Small steps, big revelations
By Mehreen Malik
LAHORE: When twenty-one Pakistani teenagers returned home from India this week, they brought with them more than just the memories of new, unlikely friendships. What they also brought along was an enhanced perception of the conflict in their region, after spending a week at the homes of Indian friends that they made at the Seeds of Peace (SOP) International Camp in Maine, USA.
Founded thirteen years ago by American journalist John Wallach, SOP gives teenagers from over 20 war-torn countries an opportunity to see the human face of their “enemy”. At the SOP summer camp on a lake in rural Maine, more than 120 girls and boys from the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan share meals, share feelings and become friends each year. However, in the first week of camp, each side considers itself “the victim” and the other side “the aggressor”.
“I went to the SOP camp thinking that I would teach those Indians that they were the ones at fault,” said Maryam Khan, a chirpy O’ Levels student at the Lahore Convent of Jesus and Mary. “What I learnt was that in order to reach an answer, I had to knock over my personal biases and open up to both sides of any historical event.” That was precisely the reason the SOP camp was set up: to teach people that even the unquestionable could be questioned; that for every episode in history, there were two - if not more - versions of the event; that the “facts” that we took for granted were subjective.
“At first, there was endless screaming and cursing and cat fighting during discussions,” said Maryam. “We didn’t know how to put ourselves in an Indian’s shoes, and to listen to the other side.” However, the screaming subsided soon enough as the delegation members realised that their anger came from having being taught hatred, intolerance and distrust for the “other side”.
“Accepting that our ‘enemy’ was suffering just like we were helped break the gridlock and allowed us to listen to each other and look for ways to coexist,” said Shazrey Naqshband, head girl of the Lahore Grammar School. “It’s when you stop being pro-Pakistan or pro-India and start being human that you can have peace. And to stop being a tool that helps perpetuate conflict, that’s what it means to be a seed of peace.”
But SOP isn’t all work and no play. Besides the “coexistence sessions” in which campers discuss touchy issues, the kids also take part in a lot of fun activities. Through sailing, rock-climbing, canoeing, art and music workshops, group challenge activities and eating together, campers get to know each other.
After camp ended, SOP delegation leaders and the director kept insisting that the campers try and organise “follow ups”. Thus last August, a few of the Indian delegation members came to Pakistan to stay at the houses of the Pakistanis as part of the SOP home stays exchange. This summer, 21 Pakistani teenagers left for India to live with their Indian friends. One of the Indian schools that the Pakistanis gave presentations at was the Bombay International School.
“We stood outside a classroom where a teacher asked the students to write on the board, what they thought of Pakistanis,” said Amal Khan, who has attended the SOP camp and SOP post-9/11 International Youth Conference. A list of words like extremist, fundamentalist and even friendly and ‘they are just like us’ was compiled after which the Pakistanis were introduced to the class. The sound of the word Pakistani was met with a “sudden, choking silence” and then the noise of feet scurrying across the classroom to quietly rub out the word ‘terrorist’.
But as much fun as the seeds had at camp and in India, one wonders whether stuffing 120 teenagers into little cabins in a picturesque location would actually help change things.
“The SOP camp is not youthful idealism,” argued Amal. “When a child starts learning how to ride a bicycle, you initially give him a tricycle and he rides it around in his garden, which is an artificially created, safe environment.” The child falls, gets a scratch or two, but eventually learns how to handle the cycle.
“When you’re sure he’s ready, you remove the extra wheel, put him on the road and he’s good to go,” said Amal. “That’s what happens at SOP. The camp prepares you for the bigger challenges and helps you befriend people you wouldn’t meet otherwise. SOP helps you to start thinking about causes that weren’t on your agenda before.”
Above all, these children learn that there is a human face to the conflict, that there is a friend on the other side.