Some months ago after being selected as one of 12 participants for Summer Peace-building Program, I started to research about the professors and lectures. A pleasant feeling of excitement and an expectation of something joyful and solemn has been aroused in my mind since then.
On Tuesday July 26th, after having breakfast, we walked to Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The air carried the scent of citrus flew over our noses, as we approached the small lemon tree standing at the sidewalk. Many ripped bright yellow lemons hung low from the branches. The wind blew in from the north carrying the last traces on a cold night. Being in New York city for a while, the weather here seems to be chilly for me. We passed by many front yards and gardens dressed up with thick green lawns and annual flower beds of colorful impatient. Alexia’s eyes were busy looking every objects at the front yards. Sometimes, our head tilted back and our eyes looked up to followed the sound of birds chirping overhead. All the faces bore the same expression of excitement and enthusiasm.
That walk was like a ritual ceremony before our very first talk to Fr. Cedric Prakash, who is a human rights activist and a Jesuit priest based in the city of Ahmedabad in western India. He is the director of Prashant, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace. He was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, one of the highest French civilian awards, acknowledging his commitment to the defence and the promotion of Human Rights in India.
Other than this, Fr. Prakash has also been awarded numerous other awards – the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award presented for Humanitarian Work by the Indian Muslim Council, USA in 2003, the Kabir Puraskar conferred on him by the President of India for his work in the promotion of Communal Harmony and Peace in 1995, and the Minorities Rights Award by the National Commission for Minorities of the Government of India in 2006. He was one of the recipients of Mother Teresa Awards for Social Justice in 2013.
Such activist is so inspiring! When I was much younger, I thought individuals like us were too small to address any conflicts. In fact, it only takes one voice to create change, brave and passionate individuals like Fr. Prakash makes me more believe in the power of ones. In the talk to us, he highlighted main challenges for peace building such as truth and facts, attitude, integration and inclusiveness.
One of the major challenges in peacebuilding is the truth and facts. There are bias in every levels in media these days. Media bias is the bias of journalists and news producers within the mass media in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. A clear example is CNN report on Syrian Christians on May 18, 2016. Monday morning on CNN’s Newsroom, international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen gave a report on a topic the media often ignores: Christians persecuted by Islamic radicals. Host Carol Costello introduced Pleitgen’s report on “Syria’s most famous Christian town” by describing how “Jihadist groups” were “vowing to oust Christians from Syria, burning down Christian [towns] and destroying priceless icons.” Pleitgen noted that “several townspeople are still missing” and all of the children he spoke to had fled their homes.
CNN ended their report by noting the “sad situation” of the “defiant” Christians “living in fear” in Ma’Loula. Pleitgen noted that what “really got” to him and the CNN crew was the fact that this was the last remaining place on earth that still speaks and keeps the language of Jesus, Aramaic, alive to this day. Pleitgen noted that was now at risk because of the Islamist militants.
In addition, Fr. Prakash stressed the challenge of attitude in peacebuilding. How do I see other people? The way we speak and act can create love or discrimination. Discrimination based on skin color, race, and ethnicity is an intense and polarized issue in today’s society. Based on stereotypes, people often make judgments based on skin color and race, buying into false ideas such as “all Asians are smart,” or “all African-Americans are dangerous.” This is especially poignant due to a multitude of recently publicized police brutality cases based on race. These cases, involving white police officers killing African-Americans for minor offenses, show the systemic discrimination and judgment that is present in our society based on race. By noticing these judgments, we can hope to move towards a future of racial equality.
Last but not least, Fr. Prakash talked about the challenge of integration and inclusiveness. Not long ago, US President candidate Donald Trump implored his supporters to lock their doors to keep safe from Syrian refugees coming into the US. Also, Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims. He is also employing what he terms ‘extreme vetting’ of those who want to come to the United States. Fe’s now more against allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. than ever, warning it could be a way for terrorists to sneak into the country. “We have no idea who these people are, we are the worst when it comes to paperwork. This could be one of the great Trojan horses.” Trump has been saying for weeks on the campaign trail that the U.S. should not accept refugees from the civil war torn country, and he says he’s only standing by that position stronger in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. I don’t see what else to call it but racism.
And yet, above are just some challenges for peace builders to overcome. At the operational level, awareness needs to be raised in all institutions (including through education and training and the systematic dissemination of policy guidelines). While major improvements are unlikely, it is essential that we should constantly question ourselves:” How can I as an individual act to diminish the challenges?”. We should all believe in the power of one…