Building bonds among kids of terrorism’s victims

Michael Vitez, Philadephia Inquirer

Robert Pycior, 21, wore an orange tutu, orange leotard, orange wig. He was feeling very pro-orange.

He lost his father in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, but he had team spirit.

Everyone on the orange team Sunday – and the blue and the red and teal, for that matter, all 72 campers – had lost a loved one to terrorism.

They had been sharing their most intimate stories all week – Samuel Wanjiku, how his mother was blown up by a grenade in Mombasa, Kenya; Isaac Othman, how his cousin was shot in his Palestinian homeland.

Each day at Bryn Mawr College, they had worked toward understanding. If these young people could come together, build trust, then maybe conflicts within and between their countries could be resolved.

In that spirit, campers from 13 countries attending Project Common Bond gave it all they had Sunday at the week’s finale, the “Peace Olympics.”

Pairs of campers ran back to back, arm in arm, with a balloon between them. When Pycior’s turn came in a second event, he picked up a sock with a coat hanger and sprinted across a soccer field for the orange cause.

“We get to take a week to connect and bond and grow from the dark past we’ve all shared,” said Pycior, 21, of East Windsor, N.J., who was 8 when his father, a naval officer, was killed in the Pentagon attack.

“It is important that we don’t judge by religion or by the language someone speaks,” he said. “People do bad things everywhere, but 99.9 percent of people are not terrorists. Terrorism as Americans see it is sometimes different than others see it. We view it as an attack, but it can be an individual murdered by an assassin or a car bomb. It’s still somebody’s child or parent.”

The camp – organizers prefer to call it a symposium – is in its eighth year, sponsored by Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit established after 9/11. It has been held all over the world, but for the last few years at Bryn Mawr. Kathy Murphy, director of Common Bond, wanted “a place that feels safe and protected, not too big or busy, and is near an international airport.”

“I came to share my story,” said Wanjiku, a student in Mombasa, Kenya, who lost his mother. “Being in this camp helped me a lot. You see that you’re not the only one that’s experienced this.”

Early in the week, he had been reluctant to talk about his feelings and experiences. “There was much tension at first,” he said. But by Sunday, his face was also painted orange, and he was sure he’d made friends he would keep for years, maybe life.

Mijal Tenenbaum, 20, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was just three months old when her father, a leader of the Argentina Israel Association, was killed in a community center bombing.

“I absolutely love it here,” she said. “It’s not always just talking about it. It’s having so much of our lives in common.

“When we’re here, it’s not about fighting and blaming. It’s about what we lost and what we want to gain from it. We gain so much love and hope.”

Monica Meehan, director of curriculum with Project Common Bond, told everyone at the beginning of the week: “You are here to learn as much as you can and hold off on judgment. Listen.”

One French girl, Meehan said, described how she went to the trial of her parents’ killers.

“Weren’t you filled with hate and rage?” the group asked. “No,” she said. “I kept thinking they were children once. They weren’t born with this hatred. What happened?”

“As they get the truth about somebody else’s world,” Meehan said, “there’s this big ‘aha’ moment. ‘Oh, we’re not all the same.’ You watch people drop their masks, put aside their assumptions. They get to go deeper.”

What impresses her most, year after year, is the resilience and optimism of the campers, who are mostly between ages 15 and 21.

Campers often come from warring nations.

Othman, 20, said he made friends with everyone – except one Israeli. Othman said his cousin was gunned down by Israeli soldiers in front of his family during the second Palestinian intifada, in 2002.

He loved hearing others’ stories and sharing his own, and said there was no anger here this last week, only understanding. But befriending the Israeli was just beyond him.

“He goes back to Israel and joins the military,” Othman said. “I might find him at a checkpoint.”

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