SICHUAN, China – When Ying Wang of China volunteered to work with young people from China, Japan and South Korea at the 2010 Northeast Asia Peace Camp, she was inspired by the service she had witnessed when she was a teacher’s assistant in Canby, Ore.
Wang was in Oregon as a participant in Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) one-year International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) in 2005-2006 when her concept of service was radically changed.
“One big thing I learned during the year is how much some people want to give and help other people — people they don’t know — to live in a better life instead of only focus on making their own life better,” Wang said.
“I used to think peace, charity and justice … are too big for me, as one person to do anything with it,” she said. “This thought changed during my IVEP year. I wanted to do something bigger than my own needs.”
Wang went on to found an organization, Peace in China, and became one of the initiators of the Northeast Asia Peace Camp for young people, which was held for the first time last year. The 30 high school students who participated in the camp this year addressed stereotypes and historical tensions between their three home countries.
Helping Wang coordinate this year’s peace camp were counselors from other peacebuilding organizations, including World Friendship Center in Japan, the Korea Anabaptist Center and The Frontiers, based in Korea. Among the 15 counselors, one was an MCC worker, five were former IVEP participants and one was entering the program in August.
“Many IVEPers don’t come from a culture of volunteering that is so prevalent in Mennonite circles,” said Andrea Geiser, IVEP USA coordinator. “When they come to Canada or the U.S. and see hundreds of volunteers helping in thrift shops, soup kitchens, and social service capacities, they are amazed.
“From asking questions and volunteering themselves, they learn how valuable volunteering can be, want to participate and take that energy back to their home community.”
The IVEP alumni and the other counselors camped with the teens from July 25 to 30 at a campground in the mountains of the Sichuan Province, China. Mornings included team- and confidence-building activities, such as rappelling, scavenger hunt hiking, crossing chain bridges and swinging on a rope across a gap to teammates waiting to catch them.
The afternoons were spent in the classroom, where students created art on the theme of peace, learned traditional games from each country and confronted versions of history as told by campers and counselors. To the casual observer, no obvious rifts appear between the three countries at present, but though they may share many elements of culture and history, a lasting residue remains from World War II.
“Maybe before this peace camp, I think the Japanese and Korean people are a bit cruel for Chinese people,” said Lihua Wang, 17, of China. “But through the summer camp, I think they are not very cruel. Maybe they are always kind and friendly to others, and they don’t want war and some fighting.”
Seunghwa Oh, former IVEPer from South Korea, shared with campers some of what she learned about peace during her IVEP assignment in 2008-2009. Oh worked with many peace organizations, including Peace Connections, Offender Victim Ministries and Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict, all in Newton, Kan., and Christian Peacemaker Teams in Chicago.
The lectures and workshops at these organizations were helpful, she said, but what she found especially helpful for peace camp was her experience of living with a host family and friends. “It was most helpful to communicate and understand other people who are from different countries.”
Each year IVEP participants from about 25 countries come together. Most of them have never traveled outside their home countries before and have never met people from so many different nations, Geiser said.
“These international friendships continue to influence their lives and shape how they view their neighbors, whether it’s their neighbors down the street or neighboring countries that have had historical conflicts,” she said.
International friendships developed between campers too.
Chinese camper Botao Lu, 15, said she would tell her parents and friends about the peace camp. “I will tell them that my foreign friends from Korea and Japan are very friendly. And if I have a chance, I will go to Korea and Japan to learn more about their cultures.”