What do teenagers have to do with solving a century old conflict? Enabling Enterprise volunteer Claudia Colvin shares her experience of how a summer camp run by Seeds of Peace taught her more about dealing with conflict than a whole degree in Conflict Resolution.

With anti-bullying week taking place in schools all across the UK last month, we’re reminded that for many students education is not just about learning and making friends; it’s also about struggling with relationships, dealing with peer pressure and surviving conflict. It’s a never-ending story that is echoed throughout adult life and all over the world. Indeed, watching the news makes it clear how dominant a role conflict plays in many people’s lives. Of course it causes terrible suffering and distress, but what can it teach us?

Over the last few weeks, news headlines have become ever more disheartening. With so much conflict in the world we wonder what propels it and why some disputes never end. Conflicts arise when two or more parties have incompatible goals, needs or interests: when the parties involved are large ethnic, national, or religious groups, conflicts take the form of war; but what about in everyday life – in our families, at work, and in schools?

This summer I had the unique opportunity of supporting 200 teenagers from Israel and Palestine, groups affected by intractable conflicts, as they lived together side by side for three weeks at a summer camp in the United States. I learnt more about how to deal with conflict from those teenagers than from all the books and articles I had read throughout my master’s in Conflict Resolution, and am greatly inspired by the communication skills, resilience and drive to make a change that these extraordinary young people developed by the end of their time together.

The three weeks were not easy. Imagine growing up thinking that a particular group of people cannot be trusted, has inflicted suffering on your people, and is a constant threat to you and you and your loved ones. Then imagine having to share a bunk bed, a dining table and a basketball team with that group of people. It is a lot to ask, yet they did it: they found a way to reach out to each other, and by the end of the three weeks the strongest friendships formed were those between teenagers from opposing sides.

What was their secret to success? Dialogue. Everyday for one and a half hours the young people were divided into small groups and were given the space to openly discuss the conflict that made them enemies.

At first it was pandemonium. There was a lot of anger and frustration and the teenagers communicated with each other aggressively, in part to release their suffering and in part to hide their fear. However, if everyone shouts, no one listens. The teenagers soon learnt this, and then began to actually listen to the people sitting in front of them regardless of their national or religious beliefs. Sharing their stories and experiences of the conflict, they realised that when your enemy is just as vulnerable as you, it is much harder to want to hurt them.

The reason why these sessions were so successful is that they were led by the teenagers themselves. Nobody told them what to say or do; what they learnt was through actively listening and learning from one another. Rather than an unbreakable block, the conflict became a catalyst for change. These young people learnt to bring about a solution to their through their newfound voice. This is the most important lesson they took home from camp: Speak up. Your voice matters.

But can an example brought about by such extreme and rooted national conflict really be applied to the day to day struggles young people encounter at school? How can we, in the UK, learn from these extraordinary teenagers? Whether it is fighting with classmates, arguing with teachers or simply not getting to grips with their work, the chances are that a lack of communication and understanding are often at the root of these problems. By encouraging students to collaborate, communicate and support each other from an early age, we can instil these skills in them which develop not only their aptitude for work but their resilience and ability to mix on with other people. As well as helping young people get the most out of their school experience, this also better prepares them for their future personal and professional life. And it is why Enabling Enterprise places emphasis on building teamwork and communication into all the projects they develop for schools. This means that students often work in teams with those they might not necessarily choose to. Although some protest at first, by the end an overwhelming majority say that their favourite part of the experience was making new friends.

If we can get students working together and building an understanding and respect for each other’s different interests and views from an early age, perhaps we can minimise the chances of conflicts arising later in life. Teenagers are often portrayed in the media as being anti-social and yobbish, but perhaps they are more empathetic and open-minded than we give them credit for. After all, these teenagers made more progress towards compromise and mutual understanding in three weeks than the adults who lead their societies have done over generations.

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