BY GEORGE SARRINIKOLAOU | NEW YORK Having taken on the task of “Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders,” a private, not-for-profit organization in the United States is preparing to offer its services for the first time to 40 Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot teenagers later this summer.
Founded in 1993, the organization, Seeds of Peace, brings together teenagers from conflict-ridden areas, such as the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, at a summer camp in Otisfield, Maine. The camp, described in the organization’s literature as a total coexistence experience, tries to get kids to “develop listening/negotiation skills, empathy, respect, confidence and hope.” Representatives from the organization said their goal is to dispel hatred and stereotypes among kids and develop a sense of trust from which peace can emerge. The teenagers from Cyprus, ages 13-16, are scheduled to spend two weeks at the camp beginning July 2, 1998.
Although Seeds of Peace has depended on private support for its programs, the camp for Cypriot teenagers has drawn strong US government backing. Vice President Al Gore first suggested the idea for such a camp at a meeting with the then Greek Minister of Education George Papandreou, at a meeting in the White House three years ago. Mr. Papandreou, who ended up sending his son to the summer camp in 1995, began promoting the program among Greeks. But Seeds of Peace did not become widely known in Cyprus until the spring of 1997, when John Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace, spoke about the organization during a television interview that aired throughout the Middle East. The broadcast aired on WorldNet, a network funded by the US Information Agency, an arm of the State Department.
Mr. Wallach said that, after his interview, it was the American ambassador to Cyprus, Kenneth C. Brill, who proposed to the Cyprus Fulbright Commission that it fund a Seeds of Peace camp for Cypriot teenagers. Despite the role that various US officials played in making camp for Cypriot teenagers a reality, there is only a “marginal amount of involvement” by the US government in the actual running of the camp, said Christine Covey, vice president of Seeds of Peace. When her organization submitted the proposal for this camp, said Ms. Covey, the program was described as it would be, free of official interference. “We wouldn’t run it any other way,” Ms. Covey said.
But in the highly polarized conflict on Cyprus, the United States is not a disinterested player. The United States has been actively involved in mediating between the Greek and Turkish communities and has proposed ways to resolve the Cyprus problem. Seeds of Peace is honoring the US official currently heading those efforts, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, at a fundraising event on April 26. Not unlike the Seeds of Peace approach, the United States has been trying to get both sides in Cyprus to get over past differences and focus on a peaceful future.
“We don’t tell children what the history is or what they should believe,” said Ms. Covey. Children come to the program, she explained, with different perceptions of reality. The camp tires to find the small space where those two perceptions overlap and tries to build on that common ground.
“We don’t get into the politics,” said Mr. Wallach. “We try to give them some tools, so that when they get older they can resolve conflict without resorting to violence.”
Those tools emerge, said Seeds of Peace representatives, during shared living and eating, sports and performance activities at the camp. For the kids, those activities, Ms. Covey explained, “humanize” their perceived adversaries. Each day ends with a so called “coexistence meeting,” run by professional facilitators, during which participants discuss the issues that separate them back home. The camp culminates with the “Color Games,” a kind of mini-Olympics made up of two mixed teams. By the end of the competition, explained Ms. Covey, kids come to identify not with their ethnic group but with their team’s color.
Seeds of Peace tries to sustain the progress made at camp by establishing programs in the areas where the teenagers live. The organization has not yet determined how it will follow up on this summer’s camp. But in the case of Arab and Israeli teenagers, Seeds of Peace has helped establish an email network among camp participants and has helped organize a high school newspaper that is jointly published by Israeli and Palestinian students. We are “not turning them into peaceniks, but developing a culture of peace,” said Ms. Covey.