Until last year when the Covid 19 pandemic spread across the globe, I was unaware of and would have never thought of applying for the Rotary Peace Fellowship. I received the scholarship application from a Rotarian friend based in Jordan who thought it might assist my daughter who is a recent graduate in political science and international relations. After reading the conditions of the application I found that the skills and requirements applied to me and not to a new graduate, like my daughter at this time. I spoke with my daughter and we agreed that I would apply. I am now a Rotary Peace Fellow with Class 30 at Chulalongkorn University. I believe that this is not a coincidence. Rather, it is destiny that is drawing me to a new path and phase in my life’s journey.
The past years has been very difficult for me. My life experiences have left me in deep contemplation around personal questions about life, people and the global incidents around me. I am a woman who was forced to leave her job in 2017 due to financial difficulties with the organization for which I worked at the time. I am a woman who is confident and I believe in myself and my own abilities, so I decided to take a risk and invest my life savings in a restaurant business. I found an old historical and neglected house and decided to renovate it. The work to renovate the house cost a great deal, but it was worth transforming if from an abandoned house to an iconic restaurant serving traditional Palestinian meals and beverages to guests from all over Palestine.
As a woman who is an owner and a manager of a restaurant business, I have faced discrimination in a predominately man’s field. I also had little knowledge about working in the food and beverage sector and was forced to confront fraud from the suppliers and the workers. The situation was beyond my imagination. People were extremely competitive and cutthroat in this sector and in the end, I was forced to close and leave my dreams behind me of being a restaurant owner. As a result, I experienced deep depression and viewed myself as a failure who could not run a small business, who lost money, and felt overwhelmed with problems related to paying bills; all of which resulted in a cycle of anxiety and fear about the future. It was at this critical time that I found a light at the end of a dark tunnel inspired by a congratulations email from the Rotary International informing me that I had been accepted into the Rotary Peace Fellows Program, Class 30, at Chulalongkorn University.
My Social Change Initiative (SCI), a central aspect of the Rotary Peace Fellowship, is the result of my own experiences, suffering and deep reflection about how to help myself and other women struggling through similar situations. It is an attempt to support and empower women like myself to be ready for life’s challenges by facing problems with solution oriented skills, a clear and confident mind.
My SCI’s main target population is women, because they have less opportunity to access employment and less support to establish their own businesses in comparison with men in Palestine and worldwide. They also face more challenges and discrimination in a traditional society which discriminates against women in the public sphere. Therefore, my SCI is seeking to empower women by empowering them with support, skills and resources to confront the tremendous negative environment related to existing economic, social and cultural norms. Much of the female labor force suffers from limited opportunities to build and share their skills compounded with low-incomes of which increases the challenges they face to become economically self-sufficient.
In February 2021, the Fellowship Program opened with a focused trauma, resilience and stress transformation session. This session inspired the thought to ask and support women in my society to look deep inside their souls and acknowledge and heal the trauma which I believe all women are suffering from in a way or another in Palestine.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was disappointed when I learned that we would not be able to attend the first part of the program in person at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. However, Martine Miller, the Deputy Director, is like a breeze on a hot summer day. Her words give me comfort, especially since we are engaged in virtual live sessions that I sometimes find difficult when trying to interact with the other Fellows. We are still strangers and I am not yet able to make them laugh or interact with all of my peers as we would if we were in residence together these first months at Chulalongkorn. All I know about them is their names and faces from behind a computer screen. Yet, over time, I am sure that I am gaining a new family from around the world who is there to support me in making the change I am hoping to witness in my society. I am so excited we will all meet face-to-face at the beginning of the 2022 in Thailand.
Every day, this program is offering me the strength and the power to move forward into the future with a positive attitude. I am confident I will succeed in making important changes in my society. I will hold the hands of other Palestinian women and give them the courage and skills to succeed at nontraditional jobs with important resources to face the discrimination and challenges they are encountering with strong and confident spirits.
My sincere gratitude goes to the Amman Rotary Club in Jordan. I would like to extend my appreciation to my sister-in-law and a Rotary Peace Fellow Alumni Katherine Hughes – Fraitekh, and my professor at the University of Haifa who wrote me the recommendations, supported and encouraged me to apply during a difficult and foggy time I was advancing through.
Suheir Freitekh – Palestine
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30
The first positive case of coronavirus (COVID-19) was officially found on 13th January 2020 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Before the identification of the case, Nepal was neither prepared enough to handle the pandemic crisis, nor did the government even consider it seriously. When the second case was diagnosed on March 17, 2020, the government haphazardly initiated implementing necessary measures to control the COVID-19 spread.
Although forecasting the full severity of this pandemic would have been difficult at best in this given context, I feel the Government of Nepal and its mechanisms were unable to gain the trust of its citizens to a large extent due to the latters’ unassertive, delayed and unprepared actions. For instance, while addressing the federal parliament after a few months of the spread, the Prime Minister, head of government, still did not take seriously the possible effects of the crisis. He, in fact, undermined the role of scientific facts, which was against the emotions of the common people at the time. As a result, it was observed that the emergency service delivery was not able to fulfill the contingency plans, even though the citizens could understand the limitations of a government of an underdeveloped country like Nepal.
Subsequently, I felt that people gradually started to raise their voices voluntarily against the governments’ initiatives, inefficient service delivery mechanisms, inappropriate coordination, politicization in community relief distribution, and demotivated bureaucracy. Amidst the crisis, rampant corruption cases were reported regularly in newspapers and social media regarding emergency materials’ procurements at both central and local levels but neither formal investigations were made nor were any allegations raised against the culprits. Ad-hoc mechanisms were formulated bypassing the existing government systems to tackle the pandemic crisis that proved ineffective. I found no alignment between the words and actions of government representatives.
Despite these shortfalls, I saw that citizens fully supported the governmental plans i.e. lockdown. But they had fewer chances to realize the best preparations for the worst situation – instead they observed the intra-party political tussles within the ruling party during the crisis. Despite this, the security forces and health-workers performed their respective duties in professional ways amidst the political chaos even with very limited resources and health safety measures. I felt proud seeing their commitment to serving people in the crisis while forgetting their personal and family priorities and limitations. This is a key cultural trait of the Nepali community that follows the ethics of Sanatan Dharma (religion).
Despite the government’s very limited performance, I observed a few hopes from self-help initiatives (both at individual and group levels) who acted determinedly to bring happiness to the faces of small groups of people during these difficult times, compassionately, in different parts of the country. To give some examples, some local government units from Udaypur, Rupandehi, and Parsa districts – once known as highly affected areas – brought increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases under control with community-based, coordinated and companionate actions. I feel these initiatives worked to save the lives of many people. Likewise, self-help individuals, groups, and organizations managed to supply free-food services and water to needy and helpless people in open-spaces and highways, keeping their lives from risk in Kathmandu and other parts of the country. During the crisis, receiving food with love and care once again showed the value of humanity in communities. Likewise, some groups supported managing and distributing health-safety materials and equipment management services in the hospitals that supported the health workers’ vital professional work. Some people also provided free vehicle services to needy people during the crisis especially to the COVID-19 patients as an emergency response – as ambulance services were severely limited. These initiatives can be considered important outcomes of an active and compassionate citizenship. The grassroots forms of self-help support were highly commendable. Respecting equal dignity of individual members of vulnerable minorities promotes a sense of good society.
Amidst the political tussles, growing frustration and chaos in communities after the COVID-19 pandemic, I remained professionally engaged, virtually. This engagement included through research, online-trainings, coordination of virtual theatre performances and other online meetings/courses. These activities supported me in connecting with diverse people during the pandemic. We shared our experiences empathically. However, I found, particularly, the situation of women with disabilities to be painful. The common people i.e. marginalized communities, had to face additional livelihood related problems due to the impacts of pandemic. The situation was not optimistic.
Meanwhile, an email that I received on behalf of the Trustees of The Rotary Foundation during the first week of November 2020 was a key precedent for me to free myself from the effects of the months-long COVID-19 enforced homestay. Although it could not help me cope with the contemporary situation, it showed me hope for a better future during this difficult time.
Crises such as these are mostly unpredictable. The power-holders – i.e. governments, political parties etc., – actions need to be reflected in tackling the challenges ahead. They should: be ‘honest’ to themselves and towards other people; be ‘compassionate’ with people and the world; show ‘respect’ for themselves and others while being mindful of people’s opinions; be responsible for one’s actions; and, be morally courageous. All of which contributes to the fundamentals of a peaceful society. Beneath it all, in this case, the government should have been far more compassionate to its citizens. Power-holders should empathize with the victims themselves as they are their responsible guardians. Indeed, this is a long-term and continuous process that can only be achieved through active and companionate citizenship curricula and education. I hope to gain some of these qualities during this peace fellowship!
Nar Bahadur Saud – Nepal
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30
2020 will be remembered as the year that the Novel Coronovirus, Covid 19,
decimated global healthcare systems and economies. As well as caused unprecedented
death tolls and grief. The Rotary Peace Fellows of Class 29 became part of Class 30. A
quick pivot due to travel restrictions enabled the first ever Virtual Peace Fellowship to
launch in February 2021. Having just completed Week 5, I can reflect on the many Tools
that we have been provided to navigate Peacebuilding, Trauma, Conflict Data Analysis,
I am no stranger to conflict. In the 1990’s I documented the Civil War in Romania,
Perestroika in Russia, numerous Canadian and International events. In 2010 I was an
embedded Documentarian/Combat Cameraperson with Canadian and NATO Troops in
Kandahar, Afghanistan. As a female cameraperson I had access to Afghan women and
their stories, while respecting their cultural norms. I chose to be on the frontlines;
Afghan women, and children did not. This is their home.
Being a Cameraperson enables you to literally, and emotionally, change your lens
or “Gender Spectacles” on a daily basis. The capacity to manage violence, and
carnage, is crucial to be able to do the work effectively. I hit the ground running in
Afghanistan. I wanted to bear witness to the stories that are not usually shown on the
News. Women making change, working together as Afghan Citizens, Coalition Troops,
and Peacebuilders. Women united to move the situation forward despite constant
harassment, brutality, and targeted assassinations.
Outside the Wire, released in 2010 on Canadian Television. Afghan women asked
me to return and document their service to country as Police and Military women.
Returning to Afghanistan in 2012, 2014, and 2016 to complete Burkas2Bullets. B2B,
received 5 International Film Festival Awards in 2018. My journey continues;
documenting the success of the Rotary Polio Vaccination Program in Afghanistan. The
program reinforced to me the importance of the work that is being done on the ground
by various stakeholders.
This is one of my favourite pictures from 2012. It was a Shura on the French Base,
in Afghanistan. The meeting was to support local midwives, and their training with
advice from both a NATO, and local Doctor. The female soldiers, NATO Doctor, and
Afghan Midwives were united in a shared vision. They were supported by some of the
men in the community, and the Base Commander. A great example of shared wisdom,
resources, and respect.
We are now 20 years into the conflict in Afghanistan. I have always believed that it
will be 30 years before we can really see the benefits of all of the unified Peacebuilding,
and Nato measures that have been deployed to support Afghanistan as a Nation. The
people of the land have learned to counter tragedy with resilience, and a strengthened
hope for the future. Proud to be a Rotary Peace Fellow; my work is just beginning!
Alison MacLean : Canada ( www.tomboyproductions.tv)
Rotary Peace Fellow : Class 30Read More
As deep as the ocean: the interconnectedness of peace building and marine conservation. The perspective of a Peace Fellow during the times of COVID-19.
So, here I am again. It’s 2 pm in Dili, Timor-Leste. I just rushed back from a squeezed-in 20 min lunch break to sit for another awe-inspiring three hours glued to my computer screen. This is not how I imagined this experience to be, yet here I am. COVID-19 has turned my entire life upside down and the Rotary Peace Fellowship is no exception. What was supposed to take place in 2020 as a resident three-month intensive networking, leadership and professional development opportunity at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand is now taking place virtually in the familiarity of the Blue Ventures office in Díli.
I am the Country Manager of Blue Ventures in Timor-Leste. As the primary country representative, I provide vision, strategy and leadership for Blue Ventures’ growing marine conservation, fisheries management, alternative livelihood and ecotourism programmes in Timor-Leste. These initiatives aim to empower coastal communities to manage their marine ecosystem effectively, enriching local livelihoods and sustaining healthy marine environments for generations to come.
Leading the busy country team and organisation means that I usually don’t have many opportunities to stop and reflect. This fellowship is offering me this opportunity: the new delivery format is now stretched over a full year and for the first four months for three times a week, I close the door to my Timorese colleagues and invite global study pals into my office – virtually of course!
Thus far, I have been enjoying every minute, absorbing the new insights like a sponge. We are a very diverse cohort of 19 hand selected Peace Fellows from 16 countries and our lecturers call in from around the globe. Many of us, myself included, aren’t local to where we are now living and working, bringing in a myriad of perspectives. To accommodate the extreme time differences, our regular live classes are held in two separate groups. For most of us English is our second or third language so having video calls with poor internet connections has already been challenging, but against all the odds we are starting to form close bonds.
Juggling work, study and life to accommodate these additional 15 hours a week is difficult logistically, but the rewards are huge. One of the Thai programme organisers mentioned that previous fellows always gained weight in Thailand during the in-residence delivery of the programme because of all the delicious Thai food they ate. This year, although we haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Thai cuisine, we are gaining in other ways – it’s only week four and I already have the feeling that my brain has swelled and my head is heavier due to all this new knowledge.
We started with a bang, focusing on trauma and stress transformation. This gave me a completely different perspective of the events of the past year. Being based in Timor-Leste, I’m used to working in a post-conflict environment and monitoring the safety and security situation – any conflict has the potential to escalate rapidly. However, nothing prepared me for COVID-19 and the response we immediately had to develop.
Back in March 2020, I had 48 hours to close half of the country programme, hand over many of my in-country responsibilities to the most senior Timorese staff and get seven international volunteers and five international staff (including myself) out of the country before all the borders around us closed and commercial flights stopped – with one suitcase, leaving everything else behind without saying goodbye. The panic that was felt back then in my team and in the community, is difficult to describe today. Thankfully, nothing escalated to uproars and riots and in fact, the opposite happened. Due to the Government of Timor-Leste’s swift response, the country has protected itself from wide-spread community transmission and the threats to food security and livelihoods are being managed. Like the rest of the population, we grew closer as a team and adjusted to the ‘new normal’, proving to everyone that our geographically dispersed team (working across six different countries!) could still exceed in delivering our strategy, which was mostly due to the remarkable resilient leadership of my Timorese colleagues who remained in the country and led our COVID-19 response.
Reflecting on this almost a year later makes me realise that we cannot just steam ahead taking the new normality for granted – we must acknowledge that the world is in an acute crisis and this may cause significant trauma. In Timor-Leste where I have been living on and off since 2015, the crisis is mostly visible in the ocean; climate change, plastic pollution, dwindling fish populations, population growth, scarcity of livelihood opportunities, and loss of traditional practices. In a post-conflict country still recovering from years of colonialism, violent occupation and civil unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic is adding another level of threat and complexity to an already fragile society of thousands of small-scale fishers.
This week’s topic in the fellowship programme is ‘from theory to practice’ – it suddenly clicked why I made it through this highly competitive selection process and secured a spot in this prestigious programme. What I bring to the fellowship is my practical expertise. I have spent one and a half decades working in local and central government, INGOs and at the community level, often closely alongside the corporate sector. Blue Ventures, where I’m working currently, has a truly community-led approach and while my position of Country Manager doesn’t allow me to sit with the community members at the beach in the sand as often as I used to, I am designing programme activities that allow my team to do this. Just last weekend, I spent time with a local fishing family to test out their newly established homestay business, immersing myself in the daily realities of fishers when the sea is rough and food is scarce. I can offer plenty of practical implementation examples in my discussions with the other fellows.
For me this Peace Fellowship is more a leap ‘from practice to theory’. It’s offering me another set of different lenses so that I can see something that was always there but I never saw. We are reflecting on systems thinking, something I’m very familiar with already (just look at a marine ecosystem!) and are trying to identify the ‘critical yeast’ (not the critical mass) – the small group of active people who are catalysts for the wider change we want to see. I even learnt a very useful, new English word: ‘coddiwomple’, which means to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.
In parallel, I tried to work on my social change initiative (SCI) – a new component of the fellowship. I set myself the ambitious target to design and implement an initiative that combines my various interests and passions in one holistic way. I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘Blue Mind’ by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and his studies showing how being near, in, on, or underwater can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. Driven by Dr. Nichols’ studies, as well as the urgency of our climate crisis and the threat to coastal communities of internal climate-induced displacement and with it the loss of their indigenous practices and wisdom, I want to lead an initiative that will create empathy and inspire action. My goal is to connect and mobilise people through their shared affinity with the ocean and the effect it has on them through a platform for exchange and learning where indigenous coastal communities are the teachers.
By creating an emotional connection, I am hoping to inspire a lifestyle change, a values shift, and compassionate creativity with potential to create a movement that celebrates indigenous worldviews, challenges existing behaviour and thinking, and may contribute to changing climate change and ocean policies. That’s no small undertaking but with the support of my cohort and my newly extended network of social change makers I am confident that I am coddiwompling in the right direction.
My sincere gratitude to my sponsoring Rotary Club in Mangere, Auckland, New Zealand and my referees who supported and encouraged me over the past four years to apply for this fellowship. And a heartfelt thank you to the committed team of social change makers and ocean ambassadors at Blue Ventures for backing me while I slow down to speed up.
Birgit Hermann – Germany/ New Zealand/ Timor-Leste
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More