“Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.”
I am writing from Trincomalee, on the Eastern Shore of Sri Lanka, watching gentle waves roll in from the Bay of Bengal and enjoying the warm breezes. It is hard to imagine how devastated this coast was by the 2004 tsunami, not to mention the relentless lashing of 27 years of civil war. While the country is now at peace, the 80 Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian religious leaders we have worked with for the last 20 months remind me that it will take many more years to heal the psychological and emotional scars of the war and to create a truly just and democratic society.
Nevertheless, at our closing symposium they expressed surprise and pride at the remarkable progress they have made since we began working together in September 2011. They recalled how nervous they were to meet each other in the beginning, afraid of each other’s accusations, of blame for the horrors of the war. They felt stymied by the Tamil/Sinhala language barrier, uncertain of each other’s religious customs, of what would offend. “Now we are friends, almost like family,” reported one Buddhist monk. “It is time to heal the divisions that have caused so much suffering in this country.“ “And we have learned to not allow our religion to box us in,” shared a Hindu priest. “Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.” Given that the war ended with a military victory and that ethnic and religious tensions remain high, the trusting relationships these religious leaders have forged is no small accomplishment.
Future planning of district councils
The religious leaders also spoke proudly of the over 50 community projects they have implemented in inter-faith teams in their three districts, projects ranging from women’s vocational training, to Tamil, Sinhala, and English language classes to break through the language barrier, to inter-ethnic youth camps, to community work days to jointly repair their places of worship. And during several days of impact interviews with the beneficiaries of these projects, I heard first hand what a difference these projects have made. Villagers from different ethnic and religious communities tell me that after years of mutual suspicion, they are now attending each other’s religious and cultural festivals and even weddings. If they witness trouble brewing, especially among youths, they speak with each other or with the religious leaders to diffuse the problem.
The program has been further strengthened by peacebuilding trainings for 80 young religious leaders who have joined their elders to form district inter-faith councils. These councils are in the process of registering as independent organizations to carry this work into the future.
Not only have the religious leaders reached down into the grassroots, but they have also raised their voices on the national stage. On March 2 our Sri Lankan partner for this project, Sarvodaya
organized a national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding at the main convention center in the capital city of Colombo. Over 700 religious leaders from around the country were in attendance. Our group from the Eastern Province shared their joint resolutions for equal rights and for interfaith and interethnic tolerance. The event was headline news on one of Sri Lanka’s major TV news programs. While this program is coming to a close, we will collaborate with Sarvodaya, to find ways to continue to support the district interfaith councils as they carry their work into the future.
-Olivia Dreier, Karuna Director
Pictures from Sarvodaya's March 2nd's national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding:
“Working with, not for, the Holyoke community” was the takeaway theme from the stakeholder’s meeting held on Saturday, February 23rd for students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other community representatives interested in helping guide and oversee the opening of the new Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (PFSJCS), scheduled to begin its first year in Holyoke, Massachusetts this fall.
The PFSJCS aims to create an educational environment that fosters success in all students and models constructive approaches to conflict. Many high school students in Holyoke are facing real-life challenges such as poverty, teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, and violent conflict outside of school. When student behavioral challenges escalate, typical school responses often include detentions, suspensions, and expulsions. These methods of handling conflict increase student absence from school and make school, for many, a place that harbors feelings of resentment, vulnerability, and defensiveness. In fact, the city of Holyoke has a school dropout rate of 49%, which is even higher among Latina/o youth who also face racial discrimination. The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding has been invited to lend its extensive experience in conflict transformation to help the PFSJCS create a more supportive and proactive community of learning. We anticipate that a school climate in which conflicts are resolved more constructively will help facilitate trusting relationships, which are the bedrock of healthy communities.
February 23rd’s stakeholder meeting served as an important first step in directly involving students, staff, teachers, administrators, and other community members in this project. The day was designed and run jointly by Karuna and PFSJCS staff and began with Ljuba Marsh, principal of the PFSJCS, giving an opening introduction to the 20+ people in attendance. Ljuba emphasized the importance of revitalizing Holyoke students’ joy and excitement for learning, building a peaceful and safe school environment that can get students to their highest level of achievement, and promoting a sense of community-wide agency that empowers not just students but also teachers, and administrators, and local residents to be positive and productive school members.
Following the introduction came a series of large and small-group activities intended to help participants examine the idea of conflict both as it relates to Holyoke schools and how it can be re-imagined as an opportunity for positive change and transformation. One particularly effective activity was a gallery walk in which attendees circled the room, reflecting on various inspirational quotes and images from previous Karuna trainings and workshops. The responses were quite powerful—they ranged from simple phrases like “children learn what they live” and “let’s rebuild Holyoke, the kids need us” to quite profound statements like “let’s nourish who we are together by seeing who we are alone” and “empowering people to embrace peace and social justice as they emerge into themselves is better than restoratively healing after conflict has occurred.” Another effective activity was led by Ken Williams, an associate professor for Intercultural Service, Leadership and Management at the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont (USA) with extensive experience in innercity education in the U.S. and Caribbean. Following small group discussions in which participants spoke about the various obstacles that have prevented Holyoke children from getting a good education and the various role stakeholders can play in creating the kind of education that would most benefit Holyoke students, Ken led what is called a “harvesting session.” In this harvesting session he condensed and divided what was said in the small groups into main themes and categories, helping participants envision a more concrete action plan for achieving the PFSJCS's short and long-term goals.
Beginning of small group discussions
A strong feeling of energy and eagerness permeated the day. Every participant was highly engaged and genuinely committed to each other and the PFSJCS. Emotions ran high as those in attendance spoke passionately about the many wrongs they feel have been done to the children of Holyoke via the current school system and their fierce desire to see these wrongs be corrected. A feeling of familial warmth also permeated the day: participants quickly and easily bonded as they affirmed each other’s shared longing for change and said goodbye via hugs and group embraces. Participants left the meeting feeling inspired to work further with PFSJCS and Karuna staff on guiding and overseeing the opening of the new charter school.
The next step in our development plan is a needs and envisioning stage. Focus groups, questionnaires, and surveys will be used to collect data relating to the goals and needs of local residents in order to shape the PFSJCS in such a way as to best serve the interests of the Holyoke community.
--Kelly Donovan, Intern
The training of 50 religious leaders in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire ended last week on a satisfactory note. At the closing ceremony, the Vice President of the Association of Baptist and Evangelical Churches of Cote d’Ivoire spoke on behalf of participants and expressed “gratitude and appreciation” to Joachim Diene and Joseph Sebarenzi for the quality of the training. He also thanked the organizers [Karuna and AECOM], for “their interest in the current situation of Cote d’Ivoire and for their assistance toward a Cote d’Ivoire that is united, reconciled, and peaceful in justice and love of one another.”
Joachim and I enjoyed working with priests, pastors, and other church leaders. Each day began and ended with a prayer. On several occasions, participants came to me and Joachim to say how insightful and practical the training was in terms of developing peacebuilding skills for both an interpersonal and national level. One participant told me, “You should also train decision-makers,” referring to political leaders, including the commissioners of the newly-formed Commission for Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation.
Cote d’Ivoire used to be peaceful and was considered as a model of economic development in West Africa. But the situation changed with the death of former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 (he ruled the country from 1960 to 1993). His death left a political vacuum that eventually led to a coup in 1999 and in a rebellion in 2002; political instability and violence culminated in post-election violence in early 2011. After presidential elections in December 2010, The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner while The Constitutional Council declared incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo the winner. A war ensued and ended in Ouattara's victory and Gbagbo's arrest.
Since the end of the violence, the country is recovering economically and peace initiatives are being taken at both government and civil society levels. I am glad the Karuna Center continues to share its peacebuilding expertise in countries around the world.
-Joseph Sebarenzi, Karuna Board Member
With the strong support of our Sri Lankan partner Sarvodaya
, our Inter-Religious Cooperation for Community Development and Social Empowerment program has truly come into its own. As of December 31, 2012, over 7,000 community members have participated in 44 inter-faith/inter-ethnic community projects and related events, well above program targets. In recent months, the projects’ leaders have made a strong effort to make their joint work publicly visible, both in the eyes of their respective communities and by district officials. Their push for visibility has included visiting each
other’s projects and openly worshipping in each other’s religious sanctuaries during events associated with the community projects.
Most recently, workshops designed to engage the Sri Lankan youth in our peacebuilding work were held in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Padaviya. The participant’s youthful enthusiasm brought fresh energy to the program. They are more outspoken than their elders and more easily ready to bridge ethnic divides. Another recent achievement was the collection of “rescue stories,” stories of those who protected members of another faith/ethnic group during the years of conflict, often at risk to their own safety. These stories will be edited and published in multi-lingual pamphlets. Other upcoming publications include a children’s book with peace stories from all four-faith groups and an inter-faith peacebuilding training guide, translated into both Tamil and Sinhalese, that can be used for future inter-faith workshops and programs involving peacebuilding and reconciliation. As this program comes to a close, we look forward to the upcoming national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding and the knowledge-sharing symposium with our core group of 80 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders. Karuna Center is grateful to USAID and Tetra-Tech ARD
for their support of this program. -Kelly Donovan, Intern
Photo Above: Al Kaeem Moulavi, a Muslim who
protected many Hindus and Buddhists
in his village during Sri Lanka's civil war.
A training on "Rescue and Moral Courage." Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian religious leaders focused on the value of collecting and disseminating stories of rescue from the years of conflict.
Sarnia Appukurukkal, a Hindu priest who hid and protected Buddhists who were fleeing Tamils at his temple during Sri Lanka's civil war
D. Karlioyaranoya, a Buddhist living in Trincomalee who hid Hindus, fleeing a Buddhist mob, under a tarp in the back of his truck, driving them past checkpoints to safety
Photos by David Garrison, 2013
Although Côte d’Ivoire’s post-electoral violence of 2011 has limited the role that Ivoirians of different political leanings can play in the country’s development, civil society actors have retained the freedom to operate in a way that creates greater space for political expression and positive action. Two such actors are Côte d’Ivoire’s Evangelical and Catholic churches. Karuna associates Joseph Sebarenzi and Joachim Diene have begun working with members of these congregations to capitalize on their breadth of reach and make optimal use of their power as change agents.
Joseph and Joachim, in partnership with the US-based development firm AECOM, facilitated a three-day training workshop in Abidjan for 50 Evangelical and Catholic Christian leaders to analyze the positive role they can play in the post-conflict recovery process. Participants were encouraged to discuss steps they can take to enable more proactive contributions in the recovery experience and develop greater inclusivity in the profile of Ivoirians involved. Joseph and Joachim are now developing a training of trainers manual to prepare the participants to return to their own communities ready to help their fellow members support the recovery process in their respective areas.
-Kelly Donovan, Intern
“No one gender or single organization can create the kind of change we need. We need the collaboration and synergy of all”
Karuna Center director Olivia Dreier just returned from a learning exchange between leaders of women and men’s networks from Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Rwanda (DRC). The exchange was held in partnership with Men's Resources International
and took pace in the Rwanda town of Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu, close to the border with the DRC. The focus was on ways men and women can work together as full partners to address and prevent all types of violence.
Participants discussed the many ways the social fabric of their respective cultures has been damaged by years of violence and shared their organizations’ efforts to engage both men and women in combating violence both in the home and in the community. This learning exchange was the first phase in creating a regional program that will promote a new model of men and women working as full partners to address and prevent violence with funding for pilot programs in each of the countries.
As one participant put it, “no one gender or single organization can create the kind of change we need. We need the collaboration and synergy of all.”-Kelly Donovan, Intern
Our own Paula Green has been awarded the 2012 Anthony J. Marsella Prize from Psychologists for Social Responsibility in the area of peace and nonviolence!
PsySR's Anthony J. Marsella Prize for the Psychology of Peace and Social Justice is given annually to recognize outstanding psychology-based contributions in scholarship and action by an individual in one or more of the following areas: Peace and Nonviolence, Poverty, Human Rights, Humanitarian Assistance, Spirituality, and Social Action.
Check out Paula's video acceptance speech, produced by CONTACT student Marcus Van:
by Jonathan Hilton, Karuna Center Board member
For two weeks this June I was part of a global village of peacemakers in the beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont. Sixty participants from about 25 countries/nations joined hearts and minds to create a kind of ring around the world — sharing stories of success and stories of great struggle; learning new techniques and tools for peace work; and perhaps most of all, experiencing in study, conversation, song and laughter the deep bonds of our shared humanity.
This global village was the CONTACT program (Conflict Transformation Across Cultures) at SIT University in Brattleboro, VT, a three week certificate program designed to strengthen and support the community-building, coexistence and conflict intervention efforts of peace builders from around the world. The Director and founder of the program, Dr. Paula Green, is also the founder and Senior Fellow of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, a not-for-profit organization committed to the implementation of sustainable strategies for conflict transformation and community reconciliation in post conflict societies.
As a Board member of Karuna Center, I was invited to CONTACT to better understand the nature of the work that Karuna does around the world. So I arranged to join this program for two of the three weeks. My expectation? An interesting exposure to Karuna’s methods of training peacemakers. The reality? A profoundly moving experience of shared community and an enlightened appreciation for the hard work of peace that is being done by so many brave individuals, as well as Karuna’s important role in that work. From the morning gathering prior to the start of the course each day, where participants taught a song from their region and the class shared a moment of silence in observation of the struggles in their community — to the expert instructors leading us through an understanding of the forces that lead to conflict and the tools and skills to bring dialogue and transformation — to the diverse evening presentations about issues and work being done for healing and reconciliation. Each day was a rich experiential learning environment.
The heart of the program was of course the stories of the participants (though I will not give names here out of respect for privacy). There was a woman from Palestine who is working with children in her refugee camp through the arts to build a culture of peace and hope in the face of ongoing violence and despair; a journalist from Kashmir, who was a key member of a group who brought about the first meetings of polarized leaders which began a process of peace in Kashmir; “team Algeria” – 12 Algerian students and professors who brought much laughter and joy as well as a deeper understanding of a diverse north African Muslim culture and its journey towards reconciliation; the women from Sudan working together for women’s rights and women’s voices in the peace process between the new South Sudan and Sudan; a woman from Aceh, Indonesia, a former rebel who turned away from violence to peacemaking and is now a nominee for the N-Peace award for her contribution to building peace in her community; a man from Pakistan who brings healing programs for children living in refugee camps in the violence ridden tribal regions around Peshawar; and two members of the Diné people (Navajo) from Arizona, whose participation reminded us all of the history in the U.S. of genocide and the healing work that continues in this community. These are only a few of the remarkable men and women who together created a mountaintop experience of learning and shared work for our common human striving towards peace.
This training was for South Sudanese women leaders, as part of Karuna Center’s ongoing work with a network of influential Sudanese women in both North and South.
We are starting our third day of workshops this morning. Farah Council of Institute for Inclusive Security and I are co-teaching days on Coalition Building and Strategic Planning. Additionally, I am teaching Managing Conflicts Successfully and Reconciliation/Forgiveness. So it’s a full agenda. Attendance has ranged from 30 to 18 daily thus far. Some of the women are known to us from previous work and others are new; they are varied in age, tribal/ethnic identity, and occupation, although most are with NGOs. They are not varied in heartbreak; each has had a life that no human being should be asked to endure. It is a wonder to me that they carry themselves with such dignity, dress up and show up for workshops, and care for their families as best as possible.
South Sudanese have been massively dislocated by war for decades. Juba was an army garrison town during the war, and its residents moved around within and beyond the southern region. Many women come from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and have never lived in Juba, while others have arrived here from rural areas having undergone endless hardships and profound loss. Everyone is either internally displaced or else a refugee returning from Kenya, Uganda, Europe, North America. A large group, perhaps thousands, arrived this week in Juba after walking for weeks from Nuba Mountains, far away from here. The tribes raid cattle, which is a traditional method for settling disputes and buying brides, now made lethal by the availability of guns. The border regions between Sudan and South Sudan are fiercely contested, with the Sudanese army responsible for massive death, displacement, starvation. The humanitarian community is unable to enter the region with aid and shelter. Juba has no armed conflict right now, but it remains a shambles of shacks and dust, and does not much resemble a capital city.
Many South Sudanese have ancestral villages someplace in Sudan that they will not likely return to, and they speak a variety of traditional languages, some English and some Arabic, and none of them unifying the country. Under Sudan’s leadership they had Arabic as a common tongue, making them probably the only non-Arabs and Christians/animists whose main language was Arabic. The new South Sudan government mandates English as the medium of instruction but it will be many generations before English is widely spoken, creating problems for unification. South Sudan has perhaps the worst literacy indicators on the planet; I have read that only 5% of girls complete primary school. The women we work with were all educated in the diaspora.
All of this points to an uphill struggle for the world’s newest nation, just 9 months old. The people we meet here express pride in their hard-won independence and seem determined to make a go of it. They depend on their oil reserves for revenue, but the pipeline runs through the north, which is charging them exorbitant fees and thus the pipeline has been shut down and austerity measures enacted. It’s already so austere and difficult that one wonders how much less they can survive on, but somehow life goes on in these strained circumstances…and women show up for workshops, organize for their rights, and express their solidarity for their even less fortunate sisters.
Our work is very well-received here, where the needs are bottomless, every concept is new, and there is so much to express and learn. Each story of tragic loss builds on the last, and each bit of resilience inspires and motivates the women to continue in a forward direction. I bow to their capacity for endurance, and I know you join me in wishing them a more peaceful future.
In late February, I returned to Sri Lanka for our third set of inter-faith workshops with our group of 80 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders. As previously described, this work is taking place in the Northeast of the country, an area deeply affected by 30 years of civil war. Working with religious leaders provides a politically acceptable way of addressing deep residues of inter-ethnic tension left in the wake of the of the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). While the government proclaims that economic development will solve all problems, the citizens of this area know that much more will be needed to rebuild trust after a war that killed and displaced thousands and left communal relations in tatters.
Our focus this time was on the use of dialogue as a tool for reconciliation. Given the language barriers, it is no wonder there has been so much social distance and the space for all kinds of prejudices and tensions. Like other inhabitants of the region, only a handful of our religious leaders speak both Tamil and Sinhalese or are able to use English as a lingua franca. Thanks to the presence of translators, the leaders had the opportunity to fully listen, as each group shared deeply about their suffering during war and their concerns for the future. In this region all groups suffered, including the Buddhists (who are all Sinhalese and the dominant group in the country) as they were victims of frequent LTTE attacks. The participants said it was the first time they had openly shared painful experiences with members of other groups. It is not the cultural norm and the political climate discourages it. The subsequent relief and warmth between participants was palpable. At tea break, monks, priests, imams, and pastors strolled arm and arm, even if they had little language in common. After each group had the opportunity to openly share their own experiences and concerns for the future as the larger group listened, the relief was palpable. It has taken five months of careful work to build the necessary trust for this to happen.
The leaders are now fully engaged in implementing over 40 inter-faith community projects. Projects range from enlisting youth in the joint repair of cemeteries for each faith group, to a mushroom growing project for women, to computer classes for mixed youth, to Tamil and Sinhalese language classes. Together with our Sri Lankan partner, Sarvodaya, the leaders have also produced and distributed 4,000 inter-faith calendars with holidays and traditions from all four faith groups. They are planning radio and television discussions on reconciliation, a children’s book of peace stories from their respective traditions, exchanges with religious leaders from other parts of the country, and a national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding.