MILL CREEK, Wash. - Before Mill Creek resident Tony Mattar attended Seattle's Middle East Peace Camp for Children, he felt removed from his Egyptian-Palestinian heritage. He often saw himself as just another suburban kid.
"I didn't have the passion," Mattar said.
At a time when war rages in Iraq and conflict continues in the Middle East, peace camps such as the one on Capitol Hill bring Jewish, Muslim and other youth together, supporters say. This year's camp attracted about 50 children and 30 counselors, including Arab Christians, Muslims, Arab Americans, Jewish Americans and Israelis from throughout the Puget Sound area.
Co-directors Susan Davis and Maha Gebara base their camp's anti-violence focus on Gandhi's saying, "If we are to have real peace, we must begin with the children."
This week, the children gathered under tents in the tree-dotted yard of civic activist Kay Bullitt, who has hosted the annual gathering on her property since 2002.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for young people to start appreciating other people and not to get into the mindset of being suspicious of strangers," she said. "All the religions honor strangers and encourage kindness to others."
On Wednesday, in between playing games, the campers listened to live Ladino music, which featured lyrics in a language spoken by Jews in Spain. In the morning, counselors discussed the contributions of Arab scientists to astronomy.
The campers also talked about the Andalus period of Spanish history. The United Nations has called the era, which started in 711, a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims shared ideas and accomplishments. While the United Nations acknowledged there was violence during this period, Davis and Gebara focus on the cooperation during the era.
"It was such a time of harmony that it led to the flourishing of the arts, science, architecture and navigation," Gebara said.
Amandla Khaled, 9, of Bellevue, found comfort in being at the camp and around children from various backgrounds and religions.
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Friends in her Eastside neighborhood sometimes don't understand her Christian, Jewish and Muslim background, especially when it comes to celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which focuses on contemplation, worship and family.
"When you fast for Ramadan, they say, 'That must be hard. Don't you get bored with it?'"
Janet Clark, an Everett resident, said the camp has changed her three children. "I think they're able to see people as people," she said.
The idea for the Peace Camp was born after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2002, Davis and Gebara were introduced to each other at an awards ceremony. They talked for about 10 minutes, and the camp idea had solidified.
Bullitt, who also was at the ceremony and held a diversity camp in her yard during the 1960s, wanted it on her property. Other parents also became camp founders.
But this year marks the final time Bullitt will host the camp. Organizers hope to expand it into a $100,000 program and are looking for larger space.
As for Mattar, he plans to pursue his interests in college; he wants to travel to the Middle East, talk with people and experience daily life.
Many former camp participants, in fact, are peace activists at the University of Washington and Seattle University. But Gebara isn't thinking too far in the future about campers entering government and campaigning for peace.
"One day at a time," she said.
To learn more about Seattle's Middle East Peace Camp, visit middleeastpeacecamp.org.
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