Hopes for peace in the war-torn Middle East have been kept alive by a group of 11-year-old Christians, Muslims and Jews from Canada and Israel, who spent a week in an Outward Bound camp near Burk’s Falls, Ont., playing and learning about each other’s faiths.
Four Jewish, four Muslim and four Christian children from Galilee and Jerusalem joined four Jewish, four Muslim and four Christian Canadians from the Toronto area, in Kids4Peace, a non-denominational, non-political and non-partisan program which aims to “create new friendships and to help build the human foundations for peace” in the troubled Middle East region.
Henry Carse of St. George’s (Anglican) College in Jerusalem began the program in collaboration with the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem after a renewed outbreak of violence between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in 2001. “Children here — whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim — have the right to genuine interaction with children of other faiths,” wrote Mr. Carse in an article explaining the program on the Web site of the diocese of Jerusalem. “In this land, however, they are often subject to segregation along political and religious lines, and have a poverty of experience with each other. Children must meet before they can engage in profitable, healthy dialogue.”
For three years, Kids4Peace camps have been held in Houston and Atlanta ; the Toronto camp was made possible by a $70,000 grant from the Foster Hewitt Foundation and the support of local Anglican, Muslim and Jewish groups and churches, said David Ross, Toronto program co-ordinator. The hope is that it will become a yearly event in Canada.
Why were 11-year-olds particularly chosen? It is the age where “they are old enough to travel, yet young enough to embrace friendship with children of other faiths and overcome their differences,” suggests a program brochure.
Aside from canoeing, rock climbing, swimming, and other sports activities, the group also visited the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Temple Har Zion and Jaffari Islamic Centre in Toronto.
The program has enabled children “to recognize that they are all children of God and to learn that they have a common point in Abraham,” said Rev. Richard Newland of St. Dunstan of Canterbury, Scarborough, Ont., who acted as a Canadian Christian adviser and whose church hosted a sleepover for participants and their chaperones.
The visit was a much-needed respite for the children who flew from Israel, said Mr. Newland. “Here they can ask questions free from the violence of the Middle East, where they don’t have to be worried about tanks pointed directly at their window or checkpoints demanding papers, where there are no distinctions made and the kids learn that they can play together,” he said. “Here it’s ‘so what if you’re Jewish, you’re my friend. So what if you’re Christian or Muslim, you’re my friend.'”
Make friends the children did.
“It was an experience of a lifetime,” said Melissa Prickaerts, an Anglican from Aurora in an interview. “I’ve made some great friends.”
“I made friends with everybody,” said Sarah Hassanein, a Muslim from Toronto. “We now e-mail each other.”
With newfound friendships came a deeper understanding about faith and a common humanity.
“I learned that no matter what religion, you can always live together and be a family. We’re all humans,” said Ms. Hassanein. “I already knew this but the more we talked about it the more I believe that we can stay together.”
“I learned about what’s important to me and to my faith,” said Ms. Prickaerts. “It is the essence of the Good Samaritan — love your neighbour as yourself and how everyone is your neighbour.”
Daniel Siegel, who is Jewish, said it is important for the program to continue. “We’ve got to give peace a chance. It makes me feel bad that people are bombed … The program will help kids understand that there’s nothing wrong with other religions.”
Adults have also emerged from the program changed. “They liked her for who she was, they had no questions,” said Samira Elsekely, Sarah’s mother, in an interview. “She became friends with a Jewish girl who, like her, was also very much into sports. Kids have no problem making friends. We have a lot to learn from them.”
The hope is that the children will maintain these friendships “so that the wall and the endless divisions may start to bridge,” said Mr. Newland. “A wise man once said ‘If God wants something done he causes a child to be born.’ One of these children might become the president of Israel or the leader of Palestine and remember how once they could see each other as people and bring about change.”
For more information about Kids4Peace, contact David Ross at [email protected]