OTISFIELD — The answer is simply hope.

That was the message Lina, a young Palestine resident, gave to more than 200 Seeds of Peace campers who gathered Wednesday morning to raise their nation’s flags and join hands and voices in a unity unknown in some of their homelands.

“Here at the Seeds of Peace, I learned there is still hope in the world,” said Lina,  who lives on a small patch of land occupied by the Israeli military, which does not allow the red, white, black and green flag of her homeland to be raised.

The 221 campers from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan and the United States were represented at the ceremony.

It was the opening session of the 21st summer at the internationally recognized camp, which was founded by journalist John Wallach and Bobbie Gottschalk, who was at the ceremony.

The campers sang and marched arm in arm up the long dirt driveway, under the Seeds of Peace International Camp entrance gate where they formed a circle. They listened to Executive Director Leslie Lewin and several second-year campers, including Lina, who act as peer support counselors, talk about the experience.

This season marks the graduation of 5,000 peace builders, ages 14 to 17, from the 44-acre camp next to Pleasant Lake.

“Soak it all in. Look at the flags around you. None of them is taller, mightier or stronger than the other,” Neel from the India delegation said. “Be that seed of hope. Be that seed of change and, most importantly, be that seed of peace,” he said.

“It took courage,” Lewin said. “Coming here was not easy for any of you.”

Lewin told the campers to remember three important words: Opportunity, journey and hope. “Hope is for what is possible. The change you young people can make.”

The campers, who were selected from more than 8,000 applicants around the world, live eight or more to a bunkhouse. They will spend the next 3 1/2 weeks in daily conflict-resolution sessions and other activities intended to teach them how to be the new generation of peace leaders.

Second-year peer support counselors, including Lina and Neel, Sharar and Sama from Israel, Jasir from Pakistan and Jonathan from Great Britain, who is part of the United States delegation, told the first-year campers about their experiences at camp.

“I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong,” Laila of the Egyptian delegation said. “This is not just a summer camp. It’s the way life could be.”

Laila, an 18-year-old student studying political science and economics at the American University in Egypt, said after the ceremony that part of her job is to ready the new campers for the trip to Otisfield. In the month or two before the campers arrive, Laila said she talks to campers and parents about the program and going over details such as what clothes to bring.

“This is an amazing, life-changing experience” said Mohadesa, representing the Afghanistan delegation. She said as a woman in her native country she faces discrimination and ignorance, but the camp experience has given her an opportunity be independent and to make changes.

Director Emeritus and Senior International Adviser Tim Wilson addressed that need to bring about change, saying those who came first simply “put the foundation down” for the possibilities. Now, he said, it is time for the younger people to step up and continue their work. “You now have the opportunity to make it even better,” he said.

Calling it “a fork in the road,” the 72-year-old Maine resident urged campers to work toward communication, trust and respect.

“You don’t give up. You don’t give up,” he shouted as hundreds of campers and their supporters cheered.

The first camp session is only the beginning of summer and year-round activities for the international organization.

During the second session, more than 100 teenagers from Maine and as far away as New York will tackle community tensions in their states. Adult educators from the Middle East, South Asia and the United States will be on hand to examine the role that teaching of history plays in conflict settings.

Later this summer, 15 Israeli, Palestinian and American campers will sail off the coast of Maine as part of the Seas of Peace sailing and leadership dialog program.

Seeds of Peace also provides year-round local programs that focus on the core leadership capacities needed to advance peace.
“Let’s end this right here, right now. Let’s make peace,” Karim of the Jordanian delegation told fellow campers.

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