NEW YORK (AP) – Yafa Ebrrighith and Hamutal Blanc are friends from very different backgrounds who don’t always agree.
So when the two 16-year-old girls – one a Palestinian, one an Israeli – got the chance on Friday to quiz the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Middle East policy, it was no surprise they saw the event very differently.
“It was interesting to know what the official U.S. position is,” said Blanc, the Israeli, after attending the event with other children from the Seeds of Peace summer camp, which brings together teenagers from conflict zones around the world.
“I expected more from him,” differed Ebrrighith, who spends most of the year in the West Bank city of Hebron. “He’s running away from answering the direct questions.”
The pair and 22 of their campmates met with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Manhattan on Friday, peppering him with heady policy questions on nuclear disarmament, the effectiveness of the U.N. and the American stance on Hamas.
The “ice-cream roundtable” at the ambassador’s residence – with desserts served in gold-rimmed bowls beneath a sparkling chandelier – was a far cry from the campers’ rustic facilities in wooded Otisfield, Maine.
The youths, who also included representatives from Jordan, Egypt, the U.S., India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, spend the summer there sharing bunkhouses, going swimming and playing sports with teenagers from opposing nations. More than 450 teenagers participate in the program each year, which was founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach. Campers are chosen by their governments based on academic performance and leadership ability, and without regard to social or economic background, according to the camp’s Web site.
While the camp is secluded, participants say the tensions and bloodshed in their homelands inevitably intrude on their experience. They are challenged to form a bond of trust with campers who come from “the other side.”
It is an experience that may seem somewhat familiar to the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who just four months ago was the Bush administration’s top diplomat to Iraq – a tricky job for a Sunni Muslim considered suspect by many of the Shiites who hold power in the war-torn nation.
For the campers, Khalilzad said, “the issue has to be how to transcend these differences and live in a mutual respect environment.” The teenagers must “form relationships across sectarian and ethnic lines … to achieve all of the potential that their societies have.”
Even once those connections have been made, maintaining friendships once the summer is over can prove difficult. For Ebrrighith and Blanc, the rising conflict meant they lost touch after they returned home from the camp a few years ago. But now that they’ve reconnected, they said, they plan to begin speaking together in the conflict zone, talking to other youngsters about possible nonviolent solutions.
It is, they say, something they can agree on.
“There are nonviolent options of solving this, because everyone is tired of what’s going on,” Blanc said, before Ebrrighith chimed in:
“Violence leads to violence. It’s a circle. So we’re going to try another kind of resistance.”