Seeds of Peace

Seeds of Peace ParticipantsThe Seeds of Peace International Camp looks like any other high-end summer camp. The grounds are immense. There is a dining hall, sports fields. a series of cabins and a large gymnasium set off in a clearing. Just outside the entrance there's a picnic table-style swing that invites tired campers to take a rest on it's well-worn benches.

The camp is on a lake surrounded by woods and the sounds of waves breaking on the beach is a constant. The mosquitoes are relentless and campers pour on Skin-So-Soft in hopes of repelling just a few.

But the campers at Seeds of Peace have more important things on their mind than pesky Maine mosquitoes. They are here to make peace.

Seeds of Peace began nine years ago as the brain child of the current director John Wallach. A former journalist, Wallach spent years covering conflict in the Middle East. Seeds is designed to be a neutral place for the children of war-torn nations to come together to do their parts to repair generations of war.

Wallach says he aims to get youth to stop seeing one another as the enemy, and urges them to see the "masks of the devil that they have painted on each other's faces." Since its first summer Seeds has brought together almost 2,000 "enemies." Along with Israeli and Palestinian youth, the camp draws kids, aged 14 to 18, from a wide range of nations. This summer there are a total of 22 nations represented. Delegations from India, Pakistan, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia as well as all five ethnic groups of the Balkan conflict are all new to the camp this year.

Seeds is built around the hope that what begins on a personal level will eventually have a ripple effect. The campers practice what they call "co-habitation." Teenagers from conflicting nations are asked to live in the same cabin and participate in camp activities together. They sleep, eat, do chores, swim, play sports and go through various trust building exercises as a group.
"They ask hard questions: Are soldiers responsible for the orders they follow? Is Israel a democracy when so many have no rights? Can their respective leaders truly lead? How can one accept the deaths of children -- in cross fire, in bombings -- as "mistakes," and move on?"
--From a recent Maine Today article on Seeds of Peace International Camp.




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Jawad Issi is a Seeds veteran who returned this year as staff member. Jawad is a Palestinian from Gala, whose eyes are filled with the contradiction: youthful excitement for life and traces of the horrors he has witnessed in the Middle East. He recalls an early soccer game that started him thinking:

"The [mixed nationality ] game was just too intense and we were losing. But after the game you think to yourself 'I just became an ally with this person who I'm suppose to hate. And the other [soccer team] includes Palestinians who are like me.' They became the other side. For a little while it was confusing. And you see how you follow the leader without even thinking."

Through simple, but ground-breaking interactions like this, many campers start to feel a shift. But its not an easy or comfortable process. As you can imagine, there are many stories to be told.

At first they happen in a formal setting. A staff person serves as a facilitator and the kids start off by playing games that establish trust within the group. Next they tell their stories. In a circle of white plastic chairs the campers hear about the suffering and hardship that their "enemies" have experienced. Lost uncles, fathers, brothers. Families separated. Hardship, like that faced by Jawad's uncle who has been unable to feed his family since the border into Israel closed and he has been kept from doing his job.
Seeds of Peace Participants
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"The new camper's groups usually have fights in the first sessions because they are not quite ready to listen to the other side," says Constantina Piloura, a fifteen- year-old from Athens, who is part of a co-existence group made up of Greeks, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

On this particular night the girl from the group are practicing a dance routine for talent show that is only a day away Only feet away, at the baseball diamond, two American male counselors are teaching another group of female campers how to play American baseball (a game that they have only heard about in their home countries).

Seeds boysThe girls in this group are 14 and 15 years old and wearing the required aqua-green Seeds of Peace tee shirt. Their shorts, hair styles and mannerisms hide the differences in their ethnicities well. The quick, strong bonds that they have built are obvious. They hold hands from time to time and offer support with their eyes and encouraging movements.

"It's so hard," Constantina continues. "It's hard because you are not the person that you thought you [were] anymore. You find the other side's views completely different [than what you've been told] and that's so confusing."

Panayiota Georgiou, a 14-year-old Greek Cypriot understands exactly what Constantina means After hearing about the struggles of the Turkish Cypriots was like "creating a new history."

Coming to terms with this new, heightened awareness of both sides of the conflict is one of the most trying aspects of Seeds of Peace. "You find yourself in a position that you are no longer the hero, you are no longer the victim," continues Constantina. "You are somebody else."

Being "somebody else" often means setting yourself apart from your community. Just as it is difficult to accept a new, more complete sense of history, it is difficult to relay that message to people back home.

When Constantina did return home, she says, there were some negative reactions but mostly just misunderstanding. "Seeds of Peace is in my heart and it's very hard to talk about something that is in here, you know, in my heart. And if you don't live it you really can't understand it," she explains.

Constantina knows the opposition she will face when she returns home may seem small compared to the larger obstacles involved in the peace process. But she believes the two are inseperable. "Deep inside [Greek] people's hearts the Turk is the enemy. Its hard to change that." She says she believes it is easier to stop the logistics of war than it is to change "people's emotions and superstitions." And for very real reasons. The effects of violence are deeply rooted.

"You find yourself in a position that you are no longer the hero, you are no longer the victim," continues Constantina. "You are somebody else."
While at camp, Jawad recalls talking on the phone with a friend. "Jawad, Jawad, before you talk to me,' said his friend 'before you say anything, listen to this.'" At that point Jawad remembers hearing shots being fired in the background. "He was like 'you see? Maybe tomorrow you won't be able to talk to me. Maybe tomorrow I'll be shot."

At these moments, Jawad wonders if the work he is doing at Seeds, safe in rural America, makes any real difference. "It was just so confusing, he said of the phone call. "My mind was too full of thoughts. Thinking about my family, thinking about my friend, thinking about me being here-- not being able to face what they are going through. [I wondered:] what am I supposed to tell him? How am I going to comfort him? 'Yeah we're here , we're co-existing. We're trying to make the difference.' But to him, where is the difference?"

Thinking for yourself, unearthing propaganda, seeing one another as human. These things will not stop this year's shooting. Many of the campers seem painfully aware of this. They are still young and have little voice. At least not yet. But just knowing that there are 2000 youth out there who have had their perspectives broadened, their eyes opened, is cause for some hope. And the friendships and the bonds that are made across country borders and religious institutions are invaluable.

As Jawad knows, Seeds of Peace isn't just about what happens at the camp. "It works after the kids go back," he says. "When they are inside their homes, in they're everyday lives and they call each other- Palestinians to Israelis and Israelis To Palestinians -- that's when Seeds of Peace is at work."

To read more about Seeds of Peace International Camp go to www.seedsofpeace.org

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