As seen on Medium on August 19, 2018
Describing Seeds of Peace as a place where the magic happens is an underestimation of the amount of mesmerizing work that occurs within the camp because magic isn’t real.
Nonetheless, the love seed that’s planted in every camper’s heart is the most authentic feeling a person can experience. That love seed is not only planted but also watered every day by all of those who attend camp, from directors and counselors to other seeds.
When talking to a friend of mine whom I met at Seeds of Peace, Nghi, a Syracuse seed, she was talking about her encounter with the undiscovered side of her life at Seeds. She said, “It was as if my life was a coin and I just found the other side of it.” Using such intriguing words, I felt the urge to ask, “How did you feel about the other side getting flipped?” Nghi answered my question with a struggle she’s facing that I have been trying to deal with as well as other seeds, “It feels weird now that I’m home. At camp, I’ve been thriving on that side, but now that I’m home it seems like I’m juggling between my old habits and my new ones; my old mindset and my new one. It’s like when people spin coins,” and I couldn’t feel anything but a strong, aggressive sense of agreement. Acknowledging the inspiration that came from Nghi’s sense of experience, I felt the motive to share my similar feeling about being back home, “The world feels colorless; it feels like if my heart was colorblind for all the colors except green and blue.” After our brief conversation, I knew for sure that the counselors were right when they said that they “will make this place [our] home.”
For those of you who don’t know Seeds of Peace, it’s an international camp that was founded by John Wallach in the intention of bringing together young leaders, especially those from Israel and Palestine, to unfold conflicts and find a civil way to talk about them and suggest solutions to those problems.
The camp was founded in 1993, when 46 campers attended Seeds of Peace from the United States, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel. Seeds celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017, and at the end of the 2018 second session, Seeds announced the completion of 7,000 alumni.
“I finally learned how to face my emotions, bring my opinions into the light and make friendships stronger than those ever before. It was life changing to be so vulnerable as I was, yet at the same time strengthened by the people around me in order to share my life story without censoring myself to what I thought society wanted to hear. Seeds of Peace gave me another home,” said Elsa DiGiovanni, a Maine seed.
As a first-year camper, I walked towards the coach bus going to Seeds with a nervous smile, sporty outfit, and heavy heart. I was thinking to myself during the approximately one hour drive to Lewiston, “Zainab, this is a big deal. Don’t screw it up!” At that time all I knew about Seeds was what I’d heard from the people around me. I still remember the minute I saw Sarah B. and Tim Wilson, current, and former camp directors, during the orientation in April I knew for a fact that this experience was going to be special. However, I was missing the emotional assurance of what life’s like at camp.
I was also frustrated because I was about to give Seeds my phone, and being without it for two and a half weeks was certainly a big deal for me. At that time I didn’t know that being without my phone was another factor of “the way life could be.”
I can picture myself waking up after a power nap to the Paradigm Shifters (PSs) teaching first-year campers Seeds of Peace chants on the bus, and how two minutes before our arrival they announced that first-year campers should get off the bus first because “the PSs have experienced this feeling during their first year.” I was thinking about what feeling they were talking about.
Minutes later, we arrived and people started getting off the bus. The second I put a foot into that place I felt a breeze of an enormous amount of love and happiness that I wasn’t ready for; a majestic feeling of the bodies around me dancing and singing. I was walking between a group of counselors who formed a line with their bodies, then Sarah, a counselor, and a lifeguard welcomed me with a smile and asked to take my backpack. I was worried that it was too heavy and I was asking her if she’s sure, but she answered me with an even bigger smile, “I’m sure. I’m happy to help,” and I thought to myself, “Apparently this is what it feels like to be at a peace camp: peaceful interaction and respectful communication.”
Today, on August 17th, I sit in my room writing this article, reflecting on what all of this meant. I’ve also been thinking about the differences in my life before and after camp, and many things come to mind. However, one difference has stood out to me: Now, I can taste, smell, see, touch, and feel the word peace whenever someone says it, while before camp it was only a word of five letters and one syllable. I can define peace from a different perspective, and instead of using Merriam-Webster to define it I can use my “experiences dictionary” to do so.
“Through dialogue SOP gave me the chance to understand that someone’s views and opinions may be different than my own views because of the experiences they’ve encountered, SOP also taught me a lot about neutral conflict and many spectrums revolving around gender, sexuality, and diversity,” Amina Salahou, a Syracuse seed said.
Seeds of Peace is a camp that focuses on personality and team building factors. However, its primary focus is unfolding conflicts during dialogue. Campers have two hours of dialogue every day, while PSs have dialogue all day long instead of going to activities that campers participate in besides having dialogue.
Dialogue is very much a safe space where campers can share their experiences. However, it’s a place where they can also stretch themselves mentally and step up; a place they can use as a learning platform to feel uncomfortable and be comfortable with that feeling.
Community norms are usually brainstormed on the first day of dialogue, and in my dialogue group, we needed to be reminded of those norms once or twice during the beginning. However, dialogue taught me in some way that those norms weren’t only a part of those two hours a day, but they instead became a habit that took part in our daily, breakfast conversations. Each norm became an action rather than remaining a sentence written on a brown paper that’s glued to a wall.
One of the most significant learning moments for me that resulted from dialogue is that those two hours are dialogue hours, not debate hours. Acknowledging such fact made it easier for me as a participant in dialogue to only discuss the issues, share my opinions, and present my side instead of trying to convince others that I am right.
My dialogue facilitators also taught me that now is the moment. They taught me that whatever I think and whatever I want to say now is the most important. As a person, I am vulnerable when my thought is still fresh and newly generated which makes it the most honest. I remember them asking us, “What’s alive to you now?” And I’m beyond grateful they put that emphasis on the “now,” because my experience wouldn’t have been the same if I wasn’t straightforward with those around me and honest with myself.
I always felt that dialogue was the mood-setter of the day. For instance, if I was frustrated in dialogue, usually during the rest of the day, I’d be thinking about what I said and what I heard, which could make me even more frustrated.
During those two and a half weeks, I learned that what I put in dialogue was what I took from it, even if that meant getting frustrated and angry.
Today, I can say that bringing my full self into the space (Chipmunk Dialogue Hut) and sharing personal experiences with other seeds even when no one was, made me feel more comfortable with my skin; it made me think that my existence is more relevant to what’s happening in the world I live in. I started feeling that I am one of the 7.6 billion human beings on this Earth, instead of feeling that I’m just one of the 7.6 billion humans.
While stepping up is the most common struggle among teens, I’ve always struggled with listening to others without thinking of a rebuttal in my head while they’re talking, and Seeds has definitely taught me how to actively listen without multitasking and forming an argument at the same time.
I still remember one of my table seeds once mentioned another concept of being engaged. He was talking about struggling with being involved in the sense of stepping back and listening, and I realized that I’ve never thought of listening as a form of participation. This is only one example of many moments when counselors, camp directors, PSs, or campers have taught me something new.
To me, Seeds of Peace is not only a place where campers come to seek peace, but also a place where they make peace. I believe that Seeds has taught me how to deal with the world when there’s peace and my role is to spread it, and when there’s no peace and my part is to create it.
Within the boundaries of camp, Seeds gave us various ways to express ourselves. Those ways can be activities and group challenges like sports and art, but they can also be during meal times in the dining hall.
Whenever someone wants to share something or express themselves, there’s always a time and space for them to do so.
Such an announcement or request can be as serious as sharing a poem about societal issues, and as fun as debating whether water is or is not wet.
The Talent Show is one event of many where seeds come as individuals or in groups to express themselves and share their journeys with others using their talents. The show included various performances: rap, dance, spoken words, original poetry, singing, comedy, and much more.
As a seed, every time I shared a piece of who I am during events like The Talent Show, I felt that I was heard loudly and who I am is someone important to this community and this world. I also realized that I cannot bring peace to this world if I’m not at peace with who I am, and every time I stood in front of other seeds and counselors I thought to myself, “You’re here. This is your chance. Make them remember you,” and every single time I felt at ease and peace with my soul.
“When I told people about it, they didn’t understand. They said ‘it’s just a summer camp,’ but Seeds of Peace is so much more than that — it’s a safe space, a stretching place, and a home,” Amy Fryda, a Maine seed said during a conversation about what SOP means to us, seeds, and what it means to those who haven’t experienced the feeling of being there.
During the two and a half weeks, all of our attention, or at least my attention, was limited to what’s only in front of me at the present moment. I tried not to think about “What’s next?” However, the spoken words theme at The Variety Show was “What’s next?” And I had to brainstorm, feel, write, and share my answer.
I had no problem with the format or being on stage, but I had a problem with going back to reality. Even though during and outside of dialogue we discussed the most relevant issues about the world we live in, I focused on how to fix this world from an outsider’s point of view. I thought of Seeds as another world where I can live and look from where I am at the real world where five-year-olds alienate those who are different from them, and seventy-year-olds think that being Muslim is taking an oath to kill someone at least once in a person’s lifetime.
I thought about what’s next, and I found myself writing about the realistic ugliness of this world. The “cellular racism” and “ecosystemic sexism;” I found myself using science as a tool to describe how this wounded world treats me as an outsider, while even when I feel like one, I’m still trying to suture those wounds, to advocate for peace and keeping humans in one piece.
I wrote pages about how Seeds of Peace is a world of advocacy, peaceful leadership, and youth; a world of those who know that strength is next, problem solving is next because we are the ones who solve the complex.
Next is me
Walking with my mom without someone holding tighter to their children
Without treating us like if we were vampires, carrying blood bags with our groceries”
— What’s Next? Original poem by Zainab Almatwari.
Back to this moment: I’m still pressing on the keyboard keys as fast as I can, so I can verbally hold on to every thought that has ever crossed my mind. Now, I know that Seeds isn’t another world, but it’s the version of this wounded, ugly world that I strive to live in; the version that every seed gets prepared to work towards.
The first time I read “the way life could be” on a wooden house on Seeds of Peace arrival day, I had no clue what that life was to me.
Today, I know that Seeds of Peace is the way life could and will be.
“There can be no more initiative than bringing together young people who have seen the ravages of war to learn the art of peace. Seeds of Peace is certainly an example of the world the United Nations is actively working for.”
— UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan about Seeds of Peace.