First impressions were comprised of smiles, laughs, flailing limbs, and offbeat cheering. As buses rolled in weighed down by kids who had flown thousands of miles from countries most Americans can’t point out on a map, I felt, for the first time in a long time, joy.
The genius of Seeds of Peace Camp starts off with that first day. Counselors carrying a motley assortment of instruments and noisemakers cheer so loud you can’t quite make out the words. Campers who have already arrived form a tunnel with their reaching arms and interlaced fingers. Everyone who runs off the bus runs into an embrace. The support, the joy, the unapologetic dancing, spurs smiles and quick introductions. This initial openness was what made me feel at home from the moment I stepped off the bus.
Over the course of three and a half weeks, these small connections served as the genesis of relationships that form the foundation for the process about to take place.
The Seeds of Peace Camp international session is an international program held in Otisfield, Maine, every summer for three and a half weeks. Journalist John Wallach and Program Developer Bobbie Gottschalk founded Seeds of Peace in 1993, the same year the Oslo Accords attempted and failed to establish a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine.
Since its inception, Seeds has brought Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, and American youth (or “seeds”) to Maine in order to facilitate meaningful dialogue between the opposing sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In recent years, Seeds has also established a South Asian program, including seeds from India and Pakistan to discuss the conflict between their countries.
For three weeks, next to beautiful Pleasant Lake, we ate, slept, played sports, and made music like at any other American summer camp. However, we did this while engaging in activities where we talked to, learned from, and made friends with people whose experiences, ideology, and cultural sensibilities were often markedly different from our own.
In a bunk of 10 boys, Indians shared a bathroom with Pakistanis. At a dining hall table, Jews shared a meal with Muslims. One of the immediately striking components of the camp was the unspoken acceptance of diversity. There is a familiarity that accompanies cohabitation.
Part of every day was spent in dialogue. We would make our way to dialogue huts, each with two trained facilitators. Tasked with discussing conflicts that for many campers are an ever-present and ugly component of daily life, we embarked on a prodigious and often painful mission of understanding, of communication, and of comprehension, unfettered by bigotry or stereotype.
Every day campers would walk out of their dialogue huts, sometimes frustrated and drained, but also absurdly yet understandably happy that someone from the other side of the conflict had heard them and listened.
“Trust the process,” they told us in dialogue. And I did. While at times I was doubtful of what we were doing, I trusted the people I spent my entire day with. In my South Asian dialogue, we talked about equity and equality, about terrorism, about Kashmir, about Islam.
I listened as one of my best friends struggled to defend her religion and we cried together. I listened at night as my bunkmate told me stories about bombs and checkpoints and soldiers. Listening was central to my experience, both in dialogue and at camp in general.
Unlike the Palestinians or Israelis, I have no direct stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, I sought to understand the experiences that informed each camper’s opinions, how each camper moved, existed, and understood structures and systems to help make sense of the world around them. A Muslim camper explained to me that, while she believes her religion to be morally right in every aspect, she also believes humans are prone to fallacy and misinterpretation. We spent entire dialogue sessions discussing whether Muslim terrorists are actually Muslim. I became friends with a Catholic Palestinian girl who has to drive hours to the nearest town with a church every Sunday. I met a camper from the Gaza Strip who described it as Hell.
I trusted the process. Much of my experience was spent in solitude, getting to know myself better. I spent hours in the lake staring out at the mountains. I spent hours in my bunk at night using the dim light of my iPod to help illuminate the process of my thoughts becoming words as I wrote in my journal. I sang in the shower, I witnessed Muslims unroll their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca and prostrate themselves at night. I unpacked everything and saw the beauty and importance in the struggle of what we were doing.
For every moment of solitude, there were hours of interaction. I spent days listening to people talk about their lives, their hopes, and fears. I had the realization over and over again that the worlds the other campers lived in were so far removed from mine, that I truly live in a bubble; to understand their experiences, I had to transcend prejudices that I didn’t even realize I had.
I played sports, I played music, I wrote poetry, I listened to poetry, I found spaces to discuss issues and thoughts about race and oppression and roots I never realized I had opinions about. As cheesy as it sounds, I tried to live in the moment, to be present, and to see people beyond their opinions or words.
For every tear shed or chair thrown in a dialogue hut, there were countless moments of simple humanity and friendship. I talked with an Egyptian girl about why she no longer wears shorts in public. I wrote poetry with a Jewish-American girl who found herself becoming increasingly pro-Palestine as camp progressed. I listened to Pakistani music and talked to another Egyptian girl about the SAT. I walked past the lake sandwiched between two of my best friends at camp: an Israeli and a Palestinian. I constantly asked myself, “What is happening here?”
With no phones for three and a half weeks, all we were left with were thoughts and ideas. “Be raggedy,” they told us. To be raggedy means to be unafraid to give voice to ideas that you may not have the right words for, but that hold truth. And being raggedy was cleansing. Once I exposed myself for the world to see, my ideas and beliefs were shaped and strengthened by the crucible of constant questioning.
I talked to a Muslim boy who was homophobic as a result of his never having been exposed to queerness. I asked him why he thought what he thought. He told me and I disagreed, but I understood what informed his beliefs, and I saw the person as separate from the opinions. Seeds taught me how much ideas are shaped by the environment you grow up in. I knew this boy as a friend and honest, hard-working person long before I knew him as a homophobe. I knew he had a strong moral compass and that I could trust him. I took the information that he was homophobic and added it to the picture I already had of him, but I did not let that one opinion obscure the human behind.
It’s hard to believe all this happened in three and a half weeks. Looking back, I think of it as a lifetime. A lifetime broken into moments during which I grew years. A lifetime broken into conversations spent trying to search for that one tiny shared truth that would allow us to truly understand one another.
It is a truly humbling realization to remember who you were going into an experience after seeing that the person coming out of it is completely different.
It’s impossible to say whether Seeds of Peace will ever accomplish its underlying purpose of one day solving the Israeli-Palestinian and Indian-Pakistani conflicts. In fact, talking to many seeds as camp drew to an end, it seemed that many had confirmed and strengthened the beliefs they came to camp with. When viewed in the context of a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, where political views have become progressively more synonymous with morality and decency, when conflict seems ever more prevalent in our lives, Seeds of Peace is failing its original mission.
However, even those who left Seeds feeling more righteous in their opinions, who believe with assiduous conviction that their side has the moral high ground, have spent three weeks living and creating a shared space with the other side. Even those who will go back to their country to join the army and play an active role in the conflict know those they are fighting as people. Even those who experience conflict daily know how to use their words and ideas productively, or at least cathartically, as an alternative to violence.
I'm still in the process of trying to unpack and explore the ways in which camp has changed me. I have yet to cauterize some of the wounds it has opened. I struggle to keep in touch with people living in different time zones. I try to follow news from seven different countries. I worry about friends in active conflict zones, who have to navigate checkpoints and soldiers.
I have to come to terms with living in a country that is increasingly candid about not wanting me. I have to watch as people kill and hate and dehumanize others. Everywhere I look, I see conflicts and divides that no one is trying to bridge with dialogue.
One concrete thing Seeds has given me is conviction: I want to bring this space into a world with so many opinions and so little listening.
As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, and social justice activists often quote: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
With Seeds, I found the field.
William Lohier is a junior at Stuyvesant High School. He is a musician, a member of his school's speech and debate team and Black Students League, and an Arts and Entertainment editor for his school's newspaper, the Stuyvesant Spectator. He has been a longtime member of Kidspirit and enjoys reading, writing, taking naps during the day, chocolate ice cream and running when he's not too busy.
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