This weekend, Mary Taylor, Ryan Callahan, Grace Elliott and I travelled up to Brattleboro, VT with Mr. Fetchet to spend two days at the Jerusalem Peacebuilders Leadership Camp. While we only arrived in the final days of their session, the Israeli, Palestinian, and American teens welcomed us into their close-knit group and generously shared their experiences from the previous ten days. Describing their own personal relationships to the conflict, they told us about the different speakers that visited the camp, the many dialogues they had as a group, and the circle discussions in which they explained their views of issues.
You may remember my excitement for the trip earlier this summer when we first began planning the weekend. Mr. Richard Webb, former chairman of the New Canaan High School History Department (and the man lucky enough to teach our interns Steve, Mike, Ryan, and Ted in Advanced Placement U.S. History last year), suggested we visit the camp. The founder of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, Reverend Nicholas Porter, is a good friend of Mr. Webb’s and had invited him up to Acer Farm last year. Mr. Webb highly recommended we all attend, and for good reason.
As soon as we got there, the kids circled around us, introducing themselves and asking us questions. After having to explain that Voices of September 11th was a non-profit organization and not a travelling singing troupe, we quickly set up name-games that later morphed into an all-camp soccer match. It was during this game we took note of the many languages each camper spoke. All the group activities used English, but the Israelis and Palestinians often threw in sentences in their native tongues. A handful of kids could speak both Arabic and Hebrew and many even knew Spanish or French! While the other interns and I struggled to speak English properly, their multilingual abilities astounded us. We did pick up a few Arabic phrases during the game, such as “Yallah” for come on and “Khalas” to signal stop it.
We were then invited to listen in on their group dialogue; this one discussing how they will use what they have learned from camp when they return to their families and friends at home. While they clearly had learned a lot from one another over the course of the two weeks, it was going to be understandably challenging to integrate their new perspectives into discussions with people who did not have the privilege of growing close with “the other.”
Perhaps it was the many languages they spoke, their excitement at our arrival, or the mature way each camper carried himself. Whatever the reason, the kids of Jerusalem Peacebuilders acted so responsibly over the course of the two days that we often forgot they were high school students, faced with common teenage problems and pressures. It is always a struggle trying to defy social norms as a teenager, but how do you stand up for Israelis when your friends see them as a vicious occupying force? Or for Palestinians, when your classmates call them all terrorists? Attitudes and beliefs toward the conflict can be held so deeply, adults have trouble reaching agreements, let alone high-schoolers in an argument. It was definitely going to be a difficult adjustment returning to Jerusalem after spending time at a peace camp in Vermont.
As we paused for lunch, we were introduced to another aspect of leadership camp: the food. Because religion is such a focal point of the Jerusalem Peacebuilders experience, the food is all prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Meat and dairy cannot be eaten together. When meat was cooked, it had to be eaten with paper plates and plastic cutlery and disposed of outside. Certain everyday food items, such as marshmallows, had kosher substitutes.
After our kosher lunch, and a competitive game of kickball, we sat down in a grassy area outside the house to talk about September 11th and VOICES with the group. When we went around the circle and listened to their experiences with 9/11, I had to again remind myself of their ages. Many of the kids weren’t even one year old at the time of the attacks and their only recollection of the event was from their parents. Mr. Fetchet was kind enough to share his story and we discussed resiliency after dealing with grief and human suffering. While September 11th was a horrific day, people directly affected by the attacks tried to make something positive out of a horrible situation, some creating non-profits like VOICES.
We concluded the day on a lighter note: going swimming in the nearby pond, enjoying a steak dinner, playing a camp-wide game of capture the flag, and ending with s’mores around the fire.
After attending an Episcopal Church service in the town of Brattleboro, we gathered back at Acer Farm to watch the final presentation of sketches the teens had spent the past couple of days working on. Each skit focused on some type of conflict: such as bullying, sexism, and racism. Interspersed in the acting, certain characters would read poems they had written around the theme, “What Does Peace Look Like?” While the situations could be a bit comical at times, the poems shed light on deeper emotions searching for an end to violence and ignorance and an emphasis on acceptance.
The next presentations we heard were “Peace Proposals for Jerusalem.” The campers were split up into groups with an Israeli, a Palestinian, and an American in each. They decided what the status of Jerusalem should be, how government would work, and any changes to the city that might take place. For example, almost every group wanted to include parks between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods, to promote interactions between the two and to ensure that kids spend valuable time playing and connecting with “the other.” The ease with which each group presented their decisions made us wonder why it is so difficult for the two states to reach an agreement.
Following Sunday dinner, the teens were returned their phones. Electronic devices had been confiscated at the beginning of the camp to control the flow of information and news each camper was receiving. News was reported once a day, when the whole camp could discuss it without the bias of the media.
When the kids got their phones back, we were able to exchange information: Facebook names, Instagram handles, and Snapchat accounts were exchanged. However, social media outlets were not the only objects being shared. Many of our friends took this time to show us pictures of their homes, their families, and their friends. One boy even swiped through some images on his iPad of a riot by his cousin’s house. Another told us the story of his friend who was beaten to death by Israeli settlers outside their village. While we had been laughing and playing with them the past two days, we were suddenly confronted by the types of violence these kids experience so close to home.
Even though we had only arrived Saturday morning, saying goodbye on Sunday night was difficult. These high-school students had welcomed us with a warmth and energy that was mature beyond their 15 and 16 years. One girl I grew especially close to whispered to me, “I hate the conflict… I don’t want to go back. I would rather stay here.” After viewing those pictures during dinner and watching her sketch, I understood why.
While ten days at an idyllic Vermont farm will not solve the entire conflict, it did bring together 15 teenagers from varied backgrounds to discuss difficult issues impacting their lives everyday. Kristin Davis said it best: “We may not have solved the conflict; we may not have made peace in the Middle East; but we made peace with each other and we’re all leaving this experience as friends.” This group of teenagers was able to come together, sort out their differences, and reach agreements in the span of ten days that Israeli, Palestinian, and American representatives have not been able to figure out in lifetimes. As Mr. Fetchet put it, “We all want the same things: to make a living and keep our families safe.” When big governments and egos get in the way, disagreements turn to war and destruction. When people are able to talk face-to-face, they can understand each other’s values and priorities, and make peace.
The interns at Voices of September 11th are honored to be included in just two days of the twelve-day camp and thrilled to have been able to meet such bright and hopeful young people. If every government leader spent a little time at Acer Farm learning about different cultures and faiths, maybe the cycle of violence and war in the Middle East could finally give way to a lasting peace.
Follow @voicesofsept11 on Instagram to see more pictures of our time in Vermont and throughout the summer!