A unique camp in Otisfield shows kids from around the world they’re all pretty much alike
BY JEFF CLARK | At a time when the drums of war echo from the Balkans to the Bay of Bengal, from southern Sudan to Kabul, Barbara “Bobbie” Gottschalk doesn’t see herself being out of a job anytime soon. And she hates that thought.
Gottschalk is the executive vice president for Seeds of Peace, the organization that each year brings hundreds of young people from opposite sides of conflicts all over the world to the shores of Pleasant Lake in Otisfield, Maine, to meet the enemy and learn that he or she has a name and a face.
“We’re at a point in our civilization where we can annihilate all human beings or learn to get along with all human beings,” Gottschalk says. “I don’t see annihilation as an option. Seeds of Peace is.”
Seeds of Peace is a unique concept, the inspiration of a distinguished journalist named John Wallach who realized that the only path to peace in the future led through the hearts and minds of youngsters today. For three weeks Israelis and Arabs, Turks and Greeks, Pakistanis and Indians eat together, play together, share the same bunkhouses and homesickness together. And they talk together in daily, structured—and often emotional—”coexistence sessions” with trained counselors and in casual conversations over breakfast pancakes.
The program can be disconcerting for youngsters who have been told their entire lives that they must hate someone for being Palestinian or Bosnian or Greek. “I think the process of humanizing the conflict shakes them,” Wallach told reporter Morley Safer four years ago in an interview for “60 Minutes.” “If you begin to know your enemy, if you begin to hear your enemy, if you begin to understand your enemy, it’s inevitable that you will begin to feel some empathy.”
And for Wallach, who died of cancer in July, Maine was the only place that could happen. “The state of Maine is ideal for this. We’re back to basics. We’re in the world God created,” Wallach told Safer. “You couldn’t do this [over] there. One side or the other would be dominant. You have to have a neutral, safe, supportive environment.”
These days the camp that has worked so well to bring traditional foreign enemies together is also helping smooth rough relations right here in Maine. For the past three years Seeds of Peace has included sessions for local and immigrant teenagers from Portland and Lewiston, cities with growing refugee communities, as Mainers come to terms with the arrival of newcomers from Somalia, Sudan, Central America, and other exotic parts of the globe.
“It’s very rare to have the opportunity to work on a project that ultimately could make a difference in the world,” muses Merle Nelson, of Falmouth, a member of Seeds of Peace national board. “I’m proud Maine is part of this.”
The genesis of Seeds of Peace has become part of the organization’s lore. The February 1993 World Trade Center bombing left Wallach, an award-winning veteran foreign correspondent who had broken major stories on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Middle East, severely shaken. He had written several books about the Middle East, including a biography of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Wallach decided that peace had to start among the young, because hatred was already too deeply ingrained among their parents. At an A-list Washington dinner party in March 1993 honoring Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, Wallach rose to make a toast and announced that Peres had agreed to send a group of Israeli teenagers to a summer camp devoted to finding peace and understanding between Arabs and Jews. He challenged the Egyptian ambassador, who was sitting at the same table, to match the offer. The diplomat had no choice—he said yes. Wallach promptly called the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington with the news and got him to agree to send Palestinian youngsters from Gaza and the West Bank. Just to make sure no one backed out when the afterglow faded, Wallach called a press conference the next day and announced the establishment of Seeds of Peace with ground rules that continue today.
Each country can choose its own campers, but no country can help underwrite the camp. The program’s $4-million annual budget comes from private fund-raising efforts. Seeds is strictly nonpolitical, a stance so firm and so respected that even when the PLO and the Israelis aren’t talking to each other, they talk to Seeds of Peace and continue to send children. Nor is Seeds of Peace affiliated with the United Nations or traditional “peace” groups. “It’s very important that this is not seen as some left-wing peace organization,” Wallach once said. “We’re not here to plant a tree, sing a song, and call it peace.”
That first summer in 1993 forty-five boys (girls began attending the next year)—twenty Israelis, fifteen Palestinians, and ten Egyptians—attended the first Seeds of Peace camp at Camp Powhatan in Otisfield. Wallach’s son Michael had spent several idyllic summers at Powhatan, and owner Joel Bloom quickly agreed to host the Seeds program.
Along with the camp came camp director Timothy Wilson, a former football coach, a member of the cabinets of Governors Ken Curtis, James Longley, and Joseph Brennan, and an all-around supporter of youth causes. “I had no expectations initially,” Wilson recalls. “I was there to run a camp. I’d been in the Middle East back when I was in the Peace Corps, but that had been a long time ago.”
Even today, ten years later, Wilson says his commitment to the project “has to do with my commitment to kids. I don’t know what countries the kids come from and I don’t care. My main interest is, I want them to have the best experience possible and to go away with respect for everyone else. They don’t have to be friends with everyone, but they do have to have respect.”
One of the original 1993 campers, Tamer Mahmoud, of Cairo, recalls that he arrived in Maine with plans to become an architect. When he left, it was with the determination to go into Middle Eastern politics. “Seeds of Peace extended my horizon,” he recalls. “It made me realize that as much as I could detest the Israeli government, I could still have an Israeli as a friend.”
Mahmoud has returned every year since, first as a camper (repeat visits are not uncommon) and then as a counselor and administrator. “I’ve made Israeli friends I wouldn’t have made anywhere else,” he explains. “We don’t always agree — we argue and tease each other all the time — but we realize that we can still be friends.”
Next summer’s Seeds of Peace sessions will be the first in ten years that Mahmoud will miss. He has a good excuse. In August, he went to work in Washington, D.C., for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the years since that first summer at Powhatan—which Seeds of Peace bought in the mid-1990s—more than 2,000 teens from twenty-one countries have conquered their own doubts, centuries of fear and mistrust, and a world’s worth of jet lag to find common ground in Maine. It isn’t easy. Each camper is chosen by his or her home government and goes through an application and interview process before being accepted. Potential campers are judged by their leadership qualities and fluency in English, the only language allowed at the camp.Wallach knew then and Seeds’ leaders today recognize that means that, at least initially, many of the young teens are well-educated true believers in their nations’ causes largely drawn from the top echelons of their societies. As the governments gain experience with the program, the selection process generally becomes more democratic and broader-based. It also means that many of today’s campers are tomorrow’s leaders. “We know a lot of them are going to be senators and presidents and leaders in other areas,” says Timothy Wilson.
He isn’t referring only to the campers from overseas, either. The Maine youngsters who attend the camp go through the same selection process, and after three years Wilson sees them already moving into leadership positions in their high schools. “There are kids in this state who are future Olympia Snowes, future Maine governors coming out of the Seeds of Peace program,” he observes.
Breaking down the prejudices starts with the first night, when exhausted new arrivals are shocked to find they are expected to sleep within a few feet of someone they have been raised to see as a mortal enemy. Some refuse to close their eyes that first night, fearing they’ll be attacked if they doze off. Over the next three weeks, they both learn and unlearn a great deal about the other side. They cheer for each other in sports, they shout at each other—at least initially—in the coexistence sessions where each side explains and defends and ultimately understands, and they complain about the food and the bugs together. “And just three weeks later, many have undergone profound changes,” Wallach wrote in his book, The Enemy Has a Face, published two years before he died. “They stay up talking until the last hours. They tell each other their closest secrets. They e-mail back and forth constantly once home. They are now friends with those who once were their enemies, and spokespeople for a peace they once dismissed.”
Wallach called it “making just one friend.” Others call it subverting the dominant paradigm, the prevailing mindset. It’s a strategy that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the homelands of the young campers.
“I’m always surprised by the continual criticism we hear that Seeds of Peace brainwashes kids,” Wilson says. “We get criticism from every side in the countries that send us children. Maybe it’s only natural when you have a large group of people of a particular persuasion who feel that Seeds of Peace threatens their views and their ability to pass those views down to the next generation.”
In their last week the campers receive special training in how to deal with friends and families and communities who will criticize and challenge the attitudes they learn at Seeds of Peace. “My parents used to say if you’re doing good things, you are always going to be criticized,” Wilson says. “You need to develop a thick enough skin to keep going.”
And perseverance. In the face of current events, with war and rumors of war on every front page, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed. “I don’t get discouraged,” Bobbie Gottschalk insists. “Most of our Seeds [as graduate campers are called] are out on a limb. They’re unusual in their families, their communities, and their schools. They’re teased and taunted and accused of being traitors. If they can keep going, I should be able to as well.”
Gottschalk sees a future where Seeds of Peace is needed more than ever. “Each year we’ve grown faster and expanded more than we felt we would,” she says, noting that Seeds now operates a Middle East office and year-round program as well as maintaining offices in New York and Washington, D.C., plus a website where former Seeds can stay in contact with each other. At three sessions every summer, the former Camp Powhatan in Otisfield is at capacity, and Gottschalk is already wondering if one of the four other summer camps on Pleasant Lake might become available soon. She wants to preserve that Maine mystique.
Peggy Golden, owner of Greenhut Gallery in Portland’s Old Port, became a supporter of Seeds of Peace in 1996 when Wallach came into her shop to inquire about a painting in the window. “I didn’t sell him on the painting, but he sure sold me on Seeds,” Golden recalls.
She is still moved by the memory of a coexistence session between Palestinian and Israeli children she listened in on last summer. “One of the boys said being in Maine was like being in a fairy tale, that it wasn’t real life,” she says. “One of his friends said, ‘No, it’s our lives that aren’t real. This is the way life is supposed to be.’ ”
Over the years, Seeds of Peace and John Wallach have created a critical mass of dedicated and talented young people. “The key word is seed,” head counselor Wil Smith points out. “Even if the camp were to close tomorrow, that seed is sown. Many of these kids will grow up to become leaders in their nations, in business and politics and education. I hope they remember these times and I hope they remember these people in Maine. I hope they make a difference.”
Wallach had a favorite fantasy that he once shared with Timothy Wilson: “He said he hoped that one day in the future there would be a world summit meeting at the camp in Otisfield, and that all the leaders of the countries at the summit were former Seeds of Peace campers. I mean, can you imagine …”