OTISFIELD — Osaid gave the jet-lagged teens sealed envelopes with special instructions: Don’t open them. 

Not yet, at least. There would come a moment during their three-week stay at Seeds of Peace — after they’d argued or maybe even yelled about geopolitics and history — that they’d return to their camp bunks at night, heads swirling with anger and maybe even sadness, and they’d need what was inside.  

Don’t panic, he told them. I was scared, too. 

Now a peer support counselor at the camp on Pleasant Lake, Osaid, a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem and spent last year attending John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, was one of more than 300 people who gathered to mark the beginning sessions of the Seeds of Peace camp at a flag-raising ceremony Sunday morning. 

Two summers ago, Osaid remembered how arguments were waged across camp tables as thousands of miles away the Israeli-Gaza conflict raged. Many people felt angry and afraid: Why are we talking to the other side when there’s a war going on?

 But after a week together, something shifted, he said. Arguments became conversations and teenagers from war-torn countries — some in conflict with another — became teenagers at a camp on a lake.

“You’re raised on ideas of hatred, though we’re not a hateful people. But there seems to be this consistent message, each generation reiterating hate,” is how Farah, 17, a Muslim from Egypt and a camp counselor, put it. 

“But why?”

Arm in arm, some singing, 178 campers from Palestine, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the United Kingdom and the United States walked up a long dirt road from their cabins where they’d arrived a little over a day before to watch the flags of people, some of whom they’d been taught to hate, rise into the air. 

One camper flashed a photographer a peace sign; everyone else: smiles. 

Two years ago, Farah recalled, an Israeli friend nervously watched the same Palestinian flag go up and tensed as campers took up their national anthem, as though expecting violence. But on Sunday the only thing that fell was a light rain, and even that stopped after a while. 

“We’re not going through simple lives,” Farah said. 

Afterward, returning to Cairo with a message of hope was difficult, she said: there was official pushback and sometimes her friends and family didn’t understand when she organized fundraisers, or volunteered at charities. 

“Outside, back at home, you have to work a lot harder.”

On the outside they dressed the same, in bulky blue Seeds of Peace sweatshirts, dark sweatpants, Nike sneakers and L.L. Bean boots. For at least an hour a day over the next 3½ weeks, the campers will participate in conflict-resolution sessions and other activities intended to teach them how to be the new generation of peace leaders.

Noa Gordon, who attended in 2014 and returned as a counselor this year, lives outside Jerusalem. Before she came to the camp, she’d never forced herself to listen to the other side. She came away with a simple truth: “We’re all teenagers. We all like music. We’re all the same.”

Sunday’s ceremony was the opening session of the internationally recognized camp, now in it’s 24th year. It was founded by Bobbie Gottschalk and journalist John Wallach on 44 acres of pine forest on Pleasant Lake. In addition to the students, an 18-member delegation of adults from each country participates in their own dialogue sessions. 

The campers are selected from thousands of applicants from around the world and live in bunks of nine or more, sleeping, sharing meals and talking with teenagers whom some have been taught to fear. 

Arms linked, five counselors took turns speaking from the same text, urging campers — called “seeds” — to see their worldview as just one of a multitude. 

Vulnerability would allow them to trust others; stepping out from their comfort zones would bring change.

“I have to balance who I am with who I will become,” they said. 

In a fist-smacking, fiery oration, Tim Wilson, the organization’s director for Maine, said that students will learn respect, humility and how to communicate with each other.

 “You are not guaranteed an extra day, “Wilson cried. 

A second camp session featuring 127 youths from Maine and  — for the first time  — Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., will be held in August to tackle questions of policing, poverty and education.

Looking past the gate and into the camp, counselor Orlando Arellano told the campers that the kind of community they want to foster is up to them. 

“What’s your story? What’s your story?” 

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.