OTISFIELD, Maine — The answer is simply hope.
That was the message Lina, a young Palestine resident, gave to more than 200 Seeds of Peace campers who gathered Wednesday morning to raise their nation’s flags and join hands and voices in a unity unknown in some of their homelands.
“Here at the Seeds of Peace, I learned there is still hope in the world,” said Lina, who lives on a small patch of land occupied by the Israeli military — which does not allow the red, white, black and green flag of her homeland to be raised.
The 221 campers from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan and the United States, some of the most troubled areas in the world, were represented at the ceremony.
Wednesday’s ceremony was the opening session of the 21st summer the internationally recognized camp, which was founded by journalist John Wallach and Bobbie Gottschalk, who was at the ceremony.
The campers sang and marched with linked arms up the long dirt driveway, under the Seeds of Peace entrance gate where they formed a circle to hear the executive director and several second-year campers such as Lina, who act as peer support counselors, talk to them about the experience.
This season marks the graduation of 5,000 young peace builders, ages 14 to 17, from the international camp that is located on on 44-acres of tall pine trees on Pleasant Lake.
“Soak it all in. Look at the flags around you. None of them is taller, mightier or stronger than the other. Be that seed of hope. Be that seed of change and most importantly, be that seed of peace.” Neel of the Indian delegation told fellow campers during the opening ceremony.
Leslie Lewin, the camp’s executive director, welcomed campers who traveled this week from places like Kabul, Mumbai, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the Seeds of Peace that camp was established 21 years ago. “It took courage,” she said. “Coming here was not easy for any of you.”
Lewin told the campers to remember three important words: Opportunity, journey and hope. “Hope is for what is possible. The change you young people can make.”
The campers, who were selected from more than 8,000 applicants across the world, live in bunks of eight or more, literally sleeping next to and sharing meals with some who they were taught were enemies. They will spend the next three and one-half weeks at the camp in daily conflict-resolution sessions and other activities intended to teach them how to be the new generation of peace leaders.
Second-year peer support counselors including Lina and Neel, Sharar and Sama from Israel, Jasir from Pakistan and Jonathan, from Great Britain who is under the United States delegation and others, told the first year Seeds about their experiences at camp.
“I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong,” said Laila, of the Egyptian delegation who is living in a country just emerging from a revolution. “This is not just a summer camp. It’s the way life could be.”
Laila, an 18-year-old student at the American University in Egypt who is studying political science and economics, told the Sun Journal after the ceremony that part of her job is to ready the new camper for the trip the Otisfield. In the month or two before the campers arrive, Laila said she talks to campers and parents telling them about the program and going over details such as what clothes to bring to camp.
“This is an amazing, life-changing experience” said Mohadesa representing the Afghan delegation. She said as a woman in her native country she faces discrimination and ignorance but the camp experience has given her an opportunity be independent and to make change.
Director Emeritus and Senior International Adviser Tim Wilson addressed that need to effect change saying those who came first simply “put the foundation down,” for the possibilities. Now, he said, it is time for the younger folks to step up and continue their work. “You now have the opportunity to make it even better,” he said.
Calling it “a fork in the road,” the 72-year-old Maine resident urged campers to work toward communication, trust and respect.
“You don’t give up. You don’t give up,” he cried as hundreds of seeds and their supporters cheered.
The first camp session is only the beginning of summer and year-round activities for the international organization.
During the second session, more than 100 teenagers from across Maine and as far away as New York will tackle inter communal tensions in their states. Adult educators from the Middle East, South Asia and the US will be on hand to examine the role that teaching of history plays in conflict settings.
And, later this summer 15 Israeli, Palestinian and American seeds will sail off the coast of Maine as part of the Seas of Peace sailing and leadership dialog program.
The Seeds of Peace also provides year-round local programs that focus on the core leadership capacities needed to advance peace.
“Let’s end this right here, right now. Let’s make peace,” said Karim of the Jordanian delegation told his fellow Seeds.