When Bushra Jawabri, now 20, a Palestinian refugee from the West Bank, arrived in Maine for a summer camp session at Seeds of Peace, she was terrified at the thought of sleeping in a cabin with her sworn enemy.
"I remember at the opening ceremony I was afraid to introduce myself because that person might be Israeli, and the picture I had of them were of soldiers who wanted to kill us," recalls Jawabri of the visit in 1995 at the camp in rural Otisfield, about 30 miles northwest of Portland. Since 1993, the camp has hosted teens from conflict-ridden regions around the world. Despite her fears, Jawabri slept in a bunk with 10 other girls--half of them Israeli, the other half Palestinian--and, to her relief, "woke up the following morning with the Israeli girls and nothing had happened. Nothing had happened to me; nothing had happened to them." Now a junior at Manhattanville College in New York, Jawabri said it was a big revelation.
Such moments are daily occurrences at Seeds of Peace, which was founded--by former journalist John Wallach, who had covered the Middle East--with a group of 40 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers who came to the camp for its first two-week session. This summer, Seeds of Peace will host about 450 children and 75 adults from 22 countries, including this year, for the first time, Afghanistan.
Although the program began by focusing on the Middle East, it has greatly expanded its scope over the last two years. "Our signature program was the Middle East. Because that model was so impressive, we started to get approached by other people," said Dena Fisher, executive director of the program, which has a staff of 25 with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem.
"Cyprus was the first non-Middle Eastern country to come, in 1998, and the Balkans were added in 2000," Fisher said recently from her office in New York. Other participating countries, including India and Pakistan, were added only last year.
"We could expand a million-fold, it's just a question of resources," Fisher said, citing Ireland as a country they would like to bring into the program.
Aside from a small group of U.S. campers, the children come from war-torn countries where they have been taught to distrust outside cultures. The tactic is to pair them with other kids whom they would otherwise see as enemies.
Twelve Afghan teenagers--six girls and six boys, ages 13 to 15--will come to the camp this summer and will be expected to interact with Indian, Pakistani and American campers.
"No one is suggesting that youth exchange is going to end a war or conflict," said Susan Crais Hovanec of the South Asian Bureau of the U.S. State Department from her office in Washington, D.C. The hope is, however, that the participation of the Afghan children might make them less vulnerable to being recruited into terrorist organizations.
"Children born of despair and violence and intolerance are nurtured to hate and be distrustful and are highly susceptible to terrorist propaganda. But children who are enabled to experience cross-cultural encounters themselves and form their own opinions and beliefs become seeds of peace," said Hovanec.
The Afghan government was quick to jump at the chance to participate this year, said Homeyra Mokhtarzada of the Afghan Embassy in Washington, despite the fact that when Seeds of Peace officials first made overtures in January, the newly formed Afghan government was barely a month old.
"When we told Kabul [about the opportunity to participate], the ministry didn't have phone systems or even electricity," Mokhtarzada said. "The fact that they worked so hard to get these kids to Seeds of Peace speaks to how important the program was to the government. There are so many other priorities, but when this program came along, the minister of education, Rasool Amin, himself made it a priority to participate."
There was some concern, however, that it would be difficult to find Afghan children fluent in English, a requirement of the camp. As it turned out, more than 350 qualified teens applied for the 12 slots.
One reason the Afghan government was so eager to participate was to have Afghan voices represented in international dialogue, especially the voices of children, Mokhtarzada said. "I thought it would be a great experience not only for the kids from Afghanistan, but for the American children to learn about young Afghan kids' dreams and aspirations, what they face day to day and what they've lived through. These are kids who were there in the very worst of times under the Taliban and were not lucky enough to leave. By participating in Seeds of Peace, we are giving a voice to a group from Afghanistan who haven't been heard from."