It was a steaming-hot afternoon in southern Mexico.
We left the final small market town and traveled nearly an hour on rutted dirt roads to reach this indigenous riverbank community of Carmen Grande, in Las Montañas del Norte.
This was before the pandemic, and we had come to plan a church-based cattle co-op project.
Several young boys were eager to show us around. “This is our school,” one of them announced proudly.
It was early afternoon on a weekday, and I asked about classes. “Oh, we don’t have school this week; the teacher didn’t come.”
All four boys appeared to be between ages 8 and 12. “What grades are you in?” I asked them in Spanish. They looked puzzled and spoke in Tsotsil among themselves.
One small boy said that he was in the third grade. “Me too,” added a 12-year-old. The other two shrugged their shoulders and said that they weren’t sure.
The educational system appears to be failing these children. While data indicates a 70% literacy rate for the community’s approximately 475 residents, most persons age 15 and older have received an average of only three years of formal education.
Teachers come from outside the community and rarely speak the native language of their students, and children speak limited Spanish when they enter school.
Mondays and Fridays are teacher travel days, so children only have three days of classes per week. For students to continue studies past 6th grade, they must leave their village and go to a regional boarding school.
Since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have been particularly concerned for the plight of the most vulnerable populations, including women, children and youth.
Students in Latin America and the Caribbean make up 60% of all children worldwide who missed an entire year of school due to COVID-19, according to a March 2021 UNICEF report.
As 2020 drew to a close, more than 97% of students across Latin America remained physically out of school, and schools throughout the region were fully closed for 158 days between March 2020 and February 2021.
Work with community-based projects in Latin America helps me to understand the factors that contribute to migration, and several key points stand out.
1. People want to live in safety and security, without fear as they go about the daily routine.
2. People want jobs so they can earn enough to support their families.
3. People need hope for a better future, which often comes through educational opportunities.
In just a few short years, these children for whom education opportunities are meager at best will reach the age when many decide to leave their community to seek work.
Some will end up in larger towns and cities nearer home, but many will go to El Norte – to the United States or the northern states of Mexico where there is work in both agriculture and factories.
Youth from rural, indigenous households with little education, no marketable skills and who live in poverty, have a bleak future in this part of Mexico and Central America.
They’re frequent targets for local gangs at home, and “going north” takes them into cartel country where they’re extremely vulnerable to either recruitment or exploitation.
Migrants often cite gang violence and the recruitment of youth as a major factor for migration.
During COVID-19, with schools closed, teens have much more free time on their hands, and this has been especially good news for gangs and cartels. The young adults are a source of revenue for the cartels – they’re smuggled, trafficked, kidnapped and victims of extortion.
For some youth, gang affiliation provides a sense of belonging and a means for earning income to help their struggling families. For others, it’s a matter of life or death.
COVID-19 has devastated many families, particularly those living on the edge of poverty. Education provided hope, and the prolonged closing of schools will have long-term consequences.
Students fall farther behind in learning, and many will not return to the classroom. Without opportunities for education or employment, many will be recruited by gangs or violent extremist organizations.
This will exacerbate the desire to migrate.
With COVID lockdowns and border closings, many migrants are faced with few options Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, the US – these countries are already dealing with an overwhelming number of desperate migrants.
For children like my young friends in Chiapas, they are relatively safe in their rural, remote village, but the cost of obtaining land to farm and the risk of crop failures leaves them with little hope for the future.
Many will “go north” to seek employment to help their families, in spite of the danger. Every village family has its story of a youth who has fallen victim to extortion, rape and victimization by the cartels or recruitment by gangs.
In an ideal world, all children and youth would receive a quality education in a stable, safe setting that would provide them with marketable skills and tools leading to employment that pays a living wage.
Post-pandemic, we should be strengthening communities by investing in sustainable development and improving educational opportunities. In this way, we decrease the risk of youth engagement in violent groups and also the need for migration.
In Virginia, where I serve as a social worker among migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, I hear their stories and share their pain. These are not people who easily choose to leave home; they have very compelling reasons to leave behind everything they know and those they love. Being a Rotary Peace Fellow (Class 30) has enhanced my understanding of the systemic, long-term effect of violence and conflict, and the need to work for community-based solutions that will eliminate the need for migration. I’m thankful for my wonderful colleagues and the perspective that each brings from her or his country, culture, and profession.
Sue Smith – USA
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ is related to exile, yearning, and the loss of home and country. Ali has highlighted the tragedy in Kashmir by comparing it with Joseph Stalin’s Russia.
In his collection of poems, Ali writes about “the land of doomed addresses” where “everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home”, where from no news is reported, and where violent death is common.
‘The Country Without a Post Office’ is about the Indian administered Kashmir, a conflict-hit region in the Himalayas contested by two nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan. It is about the identity of its people, its ethno-religious identity. It is about the control of its 12.5 million people by a militaristic state.
Being born in Kashmir, I grew up conscious about identity, the identity of being a Kashmiri, the identity of being a Muslim. Our ethno-religious identity is something that changed the world around every one of us for decades to follow.
Getting shot at by an Indian Army soldier when I was in my 7th standard, seeing one of my cousin’s throat slit after being picked up from a soccer field, and watching my uncle getting detained scores of times for not subscribing to the pro-India views on Kashmir, I saw conflict up close and realised it was all because of our distinct identity, of being part of a contested Muslim-majority region ruled by the Hindu-majority India.
In the past three decades, according to different rights groups, over 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Kashmir, over 8,000 subjected to enforced disappearances, thousands arrested and orphaned, and hundreds raped.
The last six years of Hindutva resurgence in India has further complicated the matters with people from Indian mainland often questioning the aborigine Kashmiris to leave their homeland to migrate to Muslim Pakistan, the Hindu bureaucrats and police officers from Indian mainland having no understanding of what is happening in Kashmir being airlifted to rule the disposed population.
The iron-fist rule of New Delhi is driving home the point for Kashmiris that they are being victimised by the Indian militaristic state just because of their distinct ethno-religious identity.
The youth in Kashmir, mostly educated, are responding by joining militant groups and launching a rebellion against New Delhi.
This way, the radicalised Hindutva groups in India are pushing Kashmiri youth further toward the path of radicalisation.
This is unfortunate considering that while between 1989 and 2008, Kashmiri movement against the Indian rule in the region had been armed, it shifted to a path of non-violence and the peaceful street protests of the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 are a proof. However, the Government of India’s dealing peaceful protests with excesses pushed the Kashmiri youth to the wall, which was visible with highly-educated youth including engineers and Ph.D. scholars joining the armed movement in the subsequent years.
Seeing these youth, at one-time no more than around 200 to 250 by New Delhi’s own accounts, becoming sitting ducks and a fodder for around one million Indian soldiers in the region has disturbed not just me but every thinking individual in Kashmir.
Understanding what can be done to stop the daily bloodbath in Kashmir and save the next generation of Kashmiris from an unceasing genocide, and the assassination of my former editor Shujaat Bukhari right outside his office drove me to this course.
I am still looking for the answers but the fellowship has not just provided me an opportunity to study my own conflict in a better way but also introduced me to the world of conflicts and transformation.
Fortunately, it has also helped me connect to the people who are doing their bit to make this world a better place by helping foster peace in the conflict-hit regions.
We are already in the 12th week of the fellowship and it has been an overwhelming experience for me to have attended the lectures of some of the best academicians, practitioners, policy analysts, strategists and peaceniks and learned from their experiences.
More than anything else, from this fellowship I have learned that the distinct ethno-religious identities of people living in other parts of the world have, just like us, become a cause of their being subjected to atrocities.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia; Nagorno-Karabakh on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia; Transnistria in the land near Moldovo’s eastern border with Ukraine; Novorossiya (a confederation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, the breakaway areas in the Ukraine), the Republic of Crimea, East Prigorodny conflict, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Pankisi Georgia crisis, Adjara crisis, Russo-Georgian War and Euromaidan just like the more prominent Palestine-Israel and Northern Ireland conflicts all have the distinct identities of the people in these regions as the preeminent contribution to the conflict.
While Agha Shahid Ali’s illustrates in his ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ the agonies faced by his people because of their distinct ethno-religious identity, the 13th century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi’s poem ‘I am not from anything’ leaves us thinking.
I am not from anything
What is to be done, O Muslims? For I do not recognise myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature’s mint, nor of the circling heavens.
I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsín;
I am not of the kingdom of Irãqain, nor of the country of Khorãsãn.
I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell;
I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwãn.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
He is the first, He is the last, He is the outward, He is the inward;
I know none other except Ya Hu and Ya man Hu.
I am intoxicated with Love’s cup, the two worlds have passed out of my ken;
I have no business save carouse and revelry.
If once in my life I spent a moment without thee,
From that time and from that hour I repent of my life.
If once in this world I win a moment with thee,
I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph for ever.
O Shamsi Tabriz, I am so drunken in this world,
That except of drunkenness and revelry I have no tale to tell.
(Faisul Yaseen is a journalist based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir)
Faisul Yaseen – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
Closing the gender gap worldwide could reduce hunger for 100 million people and yet Ugandan women have unequal rights to land, a fundamental building block of food security and poverty reduction. Women face multiple challenges that limit their ability to realize secure land rights, including social, cultural, economic, and political factors. Inequality and uncertainty in accessing, controlling, and owning property for women deprives them of the opportunity to participate in national economic development, and negatively impacts our country as a whole.
Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA) in partnership with the Ministry of Lands, Housing & Urban Development is implementing a project “New challenges for women’s land rights in Northern Uganda” This program strengthens land administration systems and increases security of land tenure for land and property owners. As a result, land disputes and displacements will decrease, property-based revenue generation and investment will increase, and Uganda’s economy will grow stronger. Women must be included if these positive changes are to be realized. To this end, FIDRA have developed strategies and interventions to encourage women’s participation, and help women overcome the many challenges they face in securing their land rights.
In the Ugandan society, women are often perceived as subordinate to men. Patriarchal systems promote male dominance over women in resource access, control, ownership, sexuality, reproduction and even women’s ability to use their own conscience and labor. As a result, women are treated as economic dependents to men, both socially and legally. Post-Independence, Uganda enacted the Intestate Succession Act to ensure that nuclear families are guided by codified laws on how property is to devolve were one dies without leaving a will behind and to reduce the violations against the rights of women to inherit thereby promoting equality. The Act regulates the devolution of a deceased person’s estate amongst the surviving spouse, children, dependents, and other relatives. These regulations play a key role in determining who should inherit from the deceased, the extent of what they should inherit, their rights and duties, and who should be disqualified from inheriting.
While the Intestate Succession Act provides women with some protection, there are ongoing impediments to their inheritance rights. Frequently, patriarchal customary principles are applied to ensure that male relatives inherit land and property to the exclusion of widows. These customary principles do not conform to the gender equality advancements promoted by the Constitution and other international and regional instruments. Therefore, the Intestate Succession Act’s historical development has received a lot of criticism over the years which has led to its amendment. However, regardless of the Intestate Succession Act having been amended to protect the rights of women, there are still a lot of long-standing challenges as regards women’s rights to inherit from their deceased spouses.
‘’Despite the law providing in section 9 (1) (b) that a surviving spouse shall have a life interest which shall determine upon that spouse’s death; in practice, this provision applies predominately to women alone because of society’s perception that property should be registered in a man’s name. This ultimately becomes a hindrance to women accessing and owning landed property.”
Women in polygamous marriages are provided weaker protections under the Intestate Succession Act. Section 10 identifies a surviving wife as an extra person to obtain a child’s share, as opposed to inheriting a share in her own right. This provision is blind to the contributions a widow would have made in the marriage, especially if she had no children or has fewer children than the other wives. Considering this provision, surviving wives to a polygamous marriage that have more children benefit more than those without or with fewer children.
The appointment of administrators can also disadvantage women. The Intestate Succession Act provides for the appointment of administrators to a deceased persons estate and specifies that the role of an administrator is to distribute the estate in accordance with the law. However, experience has shown that many administrators consider themselves beneficiaries of the estate and grab or misuse the property, thereby disadvantaging the surviving women and children. Local Courts are used frequently and a large numbers of administrators are appointed by these courts. Local Courts are founded on the administration of customary law prevailing within a locality and, as a result, the justices may overlook the appointment of the deceased surviving wife as an administrator.
The Ugandan government has made great efforts to recognize and promote women’s land rights, including through the establishment of the National Gender Policy and the Gender Equity and Equality Act. The government has also issued a directive to the Ministry of Lands, Housing & Urban Development and the Local Authorities that 50% of land allocations must be to women. Unfortunately, enforcement remains a challenge, particularly regarding inheritance rights. There is need to review and revise the Intestate Succession Act and to set in law the percentages that women should inherit in polygamous marriages. Non-progressive legal provisions such as the one reflected in the Intestate Succession Act, in which a widow loses a matrimonial house if she remarries, should be repealed. Harsher punishments should also be imposed on those who interfere with the deceased’s estate to the disadvantage of women and children, to deter would-be offenders. Local Courts should strive to promote women’s equality and empowerment in the appointment of administrators by not referring to customs that are patriarchal in nature. To this end, robust land governance interventions that mainstream gender ought to be considered in the promotion of women’s access, control, and ownership of land, to ensure that Ugandan women have the opportunity to build their futures and pathways out of poverty.
In five years, I would love to be an industry of peace and reconciliation expert that others can come to for ideas, help and strategy. Connect and create network of amazing peace promoters, managers, ambassadors, mentors and managers, so I’d like to be able to provide similar guidance, potentially taking on a leadership role. Finally, I’d like to have taken the lead on several projects on peace and economic development. I’m motivated by connecting my initiatives to larger goals and I’m excited by the prospect of getting more experience in that
With the above shared, the Rotary Peace Fellowship is providing me a safe space for galvanizing and enhancing my leadership skills to respond to land related conflict dynamics and inequalities in my country. With our opportunity to learn and share knowledge, critique existing policies, leadership, and structures, I feel more capable to design and apply approaches for social change while challenging structures that undermine peace building, like inequitable lands rights in Uganda.
Ocen Ivan Kenneth – Uganda
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
I spent most of the last six months before starting my Peace Fellowship living in a tent in the northern NSW rainforests. It seemed safer for my physical and mental health to escape the rising COVID cases – and the corresponding lockdowns – in my home city of Melbourne by travelling up north and heading for the forests. This was quite a change from working the 12hr days in front of screens doing academic writing to finish my PhD. Yet, I found that these forests became an important learning environment.
I found unexpectedly grace in surrendering to the constraints and ease of living this simple, close to nature life, during the pandemic times of massive economic and social upheaval. The lack of regular internet or phone connection (you had to walk up to the hill and hold up a phone to get signal) allowed me a much appreciated separation from the constant media pandemic coverage, of which I was a previously a helpless consumer – replacing it with a smaller, vastly more intimate world, in which I was an active co-participant with a myriad of life forms: being constantly barefoot my feet were spontaneously educated in the intricate rainforest micro-topology, with the attendant health benefits from electrically grounding my body… my ears grew slowly attuned to the myriad of bird calls that saturated the area, weaving a rich sonic tapestry… my eyes delighted in the forest’s lush visual delights – glowing fireflies, golden sunsets, lush green undergrowth, with my myopia providing a deeper embodied engagement… in sum I felt my senses expand as they encountered this rich banquet of life, a sumptuous feast so different than the human concrete and asphalt urban world where I had come from.
During all this time the Peace Fellowship was my only planned next step post-PhD, and I waited with my partner to see whether we would be headed to Bangkok in January, since applying in way back in May 2019. But when global COVID dynamics forced the program into being delivered online, we left to the forest for the 18hrs drive back to Melbourne, packing up my house of 8 years and moving out to the small town of Castlemaine, barely 1.5hrs away (very close in the Australian context!). This was near to where I was born, on a block of land adjacent to another beautiful, yet very different forest.
It was from this place that I commenced the Peace Fellowship, joining the zoom calls as the sun sank low behind my screen – knowing that it was simultaneously rising for some of my fellow participants on the other side of the world. It was an immense joy to finally meet with these 18 inspiring other fellows, who had similar long and winding journeys to the program. This feeling was intermingled with a sadness that we were so far apart, with just a slender wafer of glowing pixels connecting our vastly different worlds. Seeing these other faces, many who were so experienced in peace-building and international work, I initially wondered how myself – who had spent so long working for environmental change – could contribute. Luckily as the conversations and classes – and days and weeks – went by, I remembered what I already knew in my head, heart and gut – that true peacebuilding encompassed both our relationships with each other, and the natural world around us.
I found these insights were interwoven between the on-screen Fellowship conversations and my in-person morning forest walks and meditations. Just as this forest was slowly revealing its hidden secrets, written in the language of pawprints, seed-pods, spider webs and bird calls, the on-screen conversations were making visible other more abstract relationships. The latter reminding me that conflicts all around the world ran through both nature and people; that people were killed regularly trying to defend their forests from destruction, not as ‘untouched wilderness’ but instead as these wild places were their pharmacies, food markets and even direct kin. In making peace with nature, we need to simultaneously make peace with each other; for all of us ultimately rely on the natural world for life itself – in Paul Hawken’s words – You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet.
My fellowship conversations also have helped me remember my own privilege – of a (passably!) white heterosexual male in an economically developed Western country. I am far from rich in my own country, but in the top 15% rich worldwide. I have the privilege of walking so freely through this forest every morning, as if the land belonged to me. Although it is a designated National Park, there’s no fence separating its brown soil from that of my property, that according to Australian law, I own exclusively. Yet this land was stolen with considerable violence from the original Indigenous inhabitants people barely two centuries ago, as part of state-sanctioned genocidal campaigns. I ponder this invisible bloodshed while looking out onto this land, that now looks so peaceful, and alluring. Discussing restorative justice in class reminds me to make the tiny step of ‘paying the rent’ – giving a regular contribution to a local indigenous group. But I need to take many more steps.
Unlike many other participants who are bravely juggling the Fellowship with their paid work, I have chosen to allow more space at this time of personal and professional transition and learning. Although it is a tension I sometimes feel acutely that I’m not ‘doing enough’ for positive change. Here the words of peace-pioneer Elise Boulding reassures, and has a profound resonance with me: “For whatever energy I have left, I want to use it in a positive way. I’m here in a way of loving the world. If we were all here in a spirit of loving the world, we’d have a very different world—all living things making room for each other.” She invites us to consider what peace really looks like right here in our local context. In my country so many are materially rich, yet feel a scarcity of spirit, feeding into polarised politics and mindless consumption, under the enabling structures of late capitalism. In the same week as I learnt about Boulding through my on-screen engagement, I took a true wealth quiz in-person, reminding me of viewing abundance holistically.
During my daily morning walks in the forest before the Fellowship sessions, I’m reminded that we know so little about the natural world that is all around us, even in the cracks in cities, or on our bodies, and how this can be injurious for own wellbeing, let alone that of non-humans. When I stand before my favourite tree, I see the intricate, barely visible relationships between insects, plants and birds, that have co-evolved over millennia and are so fragile in the face of human-driven climate change and habitat loss. An unfolding invisible global catastrophe arising from humankind’s systemic violence towards nature. While we were collectively absorbed in the human impacts of COVID last year, the UN estimates that over 50000 species went extinct, and half of the earth’s species may disappear by 2100. But these numbers mean little to people without personal, lived stories to locate and develop our relationship to these living creatures – just as statistics of conflict deaths on the other side of the world fall on our deaf ears. Yet it is vitally important on an intellectual and spiritual level to confront this sobering reality, rather than stay in a state of numbness, as this deep attention is the foundation of action. As Hawken articulates the paradox in Blessed Unrest – If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. Through each Fellowship session I’m meeting and learning about these inspiring people and projects, deepening this paradox, seeing brighter lights amidst darker nights.
This passion thread – of seeking to amplify these positive stories of grassroots change, came through from my years of PhD design-based action-research, where I used participatory photography to document, share, and connect grassroots youth responses to environmental impacts across cities in Bangladesh, China and Australia. Now, spending each Fellowship session sharing conversations, stories, and ideas with changemakers from around the world, I am motivated to develop a social change initiative that continues this thread – planning a global online platform to provide virtual training and support to youth-led environmental peace projects, and through doing so expand their storytelling reach and impact.
As I develop these ideas, and engage with the Fellowship, my father Leong looks down at my screen through his photograph on the back wall, holding a glass of wine and a philosophical expression. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2015, having seen me start my PhD, but not this current learning adventure. He came to Australia on a boat from Malaysia when he was 17, told by his father to study Law in the closest Western country, then return to marry a good Chinese woman. Instead, he studied economics and teaching, and married a somewhat rebellious Anglo-Australian social worker, my mother Wendy. Her more conservative father had co-founded a rotary club years before, which I had myself joined many years later and had been subsequently involved with in its international portfolio, sowing the seeds of my own Peace Fellowship journey.
My dad had a gift for tending gardens and introduced me to the wonders of nature through wading in rockpools near Melbourne as he had done within the mangroves near his hometown of Malacca. My mother loved wild forests and helped me see that to live truly sustainably, necessitated a total revolution of consciousness beyond humanism. In the words of her mentor, Thomas Berry, it was to experience the cosmos as a communion of subjects, rather than collection of objects. The ripples of this silent revolution call for an eco-centric perspective on environmental peace building – going beyond the anthropocentric standpoints of viewing the environment as passive natural resources to be used optimally amongst human actors – instead recognising the intrinsic value, agency, and rights of nature itself from a more-than-human standpoint. I’m honestly not sure of how I will knead this somewhat radical perspective into the dough of my Fellowship project, but perhaps the current baking process of conversations with inspired youth-focused change agents around the world will yield insights!
However, I’ve found such ideas have already been coming to me from a less-intellectual, more earthy perspective. At the same time as I started the Peace Fellowship, I commenced a permaculture course at the local community centre, and have found inspiring synergies with peace-building. Permaculture’s creative principles of caring for the earth and each other align closely with holistic peace principles emphasising our moral imagination, personal and societal transformation fuelled by ‘critical yeast’. By supporting independence from fossil fuels and other global commodities that are key causes for conflict, permaculture fosters peace globally.
Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. I thank you for your patience in navigating one that has been somewhat less linear, perhaps more like an unfolding, bi-directional spiral, which has in fact mirrored my experiences so far through the journey to, and through this incredible Peace Fellowship. Reflecting on this spiral brings a vivid memory – feeling the warm Bangkok air waft in through the window of a tiny Chulalongkorn University student apartment back in August 2016, when I visited a then-current Peace Fellow friend. I hope and trust that the next uncoiling strand of the spiral will allow me the opportunity to physically share that same balmy Bangkok atmosphere with all my current Peace Fellow colleagues next January, as we see what next part of our peace journey story is revealed.
Michael Chew – Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
I was born a happy and healthy boy, with my advent into the family igniting joy and celebration. My father’s desire for a male child was finally realized. At about seven months old I was already running around the house. By the time I turned one year old, my dad bought me my first soccer ball. I would get up early, while everyone else was still in bed, and play in the house, knocking things over. But one night, before I turned two, something mysterious happened, or at least that was what I was told. My father worked as a security officer and worked nights. According to my mother, late one night while everyone slept, a witch dragon sent by some witches mysteriously entered our house and swallowed both my legs, rendering me impotent.
As I grew up, I couldn’t stop wondering, in my little mind, why witches were so cruel, even though I had only seen pictures of them in movies and fairy tale books. When I asked my mom why I became a target for the evil beings, mom said they were enemies of my father’s and they attacked me because they couldn’t get my dad. I lived with extreme hatred for witches on the basis of mommy’s little story. And I carried this story of bewitchment for over two decades of my life.
My first encounter with the word polio was in the early 1990s while I was a student at St. Patrick’s School (an all-boys school). I was a troublemaker in school, always embroiled in some sort of trouble. My complaints were regularly in the Principal’s office. Admittedly, I craved so much attention because there were so many things I couldn’t do as other boys; and so being troublesome got me some attention. So one day when I was caught in one of my pranks, I was summoned to the Principal’s office. The school’s principal then was one of the Catholic Nuns that was later murdered by NPFL rebels headed by Charles Taylor. Sister Shirley Kolmer was a PhD in Mathematics. When I got to the office, she was raged as she asked me, “young man, why do you think you need so much attention,” at the top of her voice. I was ice-cool as she recounted my number of offenses. After threatening me with a last chance for suspension, she told me to get back to class. While I was walking away to class she called me back and asked, “what’s wrong with your legs, were you born this way?” Then, like I always did when asked concerning my condition, I told her mommy’s dragon tale. Sister Shirley looked at me and said, “I think you suffered a polio attack.” I had no Idea what she was talking about, even though I was a junior high student. Later, as I grew up and began researching polio, all the shattered pieces of my mother’s bewitchment tale seemed to come together and make a lot of sense.
Indeed, a lack of knowledge is a major reason for most of our human problems. When Liberia launched the first polio eradication campaign in 1999, I was already in my mid-twenties. In a bid to unmask this myth that seemed commonplace in our society, I embarked on research to find out what other people with disabilities (PWD), specifically polio suffers, knew about their physical condition. With my training in journalism, I decided to conduct a small study, targeting ten PWDs in all, including six males and four females. The result of my little survey, just within the greater Monrovia area, actually revealed the level of ignorance about polio amongst PWDs. Of the ten persons interviewed, four persons had heard about polio, but did not have many details. Also, three of my interviewees knew polio to be a crippling disease, while three other persons were just like me before my meeting with Sister Shirley, “no idea!” But more interestingly, all ten persons attributed their conditions to some mysterious and unexplained source and not polio.
Ignorance is a major factor in the spread and large scale fatality rate caused by many issues that could be prevented and or controlled in countries like my own. The Liberian society is largely susceptible to superstitions, with most of the things happening being attributed to negative supernatural sources. For example, when Ebola first struck in early 2014, it became widely rumored that it was some supernatural, unexplained invasion. Later on, with the rapid spread and high fatality rate, and owing to international interventions, health authorities in collaboration with international partners had to launch a rigorous sensitization campaign titled, “Ebola Is Real, and it Kills.” It will amaze one to know that there are still some communities in Liberia where Ebola is still believed to be a mysterious evil force.
The findings from my research have further inspired my vision of advocating for the welfare and empowerment of PWDs. My desire to educate people about this crippling disease, while also working with victims to shift the negative mindset about themselves, has been strengthened. While government and her partners including Rotary International are administering polio vaccines across the country as a result of a recent resurgence, it is also important that victims know the true source of their physically challenged conditions. This is important so that as PWDs begin to have kids of their own, those little ones will not suffer a similar fate.
Being a Rotary Peace Fellow has not only strengthened my work of seeking empowerment opportunities for PWDs(especially polio victims), but it has also helped me in further unmask the true evil, and dismiss the myth largely held by them. It is unfortunate that in the 21st century some Liberian people still attribute polio disease to a witch-craft attack on people. Much campaigning has been carried out, with millions of dollars spent towards vaccination and sensitization. However, much more needs to be done towards community engagement. Young mothers, mostly in rural communities (and unfortunately in some urban communities), usually do home deliveries and do not have the opportunity to vaccinate their new born. These children are mostly vulnerable to polio attacks some time in life, thus the recent resurgence of the disease, even though Liberia was declared polio free a few years ago.
As a member of Class 30, I feel hugely privileged as I interact with inspiring change-makers who are all aspiring to make our world a better place in their own ways. I am extremely grateful for Rotary’s fight to eliminate polio from the world. As a complementary effort to that huge task, my efforts will continue along the lines of working with victims through advocacy for society integration, empowerment, and education. This work makes me feel meaningful.
Klonnious Blamo – Liberia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
Almost 2 years ago, I was attending a course on refugees’ law at Olomouc University (Czech Republic) and the professor set up a role game. She asked us to imagine a scenario where we would be under a life-threatening attack and fleeing was the only way to save ourselves. All the participants had in front of them 3 items: a passport, money and a picture of their family. We only had one minute to grab the most important item for us. Interestingly several chose the money (as a means for traveling and ensuring our livelihood). Even more chose the passport, and a few picked the family picture. The professor then stated that if you are Rohingya you do not even have the choice of picking your passport because you are not recognised as a citizen in any country, so you are essentially stateless. For me, a 35-year-old Italian woman with a life abundant with choices, this was a sort of wake-up call.
Today, I live in Myanmar, where I moved in October 2019. I am a Program Coordinator with Solidarités International, an international non-governmental organization. I am based in the North, close to the Bangladesh border. I am in charge of coordinating the humanitarian and development programs of Solidarités International throughout Myanmar, dealing with the Rohingya and Rakhine population affected by the war.
The Peace Rotary Fellowship is an extraordinary opportunity to gain new tools that are helping me to shape my humanitarian intervention expertise in a complex context such as Myanmar.
Much of the current conflict still on going in the country has been built on the religion and ethnic differences that characterize Myanmar. In last week’s course, we dealt with the theme of identity and religion in conflicted spaces and we explored how the notion of ‘toxic theology’ played a crucial role in different contexts, showing how sectarianism and memory contributed. In a complex context as Myanmar, it is important to work with religion leaders on the component of ‘connectedness’ as including the dimensions of belonging and identification. These feeling of belonging not only include the self-perception of being a part of a group, but also as having a sense of share identity. To help build a sense of connectedness, it will be necessary to help communities identify and work on shared issues, such basic rights and infrastructure, as well as identify and build on shared identities – such as being fishermen, mothers, students, community health workers- as critical entry point.
The Rotary Peace Center Course was an unique opportunity for me to deepen my understanding of the role played by religious actors in engaging, influencing and redirecting a peaceful pathway that can be integrated into the humanitarian programs that I am designing and implementing in the country.
Marta Tremolada – Italy
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
As we are engaging in this week’s module on Inclusive Community Peacebuilding, I cannot help but reminisce. We are entering year 2 of the pandemic and how different does our world seem from the one I knew before. I have adapted to all of the changes as well as I can. Days at a time without leaving the house once. One year working from home in Mexico City without ever going back to the office. One year without my friends, nor going out to dance salsa. A year and a half without seeing my loved ones back home in the Netherlands. Feeling further away and disconnected from the various personal and professional communities I belong to than ever. Changes I can handle – my basic needs are covered, life simply goes on and at some point in the future things will probably run its normal course again. At least, for me.
Back in March 2020, while we all tried to grasp the severity of the pandemic as it swept around us, Madonna took a luxurious bath full of rose petals and stated that ‘COVID is the great equalizer’. It was already abundantly clear back then that this is a blatant misconception. The harmful effects of this pandemic are not and will not be distributed equally.
What about the more than 137 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean whose education is put on hold, in many cases for over a year? In November 2020, UNICEF published that a staggering 97% of the region’s students are still deprived of their normal schooling. Here in Mexico, for example, those who are privileged enough to access private education have been home-schooled for a year using Zoom. Far from ideal, but way better than those in public education. Only 40% of students have access to stable internet. So, what’s the solution? Millions of children are now receiving their education via state-run distance learning programmes offered via television and radio. Which means limited hours and zero direct interaction with classmates or teachers to receive extra support and explanations. What does that do to our education systems? What does this mean for the overall development of this generation?
It exacerbates already existing inequalities and inequities. Interrupted learning leading to a disruption of children’s development, coupled with increasing school drop-out rates, aggravated risks to child labour, enhanced risks of domestic violence, gender-based violence and violence against children, and further economic repercussions in the years to come.
And this only scratches the surface of the short and long-term impacts of the lockdown on society overall. We face enormous challenges, now and in the future. As for us in the fellowship, while we are trying to continue our work in the various (fascinating!) fields that we are active in, how do we maintain our impact and quality standards in community development and peacebuilding from a distance? How do we create meaningful and positive change during -what seems to be a never-ending lockdown? The idea of inclusive community peacebuilding is one of meaningful, equal and true participation, ownership and leadership of communities. Involving the voices of all those who are affected by programmes or initiatives at every stage of the process. It seems simple and straightforward, but unfortunately in practice it is not. Too often communities are side-lined and interventions built on assumptions, foreign agendas and the best of intentions that do not take into account local needs, voices or realities.
Our visions on community peacebuilding and the many examples of good practice and of persistent pitfalls that we discussed this week were based on our direct and in-person work experiences in communities. It makes me long for the days that I was still able to travel and co-facilitate workshops and meetings with rightsholders for my own work in human rights education. Human connection and direct interaction at its best. We are now largely depending on organizing and mobilizing in digital and distance-learning spaces. Yet, those who do have internet are absolutely overwhelmed and tired of Zoom and Google Hangouts, as am I. And experience shows that those we may specifically seek to include who are part of marginalized communities, such as indigenous peoples, at-risk youth, refugees, people with disabilities, rural communities and LGBTIQ+ communities, are harder to reach and involve if we can only rely on digital communication. All my best intentions aside, working on inclusion and equality seems harder than ever.
Looking ahead, how do we ‘build back better’? How do we reduce the widening inequality gap? Whatever the reconciliation and recovery challenges that await us in the future, the idea of inclusive community development is of vital importance here. But, let us please be more vigilant against tokenistic inclusion and participation. Our political and international arenas have to radically and urgently change its mind-set and practice in this respect. If we truly want inclusive community development and peacebuilding, it requires that we take a long and hard look at ourselves. All the best intentions aside, to be true champions of equality and equity we need to reflect, unpack and act better upon the power dynamics that come into play. The international development and humanitarian aid sector itself is a world full of oppression and privilege, stereotypes and prejudices, micro aggressions, micro politics and dominant development discourses. Official aid for development is a political instrument and a political process in itself. Civic driven change, political agency and power dynamics are main drivers for in- or exclusion. To acknowledge that is the very minimum. To act upon it would be a great step forward.
Imke van der Velde – The Netherlands/Mexico
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
Hi, my names Tim Mortimer and I’m an interfaith dialogue specialist from the UK, and part of the latest Rotary Peace Fellowship Class 30.
I applied for and was accepted to the Fellowship with the intentions of broadening my perspective. I’ve been working at The Faith & Belief Forum, the UK’s leading interfaith charity for the last 6 and a half years. I love it, but I’ve definitely become used to a particular methodology and context. I’ve worked on and lead different grassroots programming connecting people from different backgrounds, and it’s all been very locally focussed. For one example, over the last 5 months I’ve been leading a government funded dialogue programme in two British cities where diverse faith/belief communities engage and get to know each other through a series of facilitated online meetings. One Mosque and Church that linked were on the same street, and so we built connections through exploring each community’s experiences within the same locality.
I was aware that after so long in the same organisation, the chance to step back and compare my approach to practitioners from all around the world would be invaluable. Now, 8 weeks into the fellowship I can certainly say that the process of broadening my perspective is well underway.
At first the Fellowship experience was a little overwhelming. The language of ‘conflict transformation’, ‘multilateral organisations’, ‘global geopolitical trends’ and ‘UN Security Council resolutions’ is quite unfamiliar to me. I’m more used to talking about individual stories of faith, family, community and identity. There’s a risk that when broadening one’s perspective, that you start to appreciate the vast complexity of the wider problems we face.
I was also introduced to my incredible cohort of Fellows working and living in such different contexts all around the globe. From New York to Nepal, Liberia to Timor-Leste. It became evident extremely quickly that when we talked about peace we were often talking about quite different things. When I talk of conflict in the UK in 2021, I’m talking about the underlying community tensions that the Brexit vote has brought to the fore. I’m talking about the rising levels of hate crime against minority communities. I’m not talking about imminent threats of violence in the way friends from Palestine or Uganda might be. I have also consistently been reminded of my own privilege, not least digitally, as friends from other countries participate around power cuts.
However, as we get into the swing of the Fellowship, I am definitely learning a lot. Particularly, I’m learning fairly frequently that the grassroots principles that I’ve picked up over time in the UK do relate to the global conversation, in ways I never realised.
This recently hit home during our lectures with Itonde Kakoma (Director for Global Strategy) from Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), an internationally focussed mediation organisation based in Finland. While Itonde and I are both professional mediators, the conversations he mediates are between world leaders so I didn’t expect to find too many similarities in our practices. Certainly, the dialogues Itonde spoke of in Tanzania between leaders of different political factions in South Sudan are a far cry from my recent community dialogue project. Interestingly, when Itonde shared his methodology and approach to high level mediation, there were important similarities to my own practice. To name a few, these similarities include: the focus on preparation and the conversation needed before opening the dialogue space; the importance of learning mediation through an ‘apprentice model’ of observing seasoned mediators; the cruciality of co-production and the need to assess the power dynamics of the physical dialogue space.
As the Fellowship continues, I look forward to broadening my perspective, but also coming to realise that some of the answers I’m looking for are a little closer to home.
Tim Mortimer – The UK
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
No peace without peace of mind: Why we need to link mental health and psychosocial support into peacebuilding, now.
They say every cloud has a silver lining. While it took me a while to find the silver lining on the massive and ever-evolving dark cloud of Covid-19; I think I’ve found it: all of a sudden everyone around me is talking about (their) mental health. Cooped up in our homes, prevented from spending time with those we love; overwhelmed with anxiety and fear and uncertainty; mental health has become a far more frequent dinner table topic than it was before the pandemic reigned on us. I for one hope it stays that way; here’s why:
For me mental health is personal, professional and inextricably linked to violent conflict. My German grandfather fled his beloved hometown of Bautzen in East Germany during the Sovietisation in 1954. My mother and grandmother followed a few days later; leaving behind everything but a small suitcase containing their most urgent possessions. By all accounts my grandfather-desperately homesick- became heavily depressed soon after leaving Bautzen. This impacted heavily on his ability to earn a living and to be emotionally present for his young daughter and wife.
And, to this day, my mother, 5 years old at the time; says she has nightmares about getting lost in and amongst rows and rows of identical tents in a Berlin refugee camp where the family initially sought refuge.
Having spent much time understanding, talking about and analysing our family history, my sister and I have now made peace with the fact that our grandfather’s depression (or melancholy as he called it) has been passed down through the generations; via our mother, to her and I.
However, my professional aha-moment came in a dialogue session with community leaders in Juba, South Sudan in 2014. We had been circling around the same topic for days; trying to establish a feasible model for reconciliation dialogues in that country. At some point a young man who had witnessed the horrors of war first hand, opened up. His story was raw, fresh and filled with a pain and anger that appeared to resonate deeply with the other participants in the room. This unlocked something. As participants responded with an almost contagious energy, volunteering to share their own stories with us, something shifted for me. It became clear to me that unless peacebuilders systemically collaborate with mental health and psycho-social support practitioners to address the psychological impact of conflict; the peace we are trying to build will not materialise. We will not live in peace and be able to contribute to the building of that peace; unless we have peace of mind. Indeed, evidence shows that those who have not processed the wounds of the past; are less likely to engage actively and peacefully in community-rebuilding efforts.
Conflict destroys so much more than physical infrastructure. It reaches deep into society, carefully destroying link after link of its fragile fibre. As trust erodes; so do the relationships which govern our co-existence. The more those relationships are damaged; the less cushioning we have to protect us from the daily stress of everyday living. This in turn erodes us; our wellbeing and our resilience. As such there is no question in my mind, that peacebuilders and MHPSS professionals must work together if they want to effectively and sustainably rebuild societies destroyed by war. Advocating for this simple yet crucial truth, is what I care most deeply about. It is my life’s work. This is the topic of my SCI as well as the lens with which I listen to and participate in the tremendously enriching Rotary Peace Fellowship.
Friederike Bubenzer – South Africa
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
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