Now that the holidays are over, a new year stretches out before us. In my faith tradition, the weeks prior to Christmas are a time set aside for preparing for what is to come. It’s a time of waiting and reflecting on the current state of affairs, both externally and internally, and most importantly, on the love that still needs to be born into the world. The days are the shortest, and nights the longest during this time of year, and indeed, the world has seemed like a very dark and cold place as of late. The very publicized terrorist attack in Paris, and the less known but equally tragic attacks in Beirut, Nigeria, Baghdad… the rising wave of Islamaphobia, the refusal of desperate refugees from the shores of a country at least partially culpable for their circumstances, the assurances of our politicians that they have what it takes to stomach massive and indiscriminate bombing of thousands of innocent people in the name of “defending” the United States…the list of the elements of darkness seem inexhaustive. But in all of this darkness, there was one very powerful point of light that renewed my hope and reminded me that collectively, even scattered little bits of light can be transformative.
The occasion came as an unexpected invitation to host a group of women leaders from East Asian and Pacific countries at IJPC. The Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council is the local coordinating office for the U.S. Department of State’s premier exchange program, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The council builds global understanding and promotes international awareness through education, information and exchange of people and ideas. They work in cooperation with the government, companies, as well as cultural and educational bodies. The visitors were handpicked by our U.S. Embassy because the work that they are doing in Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New guinea, Republic of Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam in this career field. Along with IJPC, the delegation also visited the American Red Cross, Matthew 25 Ministries, and UC’s Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice while in Cincinnati.
They reached out to IJPC because our mission of educating and advocating for peace, challenging unjust systems, and promoting the creation of a non-violent society matches some of the themes they traveled here to explore during their tour, including examining the roles of women in political transitions, post-conflict reconstruction, humanitarian emergencies, and peace-making efforts. They sought to engage activists in thoughtful discussions regarding current peace and security situations and challenges throughout the world and to explore the role of faith-based and secular organizations in responding to political, social, and economic challenges. The bios we received for this prestigious group of women were incredibly impressive, and I was honored, excited, and a little intimidated about our visit all at the same time.
There was great interest in understanding how we go about mobilizing our citizens, how we influence politicians, how we address injustices on both micro and macro levels. We were asked what we do to keep ourselves spiritually and emotionally balanced while spending so much time and energy involved in such heavy work. As we discussed safety strategies we quickly realized that some of these women risked targeted attacks for speaking out against political authorities and that the freedoms we take for granted in the US make the work we do far less dangerous than it is in their countries. We were challenged to take the role we play in foreign affairs very seriously. The women reminded us that many countries in the world still look to us for leadership and protection, but that we do not act impartially or consistently. In particular, we were cautioned that the crisis with ISIS will most surely escalate even further if it is not addressed judiciously. I was both embarrassed and frustrated that the popularity of Donald Trump and his racist rhetoric is causing the people and some of the governments of these countries deep anxiety and fear. One woman who wore a hijab talked about fearing for her safety as she arrived unescorted to a US airport. She said many people from her country are canceling plans to visit here because they feel unwelcome and afraid that they would not be safe. They are getting the message that Americans hate Muslims though I tried to assure them that Donald Trump does not speak for many of us (the majority of us, I hope). The concerns they expressed about the US echo our own concerns, but there was an urgency with which they spoke that seems lacking from our own citizens. Again, I was struck by the unfair position of privilege from Which Americans operate. We can laugh at the absurdity of Donald Trump, but they must take it all very seriously. We may be worried about terrorism on our own soil remembering the horrible events of 9-11, but our daily life experience is one of general safety and security. It is a stark contrast to the violence and war that characterizes life in some of these countries.
It was a deeply moving experience to sit in this circle of women, sharing the painful challenges of each one’s country, including our own. We were from vastly different cultures and faiths, but there was a common sense of respect and appreciation for one another. The exchange of ideas and strategies, the concern expressed and support offered as one woman after another articulated the injustices they were working to correct created an immediate and strong sense of sisterhood among us. I found myself feeling protective of these beautiful women and that feeling strengthens my resolve to continue to work for world peace. Though the issues discussed were difficult and complicated, I felt a surge of hope knowing that there are women (and men) all over the world, working in tandem for justice and peace. It renewed the faith I have that the work we are doing is not fruitless even during the darkest of times. With a grateful heart for this experience, I look to 2016, a year full of hope and promise!
Andrea Koverman, SC , IJPC Program Manager
Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council does not own or claim to own these photos.