OTISFIELD – Amid songs and flag-raising, the Seeds of Peace International Camp began its second summer session on Wednesday morning.
Camp Director Leslie Lewin praised the campers for making the trip to Maine, as well as the camp’s staff, whom she said includes several former participants.
“They truly love being here,” Lewin said. “They are not your average camp staff.”
The camp’s purpose is to build trust and friendship between teenagers from different countries with longstanding conflicts between them. The camp’s first three-week session concluded last Tuesday.
Campers attending the new session include Egyptians, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Americans. During the ceremonies, a second-year peer support camper from each nation gave a short speech on their experience at the camp. Following each speech, the country’s flag was raised and its national anthem sung.
Lewin called the ceremony the “official start” to the program. The campers arrived Tuesday, and the dialogues and activities begin after the starting ceremony.
Youssef Selim of Egypt said that despite the varying backgrounds, the camp “is the one place where all of us belong.”
Eyas Sharaiha of Jordan said the camp offered “a new window that is unbiased” through which to see people from other countries.
Or Bainhorem of Israel said the camp was a place to learn about respect for other cultures and other values.
“All you have to give is yourself,” he said. “And that’s a small price to pay.”
Oula Abu Hwaij, a Palestinian, recalled her first session with Seeds of Peace, during which a fellow camper claimed to have “won the dialogue” by bringing another participant in the discussion to tears. He told her the next day that he was sad about what he had done. She suggested that he apologize, and he did.
“When he did that, I think he actually won the dialogue,” Hwaij said.
During the ceremonies, the Israeli and Palestinian flags were raised on adjacent poles.
Leila Hunter spoke on behalf of Maine Seeds, a program within Seeds of Peace that addresses racial and ethnic tension within Maine cities.
“You never know who you’re going to meet,” said Hunter. “You never know how they’re going to impact you.”
For Maine’s anthem, several campers sung the state’s 16 counties to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”
Nicolla Hewitt, president of Seeds of Peace, said she had met with several Middle Eastern government officials, who were enthusiastic about the project. She said Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian ambassadors would be at the camp on Sunday.
Wil Smith, the camp’s head counselor, said that only the Seeds of Peace flag would fly within the camp’s gates after the event. The ceremony closed with the singing of the Seeds of Peace song.
The camp was founded by journalist John Wallach in 1993 in response to the first attack on the World Trade Center. The program seeks to encourage understanding among different national and ethnic groups as a way of dispelling future conflict.
The camp’s programs include daily dialogue sessions in which the teenagers discuss contentious issues, as well as athletic activities intended to create trust and teamwork between different groups.
“It’s a good way to tell the other side what you feel in a peaceful way,” Hwaij said.
Bainhorem said he comes from a right-wing family and was living in an area of Israel where rockets were falling near his home. He said the circumstances made it easy to feel hatred for Palestinians, but he wanted to gain his own perspective.
“This could be the only chance for me to meet Arab people in a non-combat circumstance,” he said.