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Summer camp plants seeds of peace in international conflict zones

TC Jewfolk
At the end of Color Games: the iconic moment of camp, when all barriers fall awa
Photo by Ron Garber
At the end of Color Games: the iconic moment of camp, when all barriers fall away.

Euphoric teens charge fully dressed into the lake. Shouting, high-fiving, they embrace each other in twos, in threes and in whole groups. Their excitement churns the water and sends spray in every direction. “Color Games” has just concluded, and the teens, who hail from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, America and the United Kingdom are feeling the emotional peak following three days of intense teamwork and competition.

At this moment they are simply kids, wearing either blue or green, hugging each other without regard to nationality. Every label and barrier, especially that of “enemy”, is gone. It is a transformative experience for the campers and staff at a remarkable camp called Seeds of Peace, whose carefully constructed program has led the teens to precisely to this moment.

Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach to help children from regions of conflict learn how to make peace.

The Seeds of Peace International Camp is located on a lake in a woodsy setting in Maine. Some Seeds, as the campers are called, arrive from conflict zones in South Asia, but the majority of Seeds come from the Middle East. This year there were 211 seeds; to date over 5000 seeds have been “planted” worldwide.

The camps programming is deliberately intense. As described on the Seeds of Peace website, “Here, they confront their prejudices and deep-seated fears and tackle the issues that fuel violence, hatred and oppression at home…(the) program is designed to open young minds to the possibility of a new reality. Every aspect of the program fosters trust and respect and challenges assumptions.” The Seeds spend two hours a day, six days a week in conflict resolution and dialogue, run by trained facilitators. The rest of the time is filled with experiences that will bond the kids to each other. After camp, there is year round follow-up programming carried out by centers in the Middle East and South Asia.

Local attorney Ron Garber, of the Fredrikson & Byron law firm, spent a month this and last summer working as a counselor at Seeds of Peace.

Garber was born and raised in the U.S., the son of an American father and Israeli mother, and holds dual American-Israeli citizenship. Thirty-two years old, charismatic and impossibly tall (in his twenties he lived in Israel and played basketball for Maccabi Ashdod), Garber can barely contain his enthusiasm when he talks about Seeds of Peace and “his” kids. Armed with an iPad full of photos and unbridled passion, he shared his reflections with me. He also expressed heartfelt appreciation to the Fredrikson & Byron law firm for supporting him in this endeavor, allowing him to take a month-long summer leave, twice.

Seeds of Peace campers are the “best and the brightest”, identified by their local communities as future leaders. The teens are 14-17 years old, fluent in English, and passionate in their beliefs. Says Garber, “Kids come thinking they will convince the other side that they are right. They’re not at camp because because their parents are peaceniks. They are there because they have been identified as someone who will be a good representative of their side.”

Yet, despite being intimately connected through conflict, the Israeli Seeds and the Arab/Palestinian Seeds know practically nothing about each other. Their enemy is simply a nameless, faceless entity with whom they have have had little, if any, personal interaction. Until now.

The name of the game in those first days is to get acquainted and begin creating affiliations around camp experiences. Seeds are thoroughly mixed and placed in bunk groupings. Building a bunk identity, dancing to a hip-hop dance called the “Dougie”- counselors like Garber work to create moments that the kids can bond over.

By the second week kids start to realize that they will not prove their case to the other side and they begin to reconsider their positions. Now camp is hard work. When Camp director Wilbur Smith addressed the entire camp, Garber recalls that “you could hear a pin drop” when Smith counseled, “Before you can make peace with someone else you have to go to war with yourself.”

Those words were surely taken to heart by Ahmad, a Gaza teen whose working class family lost their home in the 2008 Operation Cast Lead. Garber describes Ahmad as “from a totally high risk demographic, charismatic, smart, and angry.” In the early days of camp Ahmad said to his Israeli bunkmates, “I’m sorry but I just can never be friends with an Israeli, nothing personal.” But by the end of camp one of his very best friends was Aviyah, a religious Jewish Israeli from Modi’in. Ahmad even posted pictures of the two of them on Facebook. Says Garber, speaking with deep affection for both kids, “It’s not insignificant for a Palestinian to have a picture of himself with a Jew and post it on Facebook. Kids from home can see it.”

The days pass and experiences are layered, one on top of the next. NBA stars visit camp and play one-on-four basketball with the kids, an “International Night” exposes campers to the native foods, dress and music of each others homelands, a “Cafe Night” sets them up to seek out and talk at length with campers they don’t yet know. Weekly religious services held for each faith are open for observation, demystifying the “other”.

Momentum builds toward “Color Games”, three days of intense competition, where the only identity that matters is whether you are on the blue team or green team.

From early morning until late evening the Seeds work as teams, competing in races, a variety show, and more. At the end of three days, the winning team is announced. The prize? Being able to run first into the lake, followed by the other team. It is pandemonium, and the iconic moment of camp. Some kids are happy, some are sad, even crying, but all are picking each other up, hugging, and singing the camp song together. Recalls Garber,”After Color Games, camp is a different place. All the barriers are broken.”

By the time camp ends “both sides realize that the other side has a somewhat valid national narrative, it’s not just nonsense. They can at least hear it. They don’t agree with it, don’t leave with a solution, but they recognize the humanity and validity of the other side,” Garber explains.

Gradually the “other” is demystified and humanized. The result? Friendship.
Photo by Ron Garber
Gradually the “other” is demystified and humanized. The result? Friendship.

Going home is very hard because friends don’t understand what the teen has experienced and find it hard to accept the changes their friend has undergone. Seeds stay connected via Facebook and Skype, “turning to each other because no one else understands.” By serving as a support system for each other, relationships continue to grow. Garber also stays in contact with his former campers and fellow staff. He’s become close with many Arabs through camp, and treasures these ongoing friendships.

What is the long term impact? Garber told me about Tamer, an Israeli-Arab counselor, who shared his own story with the Seeds this past summer. Tamer was a camper in the late 90′s. A few years after camp, during the Second Intifada, he wanted to go throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. Tamer called another camp friend, Aseel, who urged him not to do it. “It’s not productive, it’s not what we learned at camp. There are so many better ways to express anger.” Because of that conversation, Tamer did not throw rocks. Now Tamer runs a non profit called “Heartbeat“, located in Haifa. At Heartbeat kids from each side of conflict work together to produce music. Tragically, Aseel was later killed in conflict-related violence, the only Seed to have lost his life this way. A memorial is held for him each summer at camp.

Not all the Seeds will build their lives around the kind of peacemaking work that Tamer does, but Garber believes deeply that the program’s impact is long-lasting.

“Those Israeli kids will be soldiers and those Palestinian kids will face the choices that young Palestinians face in their lives.” Never again can they think of the opposite side as a nameless, faceless other.

Garber is eager for Twin Citians to know about Seeds of Peace. “There are things that we can do in the Twin Cities to affect this conflict that we care so much about. You can send your kid to camp – there are American seeds who go, and American counselors. You can donate money to an amazing organization that is doing work with people at a formative time in their lives. Politics is not the entire answer.

As we concluded the conversation, Garber shared Facebook messages he received from Ahmad and Aviyah.

“Camp was and still is more like a second home .. even though it has people from the other side, people who I’m supposed to fight or to argue with, but suddenly those people became my brothers, sisters and best friends! It also hugely educated me…it made me more open minded… the most useful thing I learned ..is what seeds of peace means .. It has become my mentality, the way I look at stuff…It’s my life now.”

And this:

“I found myself in the dialogue and instead of screaming my opinion, trying to listen to the other side. It was amazing to see the face of the enemy. I laugh, played, climbed,sang, danced and cried with people from all over the world. I’m gonna pass my conclusions on, and I hope that one day, maybe, the world will be a little bit like camp.”

Which boy wrote which message? Does it even matter? Thanks to the work of Ron Garber and others like him, two Seeds have taken root in the hard, rocky and often hopeless soil of the Middle East, where they are, against all odds, growing.

This post was written by Sally Abrams and originally published on TC Jewfolk. Follow TCJewfolk on Twitter:@tcjewfolk. 

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