OTISFIELD | The 25th year of the international camp, Seeds of Peace, kicked off Sunday morning with raising flags of every nation represented, singing campers’ national anthems and hearing from camp Director Leslie Lewin.
Their three-week experience to sow seeds of peace, she said, would be a “powerful, difficult, beautiful journey.”
It will include dialogue, leadership development and relationship-building across lines of conflict among the more than 180 campers from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, India, Pakistan and the United States. They range in age from 14 to 17 years old.
The ceremony began with waves of campers, linked arm in arm, singing loudly as they walked from the facilities on Pleasant Lake to the front gate on Powhattan Road to raise flags and sing, including the Seeds of Peace anthem.
“Ah, the bunk-bonding has commenced,” Eric Kapenga, communications specialist for the camp, said.
The flag raising, he said, takes place outside the camp gate, because inside the camp, all campers leave where they came from behind. There are no political or religious symbols, and everyone must wear the same camp shirt.
“We want them to focus on each other’s faces, and their humanity,” Kapenga said.
The “bunk-bonding” was evident, even though the campers had only known each other for less than 48 hours. The connections made in that short time were obvious, as they stood, arms linked, respecting each other unconditionally.
It was that bonding and making those connections that brought campers such as Ariel back to Seeds of Peace for another year. He is a Jewish/Israeli “paradigm shifter,” a former camper who has had additional training and returns to be a mentor to first-time campers.
Ariel said in the first week of his first summer at Seeds of Peace, he and the other campers would argue facts during their once-a-day 110-minute dialogue sessions.
“But after a while, we started to share personal stories and make connections,” he said. “This is the one place you can say what you want and feel all the feelings you can feel,” he said.
Saying goodbye to each other and going home is the hardest part, the paradigm shifters agreed.
“It can be very isolating,” said Zeenia from India, who is spending her fifth summer at the camp and is now a counselor.
“We have these amazing conversations here, and then we go back home and those kinds of conversations aren’t happening,” she said.
But those types of challenges are what the campers are prepared for.
“As a Jordanian, it was amazing to see that coexistence is achievable, and it made me want to grow seeds of peace in others,” Natalie, a paradigm shifter, said.
The atmosphere of the ceremony reflected the camp’s goals and values — from the way the campers hugged each other and swayed arm in arm as they sang the Seeds of Peace anthem, to the love shown to the camp’s special international adviser and director, Tim Wilson, who has been with the program since its beginning.
The bonds formed between counselors and campers withstand many years and miles, and Ibrahim, a paradigm shifter from Egypt, said he knew he’d always come back to see those who changed his life.
“When I left last summer, I hugged each one of my counselors and I said, ‘I don’t know how yet, but I’ll see you again,’” Ibrahim said.