The U.S. Institute of Peace and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have joined to strengthen the abilities of youth leaders working to build peace in the world’s most violent regions. USIP and the Dalai Lama hosted a dialogue in May 2016 with 28 such peacebuilders drawn from networks of the Institute and its partners in 13 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Many of these countries face the world’s deadliest wars, as well as campaigns by extremist groups to incite youth to violence. These leaders are among their countries’ most effective peacebuilders. The dialogue with the Dalai Lama helped them to build practical skills and personal resilience they need to work against the tensions or violence in their homelands.
The world’s most violent conflicts are being fought within its most youthful populations. In the five countries that suffered nearly 80 percent of recent deaths from violent extremism (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria), half of all people are younger than 22. It is the youth of such countries that ISIS, al-Shabab and other extremist groups recruit for violence via the internet, social media and religious messengers. Breaking this pattern requires leadership from within the younger generations being targeted—a principle increasingly recognized by the international community, including the United Nations Security Council in 2015. These youth peacebuilders often face powerful forces driving conflicts in their countries toward violence, and they even may face threats of suppression or violence.
Few world leaders can understand these youth peacebuilders’ experience as fully as His Holiness, who at age 15 was thrust into the leadership of his people as they faced the traumas of war. Like some of the participants, he fled his country as a refugee and has lived for years in exile.
In Dharamsala, the youth leaders shared their experiences and ideas on improving their communities’ abilities to manage conflict nonviolently, notably by drawing on human values of compassion and their communities’ own resources. They held dialogues with the Dalai Lama on ways to build inner strength for their work. They also conducted exchanges with local youth and discussions on the roles of spiritual values in peacebuilding, of prejudice and extremism in conflict, and of effective interfaith engagement.
The dialogue in Dharamsala—Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called it “a singular event”—will expand the effectiveness of the participants as they work to transform conflicts at home into peaceful change. It will provide a platform for greater international advocacy of youth priorities in peace and security. It will expand the global impact of youth peace leaders and of USIP’s Generation Change network, from which some of the participants are drawn.
The Youth Peace Leaders
Participants in this program, in their 20s and early 30s, are peacebuilders from 13 countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iraq, Kenya, Morocco, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda. Many have faced war or been uprooted by it. Some have lost friends or family to bloodshed; others have lived in exile as refugees. Out of a commitment to ending or averting violence in their countries, these leaders have founded or guided projects that build bridges across social divides—whether between tribes, religious groups or genders. Their work includes mediating in conflicts and training others to do so; helping refugee communities; and documenting human rights violations and war crimes. These peacebuilders may face security risks in their home countries, so in the sample profiles below, they are identified only by their first names.
Harry (from Myanmar)
Harry is a trainer and community activist working on conflict resolution, civic engagement, inter-religious peace, and legal reform from Myanmar (also known as Burma). He is executive director of The Seagull, an organization based in Mandalay that promotes human rights. As communal tensions have grown in Myanmar, erupting into violent conflict in 2012, Harry has worked in creative ways to bridge community divides and promote inter-religious understanding. He has received death threats and harassment from extremists, but says those threats have served to strengthen his resolve. In addition to his work at the community level, Harry works with the U.S.-based organization Freedom House to advocate policies that promote inclusive development and human rights.
“Most of the communities heal through having a lot of dialogue and making people feel that their pain and loss are recognized and heard by other people in the communities,” Harry has said. “I have worked with some of the victims of violent religious conflict in Burma, and learned that their trauma can be healed through a long process of listening to their stories, recognition of people lost, and through a longer-time dialogue with members of the perpetrator communities.”
Khadija (from Somalia)
Khadija participated in the U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington Fellowship in 2015, focusing her work on the healing of trauma and on social reconciliation after the decades-long civil war in Somalia. Concerned about the lack of preserved history or storytelling in her community, Khadija is determined to change the world's perspective on Somalia. Khadija is the founder of Mogadishu City Volunteers, which provides leadership training to young people and aims to make Mogadishu a better and safer place through volunteering.
“I'm that young girl whose struggle for survival started from that fateful day when all the residents were running away from their homes,” Khadija has said. “The only memories I have from my past are of the destructive, violent conflict, displacements, bloodshed and the cries of my people for peace; thus, I dedicated my life to peace building. … I guess this is something that has been in my blood as both my father and grandfather are traditional peacebuilders. I have always wanted to be a beacon of hope for the people of Somalia—a country that suffered from turmoil and lawlessness for decades, where everybody bears psychological scars from the atrocities of civil war and healing and reconciliation are absolutely necessary in order to move forward.”