“Sawatdee” is a useful phrase in the Thai language. It means everything from hello, good morning, goodbye to peace be with you. I learned the phrase on the second day of my three month International Rotary Fellowship in Bangkok this summer, along with the traditional gesture of putting ones hands together in prayer and bowing the head to acknowledge others. It’s a lovely gesture – one that requires meeting the other person’s eyes and conveying a respect and recognition for each other’s humanity.
In December of 2015, I was accepted as a Rotary International Peace Fellow. The fellowship is for experienced professionals working in peace-related fields and consists of a three-month residential program in peace and conflict prevention and resolution at Chulalongkorn University as well as two field study experiences: 1) in the Deep South of Thailand, where there has been on-going violent conflict between Thai security forces and groups of Thai nationals who identify as ethnic Malays, and, 2) in post-genocide Cambodia.
Notwithstanding a Master’s degree in International Affairs and my time as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, this was my most international learning experience. A judge from Cairo, an artist from Denmark, a government official from Kenya, an Indian woman police chief, a retired FBI agent – these are just a few of the amazing Fellows with whom I was honored to share this experience. All 24 fellows demonstrated a strong commitment to peacebuilding and a passion for learning, especially exploring perspectives from the wide diversity in our professional, cultural and geographical backgrounds. Over three months, we shared a lifetime of experiences, both joyful and heartbreaking. Outside of the classroom, we danced, exercised and meditated together. We tasted fried bugs, survived numerous Thai monsoons and nursed each other through a Cambodian virus. We became, as one of our facilitators stated, brothers and sisters in peace.
The Outward Bound community will not be surprised to know that three of the 24 Rotary Peace Fellows in the group came from Kurt Hahn inspired organizations. Qamaruzzaman bin Amir (Q) from Singapore, is an alum of the Pearson United World College (UWC) in British Columbia, and taught physics for 10 years in the UWC of South East Asia in Singapore. Karah Germoth, originally from Tennessee, is a teacher and social worker at a Round Square school, St. Constantine’s International School, in Tanzania. Q, Karah and I continue to be engaged in exciting conversations about how to use OB Peacebuilding’s work in experiential peacebuilding to create deeper connections among these sister institutions.
The lecturers for the program included some of the foremost experts and practitioners in the field. We explored the relationship between violence, peace and gender with Ms. Irene Santiago, the founder of the Mindanao Commission on Women, and executive director of the historic NGO forum on women in 1995 in Beijing. We engaged in a lively debate on nonviolence with Professor Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political scientist and a philosopher who is one of the foremost voices for peace in Thailand. We heard the history of the Cambodian genocide from the personal story of Youk Chhang, survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields,” and the Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
I am profoundly grateful to Rotary International and the Board of Outward Bound Peacebuilding for supporting my participation in the fellowship. I return to New York City with an even stronger sense of the importance of our work in the world. It is clear to me from this experience that our approach of experiential peacebuilding resonates with people across the globe and is aligned with the leading research and theories supporting the field of peacebuilding. As importantly, I return as part of an expanded community of peacebuilding activists and visionaries, my brothers and sisters in peace, who are working alongside us to create lasting positive peace in the world.