Every summer, about 300 teens between 14 and 16 years old from global regions plagued by conflict arrive on the shores of a secluded Maine lake. For three weeks, these students participate in a camp run by Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit organization which seeks to create lasting peace through open discussions. Brown students have participated in the camp throughout its 20-year history.
‘I haven’t heard of a single program like it’
Started in 1993 during the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine, Seeds of Peace initially focused on Middle Eastern countries, wrote Alia Lahlou, Seeds of Peace communications associate, in an email to The Herald. The camp expanded to include South Asia, the Balkans and Cyprus and now focuses on Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, Lahlou wrote.
Acceptance into the summer camp is anything but easy. With a roughly 5 percent acceptance rate, applicants face tough competition.
“The application process was really long, including a written app and two interviews,” said Katherine Pollock ’16, who participated in the camp in 2010.
Still, applicants around the world are drawn to the camp.
“It’s a unique opportunity to see the other side,” said Sahir Zaveri ’14, who attended the camp with the Pakistani delegation. “Even today, I haven’t heard of a single program like it,” he added.
Both Pollock and Zaveri said they did not know exactly what to expect before arriving in Maine.
“The whole process of this camp is calculated,” Zaveri said. “It’s not something that you can just go into.”
“I didn’t realize how much it would feel like a real camp,” Pollock said. Pollock, who grew up in Chicago, said she wanted to learn about the Middle Eastern and South Asian conflicts discussed at the 2010 camp. “I focused on the political part of it,” she added.
Seeds of Peace coordinators facilitated introductions between previous attendees and upcoming participants to give the latter a taste of the camp’s discussions.
“You already start getting a vague understanding of the organization, but it’s so alien to what you know, you just know you’re going to go through something you can’t even imagine,” Zaveri said.
The first week of camp is intended to break down social barriers between the participants.
“You get on the bus from the airport, and it’s filled with an entire delegation from another country,” Zaveri said. “In my bus, there were Palestinians singing and playing drums, doing what is natural to them and to their way of socializing at home.”
Participants use the time to get “everyone comfortable in the space,” Pollock said.
“In the beginning, people are just spewing out facts” supporting their sides of a conflict, she said. “Everyone has to get that out of their system. … Only then, people are able to move on from reiterating history and statistics and begin to talk about issues on a more personal level,” she added.
“In the beginning, the discussions were very awkward. … People wanted to say really controversial things, but also hold back,” said Perri Gould ’14, who participated in 2009 and was a camp counselor in 2012 and 2013.
After a week and a half, participants engage in daily two-hour dialogue sessions to understand other participants’ regional conflicts and express differing opinions, Pollock said.
“It’s very difficult to find someone who is 12 or 13 with very strong political beliefs,” Zaveri said. “You want to find someone who is still impressionable.”
Pollock said her political outlook was shaped less by a particular belief than by overall ignorance. “After hearing people’s stories, you can’t really be ignorant anymore,” she added.
Zaveri, on the other hand, went into Seeds of Peace with a strong belief in tolerance, he said.
“Tolerance is one of the most important things that is lacking in this world,” Zaveri said. “People are constantly trying to prove their side rather than open up and accept differences,” he said.
After a couple of days in discussions, barriers begin to break down and the dialogue “starts moving beyond the historical narrative, and people start sharing their personal experiences,” Pollock said. “I remember hearing some of the stories and how it was just such an emotional moment for me,” she added.
The dialogue sessions are designed to be “conflict-centric,” said Zaveri, whose camp discussed conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia.
Two or three students from the American delegation are placed into each of the discussions, Zaveri said. American participants often have some form of indirect “exposure to the conflict,” Zaveri said, citing a member of the American delegation who had lived in South Asia. That participant, he said, “brought something really unique to the table.”
During the discussions, the “Americans were more observers,” Zaveri said. “They lack the intensity of the experience you have when you’re a part of such a conflict.”
“Generally, the Americans who go to camp are often less informed than kids from other delegations because they come from places where the conflict is much less relevant,” said Gould, who attended the camp with the American delegation.
‘Peace’-ing it together
Participants said they have felt positive impacts from the camp.
“Seeds of Peace has definitely influenced me more than anything else in my life,” Pollock said. “One of the biggest things that I learned was how to listen to people,” she added.
“I learned more about myself, and that’s really something that camp does,” Zaveri said. “Going in, I had some vague ideas, and coming out, I had clarity, and I had a good idea of what I believed in and why I believed it,” he added.
The camp also aims to change the way participants approach conflict resolution.
“Seeds of Peace is attempting to harness a group of future leaders,” Zaveri said. “It’s not a place to be politically correct. Rather, political correctness may only hold back the discussion.”
“It is really easy to look at all of these world conflicts and instantly feel frustrated, but I think because we all went through three weeks in Maine where peace did happen, we know that it is possible on a larger scale,” Pollock said. “Peace and equality at its most basic form can be achieved because we saw it happen.”
Personal encounters based around leadership and discussion provide camp participants with the connections and awareness needed to “advance peace,” Lahlou said.
But the camp experience is not limited to a single summer, and some campers even return to counsel future delegations.
“The counselors (during my camp session) were incredibly inspiring to me and were really good at what I thought created a comfortable experience,” Gould said. “I wanted to give back to current campers the way that I think my counselors helped me.”
“A big part of Seeds of Peace is what you do after camp,” Zaveri said. “The camp is too intense of an experience to allow you to go back (home) with similar thoughts.”