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Talking with Tomorrow’s Peacemakers

Teenagers Take on the Big Issues

by Akash Mehta

We live in a violent world filled with conflict, and we always have. But every member of every generation has a responsibility to our world, each in our own way, to lessen the unhappiness that reigns on this planet. Our generation, like the ones before it, will grow up and lead the world. It is essential that tomorrow’s leaders, trying to fix our world’s problems, are empathetic, understanding not only their own people’s suffering, but the suffering of those on the ‘other side’ as well.

Photo: Seeds of Peace

Photo: Seeds of Peace

Seeds of Peace and Face to Face/Faith to Faith (F2F) understand this goal and are dedicated to making it happen. The two are similar organizations. Both train high school kids from opposing sides of conflicts to better understand each other and challenge each other’s conceptions about the conflict. Conflicted teenagers who show leadership skills and can speak English (because they come from different parts of the world) are brought together for several weeks of intensive leadership skills training at a neutral site.

Seeds of Peace participants go to a camp in Maine with kids from opposite sides of a particular conflict. Seeds addresses different kinds of conflict, but one at a time. By contrast, F2F brings together kids from different conflict areas all at once, at a site in upstate New York. F2F focuses on religious rather than political disputes. It trains potential peacemakers, teaching them to develop and constructively challenge teens’ concepts about their religious and spiritual beliefs.

Both programs generate a variety of activities, everything from games to serious discussions.

To get a better sense of what attendees experience, I interviewed participants from both programs, kids who live in different parts of the world – Sarah, Yaala, Mahmoud, and Naomi.

Yaala Muller is a 17-year-old Israeli from the city of Modi’in, near Jerusalem. She attended Seeds of Peace in 2009. Mahmoud Jabari is a Palestinian from Hebron. Now 19 years old, Mahmoud has long been committed to seeing both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He attended the Seeds camp in 2007.

Naomi Lynch and Sarah Logan, both from Belfast in Northern Ireland, participated in Face to Face/Faith to Faith. Naomi, 19 and a Catholic, attended in 2008, returning as a Leader in Training (LIT) in 2009. Sarah, now 20, did the same, starting a year later. She doesn’t identify herself as either Catholic or Protestant, just Christian.

The Israel/Palestine conflict is well known, the conflict in Northern Ireland, these days, less so. So let me summarize the conflict in Northern Ireland. But don’t jump to conclusions, for as Naomi eloquently said, “Don’t assume that you have all the answers. Conflict is a very complex subject, and sometimes it’s hard to draw a clear line between right and wrong.”

Britain ruled Ireland in the seventeenth century. Since the English and Scottish mainly settled in Northern Ireland, it became largely Protestant, unlike the rest of the Ireland, which was Catholic. As the years progressed, the North and South grew further apart, due to economic as well as religious differences. In the early twentieth century, Northern Ireland was politically separated from the rest of Ireland. The Southern Catholics wanted independence from the British; the Northern Protestants were against being ruled by Catholics, and they began a bitter war.

In 1921, they agreed by treaty to create a new state called the “Irish Free State,” comprised of Southern Ireland, and that six northern counties, known as Northern Ireland, would remain in the United Kingdom. Hostilities were subdued until the early 1960s, when severe violence returned to stay. Since 1985, political struggles and negotiations have ensued with occasional violence continuing.

F2F Northern Ireland receive a peace award in Dublin.

F2F Northern Ireland receive a peace award in Dublin.

Sarah says, “It sometimes doesn’t seem like Northern Ireland is moving on. However, there are a lot of cross community programs happening, like F2F, encouraging young people to get rid of stereotypes and discriminating attitudes that they may have of the ‘other.’ Programs like these will really help to create a more peaceful generation.” Naomi says that almost all Irish people are opposed to the current violence: “But our culture of bystanding has not changed.”

Sarah says about her experience of F2F: “The variety of activities available was remarkable, including dancing, yoga, art, meditation, discussions about religion, listening to a gospel choir, games, plays… the list goes on and on. I feel truly privileged to have had such a chance to get away from normal life and try different activities and experiences.”

The time together is like a normal camp, but in addition to camp activities, they focus on the issues at stake. In the F2F site talk is about worldwide issues that aren’t necessarily particular to participants. The real jewel is when kids from opposite sides of issues interact: when Israelis play soccer – excuse me, football – with Palestinians, and Irish Catholics have discussions with Irish Protestants about their beliefs and their conflict. These experiences forge ties to last a lifetime, influencing all the decisions they will make regarding their conflict.

Getting Beyond Misinformation

Conflicted communities are usually overrun with misinformation. Take Israel and Palestine. “The image I held about the Israelis was the one we see on TV, as soldiers who have nothing except tanks and fighter planes,” says Mahmoud. Alternately, Israelis tend to see images of Palestinians as terrorists. Both groups fail to see each other as they really are, namely as innocent kids in the middle of a larger conflict.

“So many Israelis go their entire lives without speaking to a Palestinian or even an Arab-Israeli, and so many Palestinians go their entire lives only confronting Israeli soldiers. Rarely do ‘regular’ Palestinian and Israeli folks have a chance to speak and interact,” Yaala told me.

“In many of these conflict areas, one can’t safely discuss issues. So one of the greatest parts about these programs is offering a place for kids – many of whom have stifled questions about their conflict issues – to be able to talk freely, especially with kids from the other side of the conflict, who they normally would never get a chance to meet. These are kids who they’ve been brought up to believe are all terrorists who want to kill them and take their land, or some other rubbish.” Seeds of Peace and F2F give kids an opportunity to learn that the kids across a border are . . . just like them.

Both organizations choose kids who are outgoing as well as smart, and can speak English, for good reason. For instance, Seeds of Peace had a domestic program for citizens of Maine. The state is a fairly white region, with little racial diversity or wealth. So when Federal programs relocated groups of five to ten refugee families in a number of communities of Maine, trouble brewed. The newcomers weren’t like the rest in racial, religious, or ethnic ways. Tons of tension developed between the local white community leaders and the new arrivals they had to provide for.

Seeds of Peace helped ease the tension by inviting native schoolchildren and the new arrivals to share a camp where they could discuss their issues. They selected children who are looked up to. So when the native white children (whose parents were probably telling them horrible stories about the asylum seekers) see the captain of the football team becoming best friends with a Cambodian boy after a summer spent together, they rethink their knee-jerk decision to isolate those who are different from themselves.

Both Seeds of Peace and F2F teach lessons that are applicable to conflicts everywhere. When we fight our brothers and sisters we forget that they are who we are. There is no nation, religion, or other group anywhere that is populated only with evil people. There are nations with evil rulers – but we must fight only those leaders, not their people.

Tonight, as I write this paragraph, President Obama confirmed that the CIA successfully killed Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda. The news station cut to a scene of a joyful celebration outside White House gates. A throng of jumping, yelling exuberant twenty-year-olds chanted, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

I can only hope that these people are celebrating for the right reasons. I can only hope that they don’t see Bin Laden as a representative of Islamic people. And if they do? That’s misinformation for you, just the stuff Seeds of Peace and F2F are fighting. They aren’t fighting Israelis or Catholics or U.S. refugees or Muslims – they have only one real enemy, and that is the tragic force of misinformation.

The teens from these programs realize that they will lead their nations. Most of us, not living in areas of intense conflict, lack the motivation to fix our own problems. Yet we, as privileged kids without many problems, have just the same responsibility as kids who come from less fortunate and more conflicted backgrounds. Because we live in some of the best parts of this world, we should try to help others who don’t, to compensate for our own good fortune. I urge you – get involved! Make the world a better place, in whatever way you can.

Akash Mehta was a seventh grader when he wrote this article. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is on the Editorial Board of KidSpirit Magazine, where this article was originally published.