15 year-old Liat: A Young Symbol of the Future
January 26, 2000
I first see her, merrily collating copies and answering the phone at the Center. Cool, she volunteers, I think -- you know how I feel about volunteering. Turns out, she's from Jerusalem, and her name's Liat Margalit. Fifteen years old, she's already managed to almost give her mother the scare of her life, just like all of you have at one point or another. She explains it like this: "Well, my Palestinian friend came to visit me, so we decided to go to the Old City together. We called my mom from the payphone at the Western Wall and said, 'Hey Mom, we're here in Old Jerusalem, but don't worry, we're okay!' Can you imagine, two teenagers - on their own - in the Old City? No one could believe it!" What she doesn't mention is that the Western Wall, in times past, is a place where Jews praying were occasionally stoned, or worse. Also, Israelis and Palestinians hanging out together, like Liat and her friend, are something you almost never see. This is, after all, the Middle East. What kinds of negative publicity regarding Arabs and Israelis do you hear?
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Liat and her fellow Seeds of Peace campers choose to change that negativity in a revolutionary way. They choose to meet each other, on the neutral ground of a summer camp in Maine, for a few weeks of coexistence. Coexistence between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and more -- Seeds of Peace are sowing just that -- rather than furthering violence, discord, and misunderstanding. John Wallach, the founder and president who started Seeds of Peace in 1993 with 40 campers, writes about that historic year: "In 1993 [the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles], the whole world witnessed the handshake between the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. But few people know that the first Israeli and Palestinian to shake the leaders' hands were our very own Firas Ashayer from Ramallah and Elad Wiesel from Jerusalem." Now, more than 300 students arrive at camp for three sessions each summer.
SOP Camp (Seeds of Peace), like any camper's experience, is fun and lively, but it also changes people's lives. It's the first time some of these students will ever meet each other and the stereotypes finally fall away. "Until I came to Seeds of Peace, I had only known Israelis as soldiers, settlers and border guards. Now I know them as human beings," Heba, a Palestinian SOP writes. And for some Israelis, the initial fear about sharing a cabin or eating a meal with someone they've only known as a "terrorist", becomes the fun of sharing the camp experience with a friend. The biggest challenges are daily coexistence sessions, where students talk about themselves and how politics affect them as individuals and human beings. "After the first week [of camp], everybody stopped arguing and started thinking, what are we going to do?" I overheard Najeeb say later. "We are two people in one place. We started some thinking for the future." But camp, alas, is only for a short time. Afterwards, the students' magical experience of coexistence gets challenged when they return to the reality of living here. Shira, another SOP, told me, "We live with it all the time, it's here when we sleep, when we wake up, when we eat breakfast, when we go to school... I'm living with the conflict every day." One regional coordinator puts it this way: "At camp, you can't say 'let's go back and sing and be happy.' We are still in serious conflict."
The Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence aims to change that. Located in Jerusalem, in the quiet French Hill neighborhood, it officially opened on October 27, 1999. Now, staff and students alike are making tons of events happen. One week, SOP's bring in their classmates to learn about Seeds of Peace. Another week, friends will rendezvous at the Center for a trip to Jericho or Haifa. Maybe in the future, more friends and family will also use the Center as a meeting place, perhaps the only meeting place in all Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians can hug, jump for joy, and scream each others' names, like I see and hear two friends (supposedly, enemies) do. "Our only goal is to give kids a chance to experience each other as people," says another regional coordinator. "'Putting a face on the enemy' is our motto," he continues.
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I visit the center this sunny, windy day, and the sense of hope and opportunity that you can feel throughout the entire building, amazes and inspires me. The Center houses a computer lab, an art studio, a publications room for their youth newspaper "The Olive Branch," kitchens (with yummy tea!), and office space. On the walls, they display brilliant photos of SOP's playing tug-of-war at camp, or posing with notables like US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. And everybody here's nice, too! They even let me use one of their meeting rooms to type up my dispatch, and e-mail it in on their computer. It's in such a positive space like this that staff members like Ned, Adam, Sami, Roy, Falestin, and Jared help Arab and Israeli youth to meet each other, talk to each other, and in doing so, create a better future with each other. They coordinate activities like student trips to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve, and organizing the annual winter seminar at Kibbutz Yahel.
The Center, at last, provides a place for Liat and other SOP's to call home. "Being at camp is just an itty-bitty part of what we have to do here," Liat tells me, as she points out her article in the Olive Branch. Other magazine articles, newspaper clippings, photo albums and videotapes line the tables. Soon the Odyssey website will add to the growing collection of positive publicity regarding Arabs and Israelis. These are the youth that will shape the future of peace in the Middle East: you can say you heard about them here first!
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Visit their website -- Seeds of Peace
Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence
Seeds of Peace Drive
French Hill, Jerusalem
Tel. (972) (02) 582-0222
Fax. (972) (02) 582-2221
Seeds of Peace
1321 Wisconsin Avenue NW
Tel. (202) 337-5530
Fax. (202) 337-5646
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
Kavitha - Kavi Gets MAD with Art
Kavitha - Pieces for Peace
Kevin - Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier Part I: The Birth of a Nation
Kevin - Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier Part II: Hard Lessons Learned in the Promised Land
Monica - Seeds of Peace
Monica - The Other Side: Young Israelis and Palestinians Struggle to Understand Each Other
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