Since the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States, there have been many calls for a better understanding of people of different cultures and religions. The appeals are aimed especially at preventing prejudice and discrimination against people of Arab or Muslim backgrounds. Young people of different cultures meet to promote peace and understanding under the auspices of a U.S.-based organization called "Seeds of Peace."
Four teenagers from Israel came to the United States in July and August of this year, two Jews, two Arabs. They were among a larger group of teens from around the world, who met at a recreational camp in the northeastern U.S. state of Maine. Their goal: to talk - but even more, to listen.
"I want people to listen to me and I want them to understand my pain and my opinion," said Nardeen Sbait, a 16-year-old Arab-Israeli Christian who lives in Haifa in northwestern Israel. "Then I have to do the same. I have to listen to them and to try and accept their opinion. I don't have to agree with it, but I should listen to it and just be open-minded and try and understand where that person is coming from." She is one of the teenagers who took part in the Seeds of Peace program. "When you start understanding where the other person is coming from, you're going to be more patient and you're going to be more accepting of his opinions. And that would help compromising about problems that you're talking about."
Fifteen-year-old Netta Berg is Jewish and, like Nardeen, lives in Haifa. She says she learned that sometimes it is all right to agree to disagree. "You learn that sometimes you just can't agree. You finish the discussion by saying, 'I understand you, I cannot agree with you. I respect that.' You can reach a solution without actually agreeing on all the facts," she says. "You can reach a solution by understanding that's what they want, [and] that's what you want. It's how you see things, and you won't change your mind and I guess sometimes that was just enough."
Netta says that despite meeting teenagers from other cultures, she was not afraid. "I think it wasn't exactly fear. I think it was more about excitement," she said. "I think it was something new they were happy to explore. I mean I saw that with kids who were Arab-Israeli or the few Palestinians that were around. And kids from Arab countries, Jordan, Egypt, it was about excitement. Something they hadn't experienced before. They hadn't gotten the chance to sit down with a Jewish-Israeli kid and just talk with him."
Amitai Sawicki is Jewish. The 16-year-old, who lives in Jerusalem, has been through the Seeds of Peace program twice. He says he remembers, very well, his initial reaction. "The hardest part for me was to hear how much in the culture they were raised to hate me," he says, "but I felt the most gratitude when they learned not to hate me." Amatai says there was something to learn from everyone he met. "When you talk to someone, try to talk about the most important things in his life. Try and learn about him as quickly as possible," he says. "People are so full of great stories. You can learn a lot from each other... A lot of people are afraid to meet new people. My advice is not to be afraid. Spill your heart out and then you can accept theirs."
Seventeen-year-old Eman Abed Albaki is an Arab-Israeli, who says she considers herself Palestinian. She lives in a town about 40 minutes drive from Haifa. When it comes to religion, Eman says she is neither Christian nor Muslim, but calls herself neutral. She's been through the Seeds of Peace program twice. "That experience changed me. It did, and it still does," she says. "I find out a few things that people here don't know. They just see the other side as the enemy, let's say. And they're not willing to accept the good part. And I am."
She says, as the name of the program implies, children are seeds of peace. "I can't go and change the world. I can't change the conflicts. And I can't make people happier or more sad or bring them peace or security," she explains, "but what I can do is teach people and learn that there's another way to deal with the whole situation. That I don't have to fight. I really don't want my children to grow up in the world that we are living in today. I want it to be better for them."
Seeds of Peace is a non-profit, non-political program that organizers say helps teenagers from regions of conflict learn the skills of making peace.
John Wallach says he founded the organization in February, 1993, after the first World Trade Center bombing. He says he realized the aim of terrorists was to instill fear. To counter that, he says, he started a program to inspire hope in the next generation of children before they are poisoned by prejudices, fears, and hatreds.