By Leslie H. Dixon
OTISFIELD — The gates of the international Seeds of Peace camp on the shores of Pleasant Lake must remain open this summer to ensure the continuation of its mission to bring unity to the world, say members of the Seeds of Peace organization.
“The Administration [government] is saying we’ll be safer by building walls,” Bowdoin College freshman and Seeds of Peace camper Salim Salim told the Advertiser Democrat. “The more you close your doors to people, the more hate there will be.”
Each summer, for last 25 years, about 200 Seeds of Peace campers, also known as Seeds, from some of the most troubled areas of the world such as Israel and Palestine have come to Otisfield to raise their nation’s flags on designated poles, join hands and voices and begin the process that results in a sharing of unity that is unknown in some of their homelands.
It is accomplished in less than three weeks among the campers, but this year many in the 25-year-old organization are worried that newly sworn-in President Donald J. Trump may undo their efforts.
Decisions by Trump such as to build a wall along the Mexican and United States’ border, to indefinitely suspended Syrian refugees, and bar nearly all travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Sudan – for 90 days and refugees for 120 days, has many in the Seeds Of Peace organization concerned.
“At Seeds of Peace, we create rare spaces – spaces filled with people who wouldn’t otherwise find themselves in the same room together, let alone in the same room working together, learning together and leading change together,” Executive Director Leslie Lewin said in a statement issued following the travel ban.
Each summer Lewin leads the campers in an emotional opening ceremony at the entryway gates to the Otisfield camp on Powhatan Road and then works throughout the year with leaders and others around the world to promote the organization’s work.
“We know that our work is not always easy and not always popular either. It takes enormous courage to engage and speak up when pulling back feels so much safer. Our work rests on a set of core values: courage, respect, critical thinking, and impactful engagement.
“The actions and orders [by President Trump] of the past few days stand in stark contrast to these values. In fact, the very notion of shutting people out and choosing to disengage undermines the very reason why Seeds of Peace was founded nearly 25 years ago,” she continued in the statement.
Campers come to Otisfield from Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States.
At the opening ceremony, second-year Seeds, who come back as leaders representing each country, speak to the first-year Seeds, each delegation sings their national anthem as their flag is raised and then together all the campers sing the Seeds of Peace song as that flag is raised.
It is the only flag allowed on the campgrounds for the next three weeks when the campers begin a personal transformation that leads them back home to encourage a wider societal change.
The program is aimed at shifting attitudes and perceptions, building respect and empathy. From there, the Seeds, the Changemakers, now 6,500-plus strong, lead change throughout some 27 countries in the Middle East, South Asia, the United States and Europe.
This is not the first year there have been concerns about the safe arrival of the campers. In 2011, for example, the United States government detained 12 campers from Afghanistan while processing their visas.
For some Seeds, it is once again a time of uncertainty.
Maine Seeds uncertain
Abdul Mohamed, a Maine Seed and a student at Lewiston High School, said there is a lot of pain right now and a lot of uncertainty.
“No one really knows what to do,” he said. “If we have unity, it’s the height we have to reach right now.”
The idea to expand the Seeds of Peace camp and its philosophy to a separate, more localized Maine Seeds program, began around 2000 when tensions began to rise, particularly in Portland and Lewiston where immigrants have settled.
“My mom and dad came to this country to seek a better life for me and my family,” said Mohamed, who is a junior at Lewiston High School.
Mohamed said that following Trump’s election in November 2016, he suddenly felt excluded from classmates, particularly those who supported Trump as a candidate.
Although he initially felt that he should not try to hang out with the kids he soon realized that his mind set was “not going to get me anywhere.”
When his little sister began to talk about Trump he said he knew it was important to turn the anger around to something positive.
“It’s OK to [peacefully] protest, but having a conversation there also has to be listening. You have to be respectful and let people talk,” he said.
In Lewiston, he said, dialog began among the students and unity returned.
Open dialog is at the heart of the Seeds of Peace process.
Two years ago, as a Maine Seed, Mohamed said he and other Maine Seeds who were visiting the international camp for a day encountered Palestinian and Israeli Seeds who could not come together and begin a dialog.
They convinced them that they needed to talk to each other, to open up the dialog and exchange feelings, to “be open minded.”
Soon the young people were engaged in conversation and understanding.
“There was finally unity in the camp,” he said.
Salim, who moved from Iraq to Maine in 2010 and attends Bowdoin College in Brunswick where he is vice president of his freshman class, said he worries about the Seeds coming to Maine this summer.
“I do have a concern about Seeds coming to this country,” Salim said. “Our mission is to put a face on the so-called enemy. To have Israelis and Palestinians end up friends in just three weeks is an amazing, amazing result. It says so much about the things we’re told and the lies we’re told.”
Salim said students here have been very upset with the current state of affairs.
“We’re trying to have discussions. As class vice president I tell them I’m here for them. I’m a resource if they want to talk. The challenge is to connect with people when there’s so much hate,” he said.
Salim’s parents live in Portland and he said the fear and anger around them is evident.
“My parents get dirty looks when they’re in the supermarket,” Salim said as an example of the hatred they feel. “The identity of a person has no connection with who that person is.”
Salim said other members of his family are in Turkey and hope to come to the United States on their Iraqi passports but fear they may not get in. Parents of friends of his who went to visit in Iraq are now stuck there, he said.
“The longer they stay in Iraq the more dangerous it becomes. Once ISIS finds out it only gets worse. There’s a high chance they might get killed,” he said.
“I think my biggest concern right now is they will not feel welcome in this country,” said Salim of those coming into the United States from the banned countries.
“They were bought here to be provided with a safe place. They can’t do that at home. They’re realizing they have First Amendment rights, they have the freedom to say whatever they want to, but to have Trump strip away that right from them is not much different than what’s happening in their homes.”
“Making America more ignorant is what’s going on,” Salim added.
Making peace is what they all hope will happen at the Seeds of Peace camp this summer.