Talking With Tomorrow's Peacemakers

Akash MehtaSeptember 3, 2018Conflict and PeacemakersFeatures

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 — to, in our own way, try to lessen the unhappiness that reigns on this planet.

Our generation, like the ones before it, is going to grow up and lead the world. It is essential that the leaders of tomorrow, who will have to try to fix so many of our world’s problems, are empathetic and understanding not only of their people’s suffering, but of the suffering of those on the other side as well.

Seeds of Peace and Face to Face/Faith to Faith (F2F) are two organizations that understand this and are dedicated to making sure it happens.

They are two similar organizations — both train high school-aged kids from opposite sides of a conflict to understand each other, and challenge each other’s conceptions about that particular conflict. They bring together teenagers who can speak English and who show leadership skills for several weeks of intensive programs at a neutral site. Seeds of Peace participants go to a camp in Maine, while F2F attendees go to a site in upstate New York. Seeds of Peace is active in more conflict areas, and also works in different kinds of conflict areas. It also doesn’t focus on bringing together kids from many conflict areas (which is something that F2F does) — just kids from opposite sides of a single conflict area. F2F is focused on religious, rather than political, disputes. F2F tries to train potential peacemakers as well as develop and constructively challenge teens’ concepts about their religious and spiritual beliefs. Both programs have many activities — everything from games to serious discussions.

To try to get a better sense of what they go through, I conducted interviews with participants of both programs with kids who live in different parts of the world. Because of the time differences, the interviews were via email.

Meet the four kids I interviewed: Sarah, Yaala, Naomi, and a fourth who prefers to remain anonymous. Yaala Muller is a 17-year-old Israeli from the city of Modi’in, near Jerusalem, and attended the Seeds program in 2009. The other Seed is a Palestinian from Hebron. Now 19 years old, he has long been committed to seeing both sides of the Isaeli/Palestininan conflict and was at the Seeds camp in Maine in 2007. Naomi Lynch and Sarah Logan both attended Face to Face/Faith to Faith and are both from Belfast in Northern Ireland. Naomi is 19 and comes from a Catholic background. She went to F2F first in 2008 and returned since as an LIT (Leader in Training) in 2009. Sarah who is now 20, attended F2F twice, first in 2009 and then as an LIT in 2010. She doesn’t identify herself as either Catholic or Protestant, just Christian.

The conflict in Israel/Palestine is extremely well known, while these days the conflict in Northern Ireland is less so. Because of this, I’ll only give a brief summary of the conflict in Northern Ireland. If you want to know more, I highly encourage looking up the conflicts — but just be sure that you 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.”

Ireland was ruled by Britain in the seventeenth century. Since the English and Scottish mainly settled in the North, the north became largely Protestant, unlike the rest of the Ireland, which was Catholic. As the years progressed, the North and South grew further and 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, due to the issue of rule: the Southern Catholics wanted to be independent of the British but the Northern Protestants were against being ruled by Catholics. The North and South began a bitter war. In 1921, both sides agreed to a treaty that would create a new state called the “Irish Free State,” which was comprised of Southern Ireland, and that six northern counties, Northern Ireland, would remain part of the United Kingdom. This mostly subdued the violence until the early 1960s, when severe violence broke out and lasted through the 1990s. From 1985 on, constant political struggles and negotiations have been taking place. Since then, violence has been on and off, and remains that way. 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 such as these will really help to create a more peaceful generation in the years to come.” Naomi says that almost all Irish people are opposed to the current violence: “But our culture of bystanding has not changed.”

I interviewed Eric Kapenga, the Director of Communications at Seeds of Peace, to find out more about the program. He lives in Israel so I couldn’t get a face to face (or a faith to faith!) interview with him, but I was able to voice chat with him for about an hour. He told me that the kids were often extremely polite in the beginning, because they wanted to show that theirs was the more civilized and rational side. They pretended to be calm and unemotional, and were talking about movies — not about their conflicts. The supervisors of the discussion had to push them to talk about the actual issues.

Sarah says this about her experience at the F2F program: “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 sites are in many ways like a normal camp, but in addition to regular camp activities, they focus on the issues at stake. In the F2F site especially, they talk about worldwide issues that aren’t particular to them. Of course, the real jewel of the program is when kids from opposite sides of issues interact with each other: when Israelis would play soccer — excuse me, football — with Palestinians, and Irish Catholics would have discussions with Irish Protestants about their beliefs and their conflict. They forge ties that will last them a lifetime, and that will influence all decisions they will make regarding their conflict.

In many conflict areas — if not all — there is a lot of misinformation. Take the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “The image I held about the Israelis was that one we see on TV, as soldiers who have nothing except tanks and [fighter planes],” says the anonymous Seed. Alternately, Israelis tend to only see images of Palestinians as terrorists and both groups fail to really see each other as they 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.

The programs normally choose kids who are not only smart and can speak English, but also are outgoing. For instance, take Seed of Peace’s domestic program for the people of Maine. New England is a fairly white region; there is very little racial diversity. The government put a federal refugee and asylum center in Maine. But in addition to lacking diversity, Maine also lacks money. So, in many of the communities of Maine, where five to ten new families who weren’t like the rest (in racial, religious and/or ethnic ways) were relocated, there was tons of tension between the local white community leaders who suddenly had to provide for five to ten more families, and the new arrivals. Seeds of Peace helped ease the tension between native schoolchildren and the arrivals, by putting them in the camp together, where they could discuss their issues. They select children who are looked up to, because 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 them.

Both Seeds of Peace and F2F teach lessons that are applicable to conflicts everywhere. When we fight our fellow 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 the people of those leaders. 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.!” And 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. And it is just that view these programs 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 are the ones who will lead their nations. But most of us who don’t live in areas of intense conflict lack the motivation to fix our own problems. And yet we, as privileged kids without many problems, have just the same amount of responsibility as kids who come from less fortunate backgrounds, if not more. Because we live in some of the best parts of this world, we should try to help others who don’t, almost to compensate for our own good fortune. So I urge you — get involved! Make the world a better place, in whatever way you can.

Akash V. Mehta

Below are messages to all kids who care, from the teen peacemakers in this article:

“At Face to Face, we were taught a Hopi proverb that says ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’ In other words, don’t wait for someone else to bring about the change that you would like to see in the world — go out and do it yourself!” – Sarah Logan

“My advice to our generation is to follow our nature as humans and to believe that we are all able to live side by side and share the efforts for a better world. And my message to my Israeli brothers and sisters is that we are all humans, and that this land is a common thing between us. Let’s build it together and make it a peaceful place.” – Anonymous

“For all the other peacemakers out there, my only advice to you would be to teach what you are. Don’t fight for what you believe in — just be it. Fighting should not be our universal language anymore. Demonstrate the values you believe in, speak the words that guide you, define yourselves by what brings you joy and happiness, rather than by what makes you angry and upset. Don’t be afraid to be who you are and speak what you think is right, even at times when you think it’s unacceptable. It is these times that we learn the most, and these times we truly can make a difference. Also, I guarantee that these will be the times you will most affect and influence those around you. You might not even know it or feel it, but it will happen. Carry peace, and whatever it means to you, with you wherever you go. Go against the flow of the current and don’t be afraid. Please also remember to listen. At camp, we were always told that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Remember that sometimes listening is the greater achievement. Finally, I would like you to remember that you are never too small to achieve the great feat of being the change you want to see in the world.” – Yaala Muller

“For teen peacemakers … I would encourage you to question. Meeting and dialoguing with other young people your age is a really big help in this. 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. With that in mind, you should be able to challenge yourself to meet with, listen to, and understand other perspectives without judgment.” – Naomi Lynch

Akash Viswanath Mehta is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He is deeply interested in politics, literature, and mathematics. He’s also the founder of Kids for a Better Future, an organization of teens in New York City, supporting less fortunate children around the world.