Musalaha's Children's Summer Camp is a unique program that brings Israeli and Palestinian children together in a neutral, friendly camp setting and focuses on building friendships with the 'other' at a young age. They begin the reconciliation process as they learn to break down stereotypes of the other side and sit at meal times, play water games, engage in activities and study the Bible together. They walk away from these camps learning new phrases and songs in Hebrew and Arabic, share cabins, become agents of change even at a young age and leave having made new friends. We also invite Sudanese refugee children to participate as the children learn to be around other groups of people who are living in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.Summers are a very intense time for us here at Musalaha. We host three summer camps every year, and the summer months are always a bit tense and crazy. Whether it's more phone calls, a larger group of volunteers, or a huge increase in crafts and supplies, our offices are busier than any other time of the year. To add to it, this summer was met with much anxiety and fear due to the conflict in Gaza. Some thought it was just another round of rockets and raids, and that it would end quickly, but sadly we see that it has turned out to be so much more.
Each year church teams from the USA and Europe come to help out with our summer camps. This year we were grateful to have the youth group from St. Peter's Church in Haliwal, Bolton assist the staff at our Beit Sahour camp for Palestinian children. Not only were they a huge blessing, but they were also blessed in working with the children, meeting the families, and touring some of the holy sites. We also expected to have two teams from the USA come for our Israeli-Palestinian camps. Due to the current situation, the groups were concerned, and after many phone calls, listening to the media, and the escalation we are currently seeing, the two church groups cancelled. With the exception of a few volunteers who came a few weeks earlier, we were going into our summer camps greatly understaffed.
But, concern for the situation did not only come from those abroad, but also from us within the office. We spent much time in prayer, consideration, and weighing the costs of having the camp. We asked ourselves questions such as; will the parents send their children? How will the children react to sirens? How will the staff respond in an emergency situation? Our daily prayer for the children came from Psalm 57:1, "Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by."
What didn't help was the fact that many summer camps throughout the country either cancelled or postponed their camps. So, we sought advice from the Ministry of Education and the Homefront Command. We informed them of the location of the camp, and both assured us that we should go ahead with the camps while taking regular safety precautions. There were a few cancellations from some children, but the vast majority came as planned.
For me, it was interesting to see different aspects of fear. For some it was the rockets; for the Palestinian parents, even those who had sent their children in the past, it was the fear of kidnappings following the murder of the Palestinian teenager. I had to assure them that it would be okay. Nevertheless, we thank God for his protection and covering for our children these last two weeks at camp.
On Wednesday, I visited the camp with one of the Israeli Jewish parents whose son has been involved with Musalaha for some time and is now serving as a counselor. As we drove up, we wondered how the children would relate to one another in the midst of the conflict in the country. When we arrived, we both marveled at how much they enjoyed themselves and were playing with one another.
We both shared how we desire to see a camp like this spread to all parts of the country. He said, if only Arab children could meet Jewish children and know that they are not monsters and Jewish children could meet Arab children and learn that they are not monsters then that is enough for me and there is hope for the future. Thinking of the camp ending today, one of the children said, "I wish I could stay in this camp forever [rather] than go home to war." This camp is a snapshot of what our reality could be, living and fellowshipping with each other. These children set an example of what our future can be, if only we adults would bring this message to our communities.
I would like to thank the many people who prayed, supported, and worked at our summer camps. To our counselors for their two weeks of dedication and especially our Youth Project Coordinator, Shadia Qubti who had the camp upon her shoulders 24-7. It was this group of people who are the true heroes this summer.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D