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Maine Offers Seeds of Peace Camp

July 8, 2002

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OTISFIELD, Maine (AP) _ Sapna Rasoul, a small ponytailed girl, makes friends and plays basketball at the Seeds of Peace camp in the Maine woods, far from her native Afghanistan.

But as other girls splash around by the swimming dock enjoying their vacation, she looks forward to going back to school. Rasoul, 15, started attending classes just six months ago after the Taliban’s rule came to an end. She wants to help her people as a lawyer, judge or doctor.

``I miss my school,″ she said from a bench overlooking an idyllic evergreen-framed view of Thompson Lake.

The Seeds of Peace camp brings together teenagers from warring regions. This year it also welcomed a dozen teenagers from Afghanistan, a country at war with itself for years.

The Afghan teens have not known peace in their lifetimes. First, there was the Soviet occupation. Then there were battling warlords. Now coalition troops are in their country to root out al Quaida.

A bitter civil war flattened neighborhoods in the capital of Kabul, Rasoul’s home town, between 1992 and 1996. An estimated 50,000 people were killed, most of them civilians.

Most of the 160 campers at the first summer session attended to meet their supposed enemies. Pakistanis, Indians, Palestinians and Israelis all bunk, eat and play together.

But the Afghan children attend for other reasons.

``Ideally, we’re hoping for them to open up, to get used to the idea of expressing themselves frankly and not be afraid someone is going to do something to their family because they said something,″ said Bobbie Gottschalk, executive vice president of Seeds of Peace.

The Afghan campers have had to adjust to a lot since they landed in the United States. Many took their first trip on a plane and out of the country. Three of the girls, Gottschalk said, arrived in burqas, the head-to-foot coverings required by the Taliban.

A week later, they wore jeans, camp T-shirts and sneakers.

On a recent afternoon, Rasoul translated as a counselor told campers how to navigate a series of tire swings. The girls giggled as they watched each other swing and grasp for the next tire.

``You must be monkey!″ 16-year-old Weda Saghri said.

``Very beautiful!″ 14-year-old Abida Attazada Ayda chirped with approval.

Afterward, counselor Annie Kelly sat the girls down in a circle and asked them to talk about what they did well, what they could have done better and what they learned about each other.

The sessions build teamwork and trust between campers from opposing sides of conflicts. Eventually they tackle a rock-climbing wall where they must trust each other with their safety.

The Afghan teens are already coming out of their shells. Roman Miraka and Mohammad Sanim Taib burst with discussion after an afternoon swim.

Taib, 14, struggled with his English but was eager to described life under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

``No television, no tape recorders. Just you go to mosque,″ Taib said. ``The time of Taliban not good. For man, (they asked) ‘Why you cut your mustache?’ He said, ’You go to jail.‴

His mother was prohibited from holding a job. His father lost his job and came under suspicion because he had been a government finance official.

Taib attended school but explained that English instruction was discouraged. His uncle taught him English secretly.

Miraka, also 14, described in rapid-fire English how his family moved from place to place, suffering through the years of fighting that followed the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion. He said he was not afraid of the U.S. airstrikes after Sept. 11 because he was used to bombs and rockets.

His goal, he said, is to develop relationships that will help him improve his country.

``I am so happy here. I have met so many people here, and they’re from many cultures,″ the teen said. ``And when I go back to my country I want to teach the peace.″

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On the Net: http://www.seedsofpeace.org

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