OTISFIELD, Maine — This past weekend, even as heavy fighting raged in parts of Gaza, nearly 100 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers were singing songs, holding hands and sharing stories on the shores of Pleasant Lake in Otisfield. They're part an even larger delegation of young people who are in Maine for the Seeds of Peace International Camp. Now in its 22nd year, the camp is just one part of a larger program founded on the idea that peace is personal.
Every year camp officially begins with a flag-raising ceremony and inspirational messages from former campers and from staffers to the newest crop of "Seeds." Around the world there are now are 5,200 of them.
"The people here are not your enemies," Tim Wilson, a special advisor to Seeds of Peace and a former camp director, says to campers. "You're to learn from each other.
"It is extremely important that you do not blame people here for something over there," Wilson says. "You had nothing to do with it. When you put your head on your pillow tonight, you just think about the rest of the world and where you are and what you can do to make it better, what YOU can do to make it better."
As much as young campers from the Middle East and South Asia want to believe that's true, they say they must first confront their own belief systems. Out of concern for campers' safety back home, those who spoke with reporters only provided their first names.
"I attended camp first session 2012, two years ago and now I'm returning as a peer support, or PS, for the second year," says Nitsan, 16, of Israel.
She says being a camper was challenging. Campers spend about 70 hours in facilitated, group dialogue sessions that can be enlightening, engaging and, at times, heated. But as hard as that first year was, Nitsan says going home to Israel after camp was tougher. She says some question why she has Arab friends.
"The last two years have been really tough in terms of trying to keep my hope and trying to understand both sides and trying to understand my community, which I feel like I've learned to see my side is not black and white as well," Nitsan says. "In terms of my country's future, as difficult as it is, I really just see no other option as peace. It has to happen at some point. It can't continue like this."
"The most difficult thing for me is basically being here with all that is happening back home," says Rema, a Palestinian living in Israel who is also serving as a peer support. "When you start talking and you suddenly remember that back home there are people who are crying. Back home there are people whose voices are not raised. And you tell yourself: push yourself, get more energies and still — keep on doing what you came here for. It's not easy to keep on having those energies."
Seeds of Peace continues beyond camp with support and dialogue sessions and even mediation training for those who want to become facilitators. And facilitating is important when Seeds are using words such as "genocide" to describe what they see happening in Gaza. Or when "terrorist" is used to describe leaders of the Palestinian resistance.
"I just talk about what happens to me as a human and that's what you learn here," says Selma, 17, also a peer support and one of just two campers from Gaza. Eight others who were scheduled to attend were unable to get out because of the fighting.
Selma says she hasn't lost anyone close to her but a bomb destroyed her school in 2009. And she says in the last few weeks three of her neighbors' homes have been lost to shelling and a car was blown up in front of her house. Her own family has also had property damaged.
"My dad's land was demolished six times," Selma said. "He had 200 olive trees but he keeps planting them over and over again."
This weekend the new campers in Bunk 14 had a question. Do the Seeds of Peace grow up to become Trees of Peace? Some Seeds say they already have. Others, such as Nitsan, says that depends on so many unknown factors. But Rema, who says she intends to be a leader armed with everything she has learned, says the Seeds do become trees, as long as they have enough water.
The Seeds of Peace camp runs for the next three weeks.