Since 1999 Caritas Salzburg has been organising a Peace Camp for unprivileged children of different religious denominations from all over the Middle East which takes place in another country each year.The idea of a regional Peace Camp for unprivileged children from various countries of the Middle East came up due to the fact that there were and still are, particularly in the Middle East, many prejudices and fears of contact between different nationalities, ethnic and religious groups.
Searching for constructive possibilities to contribute to help to overcome these barriers Caritas Salzburg - being responsible for the MENA (= Middle East & North-Africa) region within the frame of the international programs of Caritas Austria - decided to become actively involved in peace and reconciliation work.
Children and teenagers were immediately identified as ideal target groups since adults usually have already preconceived opinions which can hardly be changed. A three weeks’ summer camp uniting children of different nationalities and denominations seemed to be the ideal frame for such a project.
The first regional camp took place in Tartous/Syria, in 1999, with the participation of Christian and Muslim children from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. As a result of its success and the wish of all parties involved to continue this programme, another camp was organised in summer 2000 in Lebanon and so the project became an annual tradition. Each year the camp is organised in another country of the region and we try to integrate an additional nation every time. The 2009 camp took place in Bhersaf/Lebanon and the camp in 2010 will be held in Egypt.
The objectives of the camp - elimination of prejudices and strengthening of tolerance - have basically remained the same throughout the years and have even gained in importance since September 11th. The project is set to arouse interest in other countries, peoples, cultures and religions and to promote international understanding through boarder crossing friendships. Finally, unprivileged children are offered the chance to spend untroubled holidays for at least once in their lives.
According to strict criteria the local partners of Caritas Salzburg choose the most unprivileged children in the various countries for participation: refugee children as children from Palestinian refugee families in Lebanon or war refugees from Sudan or Iraq, who are represented in almost all countries of the region, orphans, street children etc. All in all 100 children aged between 10 and 14 years can participate in the programme every year, two thirds of them being girls - in order to counteract the widely spread preferential treatment of boys in the region. A multi national camp team is composed of religious Sisters of different orders, group leaders as well as volunteers (teachers, social workers…) of different nationalities.
The uniting element is the common Arabic language, whereas the children speak different dialects and always need a few days at the beginning of the camp until they understand each others without difficulty.
The camp activities offered as singing, handcrafts, sports, games and workshops with professional trainers on peace related topics (as for example non-violent conflict resolution) shall help the children to overcome their shyness and to make contact with the other children.
Since all the kids leave their respective home country for the first time in their lives, getting acquinted with the host country is an important element of the camp programme. In all host countries the respective tourism minister facilitated free visits of all tourist sites which made many interesting trips possible and helps us saving money.
With much commitment the children of all nationalities are preparing national evenings at each camp to present their home countries with dances and songs. National dishes are also served and everyone is enjoying this "culinary trip” through the Middle East. By the end of the camp an international evening is organised and the best performances of all national evenings are presented to audience.
Since 1999 the camp took place every summer, with the exception of 2003 due to the Iraq war and 2007 because of the political crisis in Lebanon. Almost 900 children and youths from 9 different countries of the region (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Libya) and belonging to 18 different denominations (Roman-Catholic, Maronite, Greek-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox, Syrian-Catholic, Syrian-Orthodox, Armenian-Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Coptic-Catholic, Coptic-Orthodox, Chaldean, Assyrian, Protestant, Evangelical, Sunni, Shia, Druse and Yazidi) had the chance to join this programme.
Since there is no comparable programme in the region it attracts the interest of the international Caritas network and besides Caritas Salzburg also Caritas Internationalis (Vatican) as well as Caritas Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, Italy, Sweden and the USA have financially contributed to the "peace camp” project so far.
Saying good-bye to their new friends at the end of the camp is always hard for the children and the tearful farewell scenes prove to us that the goals of the project have been achieved and motivate us to get the preparations for the next camp started soon.