Short Relief: Optimism reigns in the woods of Maine

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Last week, while Syrian President Bashar Assad explicitly declared war on his own people, I attended the opening, flag-raising ceremony for the 20th season of Seeds of Peace. 

Seeds of Peace is a charitable organization started by author and journalist John Wallach in 1993. Its purpose is to promote lasting peace to regions in conflict. One of the ways it does so is by bringing teenagers from war-torn countries around the world to a camp on a lake in Maine.

This season it brought 210 of them, in delegations from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and the U.S. The delegates are chosen by their home country. The only requirement is that they be proficient in English. 

For three weeks, these teenagers participate in normal summer camp activities like swimming, hiking, and canoeing. They also engage in facilitated dialogues that aspire to expose misconceptions, if not build understanding. 

The ground rules include that the participants have to listen, have to be respectful of one another, and can only rely upon what they know from their own personal experiences. As I understand it, the premise is that the way to break the cycle of violence is to get to the new generation before prejudice takes hold.

To date, the program has produced about 5,000 Seeds alumni, residing around the world.

I arrived just as the flag-raising ceremony was beginning. Camp Director Leslie Lewin welcomed the group. Associate Director Will Smith quoted tennis champion, civil rights activist and AIDS activist Arthur Ashe, who, when asked what an average person could do to solve a problem like Apartheid in South Africa, said, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.

Seeds alumni spoke as representatives for each of the delegations. Several emphasized the rarity of the opportunity and urged their fellow Seeds not to hold back at the risk of regretting, but rather to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the endeavor and make the most of it. The Egyptian rep quoted Steve Jobs about how you have to be crazy to change the world. The Maine rep talked about being ready when opportunity presents itself.

Some referred to their traditional adversaries as “the other side.”  The Palestinian rep was the most aggrieved. She was resentful of living under Israeli occupation. The Pakistani rep was the most upbeat. She related how she experienced the principles of Seeds of Peace in real life: When Pakistan suffered terrible flooding, it was the Indian friends she made at Seeds of Peace who were most concerned and solicitous.

The American rep recalled participating in a team-building exercise where she was in a canoe, in the middle of the lake, with a blindfolded Israeli, a Palestinian, and one paddle. The task was to get to shore. The situation became so antagonistic that they capsized the canoe – and had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation they had created.

After each rep spoke, their delegation sang their country’s anthem and raised their county’s flag. The two loudest renditions were of the Palestinian anthem and The Star-Spangled Banner.

Former camp Director Tim Wilson recalled how he answered the call and was pressed into service to be the camp’s first director. He reminded the campers of the principles of communication, respect and honesty, and exhorted them to shed the trappings of their cultures and societies to be the best human beings they could be.

At the end of the ceremony, the group sang the Seeds of Peace song, with its verses about learning from the past, tearing down walls, building bridges and friendships. Afterward, the Seeds headed off to the day’s activities.

I left with a sense of optimism about the future.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.