BY RYAN LENZ | OTISFIELD, MAINE An Iraqi girl clung to a bat and waited nervously for the pitch. She had practiced running bases and knew the basics of the game. Her eyes widened, her shoulders tensed, and she swung. Campers at Seeds of Peace rose to their feet and cheered as she hit a grounder and rounded first base. A small barrier had fallen in the effort to teach the 15-year-old to play America’s favorite pastime.
Over the past 11 years, Seeds of Peace has focused on bringing together Israeli and Arab teenagers in search of common ground. This summer, the camp’s mission is expanding as American teens and their counterparts from Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia explore the rift between Arabs and Americans that widened after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“We asked ourselves in the early ’90s what would replace the Cold War? The answer came on a beautiful day in September 2001,” said Aaron David Miller, Seeds of Peace president. ”
But even before 9/11, the depths of misunderstanding between Arabs and Americans were profound.” Many of the camp’s activities are geared toward building teamwork and trust between cultures that are avowed enemies. For example, an exercise this summer linked two campers from countries at conflict for a “trust walk” in the woods. With one camper blindfolded, the two walked hand-in-hand over rough terrain with only one able to see what was ahead. Blindfolded campers had to rely on the other for every move.
Previous sessions brought together youths from India and Pakistan, Cypriot Turks and Greeks, and Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. Despite security restrictions—state troopers guard the entrances—the camp’s model remains: Give campers a glimpse at normalcy in a setting where nationalities mean nothing and policies pertain only to camp activities such as swimming, photography, soccer and dancing. Most of the time, thoughts of the U.S. military presence in Iraq seem far away during the daily routines of camp, but the campers’ fears come into the open in closed-door dialogue sessions and late night bunkhouse chats.
A Saudi Arabian teenager turns somber as he reflects on events following the terrorist attacks in the United States.
“I knew, from that moment on, whoever did that is fighting in the name of Islam,” said 15-year-old Abdullellah Osama Darandary. “And every time I come to America and say I’m a Saudi, people are kind of shaken inside. That’s why I have this fear inside of me.”
Being questioned about his nationality upon entering the United States added to Darandary’s fears, he said. But those fears dissolved at the camp.
As for the Iraqis, they were quiet at first, but soon talked openly about the fighting in Iraq and their fears of Americans.
“They’re talking more directly about life in war,” said Eva Gordon, a counselor who shares a room with one of the Iraqi girls.
Seeds of Peace staffers are protective of campers, especially the first contingent from Iraq: three girls. Fearing for their safety when they return to Iraq, they have requested they not be named or photographed.
“Their perception of their own security is everything,” said Miller, a former U.S. State Department adviser. “It forms everything that they will do from here.”
But the discussions don’t always center on international issues, said Ash Wright, 16, of San Diego, who shares a bunk with another Iraqi girl at camp. They talk about “what they do over there, and what we do over here.”
The session in Maine draws to a close at the end of summer, but the group will meet in Jordan next March for the second part of the program which focuses on giving Americans an Arab perspective.
Wright said she planned to attend next year’s session. “I feel no tension here at all. I feel no hate,” she said. “If this could be how the world was, we would have no problems at all.”