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Aida Faris had a simple pitch when she talked with parents about sending their children to the Center for Middle East Studies' second annual Peace Camp.

"It's very basic," the center's director said this week. "Give me your children when they're young and I can still form their mentality, and I'll give them to you for the rest of their life."

That's the premise behind the Peace Camp, which ran Sunday through Wednesday. Fifteen children ages 9 through 16 spent their days and nights learning about the Middle East and about building peace.

Far from the bombs, the rockets and the guns that many associate with the Middle East these days, the children have been taught about the culture, music and food of the ancient land.

They have learned how to prepare stuffed grape leaves, a traditional dish eaten throughout the region. They have learned Lebanese dance as well as how to do crafts typically found in Middle Eastern homes.

They have hiked the trails that surround Camp Duffield, the quiet corner of Cattaraugus County where the camp takes place, and have learned about the connections between Earth and the creatures that inhabit it.

They have played games where keeping score is secondary to building skills and teamwork, and they have made friends with children from backgrounds different from their own.

The message? "That cooperation and mutual understanding is a better way than competition and aggression," said Nancy Wilkins, the center's chairwoman.

"What they're learning about cooperation and collaboration are life lessons that they can use as successful adults," she said. "It's catching. It's contagious."

It's also fun, the kids say.

"It's pretty cool," said Takla Boujaoude, 12, of Williamsville, whose mother, Aida, said both Takla and her brother, Charbel, 10, also got a lot out of last year's camp.

"They talked to their friends about it," she said. "They did learn a lot, and that's why they were here this year."

George Gaorgitaoumursov, 12, moved to Canada from Russia three years ago.

"It's a very good camp; I like it," he said. "I learned how to fish, and I've made many friends."

Iraqi-born Rega Jabar, 14, said he could see a change in the way the children interact.

"At first, the kids didn't want to do what everybody else wanted to do," he said. "But they learned how to cooperate."

Lauren McGovern, 13, of Buffalo, eagerly awaited this year's camp after having "a very enjoyable time" last year.

"You learn a lot here," she said. "You experience new foods, new games and people from different cultures."

Most of the youngsters were too busy enjoying themselves to contemplate the camp's philosophical mission, but Lauren said she has given it much thought.

"I've learned that peace is not something that's going to happen right away," she said. "But if you really try, person-to-person, it's easier then."

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