For most Grade 11 students, the week of 20-27 June brought the end of classes, the start of the long vacation, and (perhaps most importantly) sleep after a rigorous year of the IB Diploma Programme. For others, it meant traveling to Mae Sot or Timor Leste, regions of conflict, to run an Initiative for Peace (IFP) conference.
IfP is a programme offered to Grade 11 students focused on facilitating peace amidst conflict, both globally and locally, through youth empowerment. IfP conferences contain simulations and discussions on issues which face our community, our own identities, and ways that we can make a difference. IfP runs on both East and Dover Campus – half a year is dedicated to training, the other half to planning an IfP conference. The idea is that by working with youth in areas of conflict and fostering an active dialogue to understand differences, we can initiate the peacebuilding process from the bottom up.
It can be summed up neatly by the mission statement: “Youth connecting youth to build sustainable peace.”
With this in mind, I embarked with a team of 21 students from both campuses to Mae Sot, Thailand. Situated on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, Mae Sot is the home to the largest of nine refugee camps. A safe haven for refugees, Mae Sot was home to a diverse but somewhat divided population. We sought to work with youth in the region, from a variety of countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, India) and ethnic groups (Karen, Kachin, Mon), and help them 'build a sustainable peace.'
When I explain this goal, or IfP, to my peers, adults, or even my family I’m met with skepticism: How can a group of high school students make such a big change in the world? What is the role of a one-week conference in addressing the global fight for peace? Isn’t this incredibly optimistic?
The sheer magnitude of what we were trying to do occurred to me when delegates began pouring out of buses and arriving from all over Myanmar and Thailand, but also Vietnam and India. For an entire day, buses drove in and out of the hotel, ferrying delegates from the airport, train station, refugee camp, and aptly titled 'Friendship Bridge' crossing between Thailand and Myanmar. As more and more delegates arrived, our goal became increasingly tangible yet more distant than ever. In planning our conferences we easily threw around terms such as 'intercultural understanding' and 'breaking barriers,' but we had yet to conceptualise the sheer magnitude and number of people we would be interacting with. The first day was a stream of names and faces and eager, yet timid, delegates, with more ahead of us than we had imagined in our months spent planning. And then we started talking. At mealtimes, after dinner, in our rooms, our conversations eroded the many differences which seemingly separated us.
Our days were filled with sessions on themes such as Identity, Diversity, and Community Building. In between these sessions, we discussed everything from favourite TV shows to the political climate in Myanmar. Ask any IfP-er about what made their conference special, and they will tell you the story of a conversation. At the end of the day, IfP comes down to the relationships forged between people who would have otherwise never met. And through building rapport and confidence amongst ourselves outside the classroom, and discussing topics of peacebuilding within it, IfP creates leaders. By the end of the conference, delegates transitioned from discussing issues with us to creating solutions. On Service Day, delegates taught English and teamwork to local Karen schoolchildren. By the end of the conference, delegates from different towns discussed working to create IfP conferences in their respective regions.
Many of these delegates have already done amazing things with their lives and would have done them regardless of their involvement in IfP – they’ve set up youth organisations, worked to further their own education against all odds, volunteered to help Rohingya refugees. We weren’t there to 'fix' or 'improve' them but to support them with resources and knowledge to further their initiatives. Our goal was to connect them with each other and connect with them ourselves.
This aspect of diversity, not only of ethnicity but of thought and opinion, was ingrained into every day of the conference. A cultural show on the final night featured performances ranging from Vietnamese dancing to a Mon culture talk, a Karen performance to an Indian dance. We roomed with delegates from different countries, we openly discussed our differences, and the result was transformative. As one delegate said, “I always thought that Burmese weren’t smart and couldn’t speak English, I have learned that this ias not true.”
At the end of the conference, I had the opportunity to interview some of the delegates to record footage for next year’s conference planners. The phrase that I heard most often was “IfP has changed my life.” IfP has the power to shape our outlook because it simultaneously fills us with confidence and forces us to escape our comfort zone. Delegates’ perceptions were challenged, and so were ours. Delegates were encouraged to speak up and face challenges, and so did we.
IfP intrinsically changes the lives of all that are involved. For facilitators, IfP does not start or end with this conference. Behind the week-long conference in Mae Sot were 24 weeks of planning, rushing from East to Dover and Dover to East, and eating pizza during late night sessions. Just because we went to Mae Sot, or Timor Leste, or Cambodia to make a change does not mean we can’t bring the values of IfP home.
Our IfP experiences started in Singapore, in our community and extended into theirs. These conferences are not something we regard as a single experience, but a first step in a peace process much larger than ourselves. Even after our conferences have ended, peacebuilding remains a process that we facilitate in our daily lives.