Peace talk and walk
In Sharm El-Sheikh, international youth expressed their vision for peace. Dina Ezzat
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At a number of different levels, the young interact with the powers that be with nothing but peace in mind
Attending a session where young men and women were discussing peace and human security matters including the generation of job opportunities and political participation, Maha, an 18-year-old Palestinian participant from Nablus, seemed restless. Speaking to herself, or almost, Maha countered speakers waxing lyrical about the need for youth to seek jobs beyond the confines of their countries of birth. "This policy might apply in some cases but not in every case, certainly not in the case of Palestine," she muttered. Maha added that she fears an attempt is underway by some Western circles to end the Palestinian question by getting as many young Palestinians out of the occupied Palestinian territories as possible. For her, the Sharm El-Sheikh conference was an opportunity to speak up on this matter.
One of close to 1,000 young men and women from nearly 100 countries who convened in Sharm El-Sheikh over the weekend to participate in the first International Youth Forum organised by the Suzanne Mubarak Women's International Peace Movement under the banner "Youth speak, we listen", Maha said that she had not wanted to raise the political aspects of the Palestinian issue in public discussion, not only because she wanted to observe the apolitical nature of the forum, but also because "the Palestinian issue has many specificities that require sufficient awareness on the part of participants. The objective of our participation as Palestinian youth, I think, is not to get into political or moral debates, but rather to express our views on matters of relevance to peace and security so that participants from all over the world who are always fed negative information on the 'aggressive' and 'backward' nature of Palestinians can see it is simply not true."
Maha said she was happy that the Israeli participants she heard would join the conference either missed the forum or were not conspicuous in sessions with Palestinian participants. Conference organisers said the forum was open to all dedicated peace activists but that no Israelis participated in the event.
Maha was not the only forum participant inclined to leave aside matters of direct political concern. Participants from Iraq and Afghanistan who met US participants were not particularly keen to bring up their national causes. Simply talking about issues related to the political and economic requirements of human security, participants testified, was in itself testimony to the unfairness of US policies. And when the time came, on the fringes of the forum, it was mostly American participants who voiced criticism of the policies of the US administration in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Indeed, when the young participants from close to 100 countries, with Mrs Mubarak and participating world sports and arts figures in the forefront, marched for over an hour in an appeal for peace, political and cultural barriers appeared absent. The young women and men joined hands in the march and raised their hands at the end of the march. When they went together to the peace park to plant olive trees with their names inscribed on plaques, they were not divided but rather united in their call for peace, though some Arab participants admitted privately that they could not help but think of olive and palm trees crushed in Palestine and Iraq under the force of Israeli and US military occupation.
When participants stood side-by-side to draw a mural for peace and tolerance, they seemed to be painting similar things and writing similar words. It was the culture of peace that many participants qualified as the main common denominator of the forum and the message they said they would take home and preach, not just to their communities but also to their governments.
In her opening and closing remarks to the forum, Mrs Mubarak argued that the objective of the forum, which it ultimately achieved, was to underline the many common aspects the young men and women, irrespective of background, shared and their joint hope to achieve peace within their societies and in the world around them by promoting the simple concept of tolerance. In the press conference following the closing of the forum, Mrs Mubarak said that it was the youth who proposed the agenda of the gathering during its preparatory phase.
Discussing peace and the role of youth in contributing to its achievement, the forum focussed on socio-economic, cultural and environmental components, from human security to worldwide co-existence. It broached the need for governments, civil society and the private sector to coordinate efforts to help young men and women gain better access to quality education, vocational training and job opportunities.
Gamal Mubarak, chairman of the Future Generation Foundation and secretary-general of the Policies Committee at the National Democratic Party, and Daniela Gressani, vice-president for the Middle East and North Africa region at the World Bank, both told the forum that greater commitment should -- and will -- be made at national and international levels to devise programmes aimed at better training youth to participate in an increasingly globalised labour market and world. Mrs Mubarak announced that a task force would be established by the Women's International Peace Movement to connect members of the business community and youth, aiming towards a worldwide generation of job opportunities.
The forum offered young participating men and women a chance to voice concerns over what some thought was a devastating digital gap and increasingly uneven economic policies imposed by international financial and monetary bodies, and to dissect their impact in terms of inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity both within societies and between nations. It also offered opportunity for youth to demand these international institutions amend their policies to be "youth friendly" and to contribute in positive ways to making national economies more conducive to youth enhancement.
The forum also approached the role of the media in promoting the rights, demands, dreams and concerns of youth from all backgrounds. The issue of women empowerment was almost a fixture, especially when participants discussed matters related to health and education rights.
For Mustafa, a 21-year-old Egyptian male, and for Dareen, an 18-year-old Egyptian-Palestinian woman student, by discussing these matters they were in fact talking politics indirectly. "For me politics is not just about getting into the endless debate of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," mused Mustafa. "Talking about the election of representative governments and of strengthening the economies of our nations to make them more influential, and of empowering the youth to have a say in the present and future of their nation and region, is also talking politics," he said.
For Dareen, talking about economic and political participation rights is talking about human rights, and this, she said, is talking politics in different ways. She added that for her, the exchange of experiences in promoting peace was "an eye opener". "I learned a lot from talking to participants coming from African countries who, on the fringe of the forum, sometimes addressed the conflicts that their nations have gone through." Dareen added that she intended to enter a community service programme that takes volunteers to Africa to learn more about making peace in societies that have undergone, or are still undergoing, armed conflicts.
The International Youth Forum for Peace that opened Saturday and lasted for three days involved day-long parallel sessions that generated what organisers of the conference qualified as a "wealth of ideas" that then developed into a plan of action. According to Sahar Nasr, a leading forum coordinator, the implementation of the plan of action will be followed up by participants via the Internet and by a new unit especially formed for the purpose by the Women's International Peace Movement. According to the plan, a worldwide youth network is to be established with a newsletter to allow for continued communication and exchange of experiences and best practices.
At the end of the forum, participants were happily singing songs they wrote to express their hopes for peace, but none were unrealistic about the tough political challenges ahead on the road towards harmony and tolerance. All agreed, however, that there is no other path to walk.