Cross-cultural experience Teenagers sow seeds of peace [Archives:2003/09/Focus]

February 3 2003

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Why is it that some people are full of intolerance and ignorance? One reason is that ignorance is caused by the misinterpretation of others – or better to say the ‘other side, ‘ the so-called ‘enemies.’
They are full of stereotypes which will, therefore, lead them to have hatred for each other. I hereby refer to it as ‘intolerance’ and ‘blindness’ as well.
Problems between countries cause conflicts where different sides begin struggling and fighting, and afterwards people transfer there feelings, subsequently, to hatred for the other side. They live with big condemnation and resentment for each other.
They avoid any peace resolution and negotiations or any reconciliation between each other while they turn to war and fighting. A cycle of violence goes on between them, which becomes an act apt to be “revenging” for what the first side did.
And so this struggle is likely to become endless.
Such a struggle is an example of the current situation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is an act of vicious destructiveness and fatality where innocents are the victims of this struggle, while others are waiting for their unknown fate.
While this situation is going on, a step has been taken by a peace organization called “Seeds of Peace” to bring awareness about sacrosanct falsehoods and misconceptions. Set in the woods of Otisfield, Maine, USA, Seeds of Peace brings youngsters from different conflict areas to negotiate and co-exist together in the peaceful environment of a summer camp for about a month.
This organization was founded in 1993 by the late American journalist, John Wallach, who hosted 46 teenagers from three countries from the Middle-east: Palestine, Israel and Egypt.
The program has extended ever since, and now hosts several conflict areas; the Middle East (Palestinians, Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Qataris and Yemenis), Cyprus (North and South Cypriots), Greece and Turkey, Balkans (Macedonians, Albanians, Bosnians, Croatians and Kosovars), Indians and Pakistanis, Afghans, and Americans.
In the summer of 2002, Seeds of Peace hosted the participation of over 450 teenagers from the above delegations. There are more than 2000 graduates from Seeds of Peace, so far.
It has gained the recognition of many world leaders, including President George W. Bush, former President Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the late King Hussein, King Abdullah and Queen Noor of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Barak, President Arafat, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mousa, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others.
I had the greatest opportunity, last summer, along with other two Yemenis, to participate in this camp. I have seen a big difference about how our lives were before.
At camp, we used to do many activities, such as sports and co-existence. Discussions were held daily by well trained facilitators. We shared our bunks, shared our opinions, ate with each other and played with each other.
There wasn’t any means of hatred, but rather feelings of love. The aim of discussion sessions was not to show one side is right and other is wrong, but they were for the campers to justify their position from the current conflict and articulate their own points of view to campers from the other side.
In the small rooms, which were called names like “Chipmunk” or “Loon”, etc., discussions were used, regardless where we are from and what religion we believe in, but rather for who we are. Some were hard enough that they were ended with tears, but all was under the control of the facilitators.
Although there used to be disagreements between our opinions and theirs, we respected each others’ and got to know that everyone has their own justification and articulation. We had the opportunity to empathize with the other side; we used to show each other how it is to be what we are now and where we are from.
It wasn’t easy at first to meet them and to accept the fact that we are same and alike. It all came ultimately as we have listened to and seen them closely.
I came to know about others’ realities and about mine. When I compared them with each other, I found that in the first place we are all people and humans being equal in dignity and rights. That’s how it will be at last as well.
People are born alike; they eat alike, live alike. There are no differences between people, but we people are the ones who make artificial distinctions between each other; whether it’s regarding the race, origin, sex, religion, beliefs or whatever it is. We are full of prejudices which make us carry this hatred for each other, which has no existence at all.
That is what I learned in my three and half weeks stay at camp.
Before I went to camp, I had such a fear of being condemned by my own people for staying with those so-called enemies. This fear vanished as I got there, and I happened to know that there is nothing wrong that I was doing. Is it wrong to know about others and to realize the deep misperceptions one was living in?
Many years of hatred have now actually washed away, which has been due to the living between those fierce denunciations and stereotypes that filled people around me. But what’s my mission now? It’s to spread this word of peace, and convey what I learned there to my community; tolerance and reality. That’s the real aim of Seeds of Peace.
This acknowledgement didn’t come to me as something I heard from someone, or something that I saw in the “lying” media, which in fact reflects the opposite, but it was something I saw in real life and heard from those people who are being prejudiced by my own, coming to the realization about their real side, that they do have a face.
I came to realize that nothing is impossible to achieve, but its achievement even comes with the little tiny hope that one has. This hope has come to me by Seeds of Peace and it grows bigger everyday, until one day it may become a truth. It’s a glowing light that will flash one day, and that’s my faith which my hope lies on.
My hope now is for the world to reach a settlement and stop these struggles, in order to gain an ever- lasting peace, which can be gained by the desire and the will to achieve it and by the conviction which brings courage to do so.
That can only be by the understanding which leads to enlightenment and gaining knowledge. It’s an example of those motivated groups of teenagers, whom I’m one of them, who met at Seeds of Peace and faced their realities.
“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” -Robert H. Goddard