Anyssa Mahmoud’s voice joins a circular chorus of 30 Jewish, Muslim, Palestinian and Arab youth singing, “Who’s gonna make things right? We the people.”

With folk singer Mary K’s acoustic guitar providing the soundtrack under a tent on the Center for Urban Horticulture’s lawn, the 19-year-old is in a setting she’s known for a week every summer since she was a 1-year-old: Seattle’s Middle East Peace Camp. Though similar in mission to Seeds of Peace, a leadership development organization, Middle East Peace Camp is committed to operating locally.

“Camp’s made me break stereotypes that I would’ve had beforehand if I didn’t necessarily have any Christian or Arab friends. It’s made me be more of a peacemaker,” said Mahmoud, who now helps oversee the camp as one of 15 counselors who were once campers themselves.

She credits the camp — which brings together Muslim, Jewish and some Christian children to forge bonds across communities — with building her esteem while the only Muslim student in her Christian high school.

“Yes, Jews, Muslims and Christians do actually get along. We forget that all the same things are happening to each community,” she said, reflecting on the lifelong friendships across ethnicities and religions cultivated at camp.

Today, she helps the newest crop of campers do the same by lining up with them to clasp hands, shimmy shoulders and kick their legs in sync in performing the Dabke, a Palestinian folk dance — among other activities.

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“You don’t have hate when you’re born. You learn it. That’s why this camp is so important,” said Mahmoud, wearing the 2019 camp’s official shirt displaying Shalom (Hebrew), Peace and Salam (Arabic) in gold letters.

The camp’s focus on togetherness comes during a severe spike in hate crimes nationally and in Seattle. Making up 58% and 19% of victims, respectively, Jews and Muslims are the two most targeted religious groups in the nation.

A determination to countering such animus not long after the 9/11 attacks, Anyssa Mahmoud’s mother, Beth Mahmoud Howell, worked with five other local mothers, connected by overlapping friend networks, and belonging to the Jewish and Arab/Muslim communities, to start the camp in the summer of 2002. It began in the yard of civic activist and philanthropist Kay Bullitt, who in the 1960s hosted a racially integrated camp on her property.

Mary K. McNeill, a song leader at Middle East Peace Camp, leads children in song. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Mary K. McNeill, a song leader at Middle East Peace Camp, leads children in song. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“Even Muslim-Americans who considered themselves flag-waving Americans were treated like pariahs all of a sudden,” Mahmoud Howell said about the grim shadow cast on her community at the time.

Susan Davis, who is Jewish, was also aghast at hearing of Muslims attacked in the U.S. for no other reason than their faith.

“As mothers, we wanted to be role models for our kids that when something bad happens this is what you do,” said Davis, who said the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, served as a guide.

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In the months following the attacks, Davis participated in a monthly “mid-east dialogue” group led by Afifi Durr and held in Kay Bullitt’s living room. There, she met others concerned about the backlash. Many in the dialogue group had experience working in both Arab/Muslim and Jewish groups; for some, it was their first experience. It was in those meetings that the idea of a camp emerged.

“I think we’re planting seeds for future leaders of this world.” — Janet Clark

But pragmatism seized them. Centuries-old prejudices and animosities would never resolve overnight, and the potential for international or national impact was negligible.

Enter Gandhi. The revered peacemaker’s axiom, “If we are to have real peace we must begin with the children,” took hold in the group and soon spurred them to form Middle East Peace Camp.

They intentionally made sure the camp was absent any political heavy-handedness. Campers and counselors and other leaders of the camp developed their friendships and a community in a natural, organic way.

Originally operating out of Bullitt’s Seattle home with no clear plans beyond the first year, Middle East Peace Camp has seen hundreds of campers sing for the Dalai Lama on the religious leader’s Seattle visit, learn Arabic folk dances such as the Dabke, and assume leadership roles in local peace movements.

“I think we’re planting seeds for future leaders of this world,” said Janet Clark, who’s on the adult leadership committee, noting that most camp activities are planned by the kids themselves.

Guy Oron, 20, affiliated with Seattle’s People’s Party and the University of Washington’s Queer People of Color Alliance, was introduced to the camp as  a 6-year-old and has kept coming back ever since.

“My family’s Israeli, so it’s really important to me to end the occupation. It’s really important for me that we talk to our families and our communities and start changing the way we think. We’re divided because people fail to see each other’s humanity,” said Oron, who is now a youth leader.

But high-level conversations around politics and world events are reserved for older campers and counselors.

Younger ones engage in activities such as a “Silk Road” game that fit with this year’s theme of travel.

Campers, representing China and Constantinople, started off with different inventories such as silk and wool, bartering items as needed based on their initial stockpiles.

“It teaches interaction between people doesn’t have to be about violence,” said Oron, who helped lead the activity.

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The weeklong camp, which is volunteer run and operates solely on donations, provides a pure lens with which to see that humanity, according to Angelique Godley, who had two children enrolled this summer.

“My kids really come for the friendships. They’ve formed special relationships that have gone beyond camp,” said Godley, who is Muslim.

In that way the camp remains a relevant refuge from a world that has seen increased displays of antisemitism and Muslim bigotry that some parents blame on our national leadership.

“Hatred of the ‘other’ has been going on for a long time,” said Beth Mahmoud Howell, “but a lot of our political rhetoric is fresh, and been re-upped by our current president.”

Such rhetoric was far away from this year’s recently concluded session as late arrivals filed in last Wednesday to join a morning singalong led by peace activist Mary K.

As her song, “Come on Children Everywhere” ended and campers of different backgrounds unclasped their hands from one another, she exhorted the unified bunch to “hold hands just a little longer.”

They all complied.