Eyes bright and full of hope, 14-year-old Mahmoud is eager to talk about his life-changing camp experience at a two-week summer program held at Camp Shomria in Perth, Ont.
Mahmoud, who spoke at a recent closing reception in downtown Toronto for the Heart to Heart program at the camp, is one of the 20 Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli youths between the ages of 14 and 16 who participated in the program.
“It’s so beautiful to meet Jewish boys and girls. After being with them, we are a family now and I love them,” Mahmoud said, beaming.
Now in its second year, Heart to Heart is an extension of a larger Israeli educational program, Children Teaching Children (CTC), established more than 25 years ago.
CTC is operated and funded by Givat Haviva (www.givathaviva.org.il), a non-profit organization created in 1949 as a national education centre for the Kibbutz Federation in Israel.
CTC facilitates Arab and Jewish encounters for middle-school-age children throughout the Wadi Ara region, to nurture an open dialogue between the two groups.
Yaniv Sagee, shaliach for Givat Haviva and Hashomer Hatzair in the United States, and soon to be director of Givat Haviva in Israel, helped launch Heart to Heart, recognizing the importance of having Jewish and Arab Israeli adolescents meeting in Canada, away from the ongoing pressures and politics of living in Israel.
At Camp Shomria, Israeli campers have the opportunity to integrate with Canadian campers yet can still focus on their daily educational group activities guided by both Israeli and Arab counsellors.
Heart to Heart participant Guy, 15, was thrilled to simply hang out in his cabin with his new friends after a long day of programs and discussion.
“Now, it’s easy to understand each other’s point of view,” he said. “That’s one of the things we don’t have in Israel because it’s hard to meet with Arabic kids. We live in our own cities and there’s usually no mixing.”
Shahin, another Arab-Israeli Heart to Heart camper, also never had the chance to meet Jewish children his age before the program and didn’t expect to make such good friends, but was very happy he did.
Lina, an Arab-Israeli girl, was extremely touched when her new Jewish friends waited for them to break the month-long fast of Ramadan.
Sagee believes that having an integrated camp like Heart to Heart also benefits Canadian campers, giving them a “unique opportunity to see Israel through the lens of both its Arab and Jewish citizens.”
He is optimistic that CTC will one day become a national program, so that more students such as Mahmoud and Guy will have the chance to recognize and explore their similar cultures and perhaps even become friends.
Program director of Heart to Heart, Zakaria Mahameed, who accompanied the group from Israel, was himself an Arab participant of a similar integrated program some 15 years ago and knows first-hand the success of such initiatives.
He especially loves to see Arab and Jewish parents of Heart to Heart campers connecting back home in Israel.
When asked about staying in touch with the Jewish members of the group after camp, Mahmoud smiled and talked about plans for two big parties when they return to Israel. One gathering will be hosted in a Jewish house and the other in an Arab home.
Mahmoud also dreams of peace.
“Many people in the world think that the Arab and Jewish people hate each other, but it’s not all of them. We want to change people’s minds and show them that we can live together and love each other,” he said.
For more information about Heart to Heart, visit www.hashomerhatzair.ca.