Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Arriving from across the globe this week, the 20th class of Rotary Peace Fellows at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University has hit the ground running. Like Rotary, we are a mixture of people from all over the world committed to advancing world understanding and peace. We are a diverse group of 21 individuals from 18 different countries, working in a range of fields but all with similar goals.
When we arrived in Thailand, we immediately stepped into a family. Many of us were met by Rotary Host Counselors or other Rotarians when we arrived at the airport to help introduce us to Bangkok. Our first week here has already been filled with exploring the city, dinners and an orientation with our host counselors. Past Rotary International President Bhichai Rattakul spoke to us during the Rotary orientation this weekend, and welcomed us to the Rotary family. Even before the formal orientation, we already felt at home in our temporary home of Bangkok among the support of Rotarians and the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University.
There is an energy and an enthusiasm that is undeniable among the Fellows. Each fellow gave a conflict presentation during our first week in Thailand to introduce the topic that they will reflect on and analyze during our three months in the program. The presentations included a range of topics including land conflict in East Timor and Kenya, sexual violence in India, race relations in the United States and discriminated minorities in Yemen, among many other topics. Each of the Fellows presented something that showed their passion for their work and also their passion for working with their communities to improve the lives of their fellow human beings. The presentations sparked conversations among Fellows that continued outside the classroom on girls’ education in Afghanistan, how to support youth and the complexities of the cyclical violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. The Fellows take every opportunity to ask questions, share, engage, learn and brainstorm with each other.
I myself am thrilled to be among such a passionate group of individuals who are working hard to promote peace in a range of different ways around the world. I think I will be learning as much outside of the classroom as I will inside the classroom. As someone with no formal peace training who has been working in conflict-affected settings for the past 5+ years, and working on conflict-related issues for longer than that, I am excited to dedicate the next three months to learning about peace and conflict resolution both in the classroom and from the experiences of my fellow Fellows.
I live and work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which I have called home for almost five years. It is often called the “Heart of Darkness” and the “Rape Capital of the World.” These are absolutely horrendous nicknames for such an incredibly beautiful place. With a bloody history as well as recently over 20 years of war that resulted in the death of over five million people and the rape of countless women, I understand where these nicknames come from. However, these are nicknames that miss the bigger picture and that do not do justice to the country. One might call these nicknames the “simple story” of the DRC. I was living in Goma when the M23 rebel group took over the city, and the destruction that armed conflict has caused in Eastern DRC cannot be ignored. However, that is not what I usually see when I look at the country.
What do I see? I see people living their everyday lives and doing everyday things, sometimes making an incredible effort to do so. I see children doing everything they can to go to school. I see street dancers, exploring transformative peace through art and dance, performing all across the city. I see women carrying the produce of their fields to the market. I see entrepreneurs who open businesses and create jobs. I see musicians and singers who promote peace and justice through their music. I see the yearly peace festival which is organized in Goma each year that draws a crowd of thousands. I see young people organizing in their home towns to improve their communities. And I see Rotarians, who are also active in bettering their communities.
I also see smoke coming from Mount Nyiragongo volcano which lies just beyond the edge of the city of Goma. I see the quiet blue stillness of Lake Kivu with fishing boats returning home at dusk. I see the Rwenzori mountains capped with snow. I see birds flitting around the flowers and lemon trees in the garden. I see baby gorillas playing and tumbling over each other in the jungle.
As part of his speech at our Rotary orientation, Past Rotary International President Bhichai Rattakul quoted the song “What a Wonderful World.” And it is true, it really is a wonderful world. That does not mean that horrible things do not happen or that life is easy. After all, we are here to study peace and conflict resolution. But despite all the terrible things that happen in the world, the world is also wonderful. And the 21 Rotary Peace Fellows who just arrived in Bangkok are some of those in this world who focus on the positive while trying to make the world a better place. I am encouraged and further motivated by the Fellows around me and I look forward to seeing what these next three months will bring!
Shannon O’Rourke, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2016 Session