Supporting Peacebuilders from Conflict Zones: An Important Obligation of American Higher Education

By: David J. Smith, January 30, 2017

Recently I had the chance to visit with international students participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCI).  CCI is a program funded by the U.S. Department of State that brings students to the U.S. to focus on developing leadership capabilities, professional skills, and English language proficiency, while studying at a community college. Currently 210 students representing 13 countries are studying at 10 community colleges.  The program is managed by Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).  My visit was with the 30 students studying at NOVA. It was sponsored by the CCI program and the Honors Club at NOVA/Annandale.

Talking with students in the CCI program

The CCI students were natives of Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, and Yemen. For the first part of my program, I invited  three young professionals to talk with the students about their experiences and share with them about their work.  Lauren McNally, a program assistant from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP); Mena Ayazi, the president of Patriots for Peace at George Mason University  (GMU) and a USIP research assistant; and Penelope Norton, a graduate student at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at GMU and former Peace Alliance program associate, talked with the students about peacebuilding and their own experiences.  During the question and answer period,  a number of students were interested in how they might continue peacebuilding efforts in their home countries, and asked the about the prospects of peace around the world.

Young professionals panel

After the panel, students engaged in a “career bingo” activity where they learned about the interests of other students to order to build a network and share resources for efforts they might work on.

Career bingo

I was struck by the fact that so many of the students came from countries that either are enduring violence and war or have recently come out of conflict.   The students from Colombia commented on the process that their country is now going through after the end of the country’s 50 year civil war.   The countries of India and Pakistan continue to be in a state of conflict.   Conflict exists in Indonesia with indigenous populations such as in Papua.  South Africa experienced apartheid from 1948 t0 1994. And most of the students’ home countries have seen extremist acts committed against their populations.

One of the most deadly conflicts today is the civil war in Yemen.   The students I met from Yemen had been in the U.S. for nearly three years (the CCI program is a one year program). They started in the State Department’s YES program and were then moved to the CCI program. The students shared with me their fear and anxiety about returning to Yemen. The Yemeni civil war started in 2015 positioning the Saudi-backed government against Houthi and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula forces. The BBC reports 18 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance.  Estimates are that 7,270 people have been killed (mostly civilians) and another 38,280 injured. Seven million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Students from African countries working on their project

The Yemeni students have justifiable fear not wanting to return.  Unless they are able to find a way to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, they will need to return.  This is now compounded by the the recent executive order of President Trump which bars citizens of Yemen, as well as 6 other predominately Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days. What happens after that is uncertain. These young people are the hope for the future of Yemen.

Unite Kashmir Project

After the panel present, I engaged the students in an activity where they developed a project that would promote peace in their countries.  The proposed projects were wide ranging including selling a t-shirt that would represent their cultural connections (by students from African countries), developing an education project for youth (by the students from Indonesia), establishing a skills program that would focus on expertise from the students themselves called “Skills for Peace (by the students from South America and Turkey), and a program to advance peace in Kashmir (by the group of students from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China).

Skills for Peace
Students from Indonesia

The group from Yemen looked at career education and recommended that to rebuild Yemen efforts will be needed to promote workforce skills. They called their program “Teach Me How To Fish.”  Eventually, these young people will return to their country to rebuild it after the war. The future of Yemen depends on their dedication, creativity, and willingness to do the hard work of peace. In the meantime, finding a way to keep them in the U.S. while the war is ongoing is critical.

“Teach Me How To Fish” by students from Yemen

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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