By Focusing on Young Girls, Camp Hopes to Foster a Future of Peace

Eleven girls, ages 15 to 17, sat together on a hot summer afternoon recently, knitting and talking.

You’d never guess that these girls — Israeli Jews and Arabs, a Palestinian and an Israeli Druze — are supposed to be “enemies.”

The girls were attending a two-week “Creativity For Peace Camp” in Glorieta, N.M., sponsored by the Deva Foundation.

The camp aims to create a peaceful environment where the girls can share their experiences and opinions and develop strong friendships, helping to promote Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

“By establishing friendships, we hope they will better understand each other’s point of view, since they can face the ‘enemy,’ ” camp co-director Rachel Kauffman said. “In forming friendships, it will dissolve stereotypes and racism.

“Every girl has said, ‘What I’m proud of about my people is that we’re all survivors,’ and by having that in common, it breaks down stereotypes,” Kauffman said. “An enemy is a person’s story you haven’t heard.”

This is the first time the Deva Foundation has hosted this camp, but similar peace camps have been organized nationally and internationally. Camp activities were based on art, including photography, visual arts and performance.

“Art is a very important way to extricate emotional wounds,” said Debra Sugerman, the camp’s co-director and art curriculum director. “Being able to grab the children at this age and give them ideas and confidence will teach the adults” in their communities “who are acting out of fear.”

The camp is funded by private donations, and there is no charge for the girls to participate. The girls are chosen through an extensive application process in which they write a two-page biography and answer questions such as, “What is peace?”

They also submit two recommendations and go through interviews. All of the participants speak English.

“We believe it’s women who are going to be the peacemakers,” camp coordinator Ana Harpaz said. “All these women will eventually be mothers, and by passing this on to their children they will educate them.”

Kauffman said there also were practical reasons for taking only girls: The camp had only one dormitory available.

“But on a philosophical level, women in the Middle East don’t have as much of a chance for leadership training, so we wanted to fill that gap,” she said. “Girls are more emotionally easier to deal with, and they will influence the next generation.”

“The movement for peace in Ireland was started by women,” she pronounced. “Men are too busy fighting.”

Among the highlights of the camp were “compassionate listening” sessions where the girls shared their experiences of the Arab-Israeli conflict and of violence.

“Americans really see our situation differently,” said Maya Gofel, 15, from Israel. “They see more of the political side, and I don’t think there’s a place for the other things, like the connection between people. They see only guns and bombing, and not really the people.”

“Many of the girls here have experienced people shooting at their houses, and their friends have been killed,” said Sara Abdel-Hadi, 16, who was born in Jordan but lives in Raleigh, N.C.

The conflict is worse than the American media portray it, she says.

“Women get treated differently in our countries,” Abdel-Hadi said, referring to Arab societies. “American girls are lucky, because we’re not even allowed to hold hands with our boyfriends. The exposure here to everything is much more open.”

But, she noted, “families there are much closer because they go through so many hardships and suffering together. In America, the family structure is looser because they do not have as much” to bond over.

The girls also came from different religious backgrounds — Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Druze — and many had never had friends from outside their own religious group.

“Before I came here I had the idea that Americans weren’t good people but instead” were “like soldiers,” said Bessan Abu El-eish, 15, from Gaza.

“I experienced soldiers shooting at my house at 2 a.m., and I’m afraid of them because I never know when they will come,” she said. “But I realized that the girls here didn’t have anything to do with them.”

The girls said the discussions often delved so deep that they created tension. But they agreed that attending the camp gave them a better understanding of other perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“I had a hard time listening to their opinions on certain situations because I just didn’t agree,” said Michal Barak, 16, of Israel. “I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong side because everyone is suffering, so there is no way to agree even if we wanted to. Everyone just wants the situation to stop.”

The girls will continue to meet about every six weeks in Israel and will bring along their families, hoping to create a ripple effect.

“The girls have bonded and I think the families are going to, too,” Kauffman said. “Pretty soon they will be bringing friends to the meetings. I was shocked when some girls said they would never talk about peace with their friends because they would be teased, but now they will go home and definitely talk to their friends about it.”

Given the long waiting list, organizers hope to expand the camp next year, but it depends on fund raising.

Organizers talk of holding two sessions and of including boys when they get a bigger space and separate dormitories.

“I didn’t expect the friendships to be as deep,” Kauffman said. “The other thing I didn’t expect, but it happened naturally, was that every time” one of the girls “would express suffering, all of them would physically go to the other person and hold their hand and hug them.”

“I think they’ll be more open to hearing the other side, more open to listening to one another and less open to revenge,” she said. “A lot of peace-making is based on listening to the other side, without judgment, and it certainly proved it with these girls.”

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