It’s easy to say we’re all the same, we all want peace, but what that actually means in operation is a completely different thing,” says Carrie O’Neill, a professional educator and one of the two facilitators at the camp charged with overseeing the dialogue sessions.
“So I think that as we go, we’re really going to be challenging notions of sameness, of having the same ideology as people from your own community, and really encouraging them to talk to each other from personal experience, as opposed to the Israeli or Palestinian experience.”
Since these teenagers were last in Maine, monumental events have overtaken much of the Arab world, with popular uprisings Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and many other countries. Sixteen-year-old Palestinian Milena says she’s both excited and apprehensive following the “Arab Spring.”
“A lot of changes are happening, so we’re all, like, we want to know what’s going to happen next, like what happened in Egypt and Libya and all that,” says May from Tel Aviv. “So we’re just excited to know what’s happening next.”
May says the events of the Arab Spring have left many Israelis fearful, especially over the future of the 32-year-old peace treaty with Egypt. But she says she’s determined to remain optimistic. “It makes more sense to be hopeful because it gives you nothing to be concerned,” she says.
These kids will go their separate ways when they return home next month. May is due to join the Israeli army in October for her compulsory two years of military service. She says she relishes the challenge of serving her country in uniform while at the same time being an ambassador for peace.