HARRISON – Seeds of Peace facilitators have traveled to Otisfield to begin their work at the camp that offers Israeli, Arab, American and other youths a few weeks of traditional summer camp activities, as well as discussions to promote peace.

“I think it is going to be hard with the situation back home with both sides experiencing hyper tension,” said Noa, a 23-year-old Israeli with a degree in international relations. “It will be interesting to see how we can use our skills.”

Noa was a Seeds camper in the late 1990s and was returning for the first time as a facilitator.

The facilitators’ work is part of the camp’s grassroots effort to break the violence gripping troubled regions, especially in the Middle East. Their task will likely be more challenging now as heightened violence in the Mideast causes more deaths every day.

Several of the facilitators – mostly young, former campers who are trained in mediation – mingled recently at the Deertrees Theater in Harrison. A benefit concert by two Broadway stars was being staged to raise money for the 14-year-old camp on Pleasant Lake, and part of the ticket price included a chance to meet the people working for peace at the camp.

The facilitators guide discussions among mixed groups of campers to promote understanding and break through stereotypes, allowing the children to learn more about their peers on the other side.

The 180 campers who arrived Monday night come from Israel, the United States (22 from Maine), Jordan and Egypt, said camp director Timothy Wilson.

Former camper Mira, a Palestinian with a degree in business, said her work would be difficult, but she was confident.

“It is hard for the kids to come, but we will be able to help them,” Mira said.

Meanwhile Suha, a 24-year-old Palestinian physician and former camper, admitted she was apprehensive about the upcoming session, which begins Wednesday.

“I am nervous,” Suha said. “Facilitating at camp is more intense. You have daily sessions. This puts you under more stress, meeting at a daily basis for three weeks discussing political views.”

“This stuff happening now, this will affect many if not all of the discussions among the campers,” Suha said, referring to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank. “These discussions will tend to be more emotional, it will make it harder for us to control the group process.”

She explained that the facilitators work in pairs, a Palestinian with an Israeli.

A facilitator must stay calm, remain objective, and never take sides, Suha said. “It is very hard,” she added.

But just being in Maine will be a respite for some of the international campers. “For some it’s kind of an escape, a safe haven. Maine is the best place to be,” Noa said. All three facilitators said that having been Seeds campers when they were teenagers had altered their perceptions on a personal level. Noa said it gave her “insight into truth.

“The mere fact of meeting a person who is not a stereotype, that really changes things,” Noa said. “You wonder sometimes if it is intentional, kept that way so people can make excuses to carry on,” with the violence.

Suha said she had learned how to have conversations with Israelis and to speak about their differences with tolerance. But she acknowledged her relationships and peace-making skills had limitations. “We don’t come up with solutions, it’s more than a 50-year-old conflict. Solutions don’t come from young people,” she said. “Governments tend to be so stupid these days.”

Both Mira and Noa said they maintain faith in the camp’s process, even as the possibility for lasting peace seems to be ebbing.

“If you look around and see what’s going on in the region, you start to lose hope that such programs will change things. If all people had this kind of experience, there might be hope,” Mira said.

Suha was less optimistic. “I’d rather not answer a question about hope right now because it will be a really hopeless answer.”

Noa, however, said the act of humanizing the enemy carries with it enormous potential.

“If you can think of the other side as individual people, you can break the hatred which can blind you completely,” she said.

Editor’s note: The last names of the Palestinian and Israeli facilitators were withheld in this report because disclosure of that information may jeopardize those workers’ lives upon their return to the Middle East.

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