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Image credit: Valentina Bianco Hormaechea. Volunteering with a youth-led organisation to work with the Wichí people, an indigenous community of South America.
This blog was written by Valentina, one of our 2020 Peace Direct Programmes interns. She shares the experiences that led her to peacebuilding, and why she believes that peace can be built when power shifts.
Wars in the Middle East have long caught my attention. I was 7 years old when the 9/11 attack happened. I still remember how the terrible snapshots of the event were reproduced over and over in the media, and how I felt deeply affected and left with so many questions.
How do you explain terrorism, militarization, and war to a 7-year-old who lives thousands of miles from the Middle East and the U.S? Racist stereotypes and prejudices against the Arab world and Muslim people emerged as an explanation for the attack. In my country – Argentina, this was particularly alarming. Here, ignorance towards Islam is commonplace. You rarely see Muslim people and wars are not common.
As time passed, my interest in the drivers of war and terrorism continued to grow. Determined to find an answer to the question “why does war exist?”- at the age of 16, I began participating in United Nations simulations organized by youth-led organizations. Here, I would learn and discuss these topics and find out about peace strategies. It was at that moment I realized I had a restless desire to pursue a career that would impact on the lives of others. That’s when I discovered my true vocation: to help those who pay the true cost of war and live in fear of bombs and violence.
Ten years on and life (and my privileges) has granted me opportunities to channel my passion. I studied International Relations and Political Science, before my Masters in Terrorism Studies. I also interned at the UN Operation and Crisis Centre, working on peacekeeping missions and the war in Syria.
My journey has been life changing. But, the most inspiring experience was the eight years I spent volunteering with youth-led organizations in my hometown of Salta and in other provinces of Argentina. I worked with the Wichí people, an indigenous community of South America. Their land, rights and way of life have been threatened for centuries. One thing I have learned is that nothing compares to connecting with communities. Seeing the “anonymous heroes” making change happen against all odds.
Before joining Peace Direct, I studied in the U.S and met many international students. I got to travel to a Youth Peace Summit in Asia, and became part of the Youth Compact Champion Program sponsored by the Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action. I highlight these experiences because in all of them I was able to meet peacebuilders from all over the world. I saw the incredible work that thousands of people are silently doing in every corner of the world. I have had the honor to learn about global conflicts from people with direct experience of the brutality of war.
This is an important message for my life and career. I can read and learn a lot about subjects like war or terrorism, but without lived experience I cannot understand the true complexity. I’m convinced that practitioners and scholars need to practice the same intellectual humility. Learn from local communities and ensure that people affected by conflict are at the centre of decision making and policy implementation for peace. We be conscious of speaking among ourselves in acronyms and complex language. This loses sight of the vocation of service to humanity.
When I was first introduced to Peace Direct, I remember reading that: “local people are central to the resolution of their own conflicts.” This resonated with me.
This approach to peacebuilding made so much sense to me. It aligned with my own concerns that local people are often marginalized by “experts” who think they know more than communities.
At Peace Direct, I learned why locally-led peacebuilding matters. I’ve gained appreciation for its importance to support local efforts rather than external strategies. I’ve seen first-hand how people with so many years of experience take a secondary role to prioritise local peacebuilders.
I’ve also seen colleagues working alongside partners with attitudes that I appreciate: listening more and speaking less, facilitating instead of pretending to know all the answers to problems they have never experienced. I also learned about the importance of speaking up, especially on issues that can be uncomfortable. Colonial and racist attitudes remain embedded in structures and power dynamics, and the peacebuilding sector is no exception.
Peace Direct has reinforced the idea that peace starts by shifting power. Sustainable peace is realised when people with power unlearn behaviors and practices that have contributed to structural inequalities. When these people and organizations decide to shift this power balance in favour of marginalized groups.
To practice what I preach, when my internship concludes I will be moving to the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece, to volunteer and connect with communities. I’m eager to see for myself what I have been studying for years through books and academic papers. I know this will be a painful process, but I am ready for my beliefs, certainties and “knowledge” to be challenged. I may end up finishing my field experience with more questions than answers, but that is totally fine. For me being a peacebuilder has always implied a permanent commitment to not being indifferent.
This commitment starts with a daily decision to cultivate curiosity and empathy – to get involved in what is going on beyond our own bubbles. My time at Peace Direct has taught me a valuable lesson that will stay with me as I continue my journey: peace starts when the stories that have been silenced are brought to the centre, and when people are able to use their own power and privilege for the service of someone else.
So, what are you doing to build peace?
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