Lourd Hanna, an Iraqi health sciences graduate, co-founded a youth-led organization that works to heal divisions among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities. Lourd, a member of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic minority, lives in Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. She is one of 25 young civil society leaders from a dozen nations facing violent conflict whom USIP gathered in 2017 for training and mentorship with the Nobel peace laureate and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. In recent years, USIP and the Dalai Lama have joined to strengthen such young leaders, recognizing the outsized role that youth can play in halting the world’s violent upheaval and warfare, which is concentrated in countries with relatively young populations.

Three months after her encounter with the Dalai Lama at his residence in India, Lourd describes her experience in the essay below.

A Letter from Erbil

As someone who works to bring peace to a land facing conflict and violence, I have been inspired by meeting this group of incredible colleagues and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. If I were to describe a basic lesson from this experience, it would be this:

“There are going to be frustrations in life. When a frustration appears, the question is not: ‘How do I escape it?’ The question is: ‘How can I use this as something positive?’”

When we gathered in India, I met 25 heroes fighting for justice, speaking for people in their own countries who cannot speak for themselves. As each person told His Holiness their stories, I could see the pain in their eyes. Their stories recounted atrocities, from mass murder and genocide to trafficking and raping women and children, to ethnic cleansing and the uprooting of people from their homes. At the heart of every story—indeed of every scene—was conflict.

We young participants carried these sorrows of our countries to His Holiness just as though he was that father who would gently pat our heads and give us the advice we need to survive, and try to end, this violence. As strange as it may sound, His Holiness answered our questions, from these many different violent conflicts, with the single word “compassion.” His message that we need to put compassion foremost made sense to me, because I come from Iraq, a country where people of many ethnic and religious groups often feel superior to those of other groups, and do not show compassion for them.

Journeys from Conflict

Some of us came to India from very distant places where war is still raging. Some people actually could not join the group because of the situations in their own countries. Others were able to make the trip, but the stresses from their homelands stalked them all the way to India.

My own journey—of 2,500 miles—was complicated by the conflicts raging in Iraq. As I prepared to travel, fighting was underway at Mosul, just 70 kilometers from my home. The Iraqi government has banned flights to the Kurdistan region, so I had to travel first to Baghdad. The conflict between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan region has caused a severe economic crisis in Kurdistan and military confrontations around the city of Kirkuk and elsewhere. So simply traveling to Baghdad and the airport meant crossing the front lines of what felt like a potential civil war. But these obstacles were not enough to prevent me from joining with other youth leaders from around the world to be inspired and instructed by a spiritual leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner!

Learning how to resolve conflicts with dialogue, instead of with violence, is my own way of fighting for the future of my country. Yet in Iraq, few people think or talk about “conflict resolution” or “peacebuilding.” This focus exists only in a few, small organizations. As a member of a very small minority that has suffered a lot in Iraq’s conflicts, the Chaldean Catholic community, I felt very aware of the need to build bridges among the different religious and ethnic groups, and I co-founded a local organization to do this work.

Refugees’ Struggle for Identity

Living in Erbil, I personally was aware of who the Dalai Lama was, and that he was a refugee. But I had never heard his spiritual message. Hearing the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion for everyone, and seeing his Tibetan community working in India to preserve their culture and identity, I was inspired, and I felt that their struggle was the same as my own. I noticed in Dharamsala how the Tibetan refugees honor their origins even with the names of the small shops in the streets—the “Tibet Café” or the “Hotel Lhasa.” In my own home city of Erbil, we have a lot of refugees from Syria and Iraqis displaced from their homes—and they have done the same. They name their shops, even their children, after the places that they call home.

Our meeting in Dharamsala showed me real evidence that the new generation does not have to simply continue the conflicts and the violence into which we were born. We do not have to take up guns to prolong these conflicts, but rather we can use compassion and dialogue to end the bloodshed. Indeed, by now people should have abandoned violence as a way to settle conflicts. It should already have become part of history, together with slavery and colonialism.

One of the points that His Holiness made, and that I will keep passing on to the coming generation, is that we all can be little Dalai Lamas, building peace in our countries. The journey of delivering the message of love and peace never ends, and it will take many of us, working like the Dalai Lama, to accomplish what our world needs.

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