by Kate Bennion
The mid-morning call to prayer echoes over the Al Gharbij school, which should be empty, abandoned for the summer.
But instead, 160 children are gathered there for an English summer camp. And 25 people from seven countries and diverse backgrounds, unified in white, forPEACE polos – all volunteers – are making it happen.
In one room, ten-year-olds cluster around a guitar-wielding Oxonian, putting the final touches on their own composition, a song about environmental awareness. Down the hall, an American Christian makes fanoos paper lanterns with her class, discussing the English terms for Ramadan. Seventh-and-eighth-graders work with non-profit directors to craft a life mission statement. And outside, Arab third-graders play “King of the World” with an Israeli Defense Forces member, on a week’s leave to serve at the camp.
“Each year, we are afraid we won’t be able to match the quality and skills of last year’s crop of volunteers,”says Margret Ellwanger, director of forPEACE. “Yet the miracle happens again.”
July 1–12 marked forPEACE’s second year of staffing an English summer camp in Nazareth, working in collaboration with Kamel Barghouti, the dedicated Nazareth municipality volunteer Camp Director.
This year, counselors with a wide range of experience and exceptional professional skill levels delivered a range of courses, including Canada, Arts & Crafts (which included a haiku-creating language arts component), Math (a forPEACE signature class – no camp goes without math), Windmills, music composition and performance classes, a life missions writing workshop, Nature, Tae Kwon Do, Environment Stewardship, Sports and Travel & Tourism.
Guest lectures about owls as agents of biological pest control by Motti Charter, GAIA ornithologist and researcher from Haifa University and University of Lausanne, and a week-long Microsoft Office workshop from Eran Kolber, international computer software consultant, were also a big hit.
“Even though I was there for only one day, I had a lot of fun!” said Dr. Charter.
Jane Smith, originally from Ottawa, taught the course on Canada. She said the kids were "bright and hard-working" and responsive to the variety of material.
"I really feel that the camp makes a difference," said Smith. "The kids do learn, they're exposed to some really great stuff... and it feels really great to be a part of that."
Working with children with such a wide age range and English ability was challenging, but the 160 campers from ages 5 to 14 were divided into groups based on year in school, and volunteers from local high schools acted as translators.
These junior counselors, or JCs, were crucial both to camp function and cohesion.
“The junior counselors from Nazareth and the neighboring villages were so helpful – in helping with the translation of difficult words from English to Arabic, and also in the translation of culture,” said Sarah Kochav, who taught Travel & Tourism. “Sometimes we did get ‘lost in translation’ and they were always there to help find the way back for the kids in my classes – and often for me as well.”
Many became close friends with the other counselors, students and co-directors.
“It’s so sad for me that camp is over,” said Rawan Dahamshy, JC from Nazareth. “I really liked the peace message (the camp) was delivering... I hope that I will volunteer in the next year.”
Counselors stayed with host families in Nazareth and the surrounding villages. As every year, staying with the host family was an important part of the volunteer experience.
"For me these two weeks come at the end of a two-year living in Israel," said Nir Golan, American International School senior, originally from Boston. "All the time I’ve been with the Jewish community, and you see one part of society. This (experience) gives closure. When you get to know people of a certain group that has stereotypes, you begin to see that some stereotypes are not accurate."
"My hosts were amazing," said Meghna Thomas, another AIS student. "A lot of my stereotypes and stuff (I had a few, I’m ashamed to admit) have all been broken down. I learned not to judge people."
After campers went home each day, counselors and Nazareth hosts participated in vibrant afternoon and evening programs about Nazareth and its citizens throughout the centuries. The agenda included an animated lecture by Nazareth historian Dr Nakhle, a visit with Nabila Espanioly at Al-Tufula Pedagogical and Multipurpose Women's Center and guided tours and outings through the north. In addition, counselors and host families spent time together touring local sites, cooking and eating, and swapping English and Arabic.
If the level of friendships formed between volunteers and community members is any measure of the forPEACE mission to “contribute to peace by building common ground for individuals from different faiths and culture,” the camp was definitely a success. Many made plans to visit or meet up again in the future, exchanging email and social media contact information. The local JCs also developed ties with young forPEACE volunteers from the American School in Israel and abroad. One camper started a “Just for Peace” Facebook group to keep dialogue and friendships going. The group had 38 members in no time and is still going strong.
Ashlee Wrigley, from Salt Lake City, said she felt that she had made friends for life with her host family.
"They tell us we’re their kids," Wrigley said. "Could we feel any more loved?"
Most importantly, campers also had a good experience. Whether making Ramadan lanterns, learning to “boot scoot ‘n boogie,” discussing water purification, singing in Arabic or English, or engaging in more serious fare like writing life missions, interacting with a wide variety of people proved enriching for the campers... and fun.
“It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had,” said Amina Jarar, student at the camp, posting on Facebook the week after. “I can’t wait for next year.”