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Gwendolyn S. Myers
Palestine // 2016 Winston Fellow
At a time when walls are being reinforced and deepened around the Gaza Strip—called by some “the world’s largest open-air prison”—Maha Mehanna is doing her best to build bridges of peace across them.
Maha, who completed four sessions at the 2016 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) on a Winston Fellowship, has spent most of her life in the small region wedged between Israel and Egypt along the Mediterranean coast. She has experienced severe electricity shortages, improper sewage treatment, polluted water supplies, a lack of good food and health care, and other limited resources.
Destruction from three major conflicts between Israel and Gaza over the past decade and ongoing smaller skirmishes have left many homes in rubble and people living in tents. The Egyptian border is also tense, with homes being destroyed for a buffer zone.
“We adapt, but it is no life,” said Maha, a Palestinian Muslim. “If you want to believe, go to Gaza and see.” She has carried that message around the world while also working for a better future for her people, giving voice to an often voiceless region. At one time she asked for her face not to be shown in interviews out of fear for her safety, but more recently she has been speaking with increasingly boldness.
“I eventually thought, ‘Why am I hiding myself?’ I am working for peace and for my country. Now I will speak to anyone. I don’t talk about who to blame for the violence. I talk about how to end it. That’s our main mission. I don’t believe there is a military solution the conflict. How many people must be killed to show that?”
Maha works as a senior Arabic-English translator and office coordinator for non-governmental organization Applied Information Management (AIM), but she is intensely involved in peacebuilding efforts. She is a peace activist with the grassroots volunteer network Other Voice, seeking solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict and a member of the MEPEACE network and of Friendship Across Borders, a joint peace initiative between Germans, Israelis and Palestinians.
She recalls a time when Israelis would come to Gaza to visit, enjoying the markets or the beach, when the borders were open. “Everything was fine,” she says. “Now this conflict is neverending. We need to make a change. We need to heal. All generations are traumatized. If you get the chance to leave Gaza, that’s the dream of anyone now. ”
Maha found some personal healing during her time at SPI, where she took courses on topics including organizational leadership for social transformation, training design and facilitation, foundations of restorative justice and practices for building resilience, alongside people from around the globe. She hopes to return to CJP to complete a master’s degree in conflict transformation.
“I like the community here, the diversity. I have made many good friendships in a short time,” Maha says. “I feel like it’s home, like family. Here, I feel free. For the first time, I have a sense of what freedom feels like. ”
Back in Gaza, Maha will volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee’s Jerusalem office and do more workshops in Gaza drawing on her recent training. She hopes she can help the arduous process toward peace to move forward, but she knows many challenges—and dangers—remain. “Nowhere is safe in Gaza, and there’s nowhere to hide,” she says. “When people ask, ‘Are you coming for SPI next year?’ I say, ‘Yes, if I’m alive.’ ”
Myanmar // 2016 Winston Fellow
Though only 24, Thiri Tin has already defied significant odds: she earned a degree in journalism and mass communications in 2011 from the University of Yangon, soon after press freedoms were established in the country. What’s more significant, though, is that Thiri has decided to use that degree to help build peace in her country.
Thiri—a Winston Fellowship recipient for SPI 2016—grew up in a country undergoing massive transition. All around her, Myanmar (formerly Burma) slowly emerged from years of isolation, violence and government oppression and moved toward greater freedom, democracy and global engagement.
“I would like to see my country become a legitimate country that can protect her citizens no matter who they are, regardless of religion, race or gender,” Thiri said in her application for the fellowship. “That is my greatest hope for my country.”
She initially went to work for one of Myanmar’s political parties as a communications assistant. Then in early 2013 she traveled to Rakhine State in far western Myanmar to assist with research for a government commission looking into ongoing ethnic and religious violence.
That experience ended up changing her course. The research team from the Rakhine project grew into a non-governmental organization called the Center for Diversity and National Harmony (CDNH). The center benefited from a $2.5 million grant from the United Nations Peace Building Fund and is supported by several other European-based groups. It seeks to promote tolerance and social harmony in Myanmar, which has about 135 recognized ethnic groups. Thiri stayed with the organization and found her call in its peacemaking work.
Myanmar and its fragile democracy still face many challenges. In Rakhine State, for example, tensions remain high between the Buddhist majority and a Muslim minority, and education and resources in the region are scarce. There and elsewhere, Thiri and other CDNH staff work at collecting data, building trust and a network of relationships, providing training and creating understanding.
Areas of emphasis for the organization have included building a proactive “early response” system, empowering and connecting women, providing capacity-building trainings, and listening to people’s stories—a very important part of peacebuilding, Thiri says. A newer emphasis is monitoring social media for hate speech and other inflammatory posts, such as the anti-Muslim Facebook posts that contributed to sparking violence in recent years.
When she returns to Myanmar, Thiri will begin a new project, required by her fellowship, which will focus on exploring uses of technology to proactively combat the negative messages, raise awareness and bring about positive change.
Thiri says her experience with SPI has left her better equipped for the long, challenging work ahead.
“When I am working in Myanmar, sometimes—not often—it can feel depressing,” she says. “But here I have met different people from different parts of the world working in peacebuilding, so I feel motivated. If I get depressed again, I can think about these people. They are very committed.”
Iraq // CJP Master's Degree Student
Ahmed Tarik was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. He attended English-language schools and had a comfortable life there. In 2006, when Ahmed had just finished ninth grade, his family fled to Syria. They had been threatened as part of a plan for ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims in their neighborhood. In Damascus, Ahmed’s family had the means to rent an apartment and send the children to school—but Ahmed felt his life had been shattered.
In high school, Ahmed participated in a photography project through the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees to document the lives of Iraqi refugees. He realized the desolation that most of the 4 million Iraqi refugees were facing. It opened his eyes to the relative privilege of his situation. “The pain of being victimized by the war—it wasn’t just me anymore. An entire population of people is suffering, and I’m connected to them. That experience changed the course of my life.”
Through the encouragement of his mother and the generous support of the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), Ahmed attended Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. He considered pre-med and engineering majors, but decided on majoring in peace studies. “There are plenty of doctors in Iraq, and creating a building that will just be bombed the next day is pointless.”
Ahmed acquired a solid theoretical grounding in Goucher’s peace studies program; he knew how to understand the problems but not what to do about them. “I needed skills,” he says. The directors of ISP suggested CJP, and he enrolled as a master’s student in the fall of 2014.
His biggest learning at CJP so far? “I am now able to have a conversation with someone with whom I have a fundamental disagreement, but see the complexities in the issues and understand the nuances. I no longer see issues in black and white.” As a master’s student, he has been on campus for the full academic year, but he found SPI to be a particularly meaningful time, since it brought together over 150 participants. “SPI is a container that is able to hold a space where people from all over the world come together, and ask the same questions and seek to achieve the same goals. It’s very exciting.”
Ahmed’s master’s coursework has focused on research and conflict assessment on the issues surrounding ISIS. Looking ahead to his required practicum next year, his ideal placement would be at the Quaker United Nations Office. This would combine his passion for human rights with the power of faith-based peacebuilding. His career goal is to work on human rights issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
Despite all he has been through, Ahmed brings energy and passion for life. In his free time, he organizes soccer games for the CJP community. “I love soccer. I’ve played soccer my entire life. It’s what got me through the war.”
Nepal // SPI Participant
Sujan Rai’s trip to SPI was delayed because of the two major earthquakes that hit her city, Kathmandu, in April 2015. She is grateful that her family did not suffer loss of life or property—but it was a difficult time to leave her husband, 6-year-old son and country.
After earning a master’s degree in sociology in India, Sujan began working for Nepal Transition to Peace (NTTP), a nonpartisan institute formed in 2005 to build Nepali capacity to engage in the national peace process. NTTP supports peace through careful study of conflicts in Nepal, inclusive and sustained dialogue, and non-partisan processes to forge consensus on political and social issues. NTTP also encourages inclusion and participation of lesser-heard voices by sponsoring small groups of indigenous, youth and women leaders.
Sujan started at NTTP as a program associate, providing logistical administrative support, but was encouraged and mentored by others in the organization to take on a more substantive role in NTTP’s activities.
Sujan hopes to be a dedicated and contributing member of NTTP, and feels her SPI experience has put her on the right path. After taking “Training Design and Facilitation,” she plans to re-work parts of her workshop for youth leaders on gender issues to emphasize a more learner-centered approach, include an examination of power dynamics, and “make it more fun!”
SPI is a beautiful community, Sujan says, because while the differences between people are apparent, they choose to respect those differences. “This is what peace looks like.”
The post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal will take a long time, just as the efforts to develop and pass a constitution since Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006 are taking time. She hopes that NTTP can help those in power see the need for political and social stability as reconstruction continues.
Gwendolyn S. Myers
Liberia // GC 2014, Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership Program (WPLP)
I am the founder and executive director of Messengers of Peace-Liberia Inc (MOP). We serve as one of the few youth-based and youth-led NGOs contributing to sustainable peace and mending Liberia’s broken social fabric following 14 years of civil conflict.
I currently work on several projects to advocate for peace, volunteerism and empowering young people. Ongoing projects include: peace clubs in schools and communities; “Ebola Educates,” a collection of short stories on the Ebola pandemic from children and youth directly and indirectly affected; mentoring and coaching for adolescent girls and boys in vulnerable communities; and promoting the implementation of recently adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution #2250 on Youth, Peace and Security. Since 2014, I have contributed to a weekly youth column called “Messengers of Peace - Dialogue Among Peace Messengers” in the Liberian Daily Observer Newspaper, one of the three most widely read national newspapers in Liberia.
Since graduating from CJP, I have been active on international platforms on peace and security issues. I serve as United Network of Young Peacebuilders Regional Advocacy Coordinator for West and Central Africa. I am also a member of the United Nations InterAgency Network on Youth Development’s Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality, and Coordinator for African Youth Peacebuilders Network on peace and security with the Pan African Youth Union at the African Union, as well as a fellow at the Center for Women, Faith and Leadership at the Institute for Global Engagement.
The knowledge and skills acquired through my learning journey with WPLP, particularly strong public speaking and engagement skills, continue to be of great help with my advocacy for sustainable peace and development. CJP equipped me with the right tools to advocate for peace. An inspiration and source of knowledge at CJP is Jan Jenner, former director of WPLP. She is a pillar of strength, a motivator and a giant on whose shoulders I’ve come to rely heavily upon. I recall her constant follow-up during the Ebola crisis. She is a shining example of what humanity should be.
My studies at CJP solidified my passion for youth empowerment. My greatest dream is to establish an Institute for Peace Dialogue in Liberia.
Belgium // MA 2013
I grew up in Brussels, Belgium, and came to the United States in 2011 to deepen my understanding and knowledge of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. I graduated from CJP in 2013 and was hired by the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ) to work as the Restorative Justice Coordinator in a public high school in south central Los Angeles. Since August 2013, I have been helping implement restorative justice (RJ) principles and practices at Augustus F. Hawkins High School at a whole school level.
A main aspect of our implementation focuses on building community on school campus. All of our teachers have been and continue to be trained to hold “community building circles” in their classrooms with the goal of building deeper relationships between students. My role is to support the teachers and build capacity in our school. Another key aspect of our implementation is to use RJ practices, mainly circle processes, to respond to harmful situations happening on campus, which may include bullying, fights, student-teacher conflict, interpersonal conflict, etc. My role in regard to that part of the program is to prepare and facilitate these restorative processes.
One of the main goals of implementing RJ in our school is to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, which is very real for many of our students and families. We are now in our fourth year of full implementation of RJ and the results are truly amazing. The number of incidents on campus has dropped significantly as well as the number of suspensions and expulsions. More importantly, the culture of our community is shifting towards a much more peaceful environment. Students are learning to resolve their conflicts nonviolently and understand the value of deeper and more meaningful connections.
When I think back to my time at CJP, only great memories come to mind. I cannot pinpoint one specific moment. One of the things that has stayed with me is the sense of community that we had at CJP, between students and with professors and with the broader community. I remember seriously breaking my wrist while playing soccer at EMU. I needed surgery. Right away, many people offered to help me financially, cook for me and help me get to places while I was recovering. I never felt so cared for before. This sense of true caring community is something that I am trying to reproduce anywhere I am. And then of course, the quality of the program and the education that I received helped me be a better person and continue to influence me in my work today. The two years I spent at CJP really transformed and changed my life for the better. I cannot be grateful enough for the education and the values that CJP gave me during these years.
Nigeria // MA 2001
Let me be forthright and share the fact that I came to CJP as one who was seeking personal healing, as well as the capacity to transform the violent religious situations in Nigeria. I grew up during the mid-1960s civil war in Nigeria. Most of my uncles were killed in this war. I grew up with fear of bombs and hate of the “enemy.” Nigeria witnessed yet increasing ethnoreligiously motivated violence between 1987 and 1997. Soon I started having an inner struggle and a strong belief that a loving God would not encourage such violence. I came from a very humble background and wondered how I could make any impact in situations we were experiencing.
In 1999, I went to CJP at EMU to pursue peace studies in order to realize my dream. CJP surprised me, for I was so much transformed and so much equipped that I began to look beyond Nigeria. My initial task upon returning to Nigeria was the selection of a few Christian and Muslim individuals to work with and mentor in order to build support for my vision for peace work. Today, many strong and powerful peace facilitators and catalysts in Nigeria and other African countries have been directly or indirectly mentored through these peace efforts.
Currently, my wife Monica, who also studied at EMU, and I are the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) representatives in Zimbabwe. In this role, we supervise the entire program of MCC. Our projects include Food Security and Sustainable Livelihoods, and Education and Health – HIV/AIDS, but the major component of our work is in peacebuilding and conflict transformation. We help partners in their peace program design, implementation, monitoring/evaluation and reporting. The goal is to strengthen peace education in schools and in communities for peaceful coexistence through creating conflict sensitivity and nonviolent culture. Though I came to CJP as a victim, I left CJP as one who acknowledges he has also been an indirect perpetrator, and that issues are not black and white. I also left CJP with high energy and high hope. The courses and the professors played significant roles in my transformation but I was particularly shaped by “Fundamentals of Peacebuilding” with John Paul Lederach, “Restorative Justice” with Howard Zehr, “Violence and Nonviolence” with Lisa Schirch and “Religion - Source of Conflict and Resource for Peace” with Marc Gopin.
I am who I am today because of CJP. I continue to be impacted by my experiences at CJP. While identity manipulation in our communities is widespread, more people are becoming aware that violence does destroy their lives and livelihoods. We must continue to sustain the momentum for peace.
Zimbabwe // SPI Participant
For Taziwa Machiwana, peace is not just the absence of violence, but a nationwide, structural condition in which young people can find jobs, pursue educational goals and enjoy basic human rights. It is a peace that has long been elusive for Zimbabwe, but one Taziwa hopes to facilitate through empowering young people to advocate for their rights in nonviolent ways.
In 2009, Taziwa became involved with Youth Dialogue Zimbabwe, which promotes tolerance among young people in Mutare City and Manicaland Province. The group brought together youth from different political ideologies using sports as a tool to promote tolerance and unity within local communities.
After participating in a leadership school with the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust (YETT), Taziwa became the program officer for YETT’s peacebuilding project. A national organization in Zimbabwe, YETT partners with over 33 youth civil society organizations, building the capacity of youth leaders from these organizations to advocate peacefully for their rights. Taziwa leads advocacy and conflict transformation workshops with the goal of empowering young people (ages 18-35) to speak out for their needs—jobs, education and access to services and resources such as clean drinking water.
Taziwa heard about SPI through its “worldwide reputation” as the place for peacebuilding. He attended three sessions, taking “Building Civil Society Movements,” “Practice: Skills for Peacebuilding,” and “Training Design and Facilitation.” He appreciated the connection between theory and practice in each course, and wants to integrate more peacebuilding analysis tools to improve YETT’s activities.
“SPI has been my first experience in which people coming from cultures or religions that are in friction are encouraged to suspend those beliefs while they are here—long enough to get to know each other and understand that the assumptions you had about someone from a certain country or religion are likely not true.”
Washington D.C. // MA 2000
I currently serve as the program director for the Peace Corps for Let Girls Learn, an initiative championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. With 7,000 volunteers in the field, the Peace Corps is uniquely placed to take the lead on the community-led solutions component of this program. Our volunteers live in communities, which are often rural and many times under-served by other programs and services. They work with local counterparts and community leaders to build capacity and mobilize local resources for sustainable solutions.
With Let Girls Learn, we are addressing the issue of why 62 million girls are not in school through myriad development interventions, such as building secure latrines and resource rooms where girls can safely study, to longer-term systems change like promoting gender equitable practices in the classroom with fellow teachers. We concentrate on building assets in girls but also in creating dialogue in communities and school systems in order to create enabling environments where girls—and boys—can thrive.
As program director, I’ve been stretched professionally to create a collaborative team of subject matter experts, lead an inclusive program design process, and now oversee the scaling-up of the program from the 13 initial country programs to 35 officially participating this year. I truly believe we can move the needle on this issue, that we can build skills as well as influence beliefs about the importance of girls’ education. We can affect meaningful change in people’s lives. I feel like I won the job lottery!
My time at CJP was incredibly important for many reasons. I had just come back from a challenging service assignment with Mennonite Central Committee in Eastern Congo, so the safe space created by the CJP community was a soothing place for me to come to reflect, heal and recharge. The faculty are amazing people whom I count as mentors and friends. I’ve had the opportunity to work with several in the years since my time at CJP and I am always touched and motivated by their passion for this work, their commitment to continuing to learn and grow as scholars and practitioners, and their wise approach to caring for themselves as professionals in this field.
Through the academic coursework, I became more proficient in the theories, concepts and practices of conflict transformation. This content knowledge positioned me well for subsequent peacebuilding and aid work in Angola as well as my doctoral studies. I value this time and the opportunity I had to study with leaders in the field of conflict transformation, restorative justice and trauma healing.
Perhaps even more important to me is the impact CJP has had on my own personal ethos and ethics of practice. The staff and faculty are committed to walking the talk in terms of respect, inclusion, and mutual care and accountability. Being reminded of these commitments and seeing them lived out faithfully has been an important touchstone in my own professional career. I consciously choose to embody these values to the degree I am able in my dealings with others. The values component of my time at CJP is perhaps my most precious learning.