WADI ARA - On the first day of Camp Coexistence, kids tended to stick with the friends whom they already knew (Jews with Jews and Arabs with Arabs). But new friendships were already forming by day two, and the kids began to interact in mixed groups.
Soccer for Peace (SFP) recently completed its most successful camp to date, the third annual soccer camp for Arab and Jewish children in Israel: Camp Coexistence 2007. The camp was a joint undertaking with the Maccabim Association and the Kibbutz Barka’i Center for Soccer, Peace and Coexistence. Since 2005, Soccer for Peace has brought Arab and Jewish children together in Israel through overnight soccer camps. Our innovative program model of coexistence education offers children the rare opportunity to meet on a regular basis, on equal footing, to find a common language through activities they all enjoy. Dialogue, social and educational activities challenge participants to learn about, understand and respect the differences that exist among the peoples of Israel. By planting seeds of respect, tolerance and peace within our children, SFP is able to nurture and sow these seeds throughout a lifetime.
Our model begins with a five-day overnight soccer camp, where 10 and 11-year-old Arab and Jewish children train together on integrated soccer teams. In the fall, these teams join a league, and travel through the Wadi Ara region of Israel. They are one of the only mixed teams. Each summer, participants return to camp and again participate in the after-school program. Children may stay in the program for up to seven years, enough time for them to shape life-long attitudes of mutual acceptance. We plan to expand the program, year by year, so that SFP participants will be part of each other's daily lives until the age of 17.
In addition to soccer, the kids take part in many social and educational activities, learning about themselves and one another. The educational activities are run by Kaleidoscope, an Israeli non-profit seeking to foster the development of social and emotional competencies, reduce aggressive behaviour and promote acceptance of others. These activities had quite an impact on the kids. When asked, "What did you learn about yourself?" many hands shot up in the air. "I learned that I like to learn in this classroom!" exclaimed one boy. "We are all family," said another excited participant.
Social activities, such as daily swimming, allowed the kids to simply hang out, and gave their minds a rest from soccer and the Arab Jewish conflict. This is when friendships truly flourished. We took a day trip to a mosque in Sakhnin, and a synagogue in Kfar-Piness, which gave participants an opportunity to learn about each other's religious and cultural histories. The kids also visited an authentic Australian zoo, and went rafting in the Jordan River. The lessons they had learned both on the field and in the classroom provided a platform for them to enjoy this time as true friends.
When camp ended, the kids were both excited to be going home and sad that it was over:
"I don't want camp to end!"
"We really learned a lot about how similar we all are."
"I am glad I got to meet the kids from the other team."
"I got to meet new friends that I normally would never have met."
When asked if they wanted to come back next year, all hands shot up into the air. Though they were sad to say goodbye, they left camp knowing that they would again become a team in September when SFP's after-school program begins.
There is no limit to SFP's potential. Though conflict exists in every corner of the world, so too does soccer; the most watched and played sport on earth. United in their love of the game, SFP participants form organic relationships, implicit in which are the trust and respect necessary for constructive dialogue. With this as our guiding principle, SFP believes that sport can serve as both a metaphor and vehicle for peace in our time.
* Soccer for Peace is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to unite children of war-torn nations in their shared love of soccer. Based in New York City, Soccer for Peace has no political, religious or racial affiliation. For more information, please visit www.soccerforpeace.com. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 13 September 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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