In 2009, I was sitting on a bench in a migrant shelter in Mexico talking with a Honduran transgender woman. She reflected on her migration prospects, her doubts, fears and hopes. As the conversation progressed, I felt how I shared her own uncertainties, worries and fears, that deep down we had the same questions about how to move forward in our lives regardless of our nationality. We were just two women talking about our longings.
From that moment on, every conversation with migrant women has become a space to share, to grow, to find possible answers to our own uncertainties, finding empathy simply for being women.
I grew to understand that attentive listening is a powerful tool for understanding our needs and those of others. It is a starting point to help others to help themselves. If I listen, I can better understand how to help others. If I listen, I can act to promote and ensure inclusion. And, if I include, I am choosing to build peace through my actions.
“The only thing we want is to be included, I would not be here (in Mexico) if it were not for the fact that in my country I can no longer live […] we come to work, we want a place to live in peace.” As an advocate for the human rights of migrants and refugees, I have heard this phrase in all its forms. What would happen if we sat at the table to listen to each other and leave our nationalities at the door? What would happen if we took steps towards social inclusion without fear? Fear of the other is probably what paralyzes peace actions.
But how do we work on social inclusion in xenophobic, racist, and exclusionary host communities? Years later, life gave me the opportunity to work on this issue. Collaborative work between civil society, local governments, host communities and migrants, especially in Mexico City, resulted in the advancement of the Interculturality Law. Social programs and cultural actions focused on including and supporting migrants and refugees to access some of their rights. But this has not been enough as they continue to struggle every day to be recognized, to be included. The lack of a public policy focused on social inclusion is a debt we hold with migrants and refugees in Mexico.
Dreaming of working in the construction of social inclusion actions has led me to live one of the best experiences of my life – being a Rotary Peace Fellow with the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. Class 33 has been a gift of listening, understanding other contexts, listening to other accents, cultural encounters, learning about peace-building tools, and knowing that there are people working to make communities more just and supportive. This space gives me hope that building societies of solidarity is possible.
Irazú Gómez – México
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33Read More
Although I have been engaged in issues around peace and social justice since the ‘90s when I worked with refugees in the community where I lived (Hamburg, Germany), my peacebuilding journey started in 2007. At this time, I started work as a field volunteer for a civilian peacekeeping mission with Peace Brigades International (PBI) in the region of Urabá, Colombia (South America) within the framework of the German Civil Peace Service. Urabá was still an extremely dangerous region and communities suffered from severe, decades-long conflict dynamics. I, too, had encounters with illegal armed groups in the jungle, witnessed a murder of a social leader in the countryside, and so-called social cleansings in the city of Turbo (killings of adolescents who did not fit in).
These extremely painful experiences showed me how vulnerable individuals and communities are during armed conflict and war, in circumstances where the rule of law does not function anymore. In Colombia, serious violations of human rights and infractions of international humanitarian law have involved physical, moral, social, cultural, and psychological damage and impact not only the dignity of the direct victim but also that of their relatives and close circle at a personal and group level. Additionally, their rights, the social fabric of their communities, and their social networks are affected by the situation.
During my first three years in Colombia, what impacted me the most was the fate of the victims of the armed conflict and the lack of justice. I always asked myself “what does this country need to stop this terrible conflict?” and “what needs to be done specifically to bring justice and reconcile the country after a possible peace deal?”
I came across two key concepts within the peacebuilding field, which are transitional justice and reconciliation, and started to study for an MA in Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University (UK). This inspired me to look for practical tools to work with victims of any kind of violence and that included a different approach toward justice. A move to La Paz (Bolivia) in 2016 and a new job were the deciding factors because here I started to search for tools, that stem from ancient cultures that I could use in my work with indigenous families and communities that suffered from domestic, sexual, and social violence. Thus, I found restorative practices especially useful – almost “magic” – tools that can prevent and mitigate episodes of violence and that have the potential to foster healing in the affected families and communities. The experiences gave way to the writing of a handbook, which uses a restorative approach for conflict transformation and violence prevention in educational communities.
To this day I feel touched by the power of restorative practices for the restoration of relationships, the reparation of harm, and the healing of emotional wounds. Unfortunately, most post-conflict activities do not focus on community peacebuilding. However, I am convinced that individuals, communities, and societies need to heal from conflict and war in order to break the cycle of violence and revenge so that respect, empathy, and cooperation can come to the fore again. Restorative measures at the community level can be extremely helpful in the moments when we search for healing and reconciliation.
Andreas Riemann – Germany/Bolivia/Colombia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33Read More
“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude;
To be kind, but not weak; to be bold, but not a bully;
To be thoughtful, but not lazy; to be humble, but not timid;
To be proud, but not arrogant; to have humor, but without folly.”
– Jim Rohn
One of my favorite memories from when I was seven years old was settling a dispute between a husband and wife. After the incident, my mother called me a peacemaker! But, I desired to become an exceptional medical doctor to help my mother with her orthopedic work. As a child my unique talents and abilities were dancing, creative arts, problem-solving, and writing.
Fortunately, in 2007, I gained admission into the University of Calabar as a medical laboratory scientist. While in college the passion to become a professional peacemaker ignited. I needed to express my values to lead and inspire, so I began planning step-by-step how I would achieve my vision. College was a platform where I honed my analytical skills and met with godly friends whom I shared a similar vision. What vision does is to keep commitment alive. Yet, I believe to get the best out of life, you have to set a goal, create a strategy and action plan, and go for it.
In 2012, Peace Mindset Ambassadors was founded to nurture peace and promote harmony between individuals or groups of people. In my pursuit of peace and leadership, I took online related courses on personal growth and organizational development from the Peace Operations Training Institute (POTI) based in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. I believe that education is a vital means for promoting peace and nonviolence.
Then, in 2013, I had the opportunity to speak with Terra Winston from the Christian Peacemakers Team. She introduced me to Mark Frey, and Mark then introduce me to Matt Guynn from On Earth Peace. Matt offered me training on Kingian Nonviolence Principles through which I met Samuel Sarpiya (my coach) and William Hammond (our international adviser). This growing network provided me with new experiences and knowledge; essentially demonstrating the important power and inspiration of networking!
In 2016, I applied for and was selected to participate in the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) with the West Africa Regional Leadership Centre based in Accra, Ghana. The program engaged diverse people from different cultures, religions, and backgrounds. In early 2017, Pastor Akomaye Ugar served as a YALI mentor. He helped me navigate change and the unknowns of life. Everyone needs a mentor who understands the beauty of unity in diversity! This experience helped me to learn, unlearn, and relearn new approaches to peacebuilding and leadership. Diverse experiences and perspectives, such as these, are especially powerful when engaging in discussions and interactions. Furthermore, I learned that international development and engagements and requires multiple skills.
In 2018, our organization experienced human resources, financial, organizational system, and registration challenges, all of which are experienced by most organizations. You know what? “Every level of an organization depends on leadership from someone.” John Maxwell. Truly, from this experience I learned that leadership in an ever-changing world can be like an onion! An onion contains chemical substances which can irritate the eyes. Similarly, as onion irritates the eyes, so do bad influences, leadership, and character. These experiences can inspire anger among staff and at some point make them cry. I learned that everyone can be influencers! Everyone has influence! He who influences your mind influences your world.
In 2019, we created a formidable team for the youth movement because we learned that leadership is about people and we get things done through people. Teamwork makes it work! It’s important to know how to motivate people into action, understand how people think, and design and progressively understand the leadership culture of an organization. Consistency, commitment, and passion engages people more in the impact of the organization.
We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity, but opportunity comes with responsibilities. “Knowing exactly what you want makes it much easier to find the right opportunity” Talane Miedamer. The opportunity you maximize has the power to fast-track your journey in life and every success can be traced to a well utilized opportunity. In 2020 – 2021, I was selected as the country Ambassador for the World Literacy Foundation and served as a resource speaker at Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University, Rajouri. I also had the opportunity to attend World Bank trainings. More recently, I started my journey as a Rotary Peace Fellow at Chulalongkorn where I am deepening my understanding of peacebuilding, leadership, international law, etc. One of the unforgettable experiences I have had as a Peace Fellow, so far, is the solidarity expressed among the participants and facilitators. Peacemaking is what I do effortlessly without struggle. It is something that gleefully makes me jump out of bed in the morning or stay awake at night. My leadership journey is a story of self-awareness, self-discovery, friendship, mentoring, challenges, opportunities, partnerships, teamwork, cultural varieties, and achievement.
Samuel Edet – Nigeria
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33Read More
I have always been aspired to become a Rotary Peace Fellow. My dream came true when joining the Rotary Peace Center’s Class 33 at Chulalongkorn University. There is a proverb: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”. It has been only five weeks since I started this journey and I truly believe that I am in the process of restoring my academic and practical learning motivations, essentially in-line with this proverb. Particularly during the week five, we engaged in a series of lectures focused on the theory and application of International Law, Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law (IL, IHRL and IHL).
This week reignited my passion for studying Human Rights and Humanitarian Law with a broader regional and international perspective as related to peace, human security and development. The most important part of the class was the opportunity to further develop my theoretical and practical skills alongside my peers. The class lectures offered me a fresh perspective and broaden my horizons on the application of international law, collective security and self-defense and humanitarian intervention as it applies to my own field of study and work in international relations and security studies.
It was such a valuable experience to learn and interact with our sessions’ instructor, Professor Kishu Daswani, and my Class 33 peers coming diverse cultures, backgrounds, and experiences worldwide.
Dr. Naheed S. Goraya – Pakistan
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33Read More
Due to the sanitary emergency Covid-19 since 2020 until now, there are data and analyses about the backward and deep inequalities when accessing girls’ and women’s human rights. There are international reports such as Gender Global Breach Report 2022 which stated, for example, that women’s job was 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s, or that 132 years are needed to reach gender equality (World Economic Forum 2022). About Latin America’s specific case, the CEPAL (for their name in Spanish) visualize that the structural knots of gender inequality has grown (2021).
The different impact of the negative post-pandemic effects that we are still suffering doesn’t exist only between countries, but, globally speaking, girls and women are the main receptors of inequality and disadvantages of the sanitary emergency.
Not only is the historical disadvantage, but they are the main affected by the economic and political international crisis. The current data and statistics show the continuous setback of women’s rights achievements, as to a persistent condition of disadvantages and unsustainable subordination to the minimum women’s survival, their human rights detriment, life’s quality, and autonomy achieved in the last 100 years. Poverty, unemployment, underemployment, working scarcity, and informality, such as the double and triple work day, are entirely focused on girls and women.
This same post-pandemic inequality can also be seen in the domestic violence against girls and women. The context of violence is generalized, in each country girls and women suffer different ways of violence. In Mexico, for example, the report “Incidencia delictiva y llamadas de emergencia 9-1-1” has a total of 7,632,935 national emergency calls, which the indicator of emergency calls for “violence against women” (is defined as: “all violent act that has or can get a result of physical damage or suffering, sexually or psychologically against women, and the threat of such acts, the coaction or the arbitrary privation of freedom, even if they happen in the public or private life”); during the first semester of 2022 was registered 170,625 calls (8.19%) this without knowing the cases that weren’t reported.
Discrimination and violence against women are not only practiced in private and confidential circles, but also in public spaces, governmental ambits, and the institutional structures and spheres related to the public, economic, social, and cultural systems.
In a great number of countries, mainly in Latin America, “neutrality” in the use of resources, budgets, designing of programs elaboration of public policies, law creation, and making decisions in the public and governmental agenda don’t exist. In the end, girls and women are the glibbest damaged group and receptors of the impact’s disadvantages defined by the sex. Due to the corruption, deviation and misuse of the resources, abuse of authority and confidentiality in the position, administrative irresponsibility, etc., women have been through many injustices, negation, omissions, negligence, impediments, and limits when using their rights, as well as in the attention and access to justice.
The International right through different international instruments, such as Treaties, Covenants, Conventions, Advisory Opinions, court resolutions, platforms, etc., provide to the signing countries guidelines, routes, analysis, and different means to address gender violence against girls and women; social violence, economic, political, institutional, vicarious violence, etc., however, as I stated as the beginning, the post-pandemic data dictates that is not enough.
Understanding differential impacts, it’s one of the keys to the achievement of action and strategies for the benefit of women. The analysis of intersectional data with a focus on human rights brings to light the gravity of the problem to give a better understanding of the post-pandemic phenomenon, to be able to redirect efforts, alliances, decisions making, and focused budgets.
Such as it has been stated in 1995 on the Action Platform from Beijing, the mainstreaming of gender allows us to identify and analyze the differential impact of discrimination, and women’s rights violence. Equal results reproduce and perpetuate the vulnerability condition, subjection, and disadvantages that women have in comparison with men.
Fortunately, the international community and international law keep learning, advancing, and developing new positions, ideas, practices, references, proposes, intermediations, intervention projects, strategic alliances, gender budgeting, programs, projects, etc. After decades of work, it is known that the isolated or unilateral efforts obstruct the real development that societies need, national and international alliances with different and strategical actors and sectors are needed to offer integrity and value to women’s agenda. One clear example is the alliance between Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Rotary Foundation, and Chulalongkorn University to the creation of the valuable project “professional development certificate program at Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University” (Bangkok Thailand), which, particularly for Class 33 (July 2022), is focusing the diversity, inclusion, and gender as part of a valuable contribution to the development of human rights in general and girls and women’s in particular.
Samanta Ruiz Lopez – Mexico
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33Read More
When I joined the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in December 2019, I did not realize the full significance of my role as an UN Volunteer Human Rights Officer. While preparing to travel for my assignment, I read a lot about the history and current affairs of the country to have an idea of what I was going to face, but I never imagined how this experience would change my life – for good. Coming from Colombia, this was my first assignment in an UN Mission and my first time in Africa.
My work as a Human Rights Officer in South Sudan has given me the opportunity to really connect with people; to engage with local communities and to advocate for the most vulnerable groups in the country; but also, has inspired me to reflect on things/concepts that I thought were absolute truth.
Are human rights for all? Is peace a mere utopia? Is education the key for development? Is culture stronger than international human rights law? Am I making any impact with my job? Honestly, I wish I had an answer to all of those questions, but so far the only thing I know for sure is that I am doing my best with the tools I have. And, that every night I go to bed with a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction for having the opportunity to do what I am passionate about: promoting human rights in the newest world country.
However, it has not been an easy journey. I was stranded for seven months in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was burnout, I caught malaria and typhoid, and I injured my knee while playing basketball and travelled back home to get surgery, just to mention some of the events that hit me really hard.
All this being said, I have learnt some lessons during these two-and-a-half years that I have been in Sudan and during the Rotary Peace Program session on well-being that I would like to share here:
You need to take care of yourself first before being able to take care of others. Not the opposite.
Mental health matters.
Do not feel bad for setting boundaries.
Find your own ways of healing. What works for you may not work for others.
Do what feels right for you. Do not let anybody impose their thoughts or beliefs.
Disconnect from the context/scenario which is affecting you -if needed.
Do not feel bad for prioritizing yourself. The world will continue with or without you.
Ask for help. Do not hesitate to do it.
Sandra Martinez – (Colombia and South Sudan)
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33Read More
To start this post, I would like to provide a little bit of context. I participated in the online phase of the Rotary Peace Fellowship program with Class 32 in a country other than my own country of Brazil. I spent three months in Argentina and this experience strengthened my comprehension of my identity as a Latina. An identity being built since the very first moment I put a backpack on my back and decided that I wanted to know more about this region called Latin America; of which I am a part of it as a Brazilian. I remember the day I achieved a childhood dream – to see, in person, Machu Picchu, in Peru. I was 19 years old and the silence of the fog revealing the ancient mountains and the Inca city thoroughly sculpted and left a mark on my soul. I fell in love with my Latin America.
It is written on the poster: La desiguald – no va más (Spanish)/ Inequality – no more
This post is a mixture of my perceptions of contemporary Brazil as a Brazilian, my reflections about similarities and differences among Latin American countries while in Argentina, and my interest in researching the theme of identities.
Discrimination from a Latin American Point of View:
Growing up in Brazil and being raised by the women in my family, which have a lower class background and are from a rural area in the country, taught me how to live in a society full of prejudices. It also taught me how to look in the eyes of others, similar to and different from me, and see their beauty. For this reason, discriminatory behaviors or policies are intolerable for me.
Brazil faces a high rate of discrimination, especially against black and indigenous people, women, and LGBTQ+ people. This has been confirmed by a survey conducted in Brazil by DataFolha in 2019. Among people that self-identify as black or indigenous who were interviewed, 85% state that they have suffered prejudice. It is impossible to mention discrimination without mentioning the influence of colonialism and imperialism in our history. It is part of our contemporary challenges as Latin Americans to deal with the consequences of our colonial past and the rise of attacks on our young democracies.
Besides the internal discrimination faced in Brazil, from an external perspective, right now Brazil is also playing a discriminatory role against other countries in the region. Under a right-wing extremist government, led by Jair Bolsonaro, conservative Brazilians tend to look at our Latin American neighbors as “others”. And while this separation grows and is legitimated by authorities, some Brazilians as well as national leaders freely express racially frame discrimination against other Latin American people and social movements. When it comes to people, the most affected are the ones coming to Brazil due to the recent forced migration crisis, such as in Haiti and Venezuela. And, when it comes to social change, there are movements against regional government projects and policies, even if they are being successful, in the fields of gender equality, anti-racism practices, sexual diversity, and social justice.
Although Brazil is part of Latin America, 96% of Brazilians don’t see themselves from this perspective, according to The Americas, World: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy 2014 / 2015 Report, and elaborated by the Investigative Center of Teaching in Economy (Mexico). As a comparison, among other countries in the region this rate is at about 43%. We are the only Portuguese speaking country in the region and some historic facts also contribute to this disconnect.
Prophecies: An art series by Brazilian artist Randolpho Lamonier. As translated: IN 2050 WE DISCOVERED: BRAZIL IS ¡LATIN AMERICA! © Randolpho Lamonier
Even though it is not a new issue, this Brazilian aversion to a “Latin identity” grew in relevance during the current government as it revived ideas from the times of the Brazilian military dictatorship between 1964-1985, when Brazilian military authorities considered themselves best friends to the United States of America. Usually, Brazilians deny their Latin identity and, in my opinion, this is a way to deny the atrocities—invasions, slavery, dictatorship, coup d’états, etc.—done in the past and present across our territory. With all this on the table, I would say that Brazil has a problem with its identity and the time to heal is now.
Strengthening Identities in Latin America:
Brazil has had a better relationship with other Latin American countries, and in the past has also been in a better position of promote affirmative policies to repair the historic atrocities against minority groups. This is not the case right now, but with the 2022 elections, I hope we return to a path guided by respect for the beauty of diversity, and by the intention to mitigate discrimination in a practical way, through the improvement and execution of affirmative and social justice policies.
In addition to this, sooner or later, I believe Brazilians will discover they belong to Latin America. What I also believe is that Latin American politicians, activists, and citizens have a lot to learn from each other, exactly because we share the pain of the same wounds and the strength that emerges from our common diversity.
Michelle Bravos – Brazil
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More
According to John C. Maxwell, one needs to discover and implement life choices that will take them beyond their talent. In order for a leader to be successful, he/she has to be effective in leading his/her team to think strategically, innovatively, and sustainably.
About eleven years ago I started my leadership journey with a team of young people and we were all charged with the responsibility to organize the Rotary West African Peace Caravan by, the West African Youth Network (WAYN). The Caravan was designed to promote peace at the grassroots level in four countries across West Africa: Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
I met Richelieu Allison, Executive Director of WAYN, at the Liberian-Sierra Leonean border. According to him, he saw a passion in me for peace. With his words of support, I, along with a team of other young people, engaged in a three-day training of trainers’ workshop, participated in a peace caravan, led and inspired young peace builders engaged in remote towns and villages across the four countries to promote peace and regional collaborations.
Growing up, I had always been passionate about developing my leadership skills. This passion led me to join the UN Radio to become a team lead and a child broadcaster. Later, I became more interested and started asking some tough questions related to what is leadership from the African perspective in comparison to that of the Western perspective. It has come to my understanding that leadership is about giving, listening and encouraging. One has to first listen in order to lead effectively. Today, Africa, a continent with a robust youth population, still faces a leadership challenge. Many times, leaders tend to forget that if you cannot swallow your personal pride, succeeding at leadership will rest as a dream unrealized. Many in leadership positions on the African continent maintain the popular belief that popularity is leadership. Their perspective is that a good leader’s goal is to increase his/her followers’ motivation to achieve his/her personal interests.
With this in perspective, I hold the belief that Africa is still developing its core of transformational leaders that will motivate, inspire and stimulate innovation that drives positive social change, which I believe should be the focus. In so doing, leaders need to see themselves as social change agents and hold a strong set of values with the intent to motivate – that which remains a farfetched reality in Africa. As Africa evolves as continent for charismatic leadership, it is very important to develop the growth mindset as failures offer opportunity for growth in leadership.
A good leader must at all times understand the everyday reality and must not forget that in leadership your duty is to always remember your vision, values and purpose for positive social change.
As a case study in point, leaders in Liberia should understand how leadership can facilitate social change to impact the general citizenry. Leaders in Liberia should reflect and employ learning to manage citizens’ expectations while ensuring trust and legitimacy. Leadership in Liberia today should evolve into managing expectations by effectively mobilizing social change and engaging their constituencies in the governance process through inclusive and participatory processes to achieve desired collective outcomes. These areas must be considered for a transformed society in the social change context in Liberia; more collaboration, coordination is needed between government, citizens and civil rights groups.
Amos William – Liberia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More
“All conflicts are identity conflicts…” — John Paul Lederach, Conflict Transformation Class, 2005
Growing up in Australia, identity was always a perplexing matter for me. My parents had emigrated from Hong Kong soon after the formal abolition of the White Australia Policy under the Whitlam Labor Government. As the only Chinese kid at school, my early school memories included being teased for being ‘Ching Chong’ and outwardly funny comments about small eyes. Unbeknownst to my parents, I secretly wished for blond hair and blue eyes to fit in like everyone else.
Ironically, upon graduation and relocating to Asia for work, the reverse happened when locals kept asking why I looked like everyone else but spoke like a foreigner. Quickly I learnt to disguise my identity by adopting colloquial slang. Over the process of time, new social identity demarcations adopted from work and family replaced identity conflicts of the past. Today, just as my hometown Australia has become a welcoming cultural melting pot, no longer do I view differing aspects of identity as being mutually exclusive or incompatible, but as a celebration of diversity.
It came as a surprise therefore, when these memories resurfaced during our recent class on Identity and Storytelling. Our professor Dr Dicky Sofjan, had asked a simple yet provocative question, ‘When you wake up in the morning, who do you see when you look in the mirror?’ We were to answer in priority of gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, social class etc. The resulting range of responses led me to a deeper opportunity of thought not only as to who we represented to others and self, but also whether and how it had influenced our chosen areas of work. What stories of the past still influence our present identity?
Upon reflection, I concluded that identity is an ongoing dynamic process, not static nor fixed, but represented by different spectacle frames through which we perceive the world. Whilst most have come to terms with our current frame of identity, the reality is that our past frames still influence our views of the world, how we project ourselves, and how we react to others. This further affects how we see and judge ourselves and others within the collective.
Like snapshots of memories, these frames do not simply vanish over time but become filters that act to crop away, dim, tint, or highlight information presented before us according to preselected lenses. Problems arise when biasedness contributes to negative judgement of situations causing us to choose one course of action over another. Unless we can objectively reframe and resolve unmet basic needs such as past rejection and fear causing such slants, our vision will be forever distorted, which affects not only ourselves, but also those we lead, and those causes we champion.
Our effectiveness as peacemakers relies on the neutrality of the frames that we put on. How well we understand our own identity determines whether we perceive others either to be allies to build bridges, or opponents to be conquered. Constructive win-win resolution requires deeper understanding of underlying needs that drive behaviours and identities of others and self. Only by allowing ourselves to explore alternative points of views outside of what we are accustomed and defined, will we create positive and sustainable peace.
Christina Cheng – Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More
I want to tell you about an incident that changed my outlook on security programs forever. And, I hope it does the same to you.
After spending four years in the tech world working as a software engineer, I set out on a journey to become a peacebuilder some eight years ago. I was grateful to have found a way into the field I was always passionate about. However, I lacked professional experience or theoretical knowledge to back up that enthusiasm. I went through tons of educational material on countering terrorism to compensate for that gap. I devoured several theories on why individuals get radicalized. I learned about religious, socio-economic, financial, and many other broad reasons.
At that period, I was presented with an opportunity to speak to some of the prisoners in a country whose name I cannot tell you. But it was a prison where prisoners from different countries were brought in for its de-radicalization / disengagement program. The opportunity to speak with the prisoners came with a non-disclosure agreement covering the prison name and the country in public records.
At 10:30 am, I arrived at the prison on a cloudy and incredibly humid day, which did not help me control my already heavy perspiration fuelled by the adrenaline. I was given only 30 minutes to speak with them, of which the first ten minutes were a talk with the religious cleric who was in charge of de-radicalization and the next 20 minutes for the assigned prisoners. Being both excited and nervous about the opportunity, I prepared my questions in advance. Determined not to waste any time, I had a full-proof plan to jump right into tough questions.
The first ten minutes with the religious cleric helped me calm my nerves. The cleric was a good-humored old imam who visited the prison two times a week to teach Quran verses to the inmates. He told me that clerics of other faiths also visited the prison and offer teachings to inmates per their choice of religion.
After the priest, I met a young Afghan man named Ahmed (named changed for respect and security). He must not have been more than 25 years of age. He was in jail for launching a grenade attack on a local police station in Afghanistan.
He was calm and composed. I offered a brief hello and jumped into questions. He said he had been in prison for two years, and his trial is still incomplete. I asked him about his crime, to which he confirmed attacking a police station with a grenade launcher, an attack that killed two police officers and injured five. I inquired who asked him to carry out the attack. He said it was his own decision. I asked if he was religious, and he said yes. I asked if he was inspired to commit the attack based on religious framed terrorist propaganda. He answered a simple no. Even though he hadn’t met them, I asked if he felt any sense of belonging with his brothers after the attack, a reason most quoted in academia as the primary reason given for youth traveling far and joining terrorist organizations. To this question, the expression on his face showed that he had no idea what I was referring to. I asked if he belonged to a group and whether he received any money for his actions. He said that he didn’t know any terrorist groups, never spoken to any members, and never received any money. And now that he is in jail, there’s no one to earn an income at home, and his parents and siblings live a hard life.
This experience was over eight years ago, and I had barely started in the field. If given another chance today, I would ask better questions. Anyway, I was getting nothing out of it, and the time was running out. I closed my notebook, looked at him, and asked- so why did you do it? He told me a story in response, most of which I am paraphrasing here for brevity.
Ahmed and his family – mother, father, two brothers (elder and younger) and one sister lived in rural Afghanistan province. His family owned a small piece of land in the village, which his father had to mortgage to a local police officer one summer after a draught. Despite how much the family tried to pay off the debt, they could not pay for the land over the following three years. The local police officer then, using his power, influence, and intimidation, did not just take over the mortgaged piece of land, but also some other attached land owned by the family. The family begged the police for help, but they received more threats and insults instead of receiving any support. They would speak very aggressively with his parents, and some officers even passed remarks on his sister. It inflamed him, yet he decided to remain silent.
This kept happening to many families. But a few years later, when he heard this was happening to the family of a girl he intended to marry, his threshold was reached. Through his friends, he managed to arrange a grenade launcher and attacked the police station, which housed these corrupt police officers. And now, he has been labeled a terrorist for the entirety of his life.
I did not know what to say after this, but my outlook toward de-radicalization changed from that day forward. I am not condoning Ahmed’s action, what he did was wrong, but his reason did not fit into any of the widely quoted narratives. When we set out on the complex but ambitious mission of peacebuilding, we sometimes fall into the trap of bucketing the reasons why someone conducts a violent crime. I firmly believe that our efforts would be more fruitful if we take a step back and try to listen to individual stories, understand them, and then set out a plan. Small but significant change matters more than enormous efforts with no results.
Neha Vijay – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More