Peace camp breaks down barriers for Mideast teen girls

SANTA FE, N.M. — Eleven girls, ages 15 to 17, sat together on a hot summer afternoon recently, knitting and talking.

You'd never guess that these girls — Israeli Jews and Arabs, a Palestinian and an Israeli Druze — are supposed to be "enemies."

The girls were attending a two-week "Creativity For Peace Camp" in Glorieta, N.M., sponsored by the Deva Foundation.

The camp aims to create a peaceful environment where the girls can share their experiences and opinions and develop strong friendships, helping to promote Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

"Every girl has said, 'What I'm proud of about my people is that we're all survivors,' and by having that in common, it breaks down stereotypes," said Rachel Kauffman, camp co-director. "An enemy is a person's story you haven't heard."

This is the first time the Deva Foundation has hosted this camp, but similar peace camps have been organized nationally and internationally. Camp activities were based on art, including photography, visual arts and performance.

The camp is funded by private donations, and there is no charge for the participants.

Kauffman said there were practical reasons for taking only girls: The camp had only one dormitory available.

"But on a philosophical level, women in the Middle East don't have as much of a chance for leadership training, so we wanted to fill that gap," she said. "Girls are emotionally easier to deal with, and they will influence the next generation.

"The movement for peace in Ireland was started by women," she pronounced. "Men are too busy fighting."

Among the highlights of the camp were "compassionate listening" sessions where the girls shared their experiences of the Arab-Israeli conflict and of violence.

"Americans really see our situation differently," said Maya Gofel, 15, of Israel. "They see more of the political side, and I don't think there's a place for the other things, like the connection between people. They see only guns and bombing, and not really the people."

Others say the situation is worse than the U.S. media portray. "Many of the girls here have experienced people shooting at their houses, and their friends have been killed," said Sara Abdel-Hadi, 16, who was born in Jordan but lives in Raleigh, N.C.

The girls came from different religious backgrounds — Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Druze — and many had never had friends from outside their own religious group.

Bessan Abu El-eish, 15, from Gaza, said she'd had "soldiers shooting at my house at 2 a.m., and I'm afraid of them because I never know when they will come. But I realized that the girls here didn't have anything to do with them."

The campers said their discussions often delved so deep that they created tension. But they agreed that attending the camp gave them a better understanding of other perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"I had a hard time listening to their opinions on certain situations because I just didn't agree," said Michal Barak, 16, of Israel. "I don't think there's a right or a wrong side because everyone is suffering, so there is no way to agree even if we wanted to. Everyone just wants the situation to stop."

The girls will continue to meet about every six weeks in Israel and will bring along their families, hoping to create a ripple effect.