Safe spaces, outsider perspectives, and communities of peace

Safe spaces, outsider perspectives, and communities of peace

An MPI round table conversation between promising peacebuilders

Written by: Patrick van Wersch

With the AC humming, the freshly brewed coffee at serving temperature, and the round table covered with turquoise cloth positioned at the center of the big rectangular meeting room, the stage is set for a Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) first. Four peacebuilders, all MPI Annual Peacebuilding Training first-timers, join MPI’s Marlies Roth and Patrick van Wersch for a conversation about why they made the trip to Davao in the southern Philippines, why they do the work they do, and how they benefit from engaging with other peacebuilders from around the globe.

Spirit to create harmony

Jean Abigail “Abi” Victoria Jean Abigail “Abi” Victoria is the self-admitted newbie at the table. She doesn’t directly work in the peace field but within the academic confines of Ateneo de Manila university. But she does have a passion for peace advocacy, and she hopes the MPI training will help her to concentrate on this new path she has taken. Abi’s passion stems from observing the peace process in the Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao, the Philippine’s second biggest island. “At school we had activities related to peace in Mindanao for the Bangsamoro peoples, and we supported them in spirit. But the issue of peace is foreign to the everyday experience of most of us in Manila.” Abi mentors students in reflecting on their roles and responsibilities in society. Using ‘social formation programs,’ she connects them to partner organizations from marginalized sectors, including women, farmers, and Indigenous Peoples.

Iwan Widiyanto He has already firmly found his calling and came to Davao to learn how to better support his village. Iwan Widiyanto is a Mennonite pastor and community leader from Semarang in Central-Java, Indonesia. Over the years he has helped the small Srumbung Gunung hamlet that he calls home to develop into a close-knit community that celebrates diversity and tolerance. Iwan’s family is multi-religious and he uses that personal experience to inspire youngsters to invite difference and welcome strangers. “I believe in peacebuilding that promotes diversity based on art, culture, and shared traditions. Youth have the spirit to create that kind of harmony. If we accept this vision as a nation, we will be less vulnerable to radicalism.”

Empowering and encouraging

Hani MenzaljyIt’s the same kind of extremism, of fear turned reality that four years ago forced Hani Menzaljy to flee from his hometown of Latakia in Syria to Halle in Germany. He’s become a leader in the Syrian diaspora network in Europe and works tirelessly to promote dialogue among Syrians in Europe, their host communities, and those that remained in the country of his birth. What Hani came looking for most at MPI was experiences of other peacebuilders in dealing with war and conflict. “We were not prepared for war, let alone its aftermath. Now we need perspectives of others on how to emerge from this.” Hani also thinks that Syrian minority groups can learn a lot from their host communities of whom many have conflict backgrounds.

Moe SasakiMoe Sasaki feels inspired by Hani’s words as in her experience minorities often turn to negativity. She identifies as a minority herself, although in her case her passport suggests otherwise. Born to Japanese parents but raised in seven different countries, most of which in Africa, she finds it hard to adjust to life in a Japanese society that’s rooted in monoculture. Inspired by experiences from her youth, and worried about the lack of knowledge of peacebuilding in Japan, Moe has made it her mission to educate about the need to work for peace. She finds it empowering and encouraging being in Davao among people she can share her dreams and concerns with. Moe especially worries about plans to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution. “If we have an army again, I fear that future generations will be forced into military service.” Tearing up she adds: “I don’t want my kids to learn how to kill someone.”

In each other’s shoes

The group is astonished to hear Moe’s depiction of Japan, and everyone agrees that not only known conflict areas face issues of conflict. “In Syria, we use the term ‘Planet of Japan’,” Hani says with a smile. “We see it as a peaceful and prosperous place. But as we have seen in my country, things can change quickly.” The consensus at the table is that sometimes stable societies, when you look beneath the surface, are more fragile than they appear. Therefore, the need to work on peace is a constant.

“If we have an army again, I fear that future generations will be forced into military service. I don’t want my kids to learn how to kill someone.” — Moe

But how much do the four young peacebuilders know about each other’s countries? Abi admits that most of what she knows about the war in Syria she got from a Syrian vlogger who is very popular in the Philippines — the ‘Hungry Syrian Wanderer.’ As Hani makes a quick note of the vlogger’s name, Abi explains that most young Filipinos don’t keep up with foreign news. Also, they have overwhelmingly embraced YouTube and Facebook as their main news sources. This prompts pastor Iwan to warn against the distorting effects social media can have on reality. He uses Mindanao as an example. “Before I came to Davao all I could read online was that it’s a place of conflict. Now that I’m here, I can see that’s just one part of the story.” To which Moe adds: “That’s why we need to take time to listen before jumping to conclusions. Storytelling but also story listening are important tools for building peace.”

From the outside

Listening, however, can be difficult when you’re not at the center of the conflict as Hani, Moe, and Abi have found out. The Ateneo alumna grew up with negative stories about the conflicts in Mindanao. “The frame was always that it’s their problem, not a national problem. But it does concern all of us.” Abi’s grateful to work with students from all over the country and to hear their stories. She’s confident that the more they have an opportunity to talk the less likely they will be to go back to the ideas of the older generation.

Hani also sees advantages to being on the outside. The Syrian peacebuilder considered himself an open minded person, but living in Germany changed that. “I really only had one perspective. Now I’ve learned that there are many ways to look at something, even something as big as war.” In the meetings and workshops that Hani organizes for the Syrian diaspora he also notices that members feel more comfortable to speak freely compared to before. “Living in Europe we are at least free to talk about freedom,” he says. “Here we can have discussions, overcome differences, and find common ground.” It’s these experiences that Hani hopes can eventually also become part of Syrian society.

Moe’s ‘outsider syndrome’ is markedly different from Hani’s. Growing up abroad, she spent her formative years in Rwanda where she was born just two years before the 1994 genocide. Her parents still live there now, and her dad works on reconciliation and teaches peace studies. She often thinks about joining them but being Japanese is what keeps her away. Moe thinks it’s more effective if her young and talented Rwandese friends lead the peacebuilding efforts. “I don’t want to take away their power,” she says.

Safe spaces

Locals working on local solutions; Iwan couldn’t agree more. Together with his community’s inter-religious youth association the pastor is planning to set up a creative peace village. Visitors will stay two to three days and be encouraged to share experiences—praying, eating, and dancing together—in a harmonious setting. Iwan speaks proudly about the peace village which will serve as a reminder that “difference is a necessity before God”—a potent message in a country that has been grappling with extremism and violations of religious liberty. Promoting Indonesia’s diversity through engaging youth is the pastor’s answer to these challenges.

I really only had one perspective. Now I’ve learned that there are many ways to look at something, even something as big as war.” — Hani

Abi relates to Iwan’s story. Her youngsters, the students, are also open to discussion and into social justice. But they too need a safe place to gather—their own ‘hamlet’—and she finds that the university provides just that. Abi’s statement about ‘safe places’ triggers Hani to share a personal story. The first three years of the war in Syria Hani worked in a relief center in his hometown. Some days more than a thousand families would come in. “The women, whose husbands were fighting each other in the mountains, started having discussions,” Hani explains. “In that relief center, for the first time since the start of the war, these women found a safe environment—however tragic the circumstances—to talk.”

Show your truth

In Japan, Moe also seeks to create safe spaces through organizing workshops, peacebuilding trainings and study trips for professionals and students. Not an easy task in a society whose key behavioral creeds include Gaman (enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity), not disturbing the Wa (peaceful harmony), and Kuuki wo Yomu (reading the air). “People in Japan are educated to internalize inner conflicts,” Moe explains. “Especially young people don’t have the courage to ask questions and they seldom rely on their intuition.” She points out that each year in May, after a two-week holiday break, there’s a spike in suicide rates. For Moe, in a country where people rather kill themselves than disturb the peace, the need for safe spaces is abundantly clear.

All are shocked by the bleak picture Moe paints. To Abi her story signals just how important it is to show your truth. “In Filipino culture it’s customary to be hospitable but at the same time we censor what we say. If we were to show each other our true selves, we would all be better for it.” That’s why Abi relishes the environment provided by the MPI training, full of small pockets of conversation and truth telling. “I’ve gained friends,” she says, “and above all, people I can trust.”


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