BY NORA BOUSTANY | Some of the students went out of curiosity, others did it on a whim, and a few had checked out the Web site. A group of 30 teenagers from six U.S. cities and six Arab countries attended summer camp for three weeks in the woods of Maine—and experienced a new perspective on one another.
The students, ages 15 to 17, were sponsored by the Washington-based organization Seeds of Peace. Aaron D. Miller, the group’s president, said the Beyond Borders program was a great success.
“Personal and transformational diplomacy is far more effective than any infomercial” or high-cost image-polishing campaigns, said Miller, a former State Department official who specialized in the Middle East.
There was a lot of discussion about hot-button issues, especially the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the war in Iraq.
Before they connected at summer camp, the students said, their opinions were often limited to impressions gleaned from the news media. They said the personal contact gave them a new outlook.
“The logic and need are apparent. Reliving September 11th and discussing it led to breakthroughs in understanding,” Miller said. “We all knew that people in America needed a new organizing principle after the Cold War was over. This became evident on a beautiful day in September 2001. The need is there; the cost of not doing something is there.”
One of the participants, Patrick Salvo, 16, of Long Island, N.Y., said he watched the towers of the World Trade Center burn and collapse from his classroom window.
“As an American from New York, my goal was to meet people and see where they were coming from,” he said of his experience at camp in a telephone interview this week. “It was all a blur before. I had a lot of misconceptions.”
One student from Yemen, Amal Mutawakkel, 17, said she wanted to visit the United States to explore new things. She came away knowing more about herself, she said, and appreciating “the kindness and self-confidence” of Americans.
“I never imagined we would all become so close. We can really be friends,” she said. “I learned to listen. I thought the war on Iraq should not have happened, and I still do, but it was still interesting to talk it over.”
She said the camping experience brought a sense of adventure. “I learned how to try, even if it was something I could not do,” she explained.
The activities involved team competitions. In one event, the students were blindfolded and had to walk in the woods with the help of teammates; in another, they walked across wires suspended above the ground; in another, they competed in relay races.
Organizers described the competitions as “physical dialogue” aimed at breaking down walls of distrust. “It took them out of their comfort zones,” said Rebecca Hankin of Seeds of Peace. She said competitive games and intense activities work to break down national identities and build bonds of friendship.
“I just want to say one thing,” said Abdulellah Darandary, a 15-year-old Saudi. “Before I came, I knew many Saudis hated Jews. Israel had given Jewish people a bad name. This is the first time I met a Jewish person, in my bunk. We laughed and talked and listened to music.”
“I will tell my classmates” at home, Darandary said. “I know they will take me seriously.”
Ahmad Shammri, 16, from Kuwait, said his experience taught him to view things from other perspectives. He said he had written in his application essay that al-Jazeera, the Arab television network, was not his source of news and information. He suspects, he said, that was one reason he was chosen to attend the camp.
But Shammri said he came to the United States with firm convictions about Jews. “Kuwaitis think war is the solution: If we provide more guns and have more armies, we can get Palestine back. But violence just brings more violence,” he said. “I have come away with one thing: I should challenge that.”
“Our cultures may be different, but there are not so many differences as some make it out to be,” said Samantha Sevilla, 15, of Chicago. Sevilla said she had never met an Arab before and wanted to find out if the stereotypes were true. “I learned that I need to see things for myself. It was really eye-opening.”
Seeds of Peace has sponsored previous student encounters with youngsters from other conflict areas—Arabs and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, Greeks and Turkish Cypriots. Organizers said they plan to conduct a program in Jordan next year to follow up this year’s program, with some of the same students.