About the Author: Ruth Bennett is a DipNote editor and Foreign Service Officer who formerly served at the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai.
They filtered into the Delegates' Lounge at the Department of State in their green “Seeds of Peace” t-shirts and jeans. With their giggling and barely-contained energy, they looked like any group of 14-to-16-year-olds anywhere in the world…except for their unusual poise and confidence as they were introduced to Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale, and other U.S. and foreign dignitaries. Their calmness was understandable: every day for the past three weeks, this Seeds of Peace cohort -- the tenth to consist of young people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India -- has been engaged in the far more daunting challenges of peacemaking and individual transformation.
The Seeds of Peace International Camp, funded by the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, aims to foster understanding, tolerance, and new friendships among youth from conflict-torn regions. The campers' time is spent in the woods of Maine, alternating between structured dialogue sessions with trained facilitators and more traditional camp activities such as softball and volleyball.
After their program, Seeds participants remain in touch through the Internet, digital video conferences, homestays and other regional programs. “It changes your life,” one Afghan “Seed” -- first a camper and now a counselor -- told me.
Though the setting is rustic, the experience is no vacation. Seeds of Peace President Emeritus Janet Wallach related the words of a former Seed: “What I learned is, before you can make friends with your enemy, you have to go to war with yourself.”
One 15-year-old Seed from Pakistan spoke to the group assembled in the Delegates' Lounge, describing that process of self-reflection. She said that when she first arrived at camp, “politics was a way of life for me. I was more interested in knowing which party you supported than what your name was.” The camp's dialogue sessions forced her to move beyond her own beliefs and experiences. “Back home, if I read an article in the paper that criticized my country, I could close the paper,” she said. But at camp, she had to learn to listen and come to understand her fellow campers' “pain, their stories, where they were coming from.” The result, she said, was that the experience “allowed us to be individuals -- not Pakistani, not Indian.”
The young people who arrive at camp are remarkable to begin with. The selection process -- an application, essay, and personal interview -- is intense. This year, there were more than 1,500 applicants for 35 places.
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the selection process for Indian Seeds. One by one, 14-year-olds sat and talked with us and gradually lost their nervousness to fierce political conviction as they shared their views on Kashmir, told us of relatives lost in fighting, of their views of “the enemy,” and of their and their families' ongoing pain. And yet, they knew what Seeds was about and they willingly volunteered for a process they knew would change their views. I remember our interview panel asking one young woman who had never been out of Mumbai about the follow-on homestay program. “Would your parents really let you go to Lahore?” someone on our panel asked her incredulously. “Wouldn't they be terrified? Wouldn't you?” The young woman carefully considered the question for a long moment before replying. “Yes,” she finally conceded. “I would be very scared. But less so, because I would know that the person I would be visiting was my friend.”
More than 400 Seeds have now graduated from the South Asia program. Alumni are completing their university studies and entering a diverse range of professions -- and are still passionate about changing the landscape of political conflict, one friend at a time.
You can read Under Secretary McHale's full remarks here.