I recently presented a series of talks at the Rotary International Conference and Peace Symposium, which attracts around 25,000 attendees from around the world. This year, it was in Hamburg, Germany, but the location changes each time. Two years ago, I had to pleasure along with two other Rotary fellows to plan and organize our peace fellowship gathering in Atlanta. Two years before that we met in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
As a natural consequence of our humanitarian work, Rotary fellows often find themselves far from home. This is difficult for obvious reasons (like missing friends and family), and not-so-obvious reasons (I’m a practicing Sikh, but there’s no Sikh temple in East Tennessee). But we all share an attitude of dedication and duty and service because we’re committed to the causes we serve. We tend to think of ourselves as a global family—not just citizens or residents of one or two countries, but citizens of the world. I recall a time when I was still a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, when I cooked dinner for three classmates from Colombia, Sudan, and Italy. Between the four of us, we represented three different faiths—Sikh, Muslim and Christian. My Catholic friend led grace, and it felt completely natural and normal.
I arrived in Hamburg on Wednesday morning after the long journey to Germany via Charlotte and Amsterdam. I was so tired by the time I got to Amsterdam for a changeover that I stood in the long international line, forgetting that I still hold a EU passport. (At least for now! That might change with Brexit.) The first session I led focused on connecting storytelling and peacebuilding, and how the stories we share today help us envision a better tomorrow. Together, we’re all shaping the story of our future world. Stories are also an important tool we use to build relationships with one another—to understand people who come from places we don’t necessarily know very well, and to keep our own homes alive in our memories when we’re far away. In the session, I invited everyone to share their own stories of what had brought them to the event, and to my session in particular.
In Hamburg, I shared a room with my friend Eduardo Costa, a Brazilian peace activist who grew up in the Amazon rainforest. He’s an economist who has encouraged me to think about my own work on a global scale. He and his family are currently living in Canada, where he’s finishing his PhD in peace and conflict studies. If he were to return to his home country, he would be very concerned about the risks that currently face indigenous leaders and environmental activists. My friend is highly regarded amongst us peace fellows. As someone from an indigenous heritage from the Brazilian Amazon, he brings much wisdom to share. The risks he has to worry about are much more common worldwide than you might imagine. Another colleague of mine who works for human rights was recently imprisoned and threatened. But it’s not all bad news. On the other side of the spectrum, a Jewish American who lived in Ramallah (in Palestine), a predominantly Muslim city, talked to me about how the community where she lived felt like the safest place in the world. Her community protected her from harassment and other forms of hassle. That doesn’t exactly fit the stereotypes, right? It’s likely not what you would see on TV.
One takeaway from these international gatherings of colleagues is how much better it is to hear people’s stories in real life, in person, as opposed to on the news.
That’s not a new idea—in fact, it informs all the work we do at the National Storytelling Festival—but it’s an important one.
One of the speakers at the conference was a 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Denis Mukwege. He’s a physician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has spent decades caring for victims of sexual assault in his homeland. He gave a passionate speech (in French) about his work and the struggles of the campaigns he has been involved in, as well as the reality of the violent threats that he and his family have received for taking part in this important work. In the audience, I was sitting next to Steve Killelea, the Australian entrepreneur who founded the Global Peace Index. Steve and I first met in Brazil, and he and his wife have since attended the National Storytelling Festival, which he told me has impacted his own work.
On Sunday, our free day, a group of us decided to take a ferry trip. I set off with Yuri (who’s from Israel), Sandra (who’s Brazilian), and Anne, a Danish woman who’s living in Berlin. Anne has been working with Syrian refugees, teaching them how to code. Melissa, who also works with refugees, came along, as did Merlin, who works in Somalia. I was pleased to catch up with Jessica Trijsburg, who I knew from our time as students at UNC. Now she lives in Australia, and is ISC’s partner for the videogame that we’re currently developing.
Later that night, my head still buzzing with the day’s activity, I was unable to sleep. I wandered outside and over to the Turkish café that was directly opposite from the place I was staying. I was in the mood for a kebab. After carefully reviewing the options, I settled on a traditional Turkish doner lamb kebab wrapped in lavash bread. I had always loved kebabs growing up in England, but here they were even better. Germany has a large, established Turkish community of five generations. There are even Turkish kebab houses at the airport!
Even though it was after midnight, there was still plenty of activity on the downtown streets of Hamburg. The shops were still open, and people were coming out of the dance clubs. Old men were smoking cigarettes and chatting intently on the city benches. I sat outside at the one tiny table that was available outside the café near two other men. It reminded me of central London. It felt like home.
A Ghanaian man who grew up in London overheard me speaking English and struck up a conversation with me and a younger Egyptian man who was sipping tea with a friend (who was busy on his cell phone). We talked about where we were from and how long we had been in Germany. The Egyptian man told us that he was in process of seeking political asylum. The Ghanaian man got very excited when I explained what I was doing there in Hamburg presenting at the peace conference. He even asked me to talk about it so he could share it via a snapchat video he made on his phone. Somewhere out there, there’s a video of that moment!
After I finished the kebab, I bid my new friends good night. I managed to get some sleep and rose early the next day, packed, and headed to the train station for a ride to Berlin. While I was waiting on the platform I met a peace fellow from Kenya who had been at the conference. He was heading on to Dresden with a German colleague to do some teaching on sustainable farming traditions. I told them about my late mother, who was born in Kenya and grew up on the Ugandan border.
When you travel a lot, you experience the paradox of how the world is both small and large at the same time. In some ways, the world is now narrowing as countries pursue policies based in xenophobia and fear. Going home, I realized this might be my last visit to Europe while holding a European passport—which is, for me, very sad. I’m proud to represent an organization that works hard to connect people through story. It’s important to help people to realize that home is more than just a physical place or location, but something that goes much deeper into our personal stories, hopes, and dreams. In this recognition, we help create a future that opens up again with peace and understanding—and that is something to celebrate.