OTISFIELD, Maine — As young campers emerged from cabins on Thursday morning, some were holding each other crying, while others laughed and sang songs. Emotions have run high during this session of Seeds of Peace, a camp that brings teenagers from opposing sides of conflict zones around the world to the Maine woods for three weeks each summer.
The campers, about 180 of them, come from the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. They also come from warring neighbors Israel and Palestine.
The more somber campers had just finished what is referred to as “dialogue,” an hour and 45 minute-long session where the children converse with their peers from the countries they are in conflict with. The conversations are guided by trained adult facilitators.
The youngsters are grouped by region, with American students in each group. Some sessions are made up of Indian, Pakistani, Afghan and American campers, and the others are Palestinian, Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian and American.
“Sometimes you’re yelled at,” said Ophir, 17, a camper from Israel who is in her second summer at Seeds of Peace. Camp staff requested that campers last names not be used for security reasons.
“It’s not really comfortable or fun. But they work on how to separate the person from his or her point of view,” she said of the facilitators. “I want to emphasize that this is a really long process.”
The process of thinking about the other campers as individuals rather than the “other side” is always challenging, but this summer, the war between Israeli and Palestinian forces has made it more so, counselors said.
“The kids and the adults are coming way more charged up,” said Sarah Brajtbord, the assistant camp director and U.S. based programs director. “Feelings are intensified. Their reasons for coming here are much deeper and more personal.”
The monthlong conflict has left about 1,800 Palestinians and 68 Israelis dead, and whole neighborhoods in Gaza destroyed, according to Reuters. A ceasefire that started Tuesday ended Friday when Palestinian rockets were fired at Israel and Israel retaliated.
Counselors pin news updates to a bulletin board twice per day so campers, who do not have cellphones, can stay informed about events from home. Articles that are printed in Arabic or Hebrew are translated into English so all information is accessible to everyone. Campers call home regularly to check on family members, Brajtbord said.
“No, it’s not the same,” counselor Eias Kahatib said of this summer. The Palestinian, who lives in Jerusalem, was a camper as a teen in 2004 and 2005 and is working here for his second summer.
“For campers, they used to come to camp having read about war,” he said. “They’d remember numbers, dates, numbers of deaths. This time they didn’t have to do that. They came with full anger. They knew everything. No one told them, no one brainwashed them. They saw everything before their eyes. That’s what makes this session different. There’s a lot of hate.”
Kahatib said changes take place slowly.
“I looked around and saw the lake, it’s all green and it’s summer, a big soccer field,” he said Thursday, referring to the first time he arrived at the lush campus on Pleasant Lake. All his life he’d lived in a conflict zone, and the tranquility at the camp was new to him.
“For a second you forget where you’re from,” he said. “But as soon as you see the face of the other side, you remember. Bam. In four years, you’re going to be solider.”
Kahatib said the point of the dialogues was not necessarily to find resolution.
“I wanted to meet that enemy that I always run away from,” he said of his decision to attend the camp. “I wanted to tell him about my suffering. I consider myself as on the weak side as a Palestinian. I became the strong side; my voice was heard.”
Despite initial distrust, Kahatib has close friendships with Israeli counselors, who he hangs out with in Jerusalem, and he said he’s particularly popular with the Israeli campers, which he attributes to his open mindedness.
“You’re funny, I like you. You’re going to be cocky, I’m like, dude, we’re at summer camp,” he said, recounting what he says to campers. “But they take a step back when they hear I’m Palestinian.”
Another feeling that is heightened this year is guilt, said Sarah Rubin, assistant camp director, who also is a teacher at Gorham Middle School.
“Somebody could say, you’re having fun while people are dying here. You’re not truly part of our side anymore,” she said. Campers are playing basketball, canoeing and sleeping next to people who are supposed to be their enemies, she explained.
Ophir, the camper from Israel, said her experience has been greeted with mixed emotions by people back home in Israel.
She said she was once told by someone who runs an organization she participates in at home that he disapproves of Seeds of Peace because it makes Israelis naive.
“I was like, wow if this is the reaction, how can I spread the message?” she said.
But spreading the message also is part of the point.
“Seeds provides hope for the rest of the world when there is absolutely no hope,” said Valerie, 17, of Chicago. “If you say that’s just how it is, it’s going to become a reality. The only way to make it not a reality is to not accept that.”
The fact that the camp takes place in Maine also is important, particularly for the counselors and campers who are from the state.
“Maine is the whitest state,” said Jake Lachance, a counselor and former camper from Windham. “Over time it’s becoming more and more diverse. To be honest, some people don’t know how to handle and approach that. What our program tries to do is to open people up to diversity.”
During the first half of the summer, Seeds of Peace hosted children from 14 Maine high schools. The idea during that program is to bring together first generation Americans with Mainers whose families have been here for decades.
Seeds of Peace first began hosting international campers in Otisfield in 1993, while the program for Maine students began in 2000.
The mission is similar for both sessions, staff said.
“Kids will be kids,” said Lachance. “They’re willing to learn and can still come to conclusions on their own. Here they learn that the other side really does have a face, a name, a favorite sport, a family.”