Summer institute at EMU trains peacebuilders

Program Draws Activists From Around The World To Valley

By Jeremy Hunt, Daily News-Record

Folks representing cultures from all over the world dance Monday at an event marking the end of the first of four sessions of a peacebuilding program at Eastern Mennonite University. Photo by Jeremy Hunt

Fiji is a beautiful country with picturesque beaches and stunning landscape.

But the Pacific Island nation struggles with inner turmoil and unrest.

A 2006 coup ousted the ethnic Fijian-dominated government and replaced it with a military government. It’s come under international criticism recently, with neighboring countries saying the government rejects democracy, freedom and human rights.

Koila Costello-Olsson finds herself in the middle of all this. In fact, it’s her job.

"A lot of it is old and deep-rooted and it’s transferred over the years," she said.

Costello-Olsson is the director of Pacific Peacebuilding, a nongovernmental agency in Fiji that aims to facilitate dialogue among opposing groups and train conflict resolution.

The most recent coup was one of several that have contributed to Fiji’s instability.

Among the issues that cause conflict are poorly managed resources and discriminatory policies, Costello-Olsson said.

To assist in her work, she studied at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute in Harrisonburg. She graduated the program with a master’s in 2005.

This year, she is teaching a course in the program, which is run through EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

"For me, this is my support group," she said. "They have supported myself and my community tremendously."

The summer institute consists of four sessions that run over six weeks. The first session ended Monday, and the institute celebrated with food, music, dancing and a "cultural fashion show."

The summer institute brings together more than 200 participants from throughout the United States and more than 30 nations, including Bolivia, Afghanistan, Israel, China and Kenya, said Sue Williams, the institute’s director. Read more about these peacebuilders from 35 nations gathered to study healing and peace.

Some of the participants are earning course credit, Williams said, but more than half work for nongovernmental agencies for peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

The participants share ideas and discuss programs that have been successful in their countries, Williams said.

"The main focus of this institute is people who do this work," she said. "In my experience … nothing is directly exportable, but the ideas can be adapted."