I was a bit uncertain from the beginning. The sceptic in me doubted that such a grand idea can be executed successfully. The idea of gathering children and adults from ‘opposite’ sides of a dispute at a faraway place and expecting peace to prevail afterwards had a quixotic touch to it. Everyone kept saying the same things about the experience, from people whom I trusted to people who I knew were fond of hyperbole. Was it going to be a ‘Fool’s paradise’ or just another ‘Junket’? Slogans such as ‘The way life could be’ or ‘Empowering New generation of Leaders’ seemed like “Pure Applesauce”(to quote US Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia). I had a prior experience of a diplomatic conference that descended into a very undiplomatic circus as soon as things turned serious (It went fine when everything was fun and games). I was sceptical of the idea that children indoctrinated from a very young age about the ‘other’ side (India, Afghanistan, Israel) would be able to overcome their prejudices and start afresh. I have to confess dear readers, that I was wrong on all those accounts. My scepticism was largely misplaced. The world has not changed drastically during the last one month but I know more than a few people who have, including myself.
‘Seeds of Peace’ is an organization based in New York, founded in 1993 by American journalist John Wallach. As its centrepiece, Seeds of Peace organises a summer camp every year where kids aged 14-16 from the Middle East and South Asia are invited and housed for a duration of three weeks. Initially, only Israeli and Palestinian delegations were part of the camp (Boys-only for the first year) but South Asian delegations were involved following 9/11. In recent years, Seeds of Peace has grown beyond holding a camp each year and there are multiple programs being undertaken by the organization. The camp itself is located in Otisfield, Maine. The word ‘Maine’ comes from French and the state serves as a border between Canada and the United States. French-Canadian workers migrated en masse between 1860 and 1930 to the United States looking for work and a large majority settled in Maine, working for a number of Mills. Maine is a world apart from mainland US by way of natural beauty. There are thousands of Lakes in the state, surrounded by tall pine trees and wildlife. In Otisfield, Seeds of Peace camp is located next to a beautiful lake (aptly named ‘Pleasant Lake) and is a remnant of a Boys-only summer camp that used to exist at the same place for many decades.
John Wallach envisioned a place where kids from Israel and Palestine could live with each other
John Wallach envisioned a place where kids from Israel and Palestine could live with each other, explore their personal narratives, connect to each other on a human level and in future, some of them might join politics or government service. Once in a position of power/authority, they would have a better understanding of the ‘other’ and this breach in the wall of hatred could help mend relations between the two people. The same vision was present for the South Asia program. I myself grew up with a distrust of anything Indian and held a visceral antipathy towards the Afghans, despite never encountering an Indian or an Afghan till a few years ago. I never knew ‘their’ side of the story, their narrative, their hopes, their miseries, their attitude towards their government and narrative about International politics. The first I heard of ‘Seeds of Peace’ was through one of my friends in Medical School who had visited the camp during his school years. I learnt that every year, ten kids from Pakistan (called Seeds/Campers) are selected to visit the camp alongside two adults (known as ‘Delegation Leaders’).
In the year 2015, I was selected as one of the Delegation Leaders from Pakistan and went to camp. After six months of strenuous work at my workplace, it felt as a welcome respite. It was not a vacation though. The responsibility of escorting a dozen teenagers halfway around the world cannot possibly be a ‘vacation’. Once at camp, the staff took over from us and took care of the kids like their own. I had imagined my role as a glorified babysitter, accompanying the kids to camp and bringing them back, until I reached camp and learned about the Educators’ program. Twenty educators from eight countries (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and United States) gathered as part of the Educators program at the camp. It was a diverse group according to age and experiences. As a Trainee doctor and a part-time student of history, I initially felt a bit out of place. However, my doubts and fears were allayed soon after and we embarked on a journey from complete strangers to family members.
Escorting a dozen teenagers halfway around the world cannot possibly be a ‘vacation’
It was a unique social experiment. Gathering teachers and young students from conflict areas at a picturesque, peaceful place in the woods, without much access to the outside world and letting them discover the ‘magic’ of peaceful coexistence. Most of the attendees at camp (including myself) had not lived so far from ‘settled areas’, among nature itself, for an extended amount of time. There were all sorts of logistical challenges that we encountered but eventually made peace with. Most members of my delegation had never seen or met someone from India or Israel. It was a new and slightly ‘weird’ experience for them to confront their ‘supposed enemies’.
I had visited the United States before but the camp experience was very different from my previous excursion. We visited a typical American high school and it was an enriching experience, particularly because of the emphasis on technical education that we saw. Technical Education at high school level is not given much importance in Pakistan. I was amazed to see the day-care system alongside the technical education department where young students supervised children between ages of 4-7 years as part of training to become Primary School teachers. We also learnt about the Somali influx to the state of Maine and how efforts at integration have been adopted (and their success/failure in different spheres of life).
Another great memory involved riding sailboats in the Atlantic Ocean
One of our destinations was the Centre for Grieving Children, a remarkable community-led initiative for children who lose their parents or undergo trauma. Trauma in any shape or form should ideally be dealt with, by either peer support or by experienced professionals, something that the Centre catered for children and adults of the area. We also visited Harvard University and took a short tour of the Undergraduate campus. In Boston, I chose to follow in the footsteps of America’s founding fathers and did the ‘Freedom Trail’. We were visited at camp by a band consisting of two brothers, known as ‘Yares Brothers’. They were not just musicians, but also social activists and educators. After serenading us with American folk tunes during the night, they educated us about history of Protest music in the United States during the last century. It was a typical of our various camp experiences: the feelings of joy and pleasure mixed with education.
Visiting the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, Maine is perhaps one my fondest memories from the trip. Norlands is the family home of the Washburns, one of the great political and industrial dynasties of the 19th century. Of the ten children born to Israel and Martha Washburn, seven sons rose to serve as governors, congressmen, a United States senator, Secretary of State, foreign ministers, a Civil War general, and a Navy captain.
The centrepiece of our camp experience was the process of ‘dialogue’
We experienced life as it truly was in 18th and 19th century Maine including a visit to the school house located near the Norlands. It was a surreal experience to be treated like we were in 1870 A.D. Another great memory involved riding sailboats in the Atlantic Ocean while a strong wind (31 km/hr at one point in our voyage) conspired to rock our boat. Our hosts deserved all the credit for keeping everyone on board despite the intense wind. We also ended up hiking in Mount Blue State Park, a state-operated public recreation area.
The centrepiece of our camp experience was the process of ‘dialogue’ and non-violent communication. A lot of disputes in the world can be sorted out by using simple communication tools. We learnt about empathy, about attention spans, about our innate conditioning to blame ourselves or others for our problems without empathizing, about basic human needs and feelings, about the importance of team work, patient listening, sharing, about the idea of ‘grounding’ and ‘presence’ and much more. We were asked to share our national narratives, to discuss the major impressions about our ‘enemy’ countries, to describe the condition of minorities in our lands. The daily ‘Dialogue’ process incorporated practices from Native Indian tribes and involved reading a poem or an inspirational quote. We started the process by creating a bond, a syncytium, a group that moved together, succeeded together and failed together.
From my colleagues’ personal stories, I discovered the barbarous methods adopted by Israeli police and investigators, the fear of annihilation surrounding Israeli society, plight of women under rule of Taliban, helplessness faced by Palestinians when their lands were taken over to form settlements, tales of courage in face of patriarchal attitudes and familial intrigues in the subcontinent, the anxiety of a parent raising a child with autism and much more. Other than traditional story-telling, we had the opportunity to use playback theatre to express our stories. Based on this experience, I was able to understand something an Indian friend of mine had said some time ago, that ‘Everyone was suffering’, each in his or her own way.
Outside of the educators’ circle, I had diverse discussions with people present at the camp. The memorable ones included an exchange of ideas with a Harvard Undergrad on Rohail Hyatt’s philosophy of music, explaining the Pak-Afghan relation to an Israeli facilitator, shedding light on the tale of Heer Ranjha, comparison between boarding schools in Pakistan and South Africa, a discussion on merits and demerits of subaltern school of history and an impromptu presentation on the supremely stupid ‘Strategic Depth’ idea.
While I learnt important lessons in formal dialogue sessions, I believe that I learnt invaluable lessons during morning walks, daily meals, road trips and on the volleyball court. Although it was a bit tough for me to reconcile with a 58 year old Israeli Arab offering me lessons in Volleyball and an 8 year old Marylander teaching me the intricacies of Ultimate Frisbee. I couldn’t master the famous Dabka dance or the forehand Frisbee throw or swimming, but at least I got the opportunities to learn all these things in the first place.
Throughout the visit, I encountered people from countries as diverse as Morocco, Zambia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Nepal, West Indies and South Africa, both inside and outside the camp. During my ‘Home Hospitality’ experience, I visited one of Seeds of Peace’s previous Director of South Asian Affairs. He had been a vegetarian till he visited Lahore almost a decade ago, something I could identify with very easily. Her daughter-in-law was visiting from England and I invariably talked about the horrors of British Raj. My wonderful host later joked that I had started hounding her poor daughter-in-law just because she was British.
The camp became our ‘Happy Place’
As a group, we grew up, talked to each other, connected on a human level, fought, cried, laughed, enjoyed, made combined projects, agreed, then disagreed and then reflected. We inadvertently started using the ‘Dialogue Process’ in our daily life at camp. The camp became our ‘Happy Place’ and Pleasant Lake became a permanent backdrop to everything we did. We learnt and sang a Nigerian Song for the campers and also did a rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. We worked hard in ‘Group Challenge’ to strategize and perform as a team. After twin atrocities in Jerusalem and Nablus, we stood side-by-side, in front of the whole camp, denouncing acts of violence and bigotry.
It is not usual for a Pakistani to have breakfast with Israelis, play volleyball with Palestinians, share jokes about Americans with Indians and sing songs with the Jordanians, all in one day. But it did happen at Seeds of Peace. In light of everything I felt at the camp, I think it would be apt for Seeds of Peace to should change its motto to ‘The Way Life Should Be’.