At a dinner party seventeen years ago, U.S. journalist John Wallach challenged high ranking Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian officials in attendance to send fifteen kids from each country to a summer camp in Maine. He was convinced that the lack of opportunity for young people to interact, become friends, and do what teenagers do together, was contributing to the hatred gripping the region. Six months later, Seeds of Peace was born. Today, the camp is still going strong. Nearly 500 children each summer attend the conflict resolution camp, in the hope of planting peace one seed at a time.
At first glance Seeds of Peace looks like any other summer camp for kids.
There is swimming, softball and canoeing. But that is where the similarities end. Most of the kids in camp are from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan. They are here to express their feelings about the Middle East conflict, and learn from the other side.
"Our camp exists to bring together kids from regions of conflict who don't have the opportunity to interact in a positive environment like this at home," said Leslie Lewin, the camp director.
Their ages range from 14 to 16. Though some camp participants live five minutes from each other, the physical, cultural, and political barriers have prevented them from interacting.
"They mostly see soldiers, or they see news reports of people who are trying to hurt them on their TV. So they don't have, they identify with them," said Bobbie Gottschalk, co-founder of Seeds of Peace. She says the barriers play a big role in sustaining the conflict.
Seeds of Peace wants to break down those barriers.
"Who shall I cheer for?," asked Amirah, from Cairo Egypt. Camp is the first time she has met anyone from Israel. "I learned that they are wonderful people. I have a lot of friends…"
But getting to a place of friendship and understanding is not easy.
"You say it is your land because you have more power than us, and you have the stronger army."
Campers take part in daily group dialogue sessions about the conflict led by a trained facilitator.
"The piece of land that we call the holy land, belongs to who?"
Campers are chosen by their governments. They are given policy briefings before they arrive. Camp organizers say they encourage this. They say after the arguments that have fueled the conflict for over fifty years are exhausted, the real listening, learning, and understanding begins.
"They also have to get the ugly stuff out on the table, the stuff they have always believed about these people. And once it is out on the table, everybody can take a look at it. And question it, and take a look around the room and say, is that the way people are who are here with me?," said Bobbie Gottschalk, co-founder, Seeds of Peace.
"Sorry Akmed, I didn't came and take everything, this is what is given to me…" said fifteen-year-old Nili is Israeli, from Petah Tikvah near Tel Aviv. She says the first week of dalogue was the most difficult. "It was very emotional like.I hear things that make me feel bad with myself and my country and my government. On the other hand, I did understand why those things are happening. I just felt there is no justice on both sides."
"In 1948 you came, Zionist groups killed our people, massacred them so they had to flee for their own lives...," said Cameel, 15, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem. He also says dialogue was often stressful, but worthwhile. "It changed my point of view, cause like before I came here, I thought of Israelis as the terrorists, as the people who hate us, people who want to kill us. But now like I know that there…I just never thought of how like they are normal human beings and there are people that are extremists and there is people that are normal."
Both Nili and Cameel say they will go home and tell their friends and family about their experience here. Gottschalk says the end of camp is really the beginning. The hard work is going back to the region and working for peace. "When they go home, they need so much support. Because they have just come to this conviction, this realization lately. It is by the third week that it happens," she said.
This is the camp's 17th season. Camp organizers are confident these new seeds have been planted. Now it is up to them to go home and make peace.