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Giving Peace a Chance… at Camp!

27 September 2011 3 Comments

Nawal Rajeh

Editor’s Note: Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Nawal Rajeh, Lebanese peace activist and conflict resolution educator, about her work as Co-Founder of the Nawal Rajeh Peace Camp.

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When did you first become interested in peacebuilding work, and how did that interest develop into The Nawal Rajeh Peace Camp?

My interest in peacebuilding began while I was attending Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where I was a Political Science major.  The school had a Peace Studies minor and in the face of the Iraq war, as well as my own family history (my parents fled Lebanon during its civil war), I became increasingly interested in the topic.  After taking a few classes in the minor, I felt there was nothing more important or exciting to study than the possibility for peace. The college allows students to create their own majors, so I created a Peace Studies major. The summer before my senior year, I applied to work at a Peace Camp in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, which was open for children from the surrounding community and also for children of a significant refugee population in the area. That Peace Camp was founded after 9/11 in St. Louis, Missouri by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who were also running the camp in Pittsburgh. I loved working there and went back again the next year. After graduating from Westminster, I enrolled in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and was placed in Baltimore, Maryland to do community organizing. I started working at a community center that had a significant amount of programming for kids.  For the first time, I was doing community organizing. I had to break up fights, both verbal and physical.

The community center had been running a literacy camp in the summers.  The funding, however, was gone, and they needed an idea of what to do for the kids in the coming summer. I suggested a peace camp, and the idea was hugely supported by my supervisor. We consulted with the sisters in Pittsburgh; they came down to Baltimore and talked about their model; and we hired some counselors who had worked with them in Pittsburgh previously.  We drew from their model to develop our own 6-week model, and launched the first camp in 2007.  The aim was to have something productive for the kids to do that was safe, fun and educational.

Can you tell me more about the goals or aims of The Nawal Rajeh Peace Camp?

We focus both on a large perspective and on a smaller, more personal perspective that promotes social and emotional learning. The first is international diversity and learning.  The smaller things that we work on day to day are interpersonal conflict resolution, anger management, and communicating feelings. It’s really fun to see how kids grow over the summer, and to see them practice the ways they have learned to express themselves and cope with conflict.  Our number one goal is always that the children are safe and have fun.  Childhood is far too short for anything else.

The neighborhood in which we run is one the most economically deprived in the city. As a result, there are factors outside our doors that we cannot control. One example is that for the past three summers Baltimore city has said that due to funding issues they would have to close the community walk-to pool where the children swim in the summer. Each summer the peace campers have taken some action. They have protested at city hall, written to the Mayor, and met with the head of recreation and parks for the city. They have been in the Baltimore Sun and on the news.  Each year, they make some noise and succeed in some way!

Through Peace Camp the kids learn what it means to be advocates for themselves, and hopefully that will result in them knowing how to be advocates for their community later. We also teach about advocacy in other ways. For example, this summer we spent a week talking about the Egyptian revolution. We want to show them that when people come together and demand something peacefully, they will see results. While the overwhelming examples in their city and the world say that violent force is the main way to acquire your wants and needs, we want them to see plenty of examples of positive results achieved through nonviolence.

 

Peace Campers in front of the White House

What is the highlight of your work at Peace Camp?

Ralph E. Moore Jr. is the Director of the Community Center and co-founder of the camp. His motto has always been “absolute rigidity in planning, and absolute flexibility in execution.” We start out each summer being optimistic about how “perfectly” things will go. Although it never turns out the way I envision it at the beginning, by the end it always exceeds my expectations. The highlight for me is meeting the new kids and continuing relationships with the kids who have been there for years. Every year they teach me so much about peace, life, what it means to be resilient and open to the world—they are truly amazing teachers in my life.

How does your work contribute to cross-cultural understanding?

Our work at Peace Camp definitely contributes to cross-cultural understanding. The demographic of our campers is 100% African American, and most have never met anyone from the Middle East before. Every year they ask me questions about myself and my country—they learn a lot about me and I learn about them. Our staff each year has been very mixed, and we try and teach diversity in a way that will affect their lives—not just in the sense of racial diversity, but also economic diversity, and we always bring in international components. Every week at camp we have a Peace Hero. There are always three men and three women, some American and some international. Last year, for example, we included Queen Rania of Jordan, and the kids learned about her work and about the country of Jordan. They each got a copy of Queen Rania’s children’s book called The Sandwich Swap, which is about tolerance across cultures.  They even had a class in dabka, which is a traditional Middle Eastern folk dance, and three or four of the girls ended up performing dabka for their parents at the final ceremony for the camp. To this day, they remember the Arabic names of the dance steps!

We try to expose the kids to different cultures that way by direct interaction—for example if we’re teaching about a Native American peace hero, we then take them on a field trip to meet Native Americans who can speak to them and teach them about their culture. A good third of the kids have never left Baltimore and most have never left the neighborhood they live in. Through camp they are meeting a diverse group of  teachers and guests and their curiosity leads them to ask questions and to learn. In many ways we are showing them that there is a big world out there. I’m pleased that they will go to high school knowing, for example, who Gandhi is and what he did. I didn’t know who he was until I went off to college!

Do the kids explore issues related to women’s rights and gender equality in Peace Camp? How would you describe your personal experience as a woman in a leadership position?

There isn’t a program that deals specifically with gender equality, but we definitely touch on these issues—particularly with the older group of kids. When they research peace heroes and the countries they are from, they learn that women aren’t always treated the same in different parts of the world. And when we explain “Well, in this county, girls can’t go to school” or can’t do this or that, they have a lot more questions that we explore together. I struggle a lot with the boys hitting girls. In my culture boys are taught not to hit girls, and at the camps we always have the “Well, she hit me first” issue. So, again, through questions, I try to facilitate them learning and thinking about why and how to refrain from hitting each other in general and why this is important across genders.

I have grown a lot from my experience at Peace Camp, and as a woman I have come to the realization that I always downplayed my role. For the first few years I felt that if I wasn’t a woman or if my identity was different I could do the job better—that I would have more authority and the kids would respect me more and listen to me more, and that somehow it would be a stronger camp. A part of the reason I felt this way is because many of the kids we serve are lacking good male role models.  At one point, someone from the community told me they felt the kids trust women more because they stay in their lives.  That caused a shift in my thinking, as I recognized the importance of the trust I had built with many of them.

Every summer when I leave it’s really hard, and they want to know definitively that I will come back. And thankfully, every year I have come back, and that’s helped me be more confident through the years. I have so much love for them, and I finally realized that if you’re putting everything you have into it, your work will achieve its fullest potential. I have now stepped into the position where I try to set an example as a strong woman who is a confident advocate both for the kids and for the camp, even though we are running on a low budget. This summer we had a staff of all women and I think the kids respected us, learned a lot, and had a great time. I have learned a lot about stepping into a role and embracing identity and seeing that identity as a means for positive social interaction.

Where can our readers learn more about The Nawal Rajeh Peace Camp?

We use the facilities of St. Frances Academy, so you can find more information about the camp on their website. We are grateful for any interested volunteers and for contributions, as we do our own fundraising for the camp each year, and it is completely free for kids to attend. We have had a waiting list for the past few years because it has grown so much. Anyone interested in volunteering, making a contribution, or simply learning more about the programs at Peace Camp can contact me, nrajeh@gmail.com.

Find out more about our Connection Point initiative on http://www.peacexpeace.org/connection-point.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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3 Comments to “Giving Peace a Chance… at Camp!”
  1. Maher farraj says:

    Hello

    I am with your great effort for peace, I am a palestinian and I dedicate my Articles for peace.
    Best
    Maher

  2. Ms. Rajeh is much too modest. She is very charismatic and therefore much loved by the campers and the staff. We do a lot with the funds we have: swimming, art, music, weekly field trips, T-shirts, breakfast, lunch and snacks… books, lots of fun learning by doing. Nawal Rajeh is the very heart of the camp! Our leader for life… I support by doing what the all female staff tells me. I enjoy their take charge ways in behalf of the children.

  3. Julia Rodricks says:

    I am part of the all female staff at Peace Camp and have enjoyed working with Nawal the past two summers. The kids have always really looked up to Nawal and listen to what she has to say.
    Although itineraries don’t always go as planned, she is there to figure out the next step.
    I couldn’t imagine Peace Camp without Nawal and I’m sure the kids couldn’t either.

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