This week’s blog is written by Safa Al-Sultani, a CEO Assistant at Rabee Securities in Baghdad, Iraq. Safa was recently in Washington, DC with the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women Pilot Program. The program brought together 8 young women leaders from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and America for a 3-week exchange to learn how to engage in peace negotiations through conflict transformation exercises and dialogue. During her visit, Safa met representatives from PeacePlayers International, to learn how they use basketball to promote peace around the world. Here is her story:
Enjoying life in Baghdad is not the easiest thing in the world, but it is not as dramatic as it’s stereotyped in the media. I go to work every day, my sister goes to school, my brother does the weekly grocery shopping, and in the afternoons we all play soccer in the street. From my point of view, life is pretty normal here; yet I wouldn’t deny that we are accompanied by fear, fear from anything that might happen suddenly and alter our reality. Growing up I learned how on this land, one of the oldest civilizations flourished peacefully, full of people from many different ethnicities and backgrounds. As a young girl I carried this image of a peaceful society in my head, but when conflict began I was deeply affected (I was 12 years old when the second America-Iraq war started). Still, I am confident that with serious work we can bring peace back to our home.
The one million dollar question is how to make people who have seen dead bodies and lost dear ones believe in peace again. After all, Iraqi people have suffered a lot and find it hard to get accustomed to the idea of peace. My work promoting peace verbally wasn’t enough, so I started looking for new ways to enhance an attitude for change in a post-conflict environment. I participated in conferences and exchange programs that focused on peace-building and volunteered in many community aid programs.
“I want to promote peace from within.”
This is when I learned about the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women program. The other participants and I took classes together, we proposed our disagreements loudly and we discussed them peacefully. But the thought of fitting all the concepts and ideas I had learned into reality was still a challenge. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed; it all seemed too complicated. This is when we met with PeacePlayers International, and heard about how they create peace in a very simple but effective way – through basketball.
The idea of using sports to bridge divides particularly resonated with me because I used to be part of my university’s women’s basketball team. The team was made up of Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Kurds, and Turkmens, but on the court we simply played basketball. I would pass the ball to the Christian girl next to me without even thinking for a second about all the sectorial problems going on outside.
Being part of that great team made me immediately recognize that building personal connections is at the heart of peace building. The concepts and terms are not just to be taught again to others, but should be in the way we act. Peace is hard to achieve if it is just lectured or demonstrated in a classroom, yet it is easier once practiced. This is what I want to do. I want to promote peace from within, starting with regular people like my friends and neighbors, and develop it not just with words, but also with action.
“It is my mission to make people more optimistic about their country and their children’s future.”
I was exposed to American culture before the Andi Leadership program, as a student at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. I often thought about America’s history, how they went from a nation of slavery through a bloody civil war and now have an African-American president. Regardless of the 2003 invasion – whether I agree or not – I came to believe that Americans have something to teach me. The invasion and the reasons behind it are history, and I won’t be able to change much about it, but it has led me to examine pre- and post-conflict situations, and given me a passion for peace transformation.
To me, Baghdad’s biggest hurdle is not its unpredictable security situation, but the established belief in people’s minds that peace is just a dream and we can’t do a thing to change it. This is my biggest conflict in Baghdad and it is my mission to make people more optimistic about their country and their children’s future.