“Listen to me,” “Listen to me,” “Listen to me.”
This plea — urgent in some cases, playful in others — bounces around the room in English, Arabic and Hebrew as groups of 12-year-olds from around the world take turns actively ignoring each other.
This may seem like a counterintuitive way to encourage kids of different faiths (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) and nationalities (American, Canadian, Israeli and Palestinian) to communicate. But this session is not just about listening — it’s also about what we choose to listen to and what we choose to shut out.
As missiles and airstrikes, rage and tragedy fill this summer’s news out of Israel and Gaza, a group of 35 middle-school-age children has gathered south of Mount Vernon at Camp Brotherhood. Most have traveled there from around Jerusalem; a few others are from the Greater Seattle area. All are here, at a 10-day camp called Kids4Peace, with the desire to train as the next generation of peacemakers.
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“The camp was initially designed as a way for children to get out of a conflict area,” explains Kids4Peace founder Henry Ralph Carse, a Vermont native who has spent decades working in the Middle East and helped conceive of the camp during an upsurge of violence there in 2001. “We didn’t think we were starting a process that would still be flourishing 12 or 13 years later.”
But the camp, which brings children from all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to locations in the United States, was a natural space for dialogue, or what Carse calls “speaking truth to each other.” Kids4Peace now hosts camps across the U.S.
And while the summer camps for preteens focus more on interfaith learning (each day, campers attend classes about the three religions and workshops in communication skills) graduates can go on to Kids4Peace programs, which bring youth ages 13-17 together to engage more directly in dialogues about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through regular camps and gatherings.
“I really enjoy meeting new people … people who don’t have the same opinions as I do,” says 15-year-old Ben Mehta-Rudashevski, who is Jewish, lives in Jerusalem and is working as a counselor at this year’s camp after four years with Kids4Peace. “It is very interesting to hear from people with different stories.”
Interesting, but also challenging, says Jordan Goldwarg, regional director of the Seattle chapter, who jokes that Kids4Peace is the most logistically challenging youth camp in the world.
“We make kosher food available, we make halal food available, we make vegetarian food available,” he says before going on to describe a camp that operates in three languages, respects different cultural interpretations of modesty (no bikinis allowed during swim sessions) and observes a variety of religious practices.
And then there’s the challenge of addressing the trauma some youth have experienced as a result of living through violent conflict.
“These last few months have been awful in Jerusalem,” says 16-year-old Dala Hreish, who is Muslim and a counselor at the camp after five years in the Kids4Peace program.
Hreish’s grandfather was hospitalized after being hit by a rubber bullet shot by Israeli police during a recent clash at a mosque where he was praying. Hreish says this experience compelled her to want to come to the camp more than ever. “This is the place where we can talk,” she says, “where we can speak all of our feelings.”
It is Kids4Peace’s first year in the Seattle area. Goldwarg has plans to expand the organization’s mission in the Pacific Northwest to include dialogues around local issues of inequality, racism and immigration.
And youth perspectives on these complex and controversial issues may be just what we need.
At the end of the “Listen To Me” exercise, everyone settled in for a debrief. There were a few snarky comments (“It was creepy!”) before a girl raised her hand and said through a Hebrew interpreter: “When my partner kept asking me to listen I was very annoyed, but when I asked her to listen and she refused I felt so bad. I felt that she didn’t care about me at all.”
A child’s lesson, but one we’d all do well to remember, both in life and in politics.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a news site covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: email@example.com. Twitter @SeaStute