Madeira discusses youth-in-conflict, Seeds of Peace

Picture this: a soccer game rages in Otisfield, ME, a small town in Oxford County. Players dash, whistles blow, and cheers for both sides ring through the air. One striker receives the ball near the opponent’s goal. He cuts to his left side, curls his toes around the ball and the net bulges. Two teenagers whoop in excitement on the sidelines.

An outsider might view this game as rather boring, a traditional recreational game with undeveloped players and a shoddy pitch. Yet the scene is remarkable.. Those two players, hollering and high-fiving on the sidelines? One is Palestinian and the other is Israeli. The striker and the unselfish player who chose to assist the winning goal? A Mainer and an Afghan. Yes, something remarkable is happening in Otisfield, Maine. 

It is called Seeds of Peace. Founded in 1993 by American Journalist John Wallach, the camp began with a modest 46 youth delegates from Israel, Egypt, Palestine, and America. Since its birth, Seeds of Peace produced over 5,000 seeds across the globe in places ranging from Jordan to impoverished Maine. These seeds were planted to spread unity and harmony in areas of conflict. And many of these peacemakers were forged in Maine.

Nathan Madeira ’17, a Government Major at the College, worked as a counselor for Seeds of Peace this summer. The camp presented a unique opportunity for Madeira, a native of Cumberland, Maine: he could engage with global issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict without leaving his home state. Thus, when Madeira was accepted as a counselor for the 2015 Seeds of Peace campaign, he immediately took the job.

Madeira had a myriad of responsibilities. He led the campers in outdoor activities ranging from waterskiing to sailing, and also served as a bunk and table counselor, eating every meal with the same group of campers.

“[I had] a table group with a couple Israelis, a Palestinian, an American camper with Palestinian origins, a girl from Afghanistan…I was there as a system of support, to provide them with someone they would feel comfortable talking to,” said Madeira.

During the day, Madeira was amazed at the similarity of Seeds of Peace to other summer camps. Students from opposing, violent areas are not enemies at the camp; instead, through organized group games and daily discussions led by trained facilitators, attendees become units rather than individuals in conflict. As the two summer programs progress, youth recognize the humanity of the “other side”.

“[At the end of the program], campers are split into blue and green teams,” said Madeira. “For three days, they are given entirely different identities that supersede Palestinian, Israeli or Afghani backgrounds… after a life of conflict, it was insane to see how they accepted these roles, gathered around this team identity, and supported each other so quickly.”

This support does not end at Seeds of Peace. Wallach’s original vision was to mold youth-in-conflict into peaceful and accepting leaders of the next generation, yet campers faced unimaginable hardships and backlash when they returned to their home countries. Some were renounced by their families, while others were isolated from their communities for going to camp with the “enemy”.

Results were also very difficult to analyze internationally. While the effectiveness of American Seeds students from areas like Syracuse, NY, were easily monitored, international campers were placed back into conflict zones without easily accessible support systems. 

Wallach recognized the issue, and in 1997 initiated Year-Round Regional Programs for returning Seeds. These programs included cross-cultural interactions and dialogue sessions to further empower students. Seeds of Peace recognized that their message of unity could be lost amidst the realities of daily conflict; thus, these initiatives were established to remind students of their transformative experiences at camp. Otisfield is only the start of a long process.

Fortunately, the impact of Seeds is already highly evident. One former Seed, Micah Hendler, created the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a choir of Palestinian and Israeli high-schoolers that received international recognition. Yet another graduate helped start an Arts Learning Center in the rubble of Gaza. More broadly, Seeds of Peace students leave camp empowered, educated, and deeply inclined to accept, if not agree with, other cultures.

And campers are not the only ones who feel changed by Seeds of Peace. Madeira felt the power of Wallach’s organization as he watched campers from international conflict zones unify and forge friendships.

Said Madeira: “I was much closer to being my best self out there.”

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