Imagine being told to trust someone who you feel threatens your very existence, someone who has been taught to hate you since birth. We cannot choose the lives into which we are born; but we can choose what we ultimately do with them and the challenges we choose to take on. The magnitude of this concept altered the way I view the world at large after attending Seeds of Peace, a camp in Otisfield, Maine, where teenagers from across the Middle East and North America work on conflict resolution and finding commonalities.
The summer after ninth grade I was accepted as an American delegate at Seeds of Peace. Upon returning home from this unique experience, I felt compelled to share my story.
The camp structure and format are similar to most camps; sports during the day, general swim, evening activity, and bunk life. The difference is not in the camp itself, but in the campers. Each year, as many as 300 teens from Middle East conflict areas spend their summers together for the purpose of seeing, hearing, and learning from their “enemies.”
|Marti Satnick, left, spent a summer at Seeds of Peace, a camp that brings together teenagers from the Middle East for conflict resolution. Courtesy Marti Satnick|
Having grown up attending Jewish day school in Bergen County, I have been exposed to the Middle East controversies, specifically the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, since a young age. The Middle East has always been a sensitive issue, but with peace talks again in the headlines and obstacles such as settlement-building in the west bank and east Jerusalem threatening the continuation of the talks, I cannot stay silent. We must continue the process and not allow brick and mortar to interfere with the desire of what the next generation truly wants.
This is my story.
From the moment I stepped off the bus, I foresaw the emotional summer that lay ahead. I was surrounded by blaring horns, 20 different national flags flying above, and armed troopers. I was a “seed”; planted on this neutral ground with groups of teens from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Egypt, hoping to cultivate a small path toward peace. My dialogue hut consisted of five Israelis, five Palestinians, one Arab-Israeli, one Egyptian, one Jordanian, and two Americans. We exchanged stories about our backgrounds and what brought us to Seeds of Peace. With the help of a facilitator, we delved into politics, culture, emotions, and discussed conflict resolution. It didn’t take long for us to get into heated discussion.
Leem, a Palestinian girl, shared with the group that during a curfew, her little brother’s ball rolled out onto their porch; he ran to get it and was shot by an Israeli guard. Yael, an Israeli, shared the story of her uncle’s death during a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafÃ©. How does someone get past experiences such as those? I could never fathom living each day in fear.
As the debates continued, I began to see a change. Both sides slowly started to trust. I watched layers of hatred unpeel as we pursued harmony. We lived by the motto, “We have two ears and one mouth – listen twice as much as you speak.” As the youth of these conflict regions began to learn tolerance, I began to learn patience, compassion, and the importance of listening.
The notion of acceptance was paramount and education was of key importance. After many “trust relying” tasks, comfort levels amongst the Middle Eastern teens were noticeably more relaxed and signs of friendships began to emerge; friendships that would have been impossible in their respective homelands. I began to appreciate the scope of people’s differences and to allow myself to embrace foreign ideas. I ate foods native to their countries – shakshuka, matbucha – and I learned to speak words in their languages. I learned about the concept of modesty in the Muslim religion; for example, when the girls swam in the lake, a red flag would hang on a pole to alert the boys that the lake was off limits.
When I arrived home, I struggled. I was always taught to love the State of Israel and had very biased feelings regarding the conflicts in the Middle East. I found myself in turmoil. Coincidentally, a week after coming home from Seeds of Peace, I visited Israel and Jordan with my family. I had been to Israel many times before but this time I looked at the Israeli soldiers and their “enemies” in a different light. I began to sympathize with both sides and this bothered me. My roots were being torn. I wanted to visit my Palestinian friends and I was disappointed when they were not allowed through the border patrols to meet me in Tel Aviv. I was frustrated while in the west bank, knowing that the people I had just lived with were a stone’s throw away yet could not pass to visit.
Crossing the border into Jordan, while others felt fear, I felt comfort. Once I returned home, I continued to grapple with why peace was so difficult to achieve if the youth on both sides were so eager for it? Instead of trying to resolve my inner conflict alone, I turned to my rabbi and teachers for advice. They suggested I talk about my experience publicly. I gave speeches at my synagogue, I addressed an assembly at school, and through these open communications I was able to realize that my inner struggles had given me strength. This conflict forced me to deal with some personal demons and to rise above them. Sharing this experience publicly was clarifying and cathartic.
I have learned to look for the inherent good in people and recognize that challenging situations can have positive outcomes. I watched Palestinians and Israelis break barriers with each other. I witnessed their desire for peace and their shared frustrations. I cried, I laughed, and I lived in awe that summer. Most importantly, Seeds of Peace educated me and made me realize that a single voice, my single voice, can help make a difference. I now know that I have that voice that needs to be heard and the courage to speak.
For more information on Seeds of Peace, visit www.seedsofpeace.org.