Twenty-five young peace building leaders from 12 countries of conflict were brought together by the United States Institute of Peace to meet the world’s most iconic figure of peace
The hopeful future meets with the Dalai Lama
Peace is a word easily said and often universally flashed in photos with the index and middle finger parted in the shape of a V. Yet as a concept and way life, it is far more difficult to achieve and maintain as chapters of history and current headlines testify. In almost every generation, there are conflicts and atrocities committed by mankind. But nonetheless, hope remains and is born again and again through its newest generation of heroes.
Last week, 25 young peace building leaders from 12 countries from across Africa, Asia and the Middle East were brought together by the United States Institute of Peace to meet the world’s most iconic figure of peace: the Dalai Lama.
Now in its second run, the programme, Youth Leaders’ Exchange with the Dalai Lama, is founded on the importance of dialogue and connections formed on shared values. The youth leaders travelled to Dharamsala, India, where they learnt from each other and got a rare chance to tell their stories and ask the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader questions and seek his wisdom.
The youth leaders come from countries, such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Myanmar; all either in war or struggling with the aftermath of war and violence by extremist groups.
“Violence leads to more violence, if you want to build, you must be totally committed to non-violence,” said the Dalai Lama as he sat with the youth leaders inside one of the rooms at his compound.
“Sit with your enemy, talk to them. They have fear in their heart. Show compassion and understanding.
“Only through compassion and inner peace, one can spread peace in the world … Inner peace leads to a peaceful individual and then this peaceful individual can build a peaceful family, then a peaceful community then a peaceful world.”
Over a span of two days, the youth sat and talked openly and honestly with the Dalai Lama, sharing their most painful personal stories as well as those of their home countries.
Stories of rape and hiding in holes to missing loved ones and burnt homes were common themes reiterated by the youth leaders in their 20s and 30s.
From the crimes committed by Nigeria's militant extremist group Boko Haram to destruction and death by ISIL to the lack of basic human rights of refugees, the Dalai Lama listened, often shaking his head and visibly saddened by what is being said.
“There is too much emphasis on differences. Different race, different nationality, different faith. Who suffers from these divisions? We do,” he says.
One of the questions raised was about the latest unrest in Myanmar that has forced around one million Rohingya to flee their homes.
“It is very sad,” said the Dalai Lama who had called on his fellow Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi to peacefully end the Rohingya crisis.
“Anyone, whether Buddhist or Muslim, who commits violence, is no longer a Buddhist or a Muslim," he said.
The two youths from Myanmar, one a Buddhist and the other a Muslim, shared their personal stories with the Dalai Lama and, since meeting on this special exchange, have vowed to take their diversity as a source of strength and contribute to making their home country a better place.
“I am a Rohingya, and my family is one of many Muslim families that were oppressed by the militarised government that ruled before the democratisation of Myanmar,” said Aung Kyaw Moe. “It was systematic discrimination. We couldn't get to proper schools, restrictions of movement, no proper access to health care and denied our identity and citizenship.
“They called us Bengali, meaning people of Bangladesh. The Burmese government systematically refused to accept us as part of the country by giving us this categorisation.”
After meeting the Dalai Lama, Aung says something inside of him moved.
“I am a nonviolent movement activist, and this vision came from the Dalai Lama directly by reading his books and listening to his speeches,” he said. “He opened his heart to me, and I had expected that he would be so compassionate and kind, and yet, the meeting went beyond my expectations.”
As for Tin Maung Htwe, a Buddhist from Myanmar, he said meeting the Dalai Lama was like talking to his father.
“It was like a father and son, teacher and student. I felt part of his family,” he said. “I love his innocent and joyous mannerism. He inspires me to avoid using labels like majority and minority and to become a humanist. To focus on the oneness of us all.”
As for the ongoing crisis back home, he said: “Muslims and Buddhists have a common enemy, and that is the militarised influence. We are a new democracy and we want to grow."
Like all the youths after meeting the Dalai Lama, the importance of having love and compassion at the core of their being to move forward resonated with them as well as the importance of education and conviction to continue doing the right thing when faced with challenges.
“We have very few global icons for peace,” said Nancy Lindborg, president of US Institute of Peace, a non-partisan organisation set up in 1984 by Congress.
“When I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama back in 2015, he was talking about his vision for this century, a century without violent conflict. Our vision at USIP is also a world without violent conflict, and this alignment of visions sparked an idea that we should have a deeper partnership on how to make this common vision come alive,” she said.
That was how this special youth programme dedicated to the pursuit of peace was born.
“We live in a multi-polar multi stakeholder world, and have to build peace from the ground up. Not only from the top down,” she said. “That is why we are focusing on the youth, and together with the Dalai Lama we agree that this next generation will be essential for breaking the cycles of violence.”
Hastiar Sheikhani, from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, is one of last year’s youths that met the Dalai Lama, and came back this year as a mentor for the new team, an example of the rippling effect of the programme.
“The amount of motivation this programme gave me, was enough me for to start an NGO myself called the Middle East Sustainable Peace Organisation,” he said. “I felt responsible for delivering this great message of peace to my people as last year I was the only representative of the Kurdish people of Iraq.”
As the people brought their problems to the 82-year-old Dalai Lama, took photos with him, shared a lunch, held his hand and laughed, they were left with many messages to think about.
“It is now up to you. You are all the seed of change,” said the Dalai Lama. “Go back to your countries, go to the world as new Dalai Lamas."