Seeds of Peace Campers Visit USIP
It "gives a name to what we do." That is one Seeds of Peace second-year camper’s response to seeing the Seeds of Peace Witnesses to Peacebuilding video for the first time that reminded her why this summer camp is different than others. This comment is an example of some of the compelling stories and insights the campers shared during a visit to the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) this week.
The Seeds of Peace organization gathers young people from conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia, Cyprus and the Balkans for a three-week camp in Maine that encourages dialogue and understanding and aims to help build the next generation of leaders who can contribute to resolving some of the most challenging international conflicts. Started in 1993 with U.S., Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian campers, it is celebrating its 20th summer this year. The organization continues to engage campers after they return home to continue their leadership training. The camp was a USIP grantee.
On July 9, 43 second-year "Seeds" in their mid-to-late teens visited USIP for a briefing on the Institute’s work and to experience some of the content of the Institute’s Global Peacebuilding Center. Representing the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, the teens are returning to the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine as Peer Supports (counselors) after first attending the camp two summers ago.
Introduction to USIP’s work
USIP Executive Vice President Linda Jamison welcomed the campers to USIP and underlined the importance of their being involved in peacebuilding at a young age.
Jeff Helsing, dean of curriculum at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding discussed working with Seeds’ founder, John Wallach – who was a senior fellow at USIP in 1997-98. Helsing said that Wallach looked to USIP for help in developing the leadership programs for Seeds of Peace campers after they returned home because USIP had so much experience working on the ground in conflict zones around the world, something that continues today.
Britt Manzo of USIP’s Center for Conflict Management gave an overview of USIP’s work at the government, civil society and person-to-person levels in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ann-Louise Colgan, director of the Global Peacebuilding Center, introduced the Seeds to USIP’s more recent work with young people and educators, and to the multimedia content that is integrated into onsite programs.
"The Masks...Start Dissolving"
The campers then experienced the two exhibits in the Global Peacebuilding Center – the Peace Well and the Witnesses to Peacebuilding video on the Seeds of Peace camp. The Witness video features campers Tamar and Suma, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers whom some of the visiting campers knew.
The group discussed how their own experiences at the summer camp evolved, from the arguments the campers had when they first got there and to reaching a new understanding about "the other side." By learning to think as individuals and not as opposing "sides," to listen and to reach consensus through a combination of dialogue, activities and sports, and sharing living quarters, they came to realize that everyone is an individual teenager: away from the influence of their home societies and media, "the masks of the people in front of you start dissolving," as one camper explained.
Many of the campers said that it was challenging to practice what they learned at camp once they were home. Several students said that "reality hit hard," and that their camp experiences did not make sense to those at home. To continue the dialogue started at camp, the campers stay in touch through face-to-face meet ups when possible but more often online through Facebook, Skype and the private SEEDS Network. Connections with other campers support each other. An Israeli camper said everyone needs a "rock" on which to rely when you face fear or cynicism when talking about these issues at home; her rock was her Palestinian friend whom she met at camp and to whom she turns whenever the going gets tough.
Several of the Seeds talked about their personal commitment to being peacebuilders in their communities, and to the belief that a new future is possible for troubled parts of the world – a future they will help shape as the next generation of leaders.