OTISFIELD, Maine | The nation’s divide has become bad enough that a camp created to help Arab and Israeli teens find common ground is putting an emphasis on hatred and violence in the U.S.
Officials at Seeds of Peace, a lakeside camp in the woods of Maine, thought things were bad when they made their decision to hold the special pilot program. Then came racial discord over police shootings and divisive political rhetoric.
“People are coming to the realization that this stuff doesn’t just happen all over the other side of the world. It’s happening here,” said 17-year-old camper Matt Suslovic of Portland.
Executive Director Leslie Lewin said the goal is to tackle deep-seated racism, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment, socio-economic issues, gender discrimination and LGBT issues through the sharing of personal stories and discussion.
That sounds like a tall order.
But camp officials say their formula of dialogue has worked since 1993, when Seeds of Peace first brought together Israeli and Palestinian teens.
The 67-acre camp has expanded its reach over the years, bringing in teenagers from other trouble spots such as Afghanistan, India, Bosnia and Pakistan.
The special session that began last week features teens from all religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds from Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Also participating are teens from Maine and Syracuse, New York, who’ve been coming to the camp for years.
The formula is the same: Each day, campers spend 110 minutes in dialogue sessions, where they share their stories, listen to fellow campers and try to understand each other. In their free time, they share in traditional summer camp activities like boating, swimming, games, drama, art and music.
Tim Wilson, who’s been with Seeds of Peace since the beginning, encourages campers to bite their tongues and listen to what others have to say.
“My father told me, ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason,’” he said in an oft-repeated phrase at camp.
It can be a bit disorienting at first.
The lush greenery and cool lake is just as foreign to big-city teenagers as it is for teenagers coming from the 120-degree heat of a Middle Eastern summer.
Kejuan Smith, 15, of Chicago, found himself plucked from his dangerous neighborhood and plopped in the woods where he was serenaded by coyotes on his first night.
Most teens leave feeling empowered—and wanting to return.
Salat Ali, whose parents are Somalian, said he quickly learned upon his arrival in Syracuse from a refugee camp at age 11 that things weren’t going to be perfect. He lived in a poor neighborhood, and others constantly picked fights with him.
But he found his voice at Seeds of Peace, and he’s returned as a counselor.
“I used to feel like I was by myself. Now people have my back. This is my renaissance,” said Ali, now 22 and attending college. “This is exactly the feeling I was looking for. These are the friends I wanted. These people make me feel like my family.”
Trang Nguyen, 15, also of Syracuse, said she remains optimistic despite episodes of hatred and the divisive rhetoric of the presidential campaign.
“If it can happen here on a small scale, then it’s possible on a larger scale,” she said. “There are a lot of messed up things, but it can change. This is living proof.”