Being a Rotary Peace Fellow is more than the educational opportunity that I have been given, it is more than building my qualifications and improving my resume. It is an experience that has made me reflect deeply on who I am and what I can do to build peace. It is about discovering how I can be a true peace fellow. I question if it is possible for me to bring about change with all the conflicts in the world. Is it truly possible for me to become a peace builder?
The knowledge I accessed in my first year at my master’s program has empowered me and has focused my thinking. At the same time, it has created confusion and questions which take on a new meaning when posted far away from my culture and home. Questions such as, what can I do with what am I learning in order to build peace? What job should I seek? How do I capitalize on my previous learning and experience? What do I want to do with my life and my future? It is strange because I thought I already knew where I was going, but the more I learned during my first year, the more confused I became. So, I became quite anxious about my applied field of experience, yet hopeful that I’d find some answer to these questions in some place far away.
I picked my place: it was Fiji! At first, I decided to visit Fiji because I liked the job description of the internship. The work I would be doing at the UNDP sounded interesting. The job consisted of helping the people of the Pacific, specifically the Fijians; to become more involved in the decision making process that affects their lives. The job entailed utilizing economic development to develop a methodology of peace building. Since my specialty is economic development, this job description made sense to me. I wanted to be inspired, and I had a “gut feeling” that this would happen in Fiji.
The Golden Rule
During my AFE in Fiji, I have found the answers that puzzled me and in so doing found my inspiration. Most importantly, I became more grounded in my ideas about and techniques for peace building. I was very lucky to be working with Janet Murdock, a program specialist at UNDP. She taught me the golden rule of peace building: that it starts in our daily lives, in our perceptions and in our passions.
Peace building is not something you leave back at the office, because it is beyond the reports, the software, the work policies and the daily meetings. Janet, according to the contract, is my manager, but according to what I experienced, she is much more; she is my “mother of a different color” – as my Fijian friends called her. She has become my role model, my mentor, my friend, and my wild nature adventures partner.
Individuality and Peace
This happened because she has a little secret about her perception of people. She thinks of me and everyone else as a unique individual and not just a definition or description on a page. I am not a job description to Janet. I am an individual. This allowed for creativity, sharing, growth and joy to flourish in both our job and life.
I was made to appreciate this idea a thousand times more last week by the sad murder of an active feminist, Joytika Singh. Her murder was classified as a violent gender based crime. I was shocked when I went to her funeral and listened to people who have known and worked with Joytika, because this violation and oppression of humanity manifested itself in physical death. It made me think of other violations of humanity around the world and the constant suppression of the individual. The violent and many times distressing suppression of people’s dreams, spirits, freedoms, hopes and rights.
We tend often to see individuals in roles. For example, in Jyotika’s case, her community attached a wife/mother role to her and she ended up suffering and struggling because she was expected to meet the expectations of her ethnic and cultural community. Despite the fact that Joytika shared with her family and friends how unhappy she was in her marriage, she couldn’t leave because she was a wife: she was a prisoner of the role assigned to her by others. The rules and regulations of this assigned role said that she should stay in her husband’s house, regardless of her individual need for a better life.
I have learned from both my happy experience with Janet and sad experience with Joytika, how powerful perception can be in producing realities. I have learned that one influential way to create a peaceful reality is when each one of us stops seeing the other’s role, and instead sees each other as individuals. Not just with gender, but at all levels: ethnicity, race, religion, ideology, politics and culture.
Peace is Possible
Having a vision of justice for the world is not a dream. It is a noble possibility. The hope of a better future is more powerful sometimes than the sad realities of oppression. Looking at the courageous crowds of Egyptians and Brazilians screaming out loud against oppression and demanding their individual rights gives me hope. I have learned how powerful individuals can be when they come together with a common vision and a higher value, and work on achieving a just peace.
This belief became more powerful after I experienced first-hand a three-week intensive peace-building workshop in Fiji, in which I helped conduct and orchestrate. This workshop was a project of the Pacific Theological College and the Pacific Center for Peace-building, part of the Strengthening Capacities for Peace and Development Project conducted by the Crisis Prevention and Recovery (CPR) unit based at the UNDP Pacific Centre. Its aim is to ensure that government and civil society are given the opportunity to engage constructively about peace and development issues.
Thirty-two government representatives and religious leaders from the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville and Fiji participated. The training initiative focused on three key components: conflict analysis, trauma healing, and conflict resolution skills. We worked eight hours a day including weekends. The faith of the participants in achieving peace was louder than the clamor of the current sad realities around us.
I have learned that for peace building to be influential, it should be aligned with individual aspirations and individual action emerging from shared vision, knowledge, values and skills. Standing against oppression and violations of human rights is a serious job. It requires commitment and a strong faith in just peace. This workshop, while difficult, showed that it is possible.
Art and Peace
Art was an important component of the learning process in the workshop. Although I have always known art can be a peace-building tool, it was magical to see how it gathers people and creates platforms for sharing and exchanging ideas. I had not appreciated how powerful art can be to internalize learning and knowledge and convert individuals into peace builders. Participants developed handy crafts, painted, danced and sang, and they presented their artwork. They explained how it was relevant to their learning experiences and visions of peace.
I have learned that in Fiji, art is an essential tool to inspire peace. My “mother of a different color” has taken the initiative to bring young people together to write, compose and sing songs about peace. The group is called Voices in Transition. I was personally inspired by their singing and visions of peace and became friends with members of the group. One of their songs states, “It is our world, nothing can divide us.” Under the pressure of conflict, people react, and art can be a positive space where people can come together, share, grow and become resilient.
During the time I was developing these thoughts, a Palestinian singer called Mohammad Assaf won the Arab Idol for the first time. He was from Gaza and had not taken any singing or music courses, yet he inspired Palestinians to unite in joy, pride and peace. It fascinated me how the voice of music became louder than the voice of war. In the same way I have seen how the music in Fiji brings joy and has kept peace alive, despite disruptive coups, natural disasters and economic downturns.
The Story Matters
All these experiences and events made me realize that peace making is a life style. In Fiji, we promote and demonstrate peace as organizers and participants – peace cooking, singing, dancing, painting, having tea, cheering for rugby, snorkeling and going on wild adventures and sharing. The more I think about it the more it makes sense, that in peace building we must seek reconciliation, build trust, create spaces for dialogue and enhance opportunities for learning. If we seek to capitalize on existing structures in a community, we can channel the existing platforms and spaces towards peace.
Peace making is not limited to statistics, policy statements, street marches, and well-constructed graphs. It is the story of the individual in a community that matters. As a peace scholar I should check the figures, but also understand the story, listen, relate and capitalize on positive approaches to a more just peace. My role is to support the resilience of the community.
Resilience and Peace
Resilience indeed is the secret to peace. It has been the most dominant aspect I have witnessed during my stay in Fiji; Resilience shows up in the community’s strong bonds, in the sparkling eyes of young people in Voices in Transitions group, and in the tears of the community leaders. Resilience is visible in the commitment of Janet, the shouting crowds against oppression in Egypt, the -made with love- cooking, the abundant Fijian smiles, and in the tender Gaza voice of Assaf, the traveling turtles in the Pacific, and in the beautiful colors and coconut trees covering the Fijian islands.
Learning is a lifetime occupation and I still have a long life of learning ahead. I haven’t answered all my own questions yet and maybe I never will. Now however, I don’t have to worry anymore about peace being a reality. I have acquired the internal personal faith and assurance that I will be the peace builder that I want to be.
As I don’t yet have a professional permanent job for myself, I recognize that peace building is much more than a job for me. It’s a life-long endeavor, a process, and there will always be peace to seek and work for me to do. I have many ideas for peace building projects that I want to share with others and to usher into reality.
I see peace as a verb and not as a noun. It is active and continual and requires continual action. Peace is not something that is achieved once and remains always in place. For now, I am happy and grateful to be a Rotary Peace Fellow and by living and learning constantly, I can endeavor to live up to Ghandi’s wise words; “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
I have indeed found during this summer in Fiji, that my life, work and dreams are in harmony. My hope is to keep the joy ever inside me while bringing it to others through peace building. I hope many will replicate my journey of happiness and become peace builders with their family, work, and at a community level, or even like me, go to exotic destinations. Mother Teresa said “Peace begins with a smile,” so I send you an invitation to smile with me while in our journey for true peace.