It is not uncommon for people to roll their eyes when I tell them I work in the field of peacebuilding. Given that my work focuses on the Middle East and South Asia, people often joke that I am terrible at my job.
I understand this reaction: It’s hard to look at the state of affairs in these regions and feel optimistic. Each day brings a fresh wave of injustice, violence, and political cowardice. And yet, I am hopeful.
For the past 14 years, I have been part of Seeds of Peace, an international organization that brings together young leaders from conflict regions to inspire and equip them with the relationships, understanding, and skills to advance peace. We were founded on the belief that peace is personal: Diplomatic processes must be paired with transformational interactions between people in order for peace on paper to translate into peace on the ground.
We began in 1993 as an experiment. What if exceptional teenagers from conflict regions had the chance to meet face to face on neutral ground, engage in open and honest dialogue, and deepen their understanding of each other’s perspectives on the issues that divide them?
What if they received continued support and leadership training when they returned home, so that their transformational experiences could continue and take root in the places where brave leadership is critical? What if they gained influence in their societies and could help bring about the political, social, and economic conditions needed for sustainable peace?
There is no silver bullet for ending conflict; meaningful change requires people working at all levels to disrupt the status quo. People-to-people peacebuilding is slow, hard, and messy, but ,more important, it is also necessary.
What personal transformation looks like
During my first Seeds of Peace program, an Israeli teenager in my cabin told me she didn’t think Palestinians “deserved” a state. She decided it was too hard to pronounce her Palestinian bunkmate’s name, and called her “girl,” and later, Kelly. She had never encountered Palestinians her own age; she believed they all wished her dead or gone.
Yet as the program progressed, she quickly developed relationships with her Palestinian peers, including a boy whose cousin had been wounded by an Israeli soldier several months earlier. His cousin died nearly a week into the program. When she heard the news, she came to me, crying hysterically. “You don’t understand,” she sobbed. “This isn’t ‘another Palestinian reported dead in the West Bank.’ This is my friend’s cousin. This is his family.”
She went on to work for an Israeli organization monitoring human rights in the Palestinian territories and completed graduate degrees in conflict transformation. She recently wrote to tell me that she and Kelly were having coffee in Jerusalem and overheard a young girl telling a friend that she was about to attend a program called Seeds of Peace. “I told her it was the most incredible summer of my life, and that I was there with my friend of 13 years,” she wrote.
Emerging as leaders
Case studies of conflict areas, including Northern Ireland and South Africa, have shown that progress toward peace does not typically result from one action or initiative; rather it is many activities on many levels that ultimately bring about change. In each case, strong leaders working across sectors have helped take incremental steps toward change even during the most difficult times. Our 5,061 graduates are positioned to play just that role.
After more than 20 years of planting “seeds,” our first generation of alumni, now in their mid-30s, are increasingly gaining influence and emerging as leaders of their societies and leveraging their positions to transform conflict.
In the Middle East, our graduates are leading local peacebuilding and educational nonprofits, starting regional renewable energy companies, and training youth in social entrepreneurship. They are advising on constitutional and legislative reform issues in Egypt, shaping the news in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and developing programs for the economic empowerment of youth and women in Jordan.
Our graduates in South Asia are working to improve the status of women at both the policy and grass-roots levels in Afghanistan, organizing youth camps to encourage critical thinking in Pakistan, and leading public campaigns to counter gender inequality in India.
Alumni in the United States are developing technological platforms to connect college students in the US and Muslim countries, running for office, leading initiatives to encourage empathy in children, and working for the rights of immigrants and refugees.
Seeds that sprouted
A team of our graduates in Pakistan and India has set out to change the way that people living in conflict learn history. During their Seeds of Peace dialogue encounters, they realized that they were being taught wildly different versions of the same shared historical events. This inspired them to create a textbook that, for the first time, juxtaposes their countries’ competing historical narratives. They have since led workshops for more than 600 Indian and Pakistani students, and their online curriculum has received more than 1 million views.
Young leaders like these directly link what they do in their personal and professional lives to their experiences with Seeds of Peace: engaging with the “Other,” recognizing their leadership potential, and gaining a commitment to peace at a young age. Now, as adults, they show us what is possible.
It is because of them that I remain hopeful.
Eva Armour is Seeds of Peace’s director of Global Programs. She joined the organization in 2000 as a counselor at its summer program in Maine for youth from conflict regions, and has since worked for the organization in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and New York.