Seeds of Peace is a non-governmental organization bringing young people together from conflict areas around the world. Founded by John Wallach in 1993, and based in New York, USA, Seeds of Peace initially brought together 46 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers to promote understanding, trust and empathy as well as to develop the conflict resolution and leadership skills needed to move reconciliation and coexistence forward in the Israeli-Arab conflict. The project soon expanded and to date has included over 3,000 young people from nations throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, South Asia and the United States.
Jason Francis interviewed journalist and author Janet Wallach, the president of Seeds of Peace, for Share International. This is the first part of that interview.
Share International: How does a young person enter the Seeds of Peace program and what does the program involve?
Janet Wallach: In most countries, potential participants are selected by their schools. There is usually an interview process and students must meet several requirements: we look for youngsters ages 14 to 16 who speak English, are leaders in their schools and communities, and are interested in meeting with the ‘other side’. Once they are chosen and accepted, they are invited to join their country’s delegation and spend three weeks at our camp in Maine, USA. The experience is challenging and stimulating for the teenagers, who come from opposite sides of a conflict region and find themselves living together in the same cabins, playing sports, eating meals, and participating in daily 90-minute dialogue sessions with their ‘enemy’. The key to all of this is getting to know the other and, in the process, getting to know oneself. This is a transformational experience which has a profound effect on everyone – campers, counselors, facilitators, delegation leaders – who takes part.
SI: Delegations from roughly 20 nations attend the Seeds of Peace program. How does it organize interactions among so many different national identities?
JW: The Seeds are organized at camp by their regions of conflict. For example, some bunks are for Israelis and Arabs, others are for Indians and Pakistanis. The dialogue sessions are also arranged by regional conflict, but sports and other activities sometimes include all campers. The highlight of the summer is Color Games, the camp Olympics, in which the entire camp is divided into two multinational teams, Green and Blue, to compete in every camp activity. Color Games encourages a co-operative spirit that rises above national and regional identities. In fact, many Seeds put their team color at the bottom of their email to identify themselves. The end of Color Games is a great celebration for everyone and a recognition of the power of being a Seed.
SI: How have the young people changed through participating in your program?
JW: Some youngsters come to camp because they are curious about the ‘enemy’. Others come because they are angry, hurt, frustrated and apprehensive and want to let their enemies know how they feel. These, of course, are the people who are most changed by the experience. Getting to know the other side and learning that your worst enemy is someone very much like you is an eye-opening experience that makes you rethink your perceptions and your understanding of yourself. One of our Seeds expressed it well when she said: “You have to go to war with yourself before you can make peace with your enemy.” For many of the Seeds, going home is more difficult than coming to camp. Although they have undergone a profound change, those at home have not, and the feelings of the Seeds are different and at variance with those of their friends and families, and even their teachers. Our staff are there on the ground to support them: we offer the Seeds the opportunity to talk about these problems with each other through email, workshops, peer group meetings, parent meetings and meetings with delegation leaders. We also encourage them to participate in service programs, which help establish their credibility in their own communities. It is important that they demonstrate the Seeds of Peace values of trust, respect and tolerance towards their own people before they talk about demonstrating these values towards the ‘enemy’.