For many adults, summer school is an opportunity to take a lighthearted dip into an unfamiliar subject, or perhaps learn a craft. But for those at Eastern Mennonite University's Summer Peacebuilding Institute, the focus is a bit more intense.
These students have one issue on their minds: violence. Many have experienced turmoil in the 50 countries they represent, from Fiji to Afghanistan, Israel to Kenya. All are engaged in community efforts to try to stem its influence. And most wonder if others, like them, harbor doubts or discouragement about their work.
Those common bonds are what spur this group of 177 individuals to spend a month amid the gentle splendor of the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Far from conflict-ridden regions, the tranquil setting allows many participants to better cope with feeling overwhelmed and to gain perspective.
"Often students arrive here believing theirs is the only conflict. Here they learn that there are many others," explains Jan Jenner, Director of EMU's Institute for Justice and Peacebuilding. "It's especially good for those who come from countries just beginning to experience conflict to talk with people who have survived decades of violence. For some, it's hard to believe there is such a thing as 'postconflict.' "
The mere fact that they can talk openly is a new experience for many participants. "Everyone in my country is traumatized," says Tahmina Mehrgan Yousofi, an aid worker with the Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU) in Kabul. "But no one talks about it because they feel it would be shameful."
Ms. Yousofi attended the institute with Hamidallan Natiq, who says that one benefit of the course for him was talking to Tahmina, since she is female. "I could not do that so easily in Kabul," he comments. Mr. Natiq says he was especially inspired by the courses that showed "how to create a culture of acceptance."
The Summer Peacebuilding Institute was created seven years ago as an outgrowth of the Mennonite Church's peacebuilding work in a number of hot spots, where they try to help communities find nonviolent alternatives to conflict.
In recent years, members of the Mennonite Central Committee realized that post-cold war complexities had created a need for well-trained people working at the community and grassroots level. To train these mid-level and community workers, EMU developed the Conflict Transformation Program, which offers master's degrees and sponsors the four-week institute.
"For example, just imagine that Arafat and Sharon signed a peace accord today," says Ms. Jenner. "That would be helpful, of course, but it would not stop the violence unless hundreds of groups and individuals were committed to making peace a day-to-day reality."
Jenner makes the point that conflict often serves a purpose. "I use the example of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery buses the issue wasn't just a matter of where Rosa sat on the bus, and it couldn't be settled until relationships in the entire society changed." Problems arise, Jenner adds, when conflicts become violent.
Side by side, but never talking
With a PhD in psychology, Zaheda Abu-Aisheh has worked for many years in conflict mediation in Nablus and other Palestinian villages. Yet before arriving at this summer's institute, she'd never once talked with an Israeli, aside from soldiers at checkpoints. During sessions and particularly during the many extra-curricular activities, Abu-Aisheh had an opportunity to hear their points of view and express her own.
"I also had little contact with Americans and had some wrong ideas about them," she says, "But here I've met some really nice people."
Florence Mpaayei, who is Kenyan, had a similar reaction. She understood the anger of many participants "at the way the United States is disrupting people's lives," but she felt heartened to meet so many individuals who "share a desire to enhance humanity."
Ms. Mpaayei was among a number of Africans who took a course on "Women and Peacebuilding" which explored the assets and disadvantages women bring to peacemaking.
A course on healing trauma was also a top draw. "The first thing I will do when I get back to Nairobi is create trauma-healing training for aid workers," says Mpaayei, who works with the Nairobi Peace Initiative. "A lot of attention has been given to filling the material needs of individuals but not enough to the psychological needs."
Instructors also hail from many countries. Sam Doe of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) taught a course on the rehabilitation of war-affected children. José Chencho Alas, director of the Foundation of Self-Sufficiency in Central America, taught ways to combine research with practical application.
One-third of students come from the United States. American Ryan Yoder signed up for the courses in between a Peace Corps stint in Bangladesh and a job working on a farm for the emotionally disturbed. "I wanted to find out more about why violence happens," says Mr. Yoder, "Sometimes, it seems like a clash is just regional but it has roots in economic inequities."
In one course, a circle of 20 students from 15 countries sit outside on the grass, learning how to establish "dialogue" between people of differing points of view. "Dialogue is a way of talking which honors everyone's experiences and wisdom," explains instructor Peter Noteboom.
Student Paulo Baleinakorodawa echoes that, and says what he learned at the institute has definitely affected his perspective on how he operates at home.
"I first started working in mediation between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians," he comments. "I thought I knew what to do, but after coming here, I realize I was trying to lead people to conclusions, rather than let them figure out what they needed to do."