[hope against hope]
Serenity Seekers
Carving out a path through the thorny field of conflict resolution
by Kelly Knufken

Pursuing a master’s degree in Peace Studies has been a gratifying educational experience for Zacharia Akol (left), Monya Kian and Yusuf Gawany.
All of them say that finding a balance between being optimistic and realistic is one of their biggest challenges.

War has touched their lives. They’ve seen too much. It’s made them seek ways to make peace.

Monya Kian, Yusuf Gawany and Zacharia Akol are three of the 10 students working toward master’s degrees in Peace and Justice Studies at USD this year, and they want to make a difference in the world.

Kian lived in Iran until she was 6. She’s thought a lot about her heritage and how it’s complicated her career choices. It turns out that those in the peace field often have to carve their own path.

“Had I not had the background I’ve had, maybe I wouldn’t even care (about peace),” she says. “Your background really does shape who you are. Sometimes I think, ‘Why can’t I be interested in architecture or want to be a doctor?’ Being young and being in Iran when a war was going on, I was thinking about these things at a young age. It’s been with me since day one.”

She knows that she can’t change the world overnight. Her current plan is to become a U.S.-based consultant focusing on mediating local dissent, and maybe serve as a contractor for the United Nations and travel to conflict zones to help arbitrate larger conflicts. She hopes she can someday help make progress on such issues in Iran as women’s rights and the choking pollution she experienced there when she visited her native country a few years ago.

Gawany is proud of his country’s peaceful posture, but he’s seen firsthand the effects of war on his home continent of Africa. He lives in Tanzania and works for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He left his family — a wife, a son and a daughter — to study in the program affiliated with the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice for a year.

“I am a humanitarian at work,” he says. He hopes to bring the conflict resolution skills he learns at USD to the camps where he’s been helping protect refugees who’ve been fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1994.

“You could imagine where you have 100,000 people living, you could have a lot of good and bad coming out of the situation,” he says. “You have constant conflicts. You need to work on it. As UNHCR, we are there to protect the refugees. That protection is broad — you have mental protection, physical protection and legal protection.”

Akol, meanwhile, was living a normal life in 1983 when Sudan crumbled with the outbreak of war. He left his family at age 9 to head to Ethiopia, and lived in Kenya before coming to the United States in 2001 as a refugee. Like the others, he looks to the Peace and Justice Studies program to sharpen his conflict resolution skills.

Since moving to the United States he’s been active in speaking about the problems of Sudan, and plans to continue in that educational role as long as he is here. Akol formed the Sudan Awareness and Support Group as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. He plans to eventually return to Sudan, where he hopes to work with organizations trying to make a difference. Despite the peace agreement signed in 2005, he is far from optimistic about the prospect of peace in his country.

“With the mobility that I have had for years, I learned to be very optimistic and hopeful about certain things, but I have not been hopeful about the situation in Sudan,” he says. “I wish that something else could be done. The direction that things seem to be going is not very promising.”

Kian, too, worries about conflict involving her native country.

“I used to be really, really optimistic,” she says. “Now it depends on the day, truthfully. It’s hard to see the news (about conflicts between the United States and Iran) and think they’re going to work it out.”

Still, a sense of hope creeps back in when she meets others committed to working on problems, whether in her role as a board member of the United Nations Association’s San Diego chapter, or when she meets others who aren’t content with the status quo.

“We can’t go on like we are. People need to realize hardcore politics and fighting wars doesn’t really lead to peace.”