- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Each summer, about 400 boys and girls from opposing sides of regional conflicts spend about three weeks living side by side.

At the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield, Maine, these youngsters learn to listen to the other side, grow to understand one another and return to their homeland to spread “seeds of peace.”

“God gave you two ears and one mouth for you to listen twice as much as you speak,” Timothy Wilson, special adviser to Seeds of Peace, tells campers on their arrival.

Steve Flanders, chief operating officer of the organization, said the daily dialogue session that gives participants a chance to sit together and listen to people from “the other side” is “as eye-opening as ear-opening.”

“You can’t form a real opinion without listening,” he said.

It all started in 1993 after the World Trade Center bombing, when John Wallach, a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for two decades, felt the urge to bring together future leaders from conflict areas to discuss coexistence and conflict resolution.

Coexisting with ‘enemies’

That summer, 46 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers met for the first session of Seeds of Peace. Chosen by the education ministries of their respective countries, the campers arrived “scared and nervous to meet those from ‘the other side,’ ” Mr. Flanders said.

The purpose of the camp is to teach children that “it’s OK to disagree” with those who have different viewpoints but that it is important to respect one another, he said.

“The miracle is that two kids can disagree with each other and be arguing in the morning, but still put up a perfect show together that night or play on the same soccer team the next day,” Mr. Flanders said.

Tamer Nagy, an Egyptian “seed” in 1993, recalled how excited he was about the idea of meeting the Israelis and how supportive but nervous his parents were to send him to a foreign country to live with “the others.”

“There are very few people who don’t want peace. The problem is how to achieve it,” said Mr. Nagy, adding that he applied to the camp thinking that he would be able to achieve peace by telling the Israelis that they were wrong.

“But you come [to the camp] and share your story, and find that things are a lot more complex than you had thought,” he said. “They are not just what we have called ‘enemies,’ they are also human beings. They are also boys and girls belonging to a social group.”

Mr. Nagy said the camp setting gives the youngsters a chance to air their views. He returned as a peer-support camper in 1994, 1995 and 1996 and as a counselor in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

“It always began with very intensive discussions, with crying and yelling, but eventually, you run out of things to argue about and you start listening to what the other side has to say,” he said.

Mr. Nagy said the opportunity for face-to-face exchanges did not transform him completely. He is still against Israel’s occupation and many Israeli government policies, “but we came to understand that the intent of the conversations is not to harm each other, but to understand.”

After the camp, Mr. Nagy said, he and his fellow participants had a difficult time explaining to their families and friends back home about building and maintaining friendships with people they had long called enemies.

“They did not go through the same experience, and do not quite understand when you say, ‘Not all Israelis are bad,’ ” he said.

To make this point, Mr. Nagy tried to invite his Israeli friends to Egypt and introduce them to his family and friends. He said his parents initially were anxious about the idea, but once both sides met, they figured the Israeli youngsters were no different from their son’s friends in Egypt.

Continuing conversation

“Of course, not everyone gets convinced,” Mr. Nagy said, addressing a common question: “Does the camp work?”

“It’s the definition of ‘work,’ ” he said. “The situation in the Middle East will not change overnight. What really matters is your capacity to have an open mind, your willingness to talk to people on the other side.”

Mr. Nagy said people have been too impatient with Seeds of Peace, noting that the first campers are only now starting to enter the work force.

“Despite everything happening in the Middle East, we have managed to communicate with one another,” he said. “And the conversation will continue until the day of our generation arrives.”

Focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict today, the Seeds of Peace International Camp has brought its Middle East program participants from eight areas: Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Yemen.

The camp also has expanded to include delegations from other conflict regions, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Greece, Turkey and divided Cyprus, the Balkans, and inner cities of Portland and Lewiston, Maine.

Seeds of Peace opened the Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem in 1999, which gives Palestinian and Israeli camp graduates a place to gather and to deepen their friendships, and through weekly activities broaden the circle to include parents, friends and teachers regionwide.

“Despite the horrors and turmoil seen on television, Seeds of Peace graduates are meeting and working together in the region to make peaceful coexistence a reality,” Mr. Flanders said.

The organization also provides about 100 full or partial scholarships for college study in the U.S. at institutions such as Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Manhattanville College and Earlham College.

In 2004, Seeds of Peace started a program called Beyond Borders, which brings together American teens with their peers from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan.

“The regional follow-up and education programs help us track whether [the camps] were successful or not,” Mr. Flanders said. “The camp is just a beginning, and we try to involve the graduates as much as we can.”

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