BY ERIN BLOCK | WASHINGTON What is only a dream for most of those living in the Middle East became a reality for about 170 of the region’s youth. For the past three weeks, the Seeds of Peace camp has helped forge peaceful dialogue and even friendships between teens from conflicting nations.
Campers traveled from Egypt, Tunisia, Cyprus, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Qatar, Jordan and across the United States to rural Maine for the camp.
Seeds of Peace is an organization working to dissolve animosity between nations in conflict by bringing together young people from both sides. The organization builds peace through people-to-people contact, giving the “other” an actual face and name.
“Talking, listening and understanding the other side is a rare opportunity that I might not experience again. This camp is not a regular camp. This camp is different because of its value. It’s different because of its quality, and it’s different for its strong purpose,” said Tomer, a member of the Israeli delegation.
Campers were welcomed to the State Department for a reception on August 10. Talking about their experiences with fellow Seeds and State Department officials, the campers vowed to continue their work toward peace when they return home.
“I am going home stronger and wiser thanks to all of my fellow campers. I know that it’s not going to be easy because when I go home I will still be in a country that is separated in two. But I know that people through Seeds of Peace are continuing to try. And I am going home to make a change,” said Natalia, a member of the Cypriot delegation.
One camper hopes to return to his homeland, Qatar, and open a Seeds of Peace office.
“It won’t be easy, but if you believe in something you have to work hard. I believe in peace and I will work hard to achieve it,” said Nasser, a member of the Qatari delegation.
Aaron Miller, the organization’s President, urged the campers to inspire their family and friends and community using school presentations and working within the community.
“There is no more important group than all of you seeds,” said Miller, who is also a former State Department official who worked on the Arab/Israeli conflict.
Secretary of State Colin Powell also addressed the group. He thanked the Seeds for beginning the road toward peace and doing what no “parchment treaty between governments” can do. “Real, lasting peace will spring from the transformed hearts of human beings,” said Powell. “When people share the ideas and feelings that make them human, when they laugh together, even when they argue face to face, then peace has a chance because dialogue is underway.”
At the Seeds of Peace International Camp youth live together in cabins, share meals, have numerous dialogue sessions, known as “coexistence sessions,” and participate in other activities such as group challenges, arts programs and a cultural night. Coexistence sessions helped the campers talk about difficult issues.
“The dialogue sessions were most interesting because you heard the other side and saw from their point of view. I now look at things differently because I remember how they see it,” said Yael Israeli, a member of the Israeli delegation.
Firaas Deak, a Palestinian-American and member of the U.S. delegation said that dialogue sessions helped create a picture, a “day in the life” of each member in his coexistence group.
“I could see both sides of the situation and understand what all of us actually go through,” said Deak.
The group challenge activities, an aside to coexistence sessions, were the most rewarding for Moran Danieli, a Seed from the Israeli Delegation. During these sessions, groups participate in challenges, such as rope climbing, to help reinforce trust, team spirit, cooperation, and communication. The group challenges help to strengthen bonds between coexistence group members.
“When my coexistence group would do a mission together, we had to be united,” said Danieli. “One time the challenge was to climb up a 30-foot cable. I was climbing up with a Palestinian girl and we were both scared, but we needed to get through it together. I needed to help her and she needed to help me.”
Color Games, often a favorite camp program, is the 3-day culminating event at the Seeds of Peace camp. The camp is divided into two multi-national teams, blue and green and they compete in a range of activities from sports and fine arts to music, drama and cooking contests.
“I saw people trusting each other, helping each other, and working side by side to achieve a common goal. We were all seeds, all humans and all part of the same group working together,” said Ismail Balma, a member of the Tunisian delegation.
Acting Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Patricia Harrison, addressing the Seeds of Peace delegates at the State Department, said “[Seeds of Peace] could just as well be called seeds of hope. The seeds that you all are hoping to plant are seeds of prosperity and freedom for the future.”
Seeds of Peace is a non-profit, non-political organization focused on building foundations of peace in regions of conflict. As of 2004, participants have come from the Middle East, the Balkans and South Asia.