Where are they now?
A recipe for peace
For a Rotary Peace Fellow, food is a catalyst for connection
A simple breakfast of rice porridge shook loose an amusing memory for the freedom fighter turned peacebuilder. While he had been living rough in the jungle with little to eat during the years of civil conflict in Cambodia, a compatriot was hiding a stash of sugar, secretly sweetening just a corner of his porridge in case the others got suspicious and asked to taste.
For Tania Miletic, an Australian peacebuilder then working in Cambodia, hearing the story of a lighthearted moment among brothers in arms revealed a side of her colleague she hadn’t known. “He’s a very private person I was working with closely and until then never talked about that earlier part of his life,” she says. “And there it was, this peppering slowly of small stories that were both insightful and delightful.”
These intimate conversations, she noticed, tended to happen over a meal.
In the two decades since that shared moment in Cambodia, Miletic, a 2002-04 Rotary Peace Fellow, has been tapping into the power of food to evoke memories, build connection, and foster an appreciation of one another’s shared struggles. In 2005 Miletic started working on what became a nonprofit called Peace-Meal Peacebuilding based in her home city of Melbourne. She and her partners in the project facilitate storytelling and reflection over shared meals to highlight the peace work of community leaders from areas of conflict, including Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Often participants share stories of the food they ate during times of hardship, revealing in poignant detail their struggles, their resilience, and a shared humanity.
“Food enables these moments of conviviality, of serious reflection, of laughter, and even dance,” Miletic says. “Sharing food can also exclude people, and there are lots of problems with our food systems, of course. But focusing on food is another way to foster connection and create conducive spaces for sharing and dialogue.”
Miletic’s journey to peacebuilding is rooted in her own family’s hardships. Her mother came to Australia from Italy in the 1950s as an economic migrant, working in factories and later as a cook until she died in 2000. Her dad grew up in present-day Croatia, where his father was killed by German soldiers during World War II. To avoid conscription in the turbulent postwar period, he fled his home and was placed for two years in refugee camps in Slovenia and then Italy before finding his way onto a boat of migrants headed to Australia.
- Rotary Peace Fellowship, International Christian University, Tokyo, 2002-04
- Founder, Peace-Meal Peacebuilding, peace-meal.org
- Assistant director, Initiative for Peacebuilding at the University of Melbourne, 2020-present
- Author of the forthcoming book Peace-meal: Stories and Recipes from Times of Peace and Conflict
Those memories resurfaced during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s when her father became transfixed by the wars in his homeland. “He didn’t speak about his past,” Miletic says. “But as he began suffering from dementia, my sisters and I started to see him have flashbacks to his traumatic past.” It was only after his death that they learned the details of his story from one of his childhood friends.
At the time, Miletic was a psychologist working to make mental health services more accessible to immigrants in Australia. But she wanted to understand the conflict in the Balkans and the tensions that extended a world away to second- and third-generation Croatian and Serbian Australians.
“I had not really heard about peace and conflict studies and didn’t know what the professional pathway to doing peace work was,” she says. “But I went back to university and did postgraduate studies, researching identity and conflict with those communities here in Melbourne.”
Coincidentally, Rotary’s work in creating that pathway through its peace centers program was just coming to fruition. An Australian Rotarian contacted Miletic’s research supervisor in search of candidates for the new master’s degree fellowship. Miletic was selected to join the first cohort at the Rotary Peace Center at International Christian University in Tokyo in 2002. “I loved doing the program,” she says. “It allowed me to pivot to take seriously my focus on peacebuilding, which has been all my work’s focus for the last 20 years.”
It was during a break in the program that she traveled to a remote part of Cambodia to do volunteer work and met the onetime freedom fighter, who by then had helped start a local nongovernmental organization dedicated to conflict transformation. After completing her master’s, she returned to Cambodia to volunteer with the organization. A month turned into a year and a year into more than a decade of peace work in the region.
Today, Miletic is assistant director of the Initiative for Peacebuilding at the University of Melbourne, where she focuses on strengthening the role of conflict prevention and peacebuilding in Australian foreign policy. But Peace-Meal remains her passion project. Miletic has compiled recipes and the stories behind them — painful, touching, and sometimes humorous — from more than 30 peacebuilders and plans to publish them in a book.
Contributors include Huot Thavory, a nonviolence trainer from Cambodia, who writes of hiding in the jungle as a young girl toward the end of the Khmer Rouge period. Skeptical that peace had really come, she was reluctant to emerge. But suffering extreme hunger, she dreamt of a favorite sweet and realized that returning home to the capital would mean tasting it once more. When she finally did, she devoured so many of the sweets she couldn’t eat them again for years.
In a chapter titled “Peace begins at home,” Miletic shares memories of her mother’s kitchen. Preparing dough for bread, her mother smelled of yeast, “of warmth, of comfort.” By itself, Miletic writes, yeast does nothing, but when mixed with flour and water it takes on the capacity for growth and nourishment. So it is with peacebuilders, she concludes, who create the conditions for social growth and binding.
What she remembers most, though, is another, simpler lesson about food and peace from her mother: “One always felt love and loved in that kitchen.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.