In 2000, I joined a group of wonderful leaders and children from different parts of the world on a summer camp in Alta, Norway. I took with me four wonderful 11-year old Jordanian kids; two boys and two girls and set on an adventure of a life time.
During the few months before the departure date, we had to prepare for that month long summer camp. We had to buy traditional clothes, practice a traditional dance, make and organize gifts for our national night to give to all the other girls and boys in the camp. It was such an exciting time for we really needed to bond with other kids from different parts of the world. It is a beautiful idea that Dr. Doris Allen came up with after World War II, in 1946. It is an inspiring initiative and one that has been taken up by so many countries around the world. Her conviction that we must start with the children to build a better future brought to life the Children’s International Summer Villages (C.I.S.V).
I myself was super excited as I truly believed in the oneness of the world and how we must all come together no matter how painful that might be. I knew that it would be difficult to face certain nations due to the propaganda that floated around at that time… still is actually. BUT I also knew that it was a must because it would be the only way to affect other people’s points of view and show them a different side to us and give them a chance to show us who they truly are.
The leaders of the different countries were amazing and so warm. I got to know one leader from Brazil from Heathrow. It just happened that we met at the airport and we were both headed to Oslo. It was such a pleasant coincidence… out of the thousands of travelers in that airport… both delegations managed to find each other and discover that they were headed to the same camp in Norway…. That is how friendship begins.
I loved the camp… loved the children… all of them… There were a few times when my children and I were exposed to hurtful comments or thoughts by others… but, as you know, with patience and kindness, one could overcome anything.
The first experience I had with facing those hurtful stereotypes was when a wonderful kid from the US delegation, asked me to get rid of a bee that he was afraid of... we were standing on top of a rock overlooking a lovely bay. I loved this kid... he was so smart, adorable and loved life... He kept repeating that I should shoo the bee and kill it... I told him that I was not a fan of killing living things and that it would go away if he stood still and ignored it...but he kept insisting that I kill it because "You're a Muslim, Kill it" I was a bit surprised by his statement… but thought that I had to ask him a few questions to understand where he was coming from… I believe he was trying to work through issues himself...
So I said, “What gave you that idea?” Believe me… there were a million and one things I could have told him about what other people in our region were capable of in the field of killing… but he was only 11 years old and we were at a peaceful camp after all. I decided to smile and say, that I was not a terrorist and that I did not like killing. I have to add, that this special kid became one of my favorite children in that camp. Whenever I remember him, I have a smile on my face. We kept in contact for a few more years and while I was in Malawi... he used to tell me stories of when he worked in a Kibbutz...we shared similar views on life and peace... but then our busy lives took over.
The most difficult day that will forever be ingrained in my memory was when every delegation was given 11 A3 sheets of paper and asked to draw anything they knew about the other delegations in our camp. We had delegations from, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Indonesia, Philippines, Guatemala, Brazil and the USA.
My children found one situation difficult to face at first... two children from the US delegation came up to us and showed us that they had drawn the map of Israel on our sheet of paper, then said, “Jordan is a part of Israel.” That was what they were taught of course. We gently said that it was not and explained our point of view. We also told them that many of us were originally Palestinian and why what they drew might be hurtful to us. Now, that was ok… it was part of the learning process… and this camp was a venue where children and adults can learn from each other’s knowledge and experiences.
But the above experiences were nothing compared to the one I am about to tell you ...
The third most hurtful moment was when we received our paper from the Icelandic delegation. The leader of the delegation, who was supposed to monitor his kids and censor hurtful things, drew a picture of a camel with a hand gun in its hand and a Kufieh on its head. Another one of his boys drew a soldier with a hand grenade and a dagger… the picture was covered with red markers to symbolize blood…. They meant to show us as terrorists.
When my kids saw this, they burst into tears… all four of them. I had tears in my eyes as well but had to take control of the situation as they were little ones… I took them outside to the gym’s changing rooms and allowed them to cry… I have to admit that I cried myself… it was difficult for us to see how we were seen… and to think that he was the adult and the leader and yet encouraged his kids to draw something like that… I have to give it to him though...he was a good artist… Many leaders and Junior leaders from different delegations came to console us…
I decided to take this as an opportunity to teach the other kids about us ‘Arabs’. So during the break, the kids and I practiced our speech… we placed the things that other delegations wrote about us in two different categories… one was the correct column and the other was the incorrect column…. We wrote the speech together and they practiced their part. After the break, when it was our turn to present our talk… the kids did an amazing job and received loud fiery applause from the other delegations.
That memory is ingrained in my soul… ONE because it gave us a chance to show another side of us… break barriers … and provided us with a teaching/learning opportunity…and SECOND because it also showed me that even at peaceful camps such as these… there are double standards… the Icelandic leader was not talked to or reprimanded for not stopping his kids from drawing such hateful pictures… the Head Leader/ Organizer of the camp did not even have a word with him… the whole situation was actually ignored and put aside.
But I was then reprimanded and taken to a private meeting with all the organizers because my Italian friend and I threw a little bit of water at each other and other kids inside a building…. We were taken inside and asked separately about how we felt about each other and how we broke the rules…. We were questioned about having fun with each other and other kids and not hurting anyone… keeping in mind that we actually cleaned up after ourselves… double standards isn’t it?
Despite that… I LOVED and cherished my time in that village... it was one of the best experiences I have had...
I believe in this village… I believe in the core purpose of it all… I believe that we need to start with the children… yes… but it is not enough… we need to start with ourselves if we truly want our children to learn to break barriers and not to fall for propaganda… not to fall for stereotypes and live by them… We need to be role models for them… because they would be watching… they always watch what we do even when we think they are not.. They listen to us and hear every word no matter how ambiguous we tried to make them… so let us be careful… let us change our mind set… change is the way forward.