Local camp focuses on conflict resolution


BRATTLEBORO -- Five Palestinians, five Israelis and five Americans join together in a local camp designed to increase empathy and awareness in the youth.

Jack Karn, one of the counselors and camp coordinators, who specializes in leadership training, said there was some tension added to the camp this year. Phones are taken away from campers to control their access to information.

"We give them the news at one time during the day," he said. "So they hear the events and the news is collected, trying to get an objective view based on what is going on on the ground."

The Leadership Camp, held for 10 days on Acer Farm in West Brattleboro, is a collaboration between Jerusalem PeaceBuilders and Kids4Peace. Campers stay in a wooden cabin on site that was built by Rev. Nicholas Porter and his wife, Dorothy, who direct the PeaceBuilders program.

There are two different 10-day sessions. The next one starts on Aug. 13.

American teenagers arrive two days before their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. They are from different religious backgrounds but are mostly Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

The added tension in camp was a result of recent hostilities, Karn told the Reformer. Campers had anxiety about missile strikes.

"The youth began with some debate about who started the most recent conflict. Did it start with the kidnapping of the Israeli students? Who's trying to trade blame with who started the most recent conflict?" he said. "There's tension that's been building from some unresolved conflict and it's ongoing."

Kristin Davis, 17, of New Canaan, Conn., spoke about a project known as What Does Peace Look Like?

"We are evaluating different poems and pieces of art and trying to find the peace in them," she said. "My group is doing sovereignty, social needs and education and we're designing what we think Jerusalem should look like when peace happens."

Groups were practicing skits on Saturday afternoon. Davis' group developed a skit on sexism while others looked at racism in airports and bullying. The final skits were performed on Sunday. According to Karn, the skits provide a way for the campers to look at ways mediation can be achieved.

Davis first heard of the Leadership Camp when Porter visited her Episcopal church in Connecticut, where he showed a video of the camp.

"When I saw it, the woman next to me whispered, ‘Kristin, this is something that you would love,'" she said. "It was just something I immediately fell in love with. I knew I wanted to do this. I love international relations. I love meeting people from all over the world. This was just another opportunity to meet people and join religions and join cultures."

Before heading to camp, Davis said she had a lot of research to do regarding the Israeli and Palestinian conflict that has worsened in recent weeks. Her understanding has only improved.

The camp provided her with an opportunity to learn from kids who were closer to the conflict.

"Coming to this camp, you learn not only the facts but you learn what it's really like for them," added Davis. "It's something I'll hold with me for the rest of my life."

The friendships made at camp, she hopes, will last a lifetime.

"Even though we're on opposite sides of the world, I hope that we can reconnect," she said. "I've never had an interest in visiting Jerusalem before. Now, it's one of the top places on my list of places I want to visit."

Zevi Arnovitz, 16, of Jerusalem, Israel, usually attends a summer camp that he says is for "very religious Jews." Its location changes and this year the camp was scheduled to be in Jerusalem, so he opted to come to the Leadership Camp in Brattleboro.

He said he has learned more about the perspectives of other kids -- primarily the Palestinian campers.

"We've been talking about the conflict and trying to approach it in different ways and trying to have different dialogues in all different kinds of methods," Arnovitz said. "When you get to know where they're coming from, you know, how they've been educated and what their media says versus what our media says versus what's the truth, I think you start to understand where they're coming from. And I think you start to understand why they say what they say and why we say what we say and how there's a really big need to talk about it."

He believes the violence needs to stop before anything can truly be done.

"I personally believe the Palestinian government is not the perfect partner for peace, especially if Hamas would be the organization who sits down and talks for peace," said Arnovitz. "But I do believe in peace. I do not believe it's close. I believe it take be a lot of time and a lot of work to get there. But it's in God's hands."

Adan Cabat, 15, of Jerusalem, Israel, is a Muslim. She joined Kids4Peace four years ago. She went to one of the camps when it was held in Boston and said she thought it was a good way to get to know more people and see things from different perspectives.

"I was young when I joined it but now it means a lot more to me," Cabat added. "We've being doing a lot of conflict resolution and things we can use when we get back to our homes or our communities."

While she does not see the violence first hand, Cabat said her best friends live close to villages where a lot of violence is happening. They tell her about it.

Her parents and some friends view the conflict differently than she does.

"I don't support Hamas and my parents think what they're doing is a good thing," she said. "I understand they're living in a huge prison and they're under oppression. They're occupied. I don't support them because they're using violence and risking their own people."

The conflict had ignited arguments at dinner during the first nights of camp. Now, Cabat said, campers could sit and have dialogues about it without arguing.

"Everyone is calm. We all understand each other," she concluded.

Karn said camp coordinators are seeing a change in the attitudes of its campers.

"They're finding common ground on what's shared between them. There's shared suffering. There's shared angered. There's shared emotions," he said. "They're seeing that human-ness within each side and within each individual."

This year, the non-profit group "Voices of Sept. 11" came to camp. One of its volunteer members, Frank Fetchet, of New Canaan, Conn., thought he could offer some perspective on resiliency and dealing with grief.

His wife, Mary and family member Beverly Eckert founded the group after Fetchet's oldest son Brad died in the south tower of the Trade Center during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was 24 years old at the time.

The group's mission, Fetchet said, was to provide information and support services for the 9/11 community, which included family members, rescue workers and evacuees. Now, the group addresses other groups dealing with similar circumstances after emergencies or disasters.

"There seemed to be a pretty good synergy here between the life experience we had and dealing with resiliency and making the most you can, the best you can, out of a horrible situation," said Fetchet. "These young adults here have experienced a lot already with their families and relatives in the history of the two countries."

His hope was to convey to campers that people in the United States face similar challenges. It was the first camp that Fetchet's group addressed.

"I thought there were high odds of this camp being canceled this year with the war and the violence," he said. "For the parents to let their teenagers go to the U.S and be part of the session, I think it's a testament to Nicholas and Dorothy and what they've done."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.


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