By Kai Small  

“Welcome to Maine, the Way Life Should Be” reads the road sign as you cross into Maine from New Hampshire. Although the sign implies that life in Maine is outstanding, Seeds of Peace Camp in Otisfield urges us to do even better – to create a world closer to the ideal, a world where people really listen to and understand each other. In keeping with their vision, the camp’s slogan is “The Way Life Could Be.”  

On July 27, 150 teenagers who were selected through the camp’s rigorous application process, arrived at Seeds of Peace Camp from the Middle East, South Asia, and across the U.S. These students attended the international session, which followed an earlier session for U.S. students. This summer was the camp’s first after the session’s two-year hiatus due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. For 20 days, these teenagers learned how to look past their geographical and cultural borders to understand one another better and become the next generation of peacemakers when they returned to their homes.

Tim Wilson, founder of Seeds of Peace

Seeds of Peace started in 1993, when 46 teenagers from Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. were selected to come to Pleasant Lake, in Otisfield, and participated in the first session. In an era of heightened political tension, the camp’s goal was to facilitate getting past hatred and misunderstandings to create peace. Among the tools used at camp to create peace were daily dialogue sessions, sports, and group activities. The priority was the simple act of taking the time to talk to one another. Now in its 30th summer, the goal of peacemaking and the embodiment of “The Way Life Could Be” still characterize the international Session, as well as other national and statewide programming that has been implemented along the way.  

Sahra Hassan

Sahra Hassan, a camper at Seeds of Peace in 2013, and a counselor from 2018 to 2022, shared some thoughts about Seeds programs: “We [come] from various walks of life, from various experiences and identities and perspectives in life. And we’re creating something. We’re creating a sense of acceptance and community and validation and love and friendship. And despite all of the very, very clear differences that we have, we come together to create a community.” However, Hassan said that coming together is not always easy, and “not euphoric.”  She talked about inevitable tensions. “You have your lived experiences. I have my lived experiences. And we are sharing that with each other, right? Like, like I’m coming to you and saying, ‘This is my reality.’ You’re coming to me and saying, ‘This is your reality.’ And most of the time, at least at camp, those two realities conflict with each other. There’s tension between those two realities.”   

The goal of dialogue at Seeds of Peace is not to change someone’s mind or their opinion. Instead, it is that everyone will be able to respect and understand one another, and where they are coming from. These feelings of respect and understanding, said Hassan, “are only going to come into play when people sit down and talk to each other and truly, truly listen to each other.” As campers listen to each other, not only will they gain information and perspective, they  will also gain listening and communication skills that will help them outside of camp for the rest of their lives.  

The campers – known as “Seeds” or “Peacemakers” – often come to camp feeling responsible for representing their countries, identities, religions, and people, Hassan said. And the responsibility for representation often causes campers “to present themselves in such a way that they lose sight of just being a kid. And I think that makes perfect sense. They’re coming from worlds in which they’re not given that – because it is a privilege to be able to be a kid, and to be able to play and hang out and have fun and not care about anything.” So in addition to opportunities for dialogue, the camp offers group activities like swimming, sports, and living in a cabin. The mix encourages the campers to open up to one another. In dialogue sessions, Seeds share and listen while discussing a range of topics including military occupation, border disputes, equitable water access, and diplomacy.  

Over the course of the session, Hassan said, she observed the shift, where they “start being kids, and start hanging out with other people and getting out of their comfort zone, and start challenging themselves, and start pushing back on narratives that they either have within themselves that they don’t agree with [anymore] or that they see other people portraying.” 

As the campers come together, they begin to learn from each other in ways that were not possible before, while striving to create “The Way Life Could Be.” The transformative experience of Seeds of Peace is among the many reasons why numerous past campers, Hassan included, describe Seeds of Peace as a “life-changing experience.” 

Founder Tim Wilson said it is the campers themselves who make the program. “At the heart of the Seeds of Peace program are the young people that have been involved internationally, whether it was in 1993 or 2019, because it’s really up to them. It’s their legacy. It’s how they see themselves and how they’re going to interact with their communities.” 

  On July 27 as the buses rolled into camp, the counselors greeted the next generation of Peacemakers by banging on drums, shouting songs, and dancing with excitement. And starting with this warm welcome, the campers began actively trying to live “The Way Life Could Be.”