OTISFIELD — The gates of the international Seeds of Peace camp on the shores of Pleasant Lake must remain open this summer to ensure the continuation of its mission to bring unity to the world, members of the organization said.
“The (Trump) administration is saying we’ll be safer by building walls,” said Salim Salim, a Bowdoin College freshman and Seeds of Peace camper. “The more you close your doors to people, the more hate there will be.”
For the past 25 summers, about 200 young people from some of the most troubled areas of the world have come to Otisfield to raise their nation’s flags, join hands and voices, and begin a process of unity that is unknown in some of their homelands.
But this year, many in the organization are worried that President Donald Trump may undo their efforts.
Decisions by Trump to build a wall along the border with Mexico, to indefinitely suspended Syrian refugees, and to bar nearly all travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Sudan — has many in the Seeds of Peace organization concerned.
“At Seeds of Peace, we create rare spaces — spaces filled with people who wouldn’t otherwise find themselves in the same room together, let alone in the same room working together, learning together and leading change together,” Executive Director Leslie Lewin said in a statement issued following the travel ban.
Each summer, Lewin leads the campers in an emotional opening ceremony at the gates to the camp on Powhatan Road and then works throughout the year with leaders and others around the world to promote the organization’s work.
“We know that our work is not always easy and not always popular, either,” she said. “It takes enormous courage to engage and speak up when pulling back feels so much safer. Our work rests on a set of core values: courage, respect, critical thinking and impactful engagement.”
The actions and orders of President Trump “stand in stark contrast to these values. In fact, the very notion of shutting people out and choosing to disengage undermines the very reason why Seeds of Peace was founded nearly 25 years ago,” she said in her statement.
Campers come to Otisfield from Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States.
At the opening ceremony, second-year campers serve as leaders. Each delegation sings their national anthem as their flag is raised and then together all campers sing the Seeds of Peace song as that flag is raised.
It is the only flag allowed on the campgrounds for the next three weeks.
The program is aimed at shifting attitudes and perceptions, building respect and empathy. From there, camp alumni, now 6,500-plus strong, lead change throughout some 27 countries in the Middle East, South Asia, the United States and Europe.
Camper Abdul Mohamed, a junior at Lewiston High School, said there is a lot of pain now and a lot of uncertainty.
“No one really knows what to do,” he said. “If we have unity, it’s the height we have to reach right now.
“My mom and dad came to this country to seek a better life for me and my family,” he said.
After Trump’s election, Mohamed said he suddenly felt excluded from classmates, particularly those who supported Trump.
Although he initially felt that he should not try to hang out with them, he soon realized that his mindset was “not going to get me anywhere.”
“It’s OK to (peacefully) protest, but having a conversation there also has to be listening,” he said. “You have to be respectful and let people talk.”
In Lewiston, he said, dialog began among the students and unity returned.
Open dialog is at the heart of the Seeds of Peace process.
Two years ago, Mohamed said he and other Maine campers who were visiting the international camp for a day encountered Palestinian and Israeli campers who could not come together and talk. They convinced them that they needed to talk to each other, to “be open-minded,” and soon they were engaged in conversation and understanding.
Salim Salim, who moved from Iraq to Maine in 2010 and is vice president of his freshman class, said he worries about the Seeds of Peace campers coming to Maine this summer.
“Our mission is to put a face on the so-called enemy,” he said. “To have Israelis and Palestinians end up friends in just three weeks is an amazing, amazing result. It says so much about the things we’re told and the lies we’re told.”
Salim said students at Bowdoin have been upset with the current state of affairs.
“We’re trying to have discussions,” he said. “As class vice president, I tell them I’m here for them. I’m a resource if they want to talk. The challenge is to connect with people when there’s so much hate.”
Salim’s parents live in Portland and he said the fear and anger around them is evident.
“My parents get dirty looks when they’re in the supermarket,” Salim said. “The identity of a person has no connection with who that person is.”
Salim said other members of his family are in Turkey and hope to come to the United States on their Iraqi passports but fear they may not get in.
“The longer they stay in Iraq the more dangerous it becomes,” he said. “Once ISIS finds out, it only gets worse. There’s a high chance they might get killed.”
“I think my biggest concern right now is they will not feel welcome in this country,” Salim said of those coming into the U.S.
“They were brought here to be provided with a safe place,” Salim said. “They can’t do that at home. They’re realizing they have First Amendment rights, they have the freedom to say whatever they want to, but to have Trump strip away that right from them is not much different than what’s happening in their homes.”
“Making America more ignorant is what’s going on,” he said.
Lewiston High School student and Maine Seeds of Peace camper Abdul Mohamed, fourth from left, joins other campers during a session at the Seeds of Peace Camp in Otisfield.
The snow-covered entranceway to the Seeds of Peace on Pleasant Lake will be the gathering spot for scores of young people from the Middle East and other troubled areas around the world as they return next summer to debate and discuss a means to peaceful resolution.