Seeds peaceTransformational learning process changes how ancient enemies view each other

At first glance, the gathering on that June morning looked like the opening of any other summer camp in Maine. Groups of teens stood arm in arm, campers and counselors sported matching green tee-shirts, and bunkmates shared lively cheers as they responded to roll call.

But Seeds of Peace International Camp on Pleasant Lake in Otisfield, Maine, is no ordinary summer camp. And the expectancy and excitement on the campers’ faces that morning belied the apprehension that likely brewed just below the surface. These 160 campers, culled from more than 8,000 applications, knew that once the speeches were completed and the flags raised, they would spend the next three weeks learning to accept and respect those they’d always viewed with anger and fear.

Seeds of Peace assembles the campers, or “Seeds” as they’re called, from seven conflict-torn countries in the Middle East and South Asia to instill in them a desire for peace and to cultivate the leadership and communication skills necessary to spread the message of peace. The camp is run by an international organization of the same name, which also runs programs to follow up with campers once they return home.

For the first decade, the camp brought together teens from Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan, but shortly after the new millennium, the program expanded to include campers from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maine campers also were welcomed starting in 2003.

A volunteer with the organization since 1995, Dr. Tom Hancock was a Saint Joseph’s online faculty member when Seeds of Peace hired him to oversee programs in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan designed to keep up the Seeds’ momentum, maintain contact with their new friends across the borders, and provide a way to involve their friends and families. He is now the program director for the online Master of Science in Education program at the college.

Hancock says he has always been intrigued by an Old Testament verse that asks “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

“To do justice – what does that mean?” Answering his own question, he says, “Having it cost you something. If it doesn’t, it’s just being kind,” he says.

The question has motivated Hancock in his work with Seeds of Peace and in his current position. Taking inspiration and example from the young Seeds, Hancock defines education as change.

“When you educate someone, you hope at the end of the process they’re … different,” he said.

At Seeds of Peace camp, that process juxtaposes powerful emotions and conflicting perceptions as the Seeds confront their anger and preconceived ideas while working toward listening and understanding – though not necessarily agreeing with – those with radically different points of view. This is not typical sharing ‘round the campfire. The scheduled dialogue sessions often intensify as the campers, assisted by professional facilitators, begin examining their assumptions as they look into the faces of ancient enemies.

During the opening ceremony, the Seeds were challenged and exhorted by returning campers and staff. Senior advisor and summer camp director emeritus, Tim Wilson, encouraged them to learn to work with each other as human beings.

“Governments do not make peace; people make peace,” he said.

“It’s far more than just a summer camp; it’s a lifestyle,” said Zeena, representing the Egyptian delegation. “Breathe this place in, live in the moment… Cherish the memories – they will become your refuge because it will get hard.”

This summer marks the camp’s 18th year. Since its inception, it has seen more than 4,000 Seeds come through its gates and return to their countries, equipped with new knowledge and tools, to give the enemy a human face and share the message of peace with family and friends.

The majority of the Seeds of Peace campers do exhibit lasting change, according to Hancock. The hope is that change will have a significant impact as they mature and take their place in society, possibly as leaders in the business world or in the political arena, he said.

“Seeds of Peace is not to change minds, but to open ears; to understand the pain of what others go through – a de-stereotyping,” Hancock says. “They come a long way not to say what they want to say.”

Hancock incorporated many of Seeds of Peace principles in the curriculum of the Mediation and Negotiation course he developed for the master’s degree program. In the unit devoted to transformational learning, the steps he outlines reflect the process used in the camp’s dialogue sessions.

An essay question he gives his students asks them to examine education as an essential tool, as described in this statement made by a Seeds of Peace youth: “The many obstacles that we overcame in our journey of exploring education led us to conclude that education can be an essential tool for removing violence and terror from our societies,” the youth wrote in “Charter on Uprooting Hatred and Terror,” 2001.

Because of Hancock’s contacts with Seeds of Peace, this summer returning campers will spend a day on campus learning about the campus farm and Catherine’s Cupboard Food Pantry. Their focus will be on learning how these dynamic grassroots efforts started and organized themselves without a big budget.

At the suggestion of Hancock, this year’s Saint Joseph’s graduating class welcomed Seeds of Peace founding Board member and former President, Janet Wallach, as its 2010 commencement speaker. The wife of the organization’s founder, the late John Wallach, she spoke of the transforming and contagious power of Seeds of Peace and challenged the graduation crowd to “face (their) fears” and “reach out to people from all sides.”

She told the graduation crowd, “One Jordanian girl walked out of a dialogue session one day and said, ‘What I’ve learned is that you’ve got to go to war with yourself before you can make peace with your enemy.’”

While at camp, these Seeds learn to embrace peaceful coexistence, but when they return to their homes, Wallach said, they are often condemned as traitors and scorned for being friends of the enemy.

Knowing this can make it painful for camp staff to say goodbye, Hancock says.

“It’s hard putting some of them back on the bus and sending them home,” he said “They have seen heaven and, sadly, some of them are returning to lands where fear and misunderstanding still dominate.”

But on that hot summer day in Otisfield, as the new Seeds stood arm in arm, the focus was on the next three weeks and the positive changes it would make in their lives.

Rayan, 17, a returning Seed from India, knew Hancock as the dialog facilitator from his first camp experience two years ago for campers from India and Pakistan.

“(Camp) has changed everything. It changes the way you think and that results in changing the things you do,” Rayan, said.

In his comments to the new campers at the opening ceremony, director emeritus Wilson challenged them to make the most of every second of their stay. Wilson has personal experience with breaking new ground. The first African-American to coach high school football in Maine, he was also the first person of color and first non-Jew to attend and eventually become a counselor at an all-Jewish camp 50 years ago – the camp located on the spot now occupied by Seeds of Peace. He was also instrumental in enrolling the first Seeds of Peace camper as a student at Saint Joseph’s College this fall.

“Leave a legacy at this place… that people remember you by,” he told the young campers. “Peace is a job, because you’ve got to work at it.”

by Peggy Roberts