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Aug 06, 2009

A summer camp famous for bringing Israeli and Palestinian teens together takes on the conflicts of South Asia.

By Tara Kyle

In mid-June, at Dubai’s gleaming international airport, ten teens walk off a plane from war-scarred Kabul, and join another ten from Lahore, the cultural capital of neighboring Pakistan.

“We were stepping in line, greeting each other like diplomats,” remembers Ramish Azadzoi, a 15-year-old Afghan. For many, it’s a first trip outside their homeland, much less on an airplane.

As the teens boarded another plane, bound for a tiny summer camp in Otisfield, Maine, the formality stuck. The Pakistani kids spent the trip talking amongst themselves in Urdu, unaware that most of their Afghan peers understood the language as well. That afternoon they would all meet up with teens from India, another neighboring country of which they had learned little but fear.

The conflicts between these three groups’ countries are many and fierce. Pakistan’s porous, terrorist-infested border with Afghanistan and the resurgent belligerence of the Taliban in both countries has bred mutual distrust, and India’s standoff with Pakistan over Kashmir, which has threatened at several points to go nuclear, was recently compounded by the terrorist attack on Mumbai.

Among the less heralded attempts to bring some promise of reconciliation to the region is a summer camp called Seeds of Peace. Funded in part by the U.S. State Department, Seeds of Peace places a novel bet—that the solution to simmering tensions can be found in three weeks of swimming, canoeing, singing, dancing and dialogue with people you have been taught to fear and despise. The simple of act of friendship, in other words, can soothe embattled nations.

“Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the news everyday as these impossible places, impossible in a complicated and intractable, impenetrable way,” says Carrie O’Neil, who is one of the camp’s “dialogue facilitators.” “To witness what can happen on an interpersonal level really makes me less skeptical about the potential for conversations and understanding.”



"No Choice But to Become Close"


Founded in 1993 by late journalist John Wallach, Seeds of Peace made its name by bringing leading youth from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries together to confront the issues that separate them. Its advisory board includes former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, as well as Jordan’s Queen Noor and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

In the years since it was founded, Seeds has stretched its focus into other regions, including the Balkans, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, and now South Asia. About 300 teens attend the camp each summer during two three-week sessions, with each delegation of teens joined by a few adult leaders and older support counselors from their respective homelands.

This year marks the Afghans’ first appearance in the India and Pakistan conflict group. Bringing them here hasn’t been easy, as support for new delegations can be hard to find among Seeds’s investors, who tend to be interested mainly in the Middle East.

“When times get hard money-wise, people say, ‘maybe we’re doing too much,’” says Bobbie Gottschalk, Seeds co-founder and a former social worker who serves as the camp’s unofficial mother hen. “Truthfully, I had a hard time getting people to recognize how important Afghanistan was in the scheme of things.”

Now that they are here, what they gain, in addition to the usual camp fun, is two-hour closed door sessions each day with Indians, Pakistanis, and a few Americans, to un-learn the stereotypes and nationalistic versions of history they bring with them from home.

“When you’re sleeping in the same bunks, eating in the same halls, doing the same activities and talking intensively for two hours in dialogue,” says Ira Chadat Sridher, a 14-year-old from Mumbai, “you have no choice but to become close.”



What They Take Home


Two weeks into the camp, Azadzoi tells Gottschalk that he has “changed.” He and his peers feel a brotherly connection to the same strangers they sat with on that flight from Dubai. But when Gottschalk presses him on exactly how he will feel once he returns to the chaos of Kabul, he acknowledges that this is less certain.

“Most of them go home very confused,” she says. “If we just left them at home in a confused way, I think we would lose a lot of them,” Gottschalk says.

In order to solidify the lessons of the camp experience, Seeds runs grassroots programs in the kids’ home countries during the rest of the year, to reinforce the connections they’ve made and the lessons they learned in camp. They keep in touch with regular reunions, newsletters, community service programs, language classes, art competitions, parent outreach and training for alums who will return to the camp as staffers.

While geopolitics do occasionally interfere—violence in Pakistan led to cancellation of the homestay program in Lahore—organizers hope that persistence will help encourage campers to pass around the lessons they’ve learned to family and friends.

“When I go back home, I would really like to correct people when they think of Indians or Afghanis or Americans as their enemies,” says Maryam Sarfraz, a 15-year-old Pakistani. “I have made so many great Indian and Afghani and American friends that I can’t think of them as enemies ever.”



Culture Shocks


In the absence of any older Afghan delegation leaders or veteran campers, Gottschalk served as the group’s de facto leader this summer. She found that, like every other group at Seeds of Peace, they came with special needs.

Their English was a bit weaker than their peers’ (unlike the Indian and Pakistani campers, they don’t attend English-language schools at home), and many of the activities, like softball, were completely foreign to them. Swimming was particularly popular for the girls, because, as one of the boys pointed out, it’s an opportunity not available to them at home.

The result was that the Afghan kids had a harder time integrating than some other delegations, a point Gottschalk seemed to acknowledge when she led an Afghan-only check-up meeting nearly two weeks into camp.

“Of all the delegations, you have the hardest adjustment,” she told them—in large part because the others were “not coming from places where there’s a lot of war around them.”

She spoke to them in a small cabin set against a rain-soaked baseball field, a couple hundred feet from Pleasant Lake. For a lot of these kids, fresh from a war zone, the surroundings seemed almost luxurious, peace being maybe the biggest luxury of all.

“This is not to show you in a cruel way, ‘ha, you can have a life like this, now go back home!’” Gottschalk told them. “It’s trying to show that it is possible to live and have friendships with people who are your enemies."

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