Organization Raises Big Bucks to Promote Peace

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Org sends young people from conflict zones to peace-promoting summer camps

By Helaina Hovitz

On Wednesday, March 13, over 1,400 impeccably-dressed guests filed into the Metropolitan Pavilion Ballroom at 125 W. 18th Street for the 8th Annual Peace Market. The event was a fundraiser for Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting young people from conflict regions of the Middle East.

The gala featured live DJ sets by Questlove, best known for his work with the Roots, and Dave Macklovitch of Chromeo, the electrofunk band that refers to itself as "the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture."

There was never a moment's doubt that the goal of the evening was to raise cash: after announcing that $250,000 had been reached in ticket sales, the evening proceeded with a silent auction, live auction, and an ad-hoc live fundraising auction, peppered by musical performances and speeches from the Young Leadership Committee board members, which most in attendance ignored and talked over.

"Kids need to learn how to identify the 'other side' without the barrel of a gun pointed at them at a checkpoint," said Scott Birnbaum, former chair and founding member of the Young Leadership Committee.

In total, $350,000 was raised for the nonprofit's international programming.

"There's always a huge turn out and a lot of young people here," said Fatima Negaran, 26, who volunteers with the organization both here and overseas.

Michael Radparvar, 30, co-founder of Holstee, a company that encourages mindful living through art, says he's always wanted to visit his parents' homeland of Iran, but fears it just isn't safe because of the violence.

"Every year, people tell me, 'Wait, don't go yet, next year things will be better,'" said Radparvar. "But every year it only gets worse."

He continued, "There's no one organization that's going to be a silver bullet that solves this conflict, but many micro-actions will help create change."

What began as a Maine summer camp initiative for 46 Arab and Israeli children in 1993 has since expanded into multiple programs, sprouting over 5,000 "Seeds" and educators in 27 countries worldwide. Striving to empower new generations of young people with leadership skills and relationships that cross borders over to the "other side" of the war zone, the hope is that Seeds will go on to create and promote lasting peace in their hometowns. This year, over 8,000 children from places like Israel, Palestine, and Mumbai applied for camp, but only 360 can be accepted. The cost: $6,000 per kid.

The three-week program is, in some ways, just like any other summer camp; kids share bunks, hike, and play on the same soccer teams. What makes this exceptional is that most campers have never even seen someone from the "other side" in their lives, let alone talked to them about their beliefs, prejudices, and perspectives. By Seeds' estimates, 94 percent of people in the Middle East have never even had contact with someone from the "other side."

Why? Because it's often illegal. Ramy Nagy, chair of the Young Leadership Committee, admits that it is indeed dangerous for the kids to return home and attempt to spread tolerance and awareness among war-minded friends, family, neighborhoods and classmates.

"They're very brave," he said.

In the organization's magazine, The Olive Branch, George, a camper from Jenin, wrote that he came to see that not all Israelis "are the same as the ones who, back home, endanger my life with their weapons."

"With each and every Israeli I met, I managed to communicate not with violence but with words, something that is very unusual in real life," he said.

In addition to their international programming, Seeds offers year-round programs to American youths who want to promote religious and cultural understanding. Working out of countries like the UK, Balkans, and Cyprus, the foundation, headquartered in New York City, has year-round staff in Amman, Gaza, Jerusalem, Kabul, Lahore, Mumbai, Otisfield, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv. "Seeds" alumni have gone on to write for the New York Times, start their own peacemaking nonprofits in Israel, and launch leadership initiatives here in the U.S.

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