War & Peace: The Intangible Effects of being a YFUer
December 17, 2021 23:52
For a long time, I’ve focused a lot of my education and free time on Armenian studies and activism. I’ve always been passionate about Human Rights and, living in a Buenos Aires, a city with one of the biggest and most vibrant Armenian communities in the world, I felt compelled many years ago already to get involved in their their demands for justice and recognition related to the Armenian Genocide.
As some of you might know, in September 2020, a war erupted between the Republic of Armenia and its neighboring country, Azerbaijan. Due to my involvement in the Armenian community, I was quick to align myself with their cause and even participate in their rallies demanding a stop to the war. Argentina is really far from the Caucasus and has no Azerbaijani community at all, so I always heard only one side related to the conflict that was behind this war, the continuation of a war that had happened 30 years ago.
Even though I am, and have been, very involved in the YFU network for over ten years, I’ve had almost no opportunity to meet Azeri students or volunteers before. One day during this last war, I received an Instagram message from a volunteer from YFU Azerbaijan, Gülüş. It was just a shy and polite “hi”, but it started a conversation between the two of us. Many people always assume I’m Armenian because of my Armenian-sounding last name and my activism, so I assumed at that moment, since there is no YFU Armenia, she might have seen me as an Armenian to reach out to. After all, we all know that if we are YFU volunteers, reaching out to a fellow volunteer is always a guaranteed way to have a safe and friendly conversation.
I guess what made her say hi to me was the same reason that led me to answer right away and fuel our conversation. We’re both very active YFU volunteers; an organization built to promote peace in the world, and suddenly one of its member countries is at war. This puts some of our YFU values at play. What are we doing to promote peace? Did we fail?
Our interactions made me quickly realize that I had never heard the “Azerbaijani version” of the conflict in depth. But it was so much more than that. It woke up something in me.
I started to get more and more involved in the war that was going on at the moment, and realized that there were so many things that I assumed were common sense for everybody, and suddenly found out they weren’t. The online discourse between Armenian and Azerbaijanis was so full of negative stereotypes, dehumanization, and racism that I never imagined could be so blatant. I was used to most racism being “subtle” and indirect in my surroundings; the blatant kind I saw when discussing the war, and the violent narratives and actions it fueled, was really shocking. It made me realize that me, her, and almost everyone I know in the YFU community, share so many values that we are unaware of. Maybe we are also unaware of how important and strange these might be in some contexts. Somehow, I realized I had a “gift” of tolerance, respect, and understanding that my involvement with YFU for so many years had not only given me, but also led me to naturalize this openness. I assumed everyone was like that because I was always surrounded by like-minded people,
but they aren’t. And this created some conflict inside me. How much am I promoting peace by fostering exchange between Argentina and, let’s say, Latvia? Is there really a bilateral conflict that these exchanges can help improve or avoid? Am I actually following YFU’s mission of promoting world peace by helping improve relations that aren’t broken to begin with?
I quickly started to try to communicate with my Armenian friends and try to see how I could somehow help build bridges with other Azerbaijani people. I invited Gülüş to some online meetings with an Armenian friend to try to see what can we, as regular citizens, do to make a difference in such a terrible situation. Just sitting and watching was not enough for me.
The war lasted for only 44 days, but had devastating losses on both sides. The nephew of one of my best friends was one of the almost 7,000 soldiers that died in the war. The majority of soldiers there, just like him, were young conscripts doing their mandatory military service; most of them between 18 and 21 years old. The age of many YFU volunteers.
After talking with several friends, participating in social media debates, webinars, watching the horrors of the war, and much more, an idea started to take shape in me. In December 2020, just a few weeks after the war was finally over, with two online friends, an Armenian and an Azeri, we decided to start a project of dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijanis, called Bright Garden Voices. The idea and the format were innovative, and, after a successful first meeting in January, it gained a lot of social and press attraction in both countries and is still going strong to this day. From our initial team of 3, we quickly grew to a team of over thirty Armenians, Azerbaijanis and others, working in a platform which we believe does its small part in fostering peace between both nations through dialogue.
After some months, I was talking with my Azerbaijani co-leader of the team, Rauf, and he told me he had lived in the US as a teenager. “How come?”, I asked him. He replied, “I was an exchange student when I was 16”. Yes, he had been a YFU exchange student from Azerbaijan to the US through the FLEX program almost 20 years ago.
And then it hit me. And it all made sense.
Being a YFUer, and everything we do in YFU, builds you up as a human being with extremely important, yet unknowingly rare values, which will come into use when you least expect it. Our YFU exchange and volunteering is like a “training ground” to develop these important personal traits and core values that do, indeed, help make a difference in the world. It was not a coincidence that two of the three organizers of this project were former YFU exchange students; it was the values that the YFU experience instilled in us; those same values that inadvertently brought us together. Listening to the “other side”, trying to have empathy and understand your “fiend”, realizing the other person is also a human being with feelings, believing peace is the only solution, being fervent anti-violence and anti-war; these are some of the values and practices that I wasn’t totally aware YFU had developed in me. I have now realized through this experience, not only in me, that we share these common traits in the wonderful YFU community. It makes me realize why our mission and tasks are as important and relevant now as they ever were.