In mid-July, a teenager I had worked with for three weeks asked me if I knew where he was from. I thought Gaza, but I didn’t know for sure. I knew Mohammad* was Israeli or Palestinian or maybe Egyptian. I knew he wasn’t afraid of heights, that he was 15 or 16, and that he was a whiz on the ropes course once he got over being too cool to play games. But I wasn’t sure that he was from Gaza, and the answer to his second question—“Do you know what it’s like there?”—I knew for sure I didn’t know.
I don’t know what it’s like to live in Gaza, or Kabul, or Mumbai, or Jerusalem, or any of the cities the campers at Seeds of Peace International Camp call home. Seeds of Peace deliberately brings together kids who have grown up to hate each other. As a counselor at the camp in Otisfield, Maine, I wasn’t surprised to hear sharply contrasting stories about family histories and daily routines. What surprised me was realizing, through rest-hour conversations and heated debates on the ropes course, how different each of my camper’s sense of home is from my own.
Leaving home for three weeks on a visa secured by Seeds of Peace gave Mohammad only a momentary sense of possibility. He wasn’t the only camper who had left home for the first time this summer, or the only one for whom the end of the sentence “I am from …” means not only the place he lives now, but also the place he expects to start a career and a family.
I have never felt bound to one place. Talking to Mohammad, who can’t leave Gaza, and Deepa, a camper who wrote to me that she was “disallowed from applying to college abroad” because her parents believe there’s too much important work to be done in India, made me realize how much I have been shaped by a breathtaking sense of mobility, how much my sense of who I am comes not only from where I am, but also from the fact that I choose to be there.
DALIA: If you’re a soldier at a checkpoint and someone tells you to shoot me, will you shoot?
DALIA: But if you were ordered to? Would you disobey?
Dan didn’t answer Dalia’s question. Dalia is 15 and Palestinian. To her, checkpoints are routine. Dan, like nearly every Israeli teenager, will serve in the army when he turns eighteen. I didn’t hear their conversation. I didn’t hear Dalia ask Dan if he would shoot her. I didn’t see the look on Dalia’s face when Dan paused, or the one on hers when, minutes and conversations later, he answered.
DAN: No, I would disobey.
She said she didn’t believe him, and the dialogue session ended, and they left the wooden cabin where every day for two hours, teenagers from the Middle East who have taken enough of a chance on peace to come to a coexistence camp in Maine talk to each other.
Talking is harder than they thought it would be when they left home.
The day after Dalia asked Dan if he would shoot her, I led their dialogue group on the ropes course. I handed Dalia a blindfold and asked her to tie it over her eyes. I told her Dan would take her hand and lead. After hearing from the dialogue facilitators about Dalia and Dan’s conversation, my co-facilitator and I decided to put kids who didn’t like each other in pairs and have them lead each other blindfolded. “Trust walks” are done in ropes courses across the country. But though I helped plan it, I thought the whole activity sounded silly. What did leading someone through the woods for five minutes have to do with trust?
That was easy for me to say. I don’t trust everyone I meet to give me good directions, or to keep me safe from speeding cars or petty crime. But I trust that the people with whom I interact don’t want me to get hurt.
Dalia didn’t grow up with that expectation. Half of the teenagers in the group raised their hand when my co-facilitator asked at the end of the activity, who peeked? When I asked why, one girl said she didn’t want to get hurt. Dalia said she peeked at first, but after a few minutes she started keeping her eyes closed, because Dan hadn’t led her into a tree.
Something felt different the next time we led that group on the ropes course. The kids I’d paired because they came from opposite sides of the conflict, or because they fought in the bunk or in dialogue, hadn’t suddenly become best friends. One activity on a ropes course doesn’t do that. But the trust walk, which originally seemed silly, did change how Dalia saw Dan. She said in dialogue the next day that Dan didn’t lead her into a tree, and that if someone told him to, she thinks he wouldn’t shoot her.
I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that I asked more than I realized of Dalia and Dan and all the teenagers I worked with this summer. I asked them to do something that’s easy when you’ve grown up safe and scary when you’ve grown up knowing you have something to fear: close your eyes and let someone else take the lead. Trust someone else to keep you safe.
On Breaking News
At the end of bunk cleanup in August of 2010, Saadia burst into Bunk Three and said something to Amira in Arabic. My cocounselor asked them to speak in English, Amira told her to go to hell, and Amira and Saadia dashed out of the bunk. I followed the two campers outside and learned that there had been more casualties in Gaza, and a rocket had just landed in Jordan, 30 meters from a camper named Dara’s home.
“It would be better if I were there,” Dara told me after speaking to her parents on the phone, but she couldn’t explain why she wanted to be in Jordan right then. Maybe because if you’re not home you can’t know for sure that the people you love are okay, and more than safety, you want comfort and familiarity. Maybe because you feel guilty for being so safe when the people who matter most to you in the world are in danger, and it feels crazy to be waterskiing,or cleaning Bunk Three, or talking about a conflict as your family watches it unfold.
Does the safety of the Seeds of Peace campground feel scary at moments like this? It scares me that we spend three weeks helping kids feel safe, and then send themhome to places where danger is often inescapable. But the safety, even temporary, lets campers see a side of the violence they can’t at home: the way it affects people they’ve been taught to see as enemies. When violence erupts in the Middle East while kids are at camp, they see reactions on each others’ faces and not just the news on TV.
An Israeli camper told me at the end of three weeks at Seeds of Peace that her political opinions hadn’t changed, but she understood better the feelings behind what “the other side” says and does. She had caught a glimpse of what was behind thoughts and ideas that made her want to scream and seen that some of the core feelings weren’t so different from her own: caring about her family, missing home, wanting to feel safe.
On Going Home
Some Israeli campers had never met a Palestinian. A Palestinian refugee from Jenin whose bed was beside mine knew only the Israeli soldiers who sometimes stopped her from going to school. Israeli and Palestinian campers often pack their bags in bordering neighborhoods, a closeness that belies vastly different lives. Checkpoints often block the roads between campers’ houses.
My strongest memories from the two summers I spent at Seeds of Peace are of evenings in my bunk, trying to convince eight teenage girls to go to bed, or turning out the lights, waiting until the camp director thought my campers were asleep, and then sitting with them on the back steps, watching the reflection of stars in the lake. I remember nights when arguments about politics and land rights exploded, and everyone went to sleep upset, and nights when arguments turned into conversations about campers’ families, who they had lost, and how it felt to be here, living together beside a lake in Maine.
I hope my campers remember those moments, though I know that for them, bringing home memories of camp has not been easy. A Palestinian counselor told me that he didn’t tell his friends he had gone to Seeds of Peace until two years after his first summer as a camper there. He was afraid they would call him a traitor. Naira, a camper from Jordan, told me over Skype months after camp ended in 2009 that she didn’t know how to talk about her experiences at camp with people at home.
A camper from 1996 who returned as a facilitator in 2010 didn’t sugarcoat his “life after camp” speech on the last day of camp. “Being here will make your life harder,” he said to kids who were chosen for the qualities that will only make it more difficult for them to go home: they care about their communities and ask a lot of themselves. Possibility flourishes at camp. Counselors decide to lead a camp-wide swim across the lake, and they make it happen. Second-year campers want to organize interfaith dialogue, and they have each other and the counselors, and they make it happen. But campers don’t have the same resources at home. When a 15-year-old breaks down at camp because caring about “the other side” is so hard and goes against everything he’s been raised to believe, there are people there to say it’s worth it. When the same thing happens at home, there are people there to say, well, maybe what you started to feel at camp was wrong. Just be here. Don’t worry so much about changing the world.
On the bus from the Logan Airport to the campground in Otisfield, Maine, in 2010, Naira, who had been one of fifty campers selected to return for a second summer, told me she almost didn’t come back. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go through it all again, learning to live at camp and then going home.
There are lively follow-up seminars in the Middle East and Facebook pages with multi-lingual conversation threads, but I learned from campers that once you leave Maine, you’re treading on different ground. You sometimes feel like you’re letting down everyone you met at camp, like you haven’t changed anything. Even you—you’re not as changed as you’d imagined. You want to live up to whatever kernel of capability someone saw in you that made them choose you for Seeds of Peace, to live up to who you felt you were there: more able to listen to people say things you hate, or more outspoken, fierier, more willing to say what you believe.
Two years after he returned from Seeds of Peace, the counselor who put away his Seeds shirt when he got home from camp started talking about his experience there. He told his friends about the friends he made. He talked about Seeds at school. He wears his Seeds of Peace shirt at home, and he’s glad he does, but it hasn’t been easy, and it won’t be easy for any 2010 campers if they choose to take that harder path. Then they have to figure out how to stick with their beliefs once they’re home, to work for peace without hurting themselves.
*Names have been changed to protect camper’s privacy.
Emma Sokoloff-Rubin ’11 is a History major in Timothy Dwight College.
Read Emma Sokoloff-Rubin’s article at The Yale Globalist »