Peace Olympia Festival for Children

By Carolina Schwarz

The spirit of ancient Greek Olympics was the experience of Ekecheiria: truce. The Olympics could only take place in an atmosphere free of war and so for 1200 years a total truce was observed in the whole Greek world for half a year, before and after the games. Now the Peace Olympia Festival for Children has been created as a model to revive this spirit and inspire youth - particularly those from war-ravaged areas. Hate, which originates in a lack of inner balance, is common in our society, with its separation of spirit, mind, body. The Peace Olympia Festival for Children aims at regaining this balance and providing refuge from daily conflicts. The first of these festivals took place this summer in Olympia, Greece, the site of the ancient games, with 180 eleven-year-old children from 12 communities experiencing ethnic conflict, threat of violence, and perhaps fighting. The festival was a Pentathlon sponsored by the Institute for World Affairs and coordinated by NGOs in Greece and Israel. One of the organizers was Toronto's Patricia McCarthy, a professional peace educator.

Planning And Preparing

The goal was to bring children of communities that are in conflict- youngsters from war-ravaged areas - together in a safe environment, where they could overcome stereotypes of the "Other," the "unknown enemy," build trust and self-esteem, learn team spirit, and achieve identity through means other than national or religious status.

The rationale for the Festival is that athletics and aesthetics form a compound - a versatile and replicable discipline that can overcome the barriers of culture, language, and ethnic background. Mixed teams from different communities play together cooperatively, without individual or national competition. The focus is on doing one's personal best and supporting one's team, rather than on beating competitors. All of the events are adapted for children. The children form twelve mixed teams, including representatives from all the communities, and they were to work, play, and live together in the spirit of the ancient Olympics, the spirit of truce.

It was also planned that while these young children were to be involved in the Pentathlon, a group of disabled young Zulus from South Africa would attempt the first-ever marathon between Olympia and Delphi, a distance of 250 km. After the games, the other children would move to Delphi where they would welcome the marathon runners and then join them for an arts festival and closing ceremony. All these activities would be the basis for two films covering the event.

The project was born in 1999 as European and Middle Eastern teachers gathered to create the first Olympics for enhancing peace and understanding among the world's children. There were numerous subsequent meetings and trainings, as the organizers studied everything from the ancient physical arts of the Pentathlon, ancient Greek history and mythology, and even clay modeling and drawing.

At one point Patricia McCarthy; Ameen, a Palestinian Physical Education teacher; and a documentary film crew from Israel visited a school in Pristina, Kosovo. They had come to prepare Grade Five for their participation in the festival.

During a drama workshop, the children played a game of Islands, which is like musical chairs. Traditionally, when the music stops everyone must get onto an island, but in this version the idea is to find ways to include everyone, even as the space reduces. In a follow-up reflection, the children talked about the kinds of islands we create in our lives and how we exclude people. They discussed ways to include everyone in their communities and wondered aloud what it would be like in Greece to meet children from other cultures. The children became apprehensive when they realized that they would meet Serbian children from Belgrade, but then recalled that they had once had Serbian neighbors - and that it had been normal. They admired their teacher who, having lost his wife and child in a terrorist attack, was willing to undertake this journey of peace. They too were willing to try.

The Festival

At the opening ceremony, children, teachers, youth leaders and many visitors from communities with ethnic conflict and war, joined hands and sang "We shall overcome. We shall live in peace some day." They sang together with Turkish children from Cyprus on videotape, because they had been stopped at the border by their government, who feared the festival would be pro-Greek.

Getting there had been difficult for the many children who lacked passports. Consequently, they had been traveling by military planes with long wooden benches and no washrooms, in circuitous routes for many hours so as not to cross forbidden borders. But then, the welcome was overwhelming! There were 30 Waldorf teachers from all over the US. who just showed up, volunteering to assist with sports events. There was a nurse who had come to provide medical help. She had also organized a "Sewing Bee For Peace" in her community, which produced 250 tunics for the children to decorate and wear during the games and ceremonies. From the first moment, the children were eager to make friends and put aside years of indoctrination.

The Marathon And The Games

First out were the South African children. The majority of them had never before been on a plane and some had never even left their village. Now they were to travel to Delphi, an amazing accomplishment, considering that most of them were partially blind and some had other disabilities.

Before they started the marathon they sang a song they had written about how they had come to take part in the festival. Then the other children gave each of them a banner, which read "Run in Peace" in all the eight languages of the festival. They ran one lap around the field and then they took off, running from the stadium.

The other children prepared for the games, which were not to commence until the following day. When the games started it was quiet, there was no cheering of teams or aggressive competition. The children were focused on each sport and on encouraging their teammates.

On the last day the participants left for Delphi, where they were to rest and enjoy the arts festival and the arrival of the South African runners. All the art work that had been created during the stay was now going to be displayed in a public exhibition. The children were full of pride.

From the outset the interactions were remarkable. One girl from Kosovo said: "There were Serbians on the plane with us, but they must have been good ones, because we liked them very much." Then after some days she continued, "Maybe these are not the good ones. Maybe they are all good?"

And then there was the example with the two boys, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who were fighting. The Israeli boy shouted "I hate him" and people feared that this was just another result of ethnic indoctrination. Amos, the Executive Director of the Institute for World Affairs and project manager, asked the Israeli boy if he hated him because he was Palestinian. The boy answered, "I hate him because he's a jerk. I don't care if he is Palestinian." Even this is a step forward. The boy sees him as a human being, a jerk maybe, but in his eyes the boy is not simply a member of the enemy group.

Another important lesson was the experience with the military. Without their assistance the festival would never have taken place. The military escorted many of the children to Greece, drove them around in Greece, and put up tents as shelter from the heat. The war machine was turned into a peace machine.

This was the first Peace Olympia Festival for Children. The ambition is to make it into an annual event, and some things will be handled differently next year. For example, one team of children showed up in Greece in identical outfits, thinking it was to be them against the other nationalities. Naturally, the children quickly adapted when they learned about the situation and enjoyed the camp as much as the other children did. How this lack of communication occurred was difficult for the organizers to comprehend. Next year they will commit themselves even harder to implement the ideas of the festival. As this was the first time, most efforts were spontaneous. But planning for the next festival will involve plans complementing follow-up activities.

In Javelin, Discus, Running and Jumping the children were marked on three factors: beauty of movement, grace, and distance. In all sports they were marked on how much they had improved since the practice on the day before. The total for a team equaled the final mark, so there was much support. There were also a number of individual rewards, such as the person who displays the most grace or the most cooperation. The winners were chosen by the children.

Parting as Friends

During the closing ceremony, which was held at the ancient stadium at the site of the original Olympics, the marks were handed out. However, there was not much fuss about it. Then it was announced that a teacher at the Palestinian children's school had been killed. When they sang "All we are saying is, give peace a chance," it had more meaning. At the farewell boys and girls cried in each others arms. Then, with smiles, the children said: "Let's write each other!" The festival had exceeded all expectations.

Carolina Schwarz is with the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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