The bonds of friendship in a bitter war
In a year of unspeakable horror, Israeli and Palestinian teens join in a Maine refuge to seek a path toward peace
In the end, Ariel Tal came back and Saja Abuhigleh stayed.Skip to next paragraph
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Simple acts, perhaps. But also acts of courage and hope at this wooded Maine camp, a refuge from the devastating daily violence of the Middle East, a place where teenagers from Israel and Palestine meet in an effort to find solutions rather than propagate hatred.
Ariel had twice before attended Seeds of Peace, as the camp is named. But that was before a suicide bomber in Jerusalem last December blew up his friend just 20 feet from the ice cream store where Ariel was sprinkling jimmies onto a cone. Had he not lingered a few seconds, he knew, it could have been his funeral for which the neighborhood turned out.
Amid the carnage, he looked down and realized he was wearing his green Seeds of Peace sweatshirt. "I got really confused," Ariel says. "I didn't know what I was looking for here, and why I was chasing it so hard."
Even before arriving for her first year at camp, Saja had her doubts about sharing a bunkhouse and breaking bread with Israelis. On her second day, she called home and learned Israeli soldiers had occupied Ramallah, her hometown. They had detained her great-uncle's son and struck the elderly man when he asked why.
"When [my family] told me, I started crying, and I said, 'I want to go to my home in Palestine right now! I can't stay here,' " Saja says, stumbling over her words in the rush to get them out.
But Saja stayed and Ariel shed short-lived thoughts of vengeance and came back, one of the small group of returning campers who offer support and mentoring to new arrivals each year.
Their experiences, however, attest to the challenges facing a camp that some call naively idealistic and others see as the only sane response to a world situation that seems to have lost all reason. Journalist John Wallach founded Seeds of Peace in 1993, prompted in part by the first bombing of the World Trade Center. He invited 46 teenagers that year, hoping to teach young people from this bitterly divided region how to listen to one another.
But the camp has never faced a summer quite like this one. Working for peace in the Middle East has always been a courageous choice. Doing it amid the horrific violence of the current intifada, and Israel's brutal backlash, is practically inconceivable. It is a violence that has become personal, even for teenagers, even for children.
And if the camp is to succeed if the three weeks teenagers from each side spend laughing, arguing, and living together is to mean anything it is a violence they somehow must find the strength to look beyond.
On June 24 the same day President Bush called for the ouster of Yasser Arafat in a much-anticipated Middle East policy speech 166 teenagers arrived at this sleepy lakeside retreat 30 miles northwest of Portland, where only the names of the campers and the constant presence of police cars at the gate indicate that this is any different from the dozens of other camps nearby.
Almost all the campers are sponsored by Seeds of Peace; all went through a lengthy, competitive application process to get here, and all were selected by their education ministries in part for their potential to lead.
Their mission: to get to know one another as individuals rather than as the enemy, in a place removed from the hatred back home. Though Seeds of Peace has expanded over its first decade it now accepts young people from other regions of conflict and has established a year-round Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem it still rests on the same simple premise: that interaction breeds understanding.
You don't have to like each other, camp director Tim Wilson reminds the campers at the opening ceremony just recognize that each individual is a human being deserving of respect.
"You can go home, and yes, there are things there we have no control over," Mr. Wilson tells them. "But here, we do have control. You have the right to sit down and talk to someone you normally would not talk to."
The campers listen eagerly, applauding vigorously. When it comes time to sing the Seeds of Peace song, they belt it out: "People of peace, rejoice, rejoice/ For we have united into one voice...."