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Filmmaking program in B.C. brings together young Palestinians, Israelis

VANCOUVER - Cake and candles are the least of Omar Sawaid's concerns when he wants to celebrate family birthdays or anniversaries.

There's also mile-high paperwork and travel planning for the 21-year-old Palestinian living in Haifa, Israel, whose great aunt and relatives -- refugees residing in Jordan and Syria -- are barred from visits.

Anger rises in his chest knowing American and European Jewish people are openly welcomed into the country to embrace their own loved ones and share those same milestones.

In a little town to the north, Sophia Duckrevich has grown up always fearful the next missile attack could strike her home. The 26-year-old Israeli vividly recalls the death of a close 14-year-old boy friend when she was just 10.

Their emotions remain high, but when the Palestinian man and Israeli woman went camping together in a serene mountain village north of Vancouver earlier this month, they heard for the first time the other person's story. They even became friends.

"We have only a picture of (each other) as an enemy, not as a person that wants peace or got hurt from it," said Duckrevich of intimate conversations with other campers about their personal experiences with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"People are starting to believe this is true -- this person really wants peace and he has suffered just like me."

Which was exactly the hope of the British Columbia non-profit that's brought the pair and 28 other Palestinian, Israeli and Canadian university students together.

The month-long program, called Peace it Together, engages the students in 10 days of trust-building exercises before dividing them into trios that will make 10 short films about the conflict.

"When we started talking and having a dialogue with each other, we understand each other much more than when we arrived," said Sawaid.

"Their stories, what they have to say, their explanations, give us some kind of clue of what is happening on the other side."

The program is running for the third time since it was launched in 2006 by a Jewish woman from Montreal, who admits even she didn't have her first chat with a Palestinian until her mid-30s. After a trip to the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1990s she hatched the idea of a peace camp that brings people in opposition together to collaborate.

Reena Lazar, the program's executive director, said creativity and conflict transformation both involve the same process.

"When you're trying to change or resolve conflict you have to let go of old assumptions, old habits, old beliefs and just open yourself up for something new to emerge," she said, noting she feels people have a greater appetite for watching films where multiple perspectives intertwine rather than portray only one side.

"When two enemies of a conflict create something together, it gives them a certain agency that they can say, 'Well, if I can do that, I can do anything.'"

Students who apply for the program must speak English and be committed to and interested in peace work. Those from the Middle East are asked to pay $500, while Canadian participants must cover the $2,500 expense. There are scholarships available for anyone who finds the cost too steep.

The camp has been held in different locations over the years and in the past was aimed at high school-aged students. This year, the first camp since 2008, the program was designed for post-secondary students up to age 28, meaning Israeli participants have completed their mandatory army service.

Students spent the first couple of weeks in Pemberton before heading back to Vancouver's University of British Columbia where a host of filmmaking equipment awaited. The groups will premiere their creations at a downtown theatre on Aug. 2.

While Canadian participants often play more of a mediator role at the camp, Brigid Tierney, who's half-Jewish, had her own awkward epiphany when she candidly told the others she's partaken in anti-Israeli protests.

"Having compassion is really, really hard -- and it's hard to hear that other people have it," said the 26-year-old, who lives in Toronto.

"It's blurring the lines of victimizer and victimized, oppressor and oppressed. You hear from the Israeli side there's so many emotions of guilt and shame and responsibility, and also pride and patriotism, and all these things kind of mix up into a really messy human situation."

What has given her so much hope the situation can improve are the sincere moments individuals in the group have shared. "We get along, a lot of us are really similar," she said. "Whether it's taste in music, taste in dance, there's a lot of connection."

When the films are complete, students will take them home with the intention of screening them for their own communities.

Lazar said that next step will take courage, but she has confidence the good work will continue because it took guts for the students to attend the camp in the first place.

"It's not a very popular idea for Israeli and Palestinians to work together, there's a lot of people who think it's a very bad idea, actually," Lazar said.

"I think it's the biggest shame, because I really believe you can't make peace with your enemy without your enemy. It's as simple as that."

To learn more, buy tickets to the premiere or watch previous year's films here.

For the latest from The Canadian Press, scroll down The Tyee's home page or click here.

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