Difference Maker

People making a difference: Jeremy Gilley

This actor and filmmaker envisions that world peace begins with just one day of peace.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Jeremy Gilley, founder of the nonprofit Peace One Day, talks with students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass. He works to have every Sept. 21 acknowledged as a day of worldwide cease-fire.
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Jeremy Gilley doesn't have time for skeptics. He prefers the company of hopeful humanitarians, sincere celebrities, and most of all, children, who recharge him with their enthusiasm for his quest.

That quest is both profound and modest: to have the whole world observe – even if just once a year – a day of peace, a day when the violence stops and bridges of trust are built so that, eventually, lasting peace can be reached.

"Why peace for only one day?" That's the inevitable question Mr. Gilley encounters as he travels to schools promoting "Peace Day" and a related online curriculum. This time it's from a ninth-grader at Boston's MATCH Charter Public School.

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"You have to start somewhere," he tells the assembly of more than 90 freshmen. "If we can get one day right, then we can get two. The wonderful thing about getting one right is that the next day it doesn't all crumble.... If you say 'sorry' to somebody on that day, then that 'sorry' lasts forever."

Fed up with a constant stream of violence around the world and in the media, Gilley, a British actor-turned-filmmaker, decided to use his camera to try to make history, as well as record it. His idea was to ask heads of state around the world to agree to a date on the calendar to mark a "peace day" with cease-fires and humanitarian acts.

Along the way, Gilley recorded his efforts, figuring lessons would emerge from either success or failure. "I thought it was going to take a year to film; now it's 10 years on," he says with a chuckle.

He finished the film, "The Day After Peace," in 2008, and along the way his London-based nonprofit group Peace One Day veered close to bankruptcy more times than he'd care to recall. But reaching milestones kept him going.

In 2001, for instance, the United Nations adopted Gilley's resolution to designate Sept. 21 as an "International Day of Peace." For 20 years, the UN had recognized such a day symbolically when opening its fall session. But now the day would be on a fixed date, accompanied by a call for a global cease-fire.

"There was a bit of skepticism about the man because he was young, ambitious, idealistic," says Ahmad Fawzi, UN director of news and media. "But those are the characteristics you need for success.... His passion was contagious."

The day set to announce the new UN resolution was Sept. 11, 2001. The group that gathered in New York to celebrate that day instead had to evacuate amid the chaos of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

But that just made Gilley even more determined to ensure the day would be honored with action, not just lip service. As corporate sponsors signed on over the years and word of Peace Day spread, millions of people in more than 100 countries began marking it with everything from school and church celebrations to handing over weapons and sharing food.

But without any actual cease-fires, the day was still not living up to its promise.

Finally, in 2007, proof of what was possible came in the most unlikely of places – a remote part of Afghanistan. UNICEF and the World Health Organization agreed to help Gilley's group reach out to people on all sides of the fighting there to set up a cease-fire Sept. 21 so that aid workers could vaccinate children.

Gilley and actor Jude Law, one of several well-known celebrities who have become avid supporters of the cause, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2007 to garner support for the idea. Back in London, shortly before Sept. 21, Gilley received a copy of a letter from Taliban leaders agreeing to allow safe passage to the vaccination team. About 1.4 million children received polio vaccinations as a result.

In Boston, the students welcome Gilley as they might a rock star, whooping and waving peace signs with their fingers. But their questions for him are probing. One asks whether a specific experience motivated him.

The wiry, fast-talking Gilley tells of being "horribly shocked" by the conditions at a refugee camp in Somalia. The emotions are still fresh as he recalls picking up a baby who was barely alive: "It just absolutely totally blew my mind that this little tiny thing was suffering in this way.... That is why every single day I do my best to make a difference and keep on going."

Despite the suffering he's seen as he's visited more than 50 countries, Gilley tells the students he still has hope. "I've seen the most beautiful human beings ... be courageous beyond courageous.... I do believe that humanity can change things.... I don't believe that we're fundamentally evil, and I don't believe that the destruction of the world is inevitable.... You and I, us together, we can make a massive impact."

Students crowd around him after the talk, wanting to get involved. He urges them to promote Peace Day and to post poetry, videos, or art on the website, www.peaceoneday.org.

Gilley's film "was beautiful because it shows ... how he really wants to change our world," says student Kayla Williams. It inspired her to start writing poetry again, she says. She already has one poem she wants to post.

"I'm now learning more about the world and the genocides going on," she says. "I'm learning how it's not just me in the world and my community, but everybody else has problems, and I can really help."

Gilley says he encounters that kind of ebullient, creative response every time he visits a school. "As artists, the greatest thing we can accomplish is that somebody feels empowered or inspired by our work," he says.

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