At a time when social division and turmoil are rising in the United States, a summer camp that bridges seemingly intractable divisions between teens of different religions and races has become newly relevant.
Called Seeds of Peace, it is a program in Maine that has brought together young Israelis and Palestinians, as well as teenagers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, the Balkans and the United States, for 23 years.
This summer, Seeds of Peace is expanding its U.S. program to add teens from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City to those it has long hosted from Maine and upstate New York, aiming to inculcate empathy and understanding as the country struggles with cultural and political discord that seems more bitter than anything seen here in decades.
And this week a young Miamian who reconciled his own divided background by working as a counselor at the camp is organizing the first Seeds of Peace events in Miami.
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Misha Mehrel, 26, has put together a stand-up comedy night in Wynwood on July 20 and a walk across the Venetian Causeway on July 23. His hope is to raise awareness of and as much money as possible for a program that he says can be transformative.
“These kids are put into an environment of love, encouragement, challenge that has pushed them to . . . hopefully make decisions to grow and bond instead of to hate,” Mehrel says. “It shows you that if they can do this, I can.”
Mehrel’s mother is from an Iranian Kurdish family that fled the 1979 revolution in Iran, and went against her family culture and Muslim religion by marrying his father, a German Jew, in the United States. The family settled in Miami when Mehrel was 3. Several years ago he seemed well on his way to a successful film career in New York, working as an editor and production assistant for the likes of HBO and director Baz Luhrmann, when he found himself longing to do something more substantial and fulfilling. He decided to follow his older sister, who had been a counselor at the Seeds camp.
“Seeds was a way to get out of this image-conscious, career-driven life I was living and doing something that was less about me,” Mehrel says. “But I think I was also attracted to the whole concept because of the division in myself.”
Overcoming division is the mission of Seeds of Peace, which was launched by journalist and writer John Wallach in 1993, bringing 46 teens from Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the United States to Otisfield, Maine. The project got an immediate burst of attention when then-President Bill Clinton invited the first campers to the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, where they posed for photos with Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The program mixes traditional summer camp activities like sailing and soccer with intensive group talk sessions in which the teens work through their differences and anger. They play on Frisbee teams together, and kids from opposite sides of warring adult conflicts help each other through risky trust-building exercises in which an Israeli teen might help his blindfolded Palestinian counterpart climb a rock wall or cross a high wire.
“The idea is to give these kids a chance to make up their own minds, teach them leadership skills and how to be their own person, instead of another cog in the narrative they’ve been fed for years,” Mehrel says.
In 2000, spurred by requests from local education leaders, the camp started a second program for teenagers from Maine, which is overwhelmingly white and Christian, and their counterparts from African, Asian and Muslim refugee families from places like Somalia and Cambodia who were being placed in Maine by a federal government program. Later they added kids from Syracuse, New York, a once predominantly white community with a growing minority and immigrant population.
“There were a lot of tensions with the instant diversity,” says Eric Kapenga, communications director for Seeds of Peace. “It was almost the same program as for students from the Middle East.” There were fraught dialogues about race, religion, gender, sexuality and immigration. One girl from a small town in northern Maine wrote that every time she saw a Muslim girl in a hijab she was afraid, because she only saw violent Muslim terrorists on TV. A Somalian girl who had come to Syracuse at age 12 was traumatized by years of bullying.
Over the past two years, the growth of racial tensions, with the furor over police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, and an election season marked by angry debates over race, immigration, Muslims, and LGBTQ rights, led Seeds of Peace to expand its American session to teens from larger cities beyond Maine and Syracuse.
“For too long as Americans we’ve said we don’t have conflict here,” says Sarah Brajtbord, who manages Seeds of Peace’s U.S.-based programs. “The reality is we live in communities deeply divided by conflict. . . . We need to be bringing people together and engaging each other.”
“Each camper has their own issues, their own stories, their own experiences. . . . It’s raising those questions, and being able to answer them. Who am I? Who are you? Who are we collectively? How do these different parts of us look when we come together?”
Jennifer Dertouzos, a close friend of Mehrel’s family and a dedicated volunteer for social causes who is co-organizing the Miami Seeds events, says the violent events of this summer such as the massacre in Orlando, the killing of black men by police in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the sniper attack on police in Dallas have made people sympathetic to their efforts. Trinity Cathedral, located at the foot of the Venetian Causeway, is allowing them to gather in its parking lot for free before Saturday’s walk, and Wynwood Cafe is hosting the comedy night for a minimal fee. Local businesses like Eternity Coffee Roasters, 305 Yoga, iRun and Oh! Granola are providing coupons, free classes and products for walk participants.
“It’s good timing because people want to channel their energy toward peace or the greater good,” Dertouzos says. “It’s of the moment.”
This difficult moment also makes the struggle that Seeds of Peace faces a daunting one. As conflict has grown in the Middle East, the group faces new obstacles in bringing teens from those areas; the Hamas government in Gaza, for instance, does not assist with placing Palestinian campers the way previous administrations did. This summer’s expanded American session is small, with just 27 kids from the larger cities, out of a total of 127. And Mehrel, after spending the past two years in Miami, is taking a teaching job in Connecticut in August, leaving future Miami efforts on the group’s behalf in doubt.
But Brajtbord insists their endeavors are more important than ever.
“Conflict is a moment either for breakdown or breakthrough,” she says. “Now is the time to stop talking about doing things and start trying to do them. . . . It’s only going to get worse as the election unfolds. So why should we not try to do this now?”
And she takes reassurance from the teenage Seeds the camp nourishes each summer.
“They have the courage to do what adults and political leaders are not doing — to engage with one another, confront differences and accept it as a natural part of who we are and what our country is,” Brajtbord says. “That not only gives hope but fuels change.”
If You Go
What: Stand Up for Peace comedy
When: 8 to 9:30 p.m. July 20
Where: Wynwood Cafe, 450 NW 27th St., Miami
Info: $15 (tickets must be purchased in advance), https://www.eventbrite.com/e/stand-up-for-peace-at-wynwood-cafe-tickets-26555317670
What: Bridges to Peace Walk
When: 7:45 to 9:45 a.m. July 23
Where: Meet at Trinity Cathedral, 464 NE 16th Street, Miami
Info: $10 donation, https://www.crowdrise.com/b2p-miami-2016/fundraiser/seedsofpeace