BY LIZA GUTIERREZ | Hazem Zanoun clearly remembers his first, terrifying encounter with Israelis in 1997. “I was scared to fall asleep because my imagination led me to think the Israelis would try to hurt me,” he said.
He is not describing a confrontation in his homeland of Gaza, but his first night at a summer camp in the United States where he was bunking with Israeli teenagers. He laid with his back to the wall so that he could keep an eye on them, he said.
Zanoun was participating in a program sponsored by the Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit organization that brings teenagers from conflicting countries together to help ease tensions and foster friendships. Arab students, as well as Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, are united to cultivate cultural understanding and accomplish what their countries’ leaders have been unable to for decades.
Founder John Wallach, now deceased, created the organization after the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993. That summer, a group of more than 40 students from the Middle East came together at the campgrounds in Otisfield, Maine. The program has grown to include almost 500 participants in 2004, including a small percentage of Americans, which are divided among three camp sessions.
About 200 graduates from the first summer session ended their journey with a trip to Capitol Hill last week. They met National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Members of Congress to discuss their camp experience and present their hopes for the future.
Lionel Daich, a 16-year-old Israeli, said he thought he would attend camp to change the Palestinians’ perspectives. But his interaction with them made him re-evaluate his own views. Daich said the program helped open his eyes to the Palestinian struggle.
“It helps me want to negotiate more and find solutions,” he added.
The students were an inspiration for Seeds President Aaron David Miller when he worked as a Middle East peace negotiator for the State Department.
“During periods of intense negotiation and frustration, I would go to Maine to talk to the kids and re-energize myself,” Miller said.
It was amazing to watch them overcome differences in a way their leaders could not, Miller said. Campers learn leadership skills such as conflict-resolution and empathy, Miller said.
They also participate in coexistence sessions led by facilitators, where they learn more about each other and discuss controversial issues, Zanoun explained.
“It can get very emotional, and people end up crying or leaving the session,” Zanoun said. He added that students ultimately learn to work through it.
One student from Jordan who visited Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) raised some tough questions about the history of Arab-Israeli negotiations. Berman said he tries to limit the amount of time spent discussing history because each side has its own version of what happened. He added that those involved may not be able to reconcile the past, but they can try to reconcile the present and the future. Berman expressed hopes that in 10 or 20 years, these students will have some influence in their communities and chart a better course.
“I would like to believe that [the program] leaves a lasting impression with most of the participants,” he said.
According to Miller, 15 percent to 20 percent of the organization’s budget comes from federal money administered through Congressional appropriations. Other funding comes from private donations, corporations and foundations. Applicants are chosen by government leaders from their country based on their leadership potential.
“It’s really a process, not just a camp,” Miller said.
Some students continue to work at Seeds as peer advisers or camp counselors. Others participate in internship programs coordinated by Seeds when they enter college. Zanoun, now 21 and attending the University of Southern Maine, is interning on Capitol Hill to learn more about the U.S. political process.
Establishing connections with Israelis initially exposed Zanoun to harsh criticism from his friends back home. He said some of them thought he was collaborating with the Israelis and no longer believed in the Palestinian cause. Zanoun said he tried to convey to them that Israelis are “just like us”—they want to have families and live in peace and security.
The organization is starting a pilot program this summer that will focus on cross-cultural and political issues facing Arabs and Americans. About 20 adult leaders and educators from both ends of the spectrum will accompany a group of 60 students as they spend time in the United States and Jordan.