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Catalysts for peace

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A Rotary Peace Center intends to strengthen peacebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa


When government officials in Saudi Arabia went looking several years ago for someone who could help establish mediation and conflict resolution as a pillar of the kingdom’s judicial reforms, they ran into a problem. “This was a bit sad to hear, but they said they couldn’t find an expert in the field who could speak Arabic,” recalls Sherif Elnegahy. Fortunately, Elnegahy, a Rotary Peace Fellow from Egypt, had just co-authored a book on the topic — in Arabic — and it caught the eye of the justice minister himself. The Saudis had found their expert.

One of about 100 peace fellow alumni working in the Middle East or North Africa, Elnegahy has expertise that is in high demand in a region with a tremendous need for peacebuilders. Elnegahy, who completed his fellowship in 2016 at the former Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, remembers calling out the need for such a center in the Middle East on his program feedback form. Now, he has reason to celebrate. This month, after years of planning, Rotary is announcing its newest peace center partnership, with Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. “It’s a dream coming true,” he says.

The certificate program will train peacebuilders who are from or have worked in the region, or who do related work elsewhere in the world. “This new peace center builds on Rotary’s long history of working for peace,” says 2006-07 Rotary President Bill Boyd, chair of the search committee for the site. “We will not solve every problem, but we will make a difference through the many peace fellows who will become catalysts for peace across the region.”

The Istanbul center is another step forward in Rotary’s plan to establish a total of four certificate programs by 2030 in Africa, the Middle East or North Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The program at Bahçeşehir (pronounced BAH’-che-sheh-hir) is the second of those after the center at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, which welcomed its first cohort in 2021. In addition, the two-decade-old peace centers program has five master’s degree offerings around the world.

Left: Turkey has been home to the largest population of refugees in the world in recent years, including more than 3.7 million people fleeing the war in neighboring Syria, like those at Suruç camp, seen here in 2014. Image credit: Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo. Right: Istanbul, home to the newest Rotary Peace Center, has been a crossroads of cultures since antiquity. Image credit: Ozgur Donmaz/Getty Images.

Establishing a center in the Middle East has long been a goal for Rotary. The need for trusted local leaders to become effective advocates for peace is greater than ever, as evidenced by the war between Israel and Hamas and other long-running conflicts in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere. “This center will provide a place for fellows to openly talk about long-standing conflicts and the future of the region, and to explore new approaches and paths to building peaceful communities,” says Laura Descher, director of the Rotary Peace Centers program. “The program presents an opportunity for them to examine issues of conflict, identity, poverty, and displacement, and discuss the complexities and possible solutions with each other.”

Among the 1,700 peace fellow alumni working in about 140 countries today are leaders in governments, nongovernmental agencies, education and research institutions, media and the arts, peacekeeping and law enforcement agencies, and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Some have founded their own organizations. They are working with refugees and displaced persons, young people, women and children, those affected by conflict and poverty, and others.

While only a small percentage of those peace fellows work in the Middle East, one of the goals for the new center is to build on that network of professionals who can create the conditions needed for peace by addressing the underlying causes and drivers of conflict. That concept, known as Positive Peace, addresses issues like poverty, discrimination, ethnic tension, lack of access to education, and unequal distribution of resources. To understand what that looks like, consider Elnegahy’s work.

The Otto and Fran Walter Rotary Peace Center at Bahçeşehir University will welcome its first students in 2025. Applications are being accepted through 15 May for the one-year professional development certificate in peace and development studies. It will accept up to 40 students a year. The curriculum covers peacebuilding, sustainable development, conflict resolution, diplomacy, mediation, and cooperation. During field studies, the fellows will examine refugee issues and land and religious conflicts, and visit disaster sites and frozen conflict zones. Learn more about Rotary Peace Fellowships.

He is a former public prosecutor and a chief judge in his home country who now specializes in mediation and conflict resolution. Elnegahy crisscrosses the Middle East, advising UN agencies and programs, the Saudi Justice Ministry, private companies, and others. The work takes him from packed courthouses in the Persian Gulf region to village streets in Egypt’s Nile Valley.

He has intervened in conflicts ranging from family revenge killings in Upper Egypt to disputes between major companies and communities, including one in which Egyptian farmers attacked workers and sabotaged the equipment of an oil and gas company. “The whole village went crazy over it,” he recalls. The solution he worked out over three weeks of shuttle diplomacy led to the company offering to use its influence to get the farmers permits to build shops and small businesses to cater to the project’s workers and bring the farmers income. “It was that simple,” he says.

In a similar case, he is working to resolve a dispute over a project in southern Egypt that is crucial to the country’s economy and to North Africa’s drive to become a major renewable energy supplier. He has also trained court mediators to settle disputes in civil, family, commercial, and criminal cases. While visiting some of his trainees in the Saudi city of Dammam, he was moved by the scene of three mediators dedicatedly working through a docket of cases involving hundreds of people standing shoulder to shoulder inside the courthouse. The vast majority were settling their cases before trial. “I felt that in a way I had touched their lives,” Elnegahy says. “They were able to put their conflicts behind them.”

With his help, Saudi Arabia now has a robust mediation program and has institutionalized the practice across the kingdom. The impact of such work goes beyond individual disputes. “It establishes an atmosphere of conciliation; it becomes part of a community,” Elnegahy says. “It’s not just war or litigation; there are other methods. So I think it spreads a positive culture when it comes to how to deal with our differences.”

Now, he’s training the next generation, teaching mediation to law students in Egypt and facilitating a nationwide student mediation competition. He also worked with UN Women, a United Nations entity advancing gender equality, to design and present a training program for young women peacebuilders from Arab nations. “The participants were amazing,” he says. “Any one of them is a future leader for sure.” The first cohort, in 2021, included women who went on to jobs with the UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the African Development Bank.

While a peace center in the region has been a dream for Elnegahy and Rotary for some time, the effort gained momentum with the single-largest gift to the peace centers program, a pledge of $15.5 million accepted by The Rotary Foundation from the Otto and Fran Walter Foundation in February 2021. The next challenge was selecting a university partner. Rotary has a smaller footprint of clubs in the Middle East and needed to be deliberate in choosing a host institution, and it is convinced it found the right partner. “We’re bringing Rotary’s global network and our reach, and they’re bringing their expertise about the region and about peace and development,” says Descher.

With campuses and offices in more than 10 countries, and more than 7,000 international students in Istanbul alone, Bahçeşehir University promotes a global focus.

Courtesy of Bahçeşehir University

Among the criteria, it had to be in a country with a Rotary presence, it needed to be accessible to all international students, and the university had to demonstrate a commitment to a true partnership with Rotary. More than 30 institutions in 11 countries were considered. Ultimately, three institutions were invited to submit full proposals. Besides Bahçeşehir, they were the American University in Cairo and Sabancı University, also in Istanbul.

Each had a particular strength in peace and development. At Bahçeşehir, for instance, peace fellows will benefit from a partnership the university maintains with the United Nations to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which address challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, and peace and justice. “Rotary Peace Fellows will participate in high-level diplomatic trainings and connect with United Nations experts working in sustainable peace governance,” explains Ebru Canan-Sokullu, dean of the university’s faculty of economic, administrative, and social sciences and director of its United Nations training center, called CIFAL Istanbul.

With campuses and offices in more than 10 countries, and more than 7,000 international students in Istanbul alone, Bahçeşehir promotes a global focus. “The university also stands out as a microcosm of the Middle East and North Africa, hosting many students from this region,” says Esra Albayrakoğlu, the peace center’s academic director.

When the Otto and Fran Walter Rotary Peace Center at Bahçeşehir University welcomes its first students in 2025, its success will also hinge on the involvement of the region’s Rotary members, who will host and engage with the visiting peace fellows and connect them with peace fellow alumni in Turkey. The country’s three Rotary districts have a long history in peacebuilding, including facilitating a major peace conference for the Balkans in 2014. Suat Baysan, past governor of District 2420, chairs a committee that works with the new peace center and Rotary International to engage local members with the program. The job for Rotary members, including those in the fellows’ home countries, will be to support their work and offer guidance into the future, Baysan says. “That’s so critical,” he says. He knows it firsthand, having traveled the region for years as a telecommunications engineer. He compares the work of maintaining peace to the detailed care engineers take to keep Istanbul’s bridges safely suspended over the Bosporus. “You have to take care of it all the time,” he says.

Sitting as a land bridge between Europe and Asia, the Anatolian Peninsula has been a crossroads of cultures and a center of empires — Byzantine, Seljuq, Ottoman — since antiquity. Today, the modern Turkish republic, a NATO member country of about 85 million people, is a regional power with influence in both Europe and the Middle East.

Its position straddling continents also made it home to the largest population of refugees in the world in recent years. More than 3.7 million came from neighboring Syria, where more than 12 years of war have wrought large-scale destruction and claimed at least half a million lives. Hundreds of thousands of additional refugees and migrants have come from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and other countries.

That rapid influx, along with inflation and other economic troubles, has strained resources and led to social tension. The catastrophic earthquake that struck Turkey and northern Syria a year ago magnified the trauma and pressures.

Left: Peace fellow alum Mustafa Öztürk is an associate professor in the school of education at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. He trains teachers in inclusive practices to integrate immigrant and refugee children. Right: Elif Avcı, a 2019 peace fellow from Istanbul, says the new peace center can serve as a hub for research and advocacy and “has the potential to be a transformative force in our region.” Images credit: Faid Elgziry.

Peace fellow alum Mustafa Öztürk is an associate professor in the school of education at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. He designs and implements continuing education programs for teachers, with a focus on training educators in inclusive practices to integrate refugee children and other disadvantaged students, many of whom have experienced serious trauma. Along the way, he’s come to realize that teachers can be powerful agents of peace.

He saw it happen in 2021, when violence erupted in Ankara after the fatal stabbing of a Turkish teenager during a fight with a group of Syrians. Mobs responded by vandalizing businesses, attacking houses, and overturning cars in an area of the capital home to many Syrian migrants and refugees. Öztürk says it was the neighborhood’s teachers who helped calm tensions. “They were entering the streets and they were going to families’ houses easily, without any risk to their safety because they were trusted by both sides, and playing an effective role in negotiating,” he says. “They have such a powerful role in bringing peace into schools and disseminating peace from schools to the wider society.” Having a peace center focused on the region, Öztürk believes, will open more such avenues for building peace throughout society.

Elif Avcı, another peace fellow from Istanbul, says the new peace center can serve as a hub for research and advocacy. She began her career as a child and adolescent psychologist. Since completing her peace fellowship at the University of Bradford in England, she’s been advocating for marginalized groups by helping them find a voice in local affairs and making sure those in power are listening. “The establishment of a peace center in Istanbul has the potential to be a transformative force in our region and be a catalyst for sustainable peacebuilding,” she says.

The opening of the new center is cause for hope. The region’s conflicts may seem intractable, but Elnegahy’s view is that peace and justice are possible, even in the aftermath of humanity’s worst atrocities. It’s an outlook shaped by an experience during his own fellowship half a world away in Southeast Asia. During a site visit to Cambodia’s Killing Fields, his faith was shaken seeing a woman crying in front of a tree where young children had been killed during the Cambodian genocide. That evening, he found himself at a circus, watching a performance that told the story of a child survivor of the Khmer Rouge who finds healing through art. The circus, he learned, was founded by survivors of that reign of terror who made it their mission to spread healing and joy. It was a stark demonstration, he realized, that we have the freedom, as individuals and as a community, to choose the path of peace. “It’s up to us,” he says, “to decide which mark we want to leave.”

Additional reporting by Diana Schoberg.

This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

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