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Youths Come to US Camp to Learn to Sow 'Seeds of Peace'

  • Ana Ward

As the conflict in the Middle East heats up and the death toll continues to mount, world leaders are trying to end the crisis with diplomacy and dialogue. In an idyllic setting in the northeastern U.S. state of Maine, young people from the Middle East region are using the same approach, on a smaller scale.

After the 1993 bombing in the underground garage of the World Trade Center in New York, John Wallach gave up his journalism career for what his friends thought was an almost impossible job: bringing peace to a war torn world. His first dream: solving the Middle East conflict. His approach: bringing young people from the region together in a setting far removed from the violence, and planting the seeds of peace.

"The seeds of peace experience is one of the most real things that can be done for co-existence and understanding of other people," says Palestinian-American Waleed Khoury, who attended the Seeds of Peace camp three years ago, in a small town in Maine. For the first time, he had a chance to spend time with Israelis his age, playing, learning and discussing their region's tensions. This interaction with the opposite side and the help of counselors made Waleed question his previous views and changed his perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

He says he realized everyone was responsible and was suffering. "For me, as a Palestinian I know the Israelis have lots of pain because of what they are going through and because of their history. I was made aware of the fact that both sides are suffering, not only Palestinians."

Over the past 13 years, Seeds of Peace has expanded from one short camp session to include a leadership program, annual conferences and global programs in other areas of conflict. The annual summer camp still takes place in Maine, and now has three sessions, one for Israeli and Palestinian kids, another for young people from India and Pakistan, and a third for Greek and Turkish kids.

Waleed says most kids go home transformed by their Seeds of Peace experience, but the daily realities of life in a conflict zone make it hard for them to maintain their new point of view. "They have to remain active in their communities, what they learn here, what they learn about themselves and about the issues - that confusion that I had, they should have for a long, long time. They have to maintain the change they've gone through."

The Seeds of Peace summer program includes a visit to Washington, D.C., and conversations with politicians on Capitol Hill. At the meeting this month, Congresswoman Nita Lowey encouraged the young people to hold on to their hope and ideals of peace. "People will try to talk you out of this. People will say you're wasting your time; one person can't make a difference; this is a project that's nice but won't change things. Don't believe them, because if each of us does what we believe is right, we are going to change the world and you are in the middle of doing that."

The campers found themselves talking about peace in the middle of a new round of violence. Congressman Tom Allen told them that what they did today to improve the climate in the Middle East will have an impact in the region for decades to come. "The fate of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people depends on you, depends on the work you will do through your lives. I just hope you always carry on with you what you've learned in Maine, what you learned at Seeds of Peace and that you will do your part to leave the world a better place then you found it."

That's exactly what Farah has tried to do. This is the second summer the high school junior from Alexandria, Egypt, has spent at the Seeds of Peace camp. "It was really strange in camp being with the other side, my enemy, and before I went to camp I think I had a curtain over my eyes. I think I could not see the other side, I couldn't accept the other side."

When Farah returned home with a new outlook on the Middle East conflict, she faced opposition for her inclusive views. But she says the rejection didn't stop her from believing transformation is possible in the Middle East -- and that it starts with her generation. "Seeds of Peace gave me hope…. I changed many people's views and I think that's what all of us are doing here, changing."

John Wallach died in the summer of 2002, while that year's camp was still in session. But the seeds he planted have sprouted in a new generation of activists. In just a few days, the latest group of campers will head home to a region once more in the middle of chaos, determined to work for peace.

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