By Mary-Justine Lanyon
What is it? How can it be achieved?
The answers – as the nearly 1,000 folks at the 2020 Rotary World Peace Conference learned – are complex.
Two extraordinary speakers at the beginning and end of the two-day conference exemplified the power of the individual.
When Crestline resident Rudy Westervelt – the convener of the peace conference – introduced Azim Khamisa at the first general session, he told the audience that “the next speaker will weave a story of forgiveness.”
Twenty-five years ago, Khamisa’s son, Tariq, was murdered as part of a gang initiation. Tariq was 20; his killer, Tony, was just 14.
“The portal that brought me to peace was forgiveness,” Khamisa said. “A broken heart is an open heart. There is no real limit to how open our hearts can be. An open heart does not judge on ‘isms.’”
To honor his son and pave his way to forgiveness, Khamisa reached out to Ples Felix, Tony’s grandfather. The two men came together in the spirit of healing to end youth violence. Khamisa visited Tony in prison and has spoken before his parole board.
Khamisa formed the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, whose mission is to create safer schools and communities “through educating and inspiring children in the restorative principles of accountability, compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking.”
If and when Tony is released, he will have a job with the Foundation, Khamisa said.
The sixth and final general session concluded with the introduction of Eva Haller, a fierce advocate for social justice since the age of 13 when she and her brother, John, distributed anti-Hitler pamphlets in their native Budapest. John’s death at the hands of the Nazis fueled Haller’s activist fire.
“I am enormously grateful to be here and share my life with you,” Haller said after the showing of a documentary about her life. That film may be viewed at www.myhero.com/film-eva-haller.
“I have been in the U.S. 68 years,” the 89-year-old noted. “I learned not to be afraid, to express my feelings, to protest – I love to protest! Up until the age of 18, all I knew was war and fear.
“Life has become magnificent because you have mentored me, accepted me, helped me create a life here. And I learned to love me.
“In Nazi Hungary there was no freedom of speech and in Soviet-occupied Budapest there was no freedom of thought,” Haller said. “In America today we desperately have to retain, maintain and encourage critical thinking and the courage of our convictions.”
Haller has been honored with a number of humanitarian awards. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery and is committed to empowering women, helping them achieve their dreams.
And, in between these two speakers was a couple – Kym and Mark Hilinski – who shared the story of their son, Tyler, and how they worked together to help other students like him achieve inner peace.
Despite having shown no signs of depression or mental illness, Tyler – who was the quarterback at Washington State University – committed suicide.
Tyler’s parents founded Hilinski’s Hope Foundation, whose mission “is to help other Tylers out there who are suffering in silence. We want to raise awareness and erase the stigma of mental illness,” Kym said.
“Tyler had an illness he couldn’t talk about so we’re going to help as many people as we can to open up and ask for help,” she added.
Rotary International President Mark Maloney addressed the gathering, noting that “Rotary connects the world – joins us together as one humanity.
“Peace is a stubborn, essential part of Rotary’s character,” Maloney said.
“Peace does not lend itself to easy work. Rotary refuses to accept conflict as a way of life. And that puts us in conflict with what many people consider to be human nature: war, displacement, famine, estrangement.
“Those are symptoms of a world that speaks wistfully of peace but is not willing to work hard enough for it.”
The speakers in the six general sessions and the speakers in the 110 breakout sessions represented a number of efforts to achieve peace – whether individual inner peace or peace that is more global.
Speakers like Christine Ahn, who founded Women Cross DMZ. In 2015, she led 30 international women peacemakers across the DMZ from North Korea to South Korea, bringing together 10,000 women on both sides of the DMZ.
“When women are involved in the peace process,” Ahn said, “it leads to a peace agreement.”
That thought was echoed by Michelle Nunn, the CEO of CARE. “Women and girls are the pivotal forces for change,” she said. “If women participated in the economy to the same degree as men, that would raise the global economy by $28 trillion by 2025. We cannot achieve peace without the full participation of women.”
Nunn pointed to the four areas of CARE’s focus: healthy mothers and children; food and nutrition, where they work with women farmers; education and work for girls and women; and emergency response.
“We are at a pivotal and historic moment,” Nunn said. “We have the moral imperative, the will and the capacity to end extreme poverty.”
She quoted a figure reiterated by many at the conference: “Today there are the most refugees on the planet since WWII. More than 70,000,000 have been forcibly displaced.”
Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford presented Westervelt with a resolution recognizing the peace conference.
“When people have hope, they can dream, they can work for peace, they can achieve positive things in their lives. Without hope comes tragedy.
“Grow hope, build peace,” Rutherford said.
Mary Ann Peters, the former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, told the audience that “peace must be fought for and won.”
The CEO of The Carter Center outlined 10 things to keep in mind about peace. “Peace is much more than the absence of war but the war must end first,” she said. “Waging peace can be hard and dangerous work.”
She noted that the U.S. is currently at war with seven countries. “Because they take place somewhere else, we feel at peace and pay little attention to the suffering they create.
“The wrong people are brought to the negotiating table,” Peters said. “The men with the guns. We need to bring women to the table.”
Dr. Fozia Alvi, who was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke with great emotion about the Rohingya genocide. “It shook my soul – I was horrified as a woman, a doctor and especially as a mother.”
This ethnic minority in Myanmar is considered to be second-class citizens. They have, Dr. Alvi said, no education, no access to their own crops. “They have nothing – no clothing, food, water or healthcare. There is a loss of human potential because they are denied access to education.
“Sometimes I feel my efforts are meaningless,” Dr. Alvi said. “I have been talking about this for two-and-a-half years and it’s still going on. But a friend told me that every effort makes a difference. The victims know that someone cares.”
Actress Patricia Heaton talked about her work as a World Vision celebrity ambassador. On her trips to Zambia, Rwanda, Jordan and Uganda, she has seen poverty, Heaton said. “But I also see people making a difference. Clean water is a huge issue – everything stems from that. Girls need enough time in their day for education. They can’t do that if they spend time fetching water.
“Clean water is the foundation that needs to be paid for everything else to happen.
“If you get a chance to visit any of these places,” Heaton added, “you realize we’re all exactly the same. We have different languages, different cultures but we’re all human beings. The world becomes a small place and everyone is your neighbor.”
Other speakers in the general sessions addressed the need to make peace be for everyone, not just a chosen few; the need to eliminate all nuclear weapons; the necessity to help people be kinder to one another and accept one another’s differences; and the important role of mediation.
“The goal of this conference,” said Westervelt, “is not to listen and go home. If Rotary can take on polio, let’s end human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, children being bullied and taking their own lives.
“Let’s work together to put these projects in our schools, communities and homes. There is no reason to see violence in our communities.”
Next week: More ideas on waging peace from the breakout sessions at the Rotary World Peace Conference.