EPM: Tell me a bit about yourself—where did you grow up, and what was your first contact with this project?
HAZEM: I grew up in Palestine, in Gaza City, where I was in high school, when I entered an essay contest in my school. We learned that a few of us were winners in the competition, and could attend the Seeds of Peace Camp, in Maine, USA.
EPM: First, tell me a little about what you thought of Israelis, growing up, and what they thought of you.
HAZEM: Well, you have to realize that I grew up in the 1990’s, and at that time, we were under Israeli occupation. So my contact was not with average Israelis—it was with a faceless army—the “occupiers.” We thought of them as the oppressors.
EPM: What kinds of things would happen?
HAZEM: Well, just daily life was rough, because you needed their permission to get anywhere out of your own locality. For example—just getting around took twice as long as it should. Life was very intense, you experienced these things daily, and everyone knew at least someone who had died (in an incident) involving IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers. Just going to school, you didn’t know if your school bus would get through. You’d ask: “Is there a curfew? Is there a strike?” This all got worse during the Second Intifada (2000-2004)—but when I came to Maine in 1997, there was actually a bit of hope, after the Oslo Accords brought hope of a real peace treaty and our own state. Eventually, Israel pulled out of Gaza, but not the West Bank Palestinian territories.
EPM: So you came in 1997 to this US camp in Maine. I understand there were students there from all over the Arab world, and Israel?
HAZEM: Yes, I was 14. I came, and there were about 150 students there from different countries in the “conflict zone”—from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan—and of course, from the United States. The Americans included both Christians and Jews. Later, Indians and Pakistanis have also come to the camp.
EPM: What was it like for you at the camp?
HAZEM: Well, it was very different. First of all, we all bunked together—the Arabs, the Israelis, the Americans. In my bunkhouse, there were 14 bunks, and people from four or five nationalities. You were sharing meals, bunks, and close quarters with people who came out of a whole different and sometimes opposite experience.
EPM: What was camp life like? What kinds of things did you do and learn?
HAZEM: The camp was gorgeous, in the woods of Maine. It was interesting, and well-run. One of the first things they did was to teach us baseball. You know, in the Middle East we have basketball, soccer, volley ball—they had all that. But the Americans were very proud of baseball, as the “national pastime,” and they taught us all to play it. We also had daily “coexistence sessions”, taught by two facilitators, and other sports and swimming and things like that.
EPM: What did you think of Israelis when you were 14?
HAZEM: Well, you know when you’re 14, your opinions are mostly still molded from the views of your peers back home. The Israelis in Gaza were in the IDF—and I was not fond of the Israeli Defense Force.
EPM: How did that affect your view of your fellow campers who were there?
HAZEM: So as I said, it was pretty close quarters. When you’re there, and sharing meals and talking all the time, you begin to realize, “hey, these guys are people too.”
EPM: So did you talk at all about the politics and the history and the conflict in the region?
HAZEM: We did, and it got very intense at times. We’d meet in groups of about 12, some from each different place, and culture.
EPM: What was that like?
HAZEM: Well, it sometimes started out as a real shouting match. When we first came, most people were repeating what they’d heard, voicing what your friends and others say—people would actually cry and run out of the room sometimes. After awhile, we saw each other more as individuals, and learned to treat each other that way. Slowly, people went from “faceless” enemies, to people with faces, and personalities.
EPM: What made you see the others more as people too?
HAZEM: I think you are above all moved by personal stories. You hear about someone in Ramallah whose brother was killed in an army raid, or you hear about an Israeli girl who witnessed a bus that exploded, you hear about people who died on both sides. You realize, “We’re all here, we’re all in the same boat in the end.”
EPM: What came next for you?
HAZEM: I graduated, and came back to the University of Southern Maine, where I studied computer science. I stayed involved with Seeds of Peace, at workshops and campus conferences. I still have friends from the camp. We’re more like Facebook friends now, in general, but we stay in touch.
EPM: How did the camp evolve after your time there?
HAZEM: Well, they developed a Regional Center in Jerusalem, to serve the people there. Eventually, that center closed—it was too hard to get people there from Gaza and elsewhere. There are Regional Programs still up and running today—in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, just not in Jerusalem.
EPM: Where do you live today? What do you do? Are you glad you got involved with Seeds of Peace?
HAZEM: I’m glad I did. I live in Montreal, where I work as a systems validation engineer for a biotech company. I’m in graduate school, to further my engineering career. I still sometimes speak, if invited, about my experiences.
[Hazem notes that he is still in touch with graduates of Seeds of Peace, including, among others, Israelis who attended the camp with him in 1997 and 1998.]
EPM: Thanks, Hazem, for talking with us for Envision Peace Museum.
Hazem: It was my pleasure. Please call on me if you need anything more.