When Bushra Jawabri, now 20, a Palestinian refugee from the West Bank, arrived in Maine for a summer camp session at Seeds of Peace, she was terrified at the thought of sleeping in a cabin with her sworn enemy.
"I remember at the opening ceremony I was afraid to introduce myself because that person might be Israeli, and the picture I had of them were of soldiers who wanted to kill us," recalls Jawabri of the visit in 1995 at the camp in rural Otisfield, about 30 miles northwest of Portland. Since 1993, the camp has hosted teens from conflict-ridden regions around the world. Despite her fears, Jawabri slept in a bunk with 10 other girls--half of them Israeli, the other half Palestinian--and, to her relief, "woke up the following morning with the Israeli girls and nothing had happened. Nothing had happened to me; nothing had happened to them." Now a junior at Manhattanville College in New York, Jawabri said it was a big revelation.
Such moments are daily occurrences at Seeds of Peace, which was founded--by former journalist John Wallach, who had covered the Middle East--with a group of 40 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers who came to the camp for its first two-week session. This summer, Seeds of Peace will host about 450 children and 75 adults from 22 countries, including this year, for the first time, Afghanistan.
Although the program began by focusing on the Middle East, it has greatly expanded its scope over the last two years. "Our signature program was the Middle East. Because that model was so impressive, we started to get approached by other people," said Dena Fisher, executive director of the program, which has a staff of 25 with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem.
"Cyprus was the first non-Middle Eastern country to come, in 1998, and the Balkans were added in 2000," Fisher said recently from her office in New York. Other participating countries, including India and Pakistan, were added only last year.
"We could expand a million-fold, it's just a question of resources," Fisher said, citing Ireland as a country they would like to bring into the program.
Aside from a small group of U.S. campers, the children come from war-torn countries where they have been taught to distrust outside cultures. The tactic is to pair them with other kids whom they would otherwise see as enemies.
Twelve Afghan teenagers--six girls and six boys, ages 13 to 15--will come to the camp this summer and will be expected to interact with Indian, Pakistani and American campers.
"No one is suggesting that youth exchange is going to end a war or conflict," said Susan Crais Hovanec of the South Asian Bureau of the U.S. State Department from her office in Washington, D.C. The hope is, however, that the participation of the Afghan children might make them less vulnerable to being recruited into terrorist organizations.
"Children born of despair and violence and intolerance are nurtured to hate and be distrustful and are highly susceptible to terrorist propaganda. But children who are enabled to experience cross-cultural encounters themselves and form their own opinions and beliefs become seeds of peace," said Hovanec.
The Afghan government was quick to jump at the chance to participate this year, said Homeyra Mokhtarzada of the Afghan Embassy in Washington, despite the fact that when Seeds of Peace officials first made overtures in January, the newly formed Afghan government was barely a month old.
"When we told Kabul [about the opportunity to participate], the ministry didn't have phone systems or even electricity," Mokhtarzada said. "The fact that they worked so hard to get these kids to Seeds of Peace speaks to how important the program was to the government. There are so many other priorities, but when this program came along, the minister of education, Rasool Amin, himself made it a priority to participate."
There was some concern, however, that it would be difficult to find Afghan children fluent in English, a requirement of the camp. As it turned out, more than 350 qualified teens applied for the 12 slots.
One reason the Afghan government was so eager to participate was to have Afghan voices represented in international dialogue, especially the voices of children, Mokhtarzada said. "I thought it would be a great experience not only for the kids from Afghanistan, but for the American children to learn about young Afghan kids' dreams and aspirations, what they face day to day and what they've lived through. These are kids who were there in the very worst of times under the Taliban and were not lucky enough to leave. By participating in Seeds of Peace, we are giving a voice to a group from Afghanistan who haven't been heard from."
Kids who attend the camp sessions are selected by their own governments. The only exceptions are the Americans, who hear about the camp through word of mouth and apply for a small number of slots through the Seeds of Peace office in New York. The Americans, who pay $3,500 to participate in a 31/2-week session, must demonstrate leadership skills, be articulate and have an interest in the cross-cultural experience the camp provides. This summer, 58 U.S. kids--chosen from a pool of 500 applicants--will attend. None of them are from California.
It costs about $2,500 to host each foreign camper for the session, of which there are three this summer. Participants from other countries are usually chosen by the departments of education of their respective countries, and all costs are covered by the camp.
The camp's operating budget is expected to exceed $1 million this year, and although the program has received about $300,000 in funding from the U.S. State Department over the last two years, most of its operating costs are covered by private charitable donations, among them contributions from the Annenberg Foundation, UBS Warburg Foundation, Novartis and Lockheed Martin.
In part because of the English-fluency requirement, for the first few years of any country's participation, the teens often come from the upper echelons of society. But, Wallach said, as a country continues to participate and the number of campers increases, the demographic mix tends to even out. Such has been the case with the Israeli and Palestinian participants. The Israelis sort through thousands of applications each summer, and the Palestinian Authority through hundreds.
The Palestinian Authority did not send a delegation of campers last summer because of the current crisis in the Middle East, although some Palestinians whose homes are in countries other than Israel did participate, among them Jordan. In the past, as many as 70% of the children sent by the Palestinian Authority have come from refugee camps. It still remains uncertain whether the Palestinian Authority will send a delegation this summer.
Wallach said that "when the government chooses the kids, you are likely to gets kids who reflect that government's point of view." The people who attend Seeds of Peace are not always "the ones who want to make peace," he said, and the challenging work they do at camp becomes all the more relevant.
The non-U.S. campers come accompanied by a delegation of adult educators and government officials, all selected by their respective countries' departments of education. These adults participate in their own program, arranged so they will not have undue influence over the children they accompany. The "escorts," as they are officially called, have their own coexistence sessions, and their chief interaction with the kids during the summer comes when they present the children with an inclusive history of their region that they are required to form during the adult sessions.
This Isn't 'Some
So how do these potential seeds of peace get planted? Don't assume these kids simply gather in the woods to share their mutual understanding, warned Wallach. "There are no illusions about some pie-in-the-sky scenario," he said. The kids undergo an evolution, which is far from easy, Wallach said. At the beginning, "each side views themselves as the victim, and the other side as the aggressor."
"The first week they come, they are either completely idealistic or determined to prove that their point of view is the only right one," Wallach said. In the second week, they begin to "understand that the version of history they have been taught may not be the only reality there is," but they also come to realize there are very real reasons hate exists between the two sides. "The third week, they realize they have to deal with that hatred and still need to accept each other anyway."
Groups of 10 teenagers sit down with a professional facilitator to confront the difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, questions that divide them. Benji Weiman-Kelman, 18, an Israeli from Jerusalem who attended the camp in 2000, said it was most difficult for him when the Palestinians in his group "were asked to condemn suicide bombings and they wouldn't." At the same time, it also made him think of his upcoming compulsory military duty, beginning next year, in a new way: "It turned the other side into specific faces, my friends."
Liz Carlin, a 17-year-old New Yorker who attended the camp, last summer, sees the coexistence sessions as a step to a more nuanced understanding of the world. "It's like when you realize your parents are three-dimensional people. You start off thinking your parents, or your government, is the best in the world. When that image gets shattered, at first you blame them for everything that is wrong, but then you start to see the good with the bad."
The Internet also helps the campers continue on their journey toward acceptance and understanding when they leave camp. In addition to a daily list serve, known as SeedsNet, and chat rooms, the occasional well timed e-mail from a friend from camp can often be the most meaningful action toward peace.
"If everything that is happening is going on and I can still receive an e-mail from an Israeli Seed telling me about their concern, I feel there is hope for the future," said Jawabri. "Seeds of Peace is the only reason I am hopeful about the crisis in the Middle East today."