“The Puget Sound is really a mess,” one of my grandchildren told me recently.
“It’s so polluted. Did you know even the orcas are contaminated with toxic chemicals.”
Determined to build a better future, our kids want to find new ways to make themselves heard — in the classroom, by their parents, communities, and politicians. It’s easy for parents to think their kids are only interested in the latest football results, lose sleep over what to wear to graduation, and spend far too much time playing games on their phones. In reality youth are also texting and blogging about police brutality, melting icecaps, and how to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. They worry how we’ll ever get out of the mess.
The kids are right to be concerned. My own generation has certainly not done a great job. In my twenties, I too had wanted to change the world. Filled with purpose I moved to Israel after the Six Day War, when as young parents, we had been so hopeful of peaceful co-existence with our neighbors. Instead, since then we have wobbled from crisis to crisis. Smoldering tanks in the Sinai desert filled TV screens during the Yom Kippur War in ’73. UN camps settled on the Golan Heights to make sure all parties observed the peace treaty with Syria. Gaza became a tinderbox. Scud missiles were shot down during the Gulf War only seconds before they would have hit Tel Aviv.
Now I wonder can the youth of today do things differently in the future? Can they stop the intifadas, the suicide bombers and periodic destruction on the West Bank? Will the intrusive yet crucial security inspections at the border crossings ever become a thing of the past?
As a grandmother, I wanted to try to do something to help our grandchildren build a better future. When I learned about Kids4Peace, an interfaith community of Israeli, Palestinian, and North American youth and educators, I decided to invest some of my time and energy to support their vision: a passion to develop the next generation of peacemakers. I read about their summer programs where Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. kids spend two weeks together at camps scattered around North America and Israel, learning about their different faiths, traditions, and cultures. They play soccer, skip rope, and sing together. They learn how to listen and try to understand other kids rather than judge them.
Importantly, the kids learn a variety of communication and dialogue skills that build deep levels of empathy and compassion, incorporating many key principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) — an international movement with centers in 65 countries. Could the kids begin to build bonds across borders and beliefs? Could this non-profit organization provide a platform for us to work together towards a better future here in the U.S. as well as in the Middle East?
When I was invited to join the Kids4Peace International Board, I visited the Seattle camp to learn more about the program. The kids were busy preparing for the talent show so there was little time for them to share their personal impressions of the program. I found that talking with counselors and program directors didn’t quite give me the participant insights that I wanted to hear. I needed to be convinced by one of the kids.
After the camp was over, the Program Director introduced me to Eve Chinea, one of our future peace builders. She was eager to share how her fortnight’s experiences at the camp with a group of kids of different races, faiths, and traditions had re-shaped some of her thinking. Her confidence was immediately evident as she reached over to shake my hand. She talked about how she’d grown since her involvement with Kids4Peace.
“I became so much more considerate,” Eve began, “and I realized how important it is to try and understand how other people are feeling.”
She explained how her camp experiences impacted the introduction to her bat mizvah speech. Her Torah portion began with Moses at the Burning Bush talking to God.
“Moses did not go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites alone,” she explained. “He had his own backup team, made up of God, Aaron, his mother, his sister, and all of the other Jews. None of us does anything alone, either. There is nothing on this planet that can be done alone. I’d always had my own opinions as to how I wanted to make a difference in the world,” she admitted, lowering her thoughtful, amber eyes, “but now I’m so much more open. I’ve learned that nothing is one-sided.”
Eve admitted to feeling nervous when her parents dropped her off at a retreat center on the slopes of Mount Vernon, Washington. Even though she’d been well briefed and had chatted virtually with her pre-camp Peace Pal, she knew that this was going to be quite different from other summer camps she’d attended, where kids typically spend most of their time learning a particular skill like rowing, acting, or photography.
“It was way out of my comfort zone,” Eve conceded, her long brown hair framing her high cheekbones. “I was afraid of meeting kids from a different country face-to-face.”
In her cabin that first night, Eve, like many other pre-teens, felt homesick. But at least she knew her parents would be visiting soon. When she heard the sobs of one of the Palestinian girls, whom we shall call Layla, Eve realized how much harder it was for kids who’d come from Israel and the West Bank. They’d left their families in the midst of the Gaza conflict — a world of explosions, smoke, and sirens. Terror and fear were everywhere. Not only was Layla worried for her family, but also she was also uncomfortable bunking right next to an Israeli girl, Anat, (not her real name) whose brother and father were both in army service. But the girls soon learned that there was distress on both sides. Anat, too, fretted for her family’s safety amidst missile attacks on civilian areas.
At first Eve admitted to feeling useless in that tense and emotional situation. “I didn’t know what to do, but then somehow we comforted one another. We were soon like sisters, a new family. Even though we came from different places, prayed to different Gods, and spoke different languages, I was really surprised how quickly we chatted about all the things girls chat about. Conversations after ‘lights out’ were some of the best we had.”
They talked about things like nail polish colors and some of the boys they’d just met. They listened to the same music — Justin Timberlake, Holy Ghost, and Kelly Clarkson.
Eve had gone to camp with many stereotypes about Palestinians. She’d worried that different backgrounds and religions would be a barrier to friendship but soon discovered that wasn’t the problem. It was language.
“I was struck by the impact language has on friendships,” Eve confided.
She discovered that even though every kid was reasonably fluent in English, for many it was their second language. Connecting with Israeli and Palestinian kids required a different style of speaking. She was used to speaking with more sophisticated vocabulary. Words like “subtle” and “prowess.” It took a while for her to notice that some of the kids hadn’t understood what she was trying to say, and began to change her style of speaking.
Eve had a basic level of understanding in Hebrew, but was not comfortable speaking it. She knew no Arabic and was touched when Layla started teaching her some Arabic phrases.
“I left with some new knowledge of other religions, and made lots of new friends. I have also learned that faith and background do not really matter when it comes to getting to know people and making friends . . . . when we had free time, all the boys did ‘boys things’ together – like soccer and goofing around and dunking one another in the swimming pool. It was awesome. We learned to trust one another, and make new friends despite all our differences.”
Before meals, the kids blessed their food in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The kitchen prepared halal, kosher, and vegetarian food. As part of the program the kids attended services at mosques, synagogues, and churches in Seattle. Counselors facilitated games and exercises that helped Eve understand concepts of listening and trust. She recalled the one particular game that dissolved some of her anxiety.
“I was blind-folded and led down a nearby path by one of the other kids. At first I was unnerved, scared that I might fall. It’s freaky when you can’t see where you’re going. She took my hand and told me when there was a step. Once I really listened to what my guide was saying, it was quite easy. ”
Back home after the end of camp, Eve’s mom, Diana, noticed that Eve was helping the family communicate in a different way. By showing her older sister and parents that she was a better listener, political and social justice discussions at the dinner table took on a different tone. Not only was Eve much more prepared to hear what her dad had to say, and not be so argumentative, everyone was getting better at seeing different perspectives.
Eve is one of so many kids who want to learn how to make a difference in our society. She is committed to Kids4Peace’s ultimate goal of world peace, which at times to her, like many of us, seems so far off. Yet Eve does not believe it’s impossible. This summer she’s signed up to attend the second year camp of her six-year Kids4Peace leadership program in North Carolina.
I couldn’t help but think of the many well-intentioned adults who want to make a difference in peoples’ lives, in Seattle, as well as on the international landscape. At times I ask myself if we’re really listening to the people we are trying to help. Are we, like Eve, really hearing what they are saying?
“I have joined the Kids4Peace movement because I feel that their mission is a crucial one,” Eve insisted. “I would like to be a part of it. But I can’t do it on my own. I know that to be totally good at NVC (Nonviolent Communication) I need to listen as well as hear what other people are saying. After all, Moses didn’t do what he did alone.”
Susan Bloch is an executive coach and author.