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Making peace

A Q&A with N.L.’s first Rotary International Peace Fellow

special feature: Energy

Energy: A special feature examining Memorial University’s impact on resource management, human energy, social power, energy and society.

By Dave Penney

Holly White, BA’05, Dip. in ESL’05, M.Ed.’15, sees hope when others focus on despair.

It’s an essential perspective when your passion is working in a field that combats global violence and discrimination.

In 2016 Ms. White was one of only 50 successful applicants from all over the globe named to the highly respected global peace program sponsored by Rotary International. She’s back home in N.L. after an intense 15 months that included academic work and a field placement in Istanbul, Turkey.

DP: Tell me about your background. How did you get involved with the Rotary International Peace Fellowship program?

HW: I go back to my involvement in student leadership programs and volunteering at Memorial as an early influence, which really affirmed my interest in community-building work.

As a young professional, I completed a Rotary International group study exchange to Japan in 2009, and later I worked with the Association for New Canadians here in St. John’s for a few years. I spent some time working with children in Thailand after completing my first degree, and my most recent position before getting accepted to the Rotary fellowship was with the Marine Institute as an international program officer.

So, the desire to do community work, and do it on an international level, elements of that have run through everything I’ve done. I was aware of the fellowship program and, after a rigorous selection process, I was accepted. It was a dream come true for me.

DP: Describe the master’s program you completed. What is your specific area of interest?

HW: I went to the University of Bradford’s Rotary Peace Centre in the U.K. and completed a master of arts in peace, conflict and development.

The University of Bradford is a pioneer in this area and they were my top choice among the five centres around the world where I could have been placed.

Holly White presenting at the annual international Development Studies Association conference in Bradford, U.K., September 2017.
Photo: Submitted

I have a background working with resettled refugees, so that’s something I was really passionate about, looking at social cohesion and social tension and how to build peace when you have those differences. That’s what guided me in seeking out the field placement in Turkey.

DP: Can you provide some context on the refugee situation in Turkey and how it relates to your work?

HW: Turkey hosts about 3.5 million refugees, which is the largest number of any country in the world, and 3.2 million of those are Syrians who have fled the conflict in their country.

By law they have access to emergency health care and education for their children, but this isn’t always the reality. Many of these people are working as part of the informal economy for nothing or meagre wages and transactional sex is a major problem. Abuse of women and children, child labour, human trafficking and just blatant discrimination is widespread.

Koc University in Istanbul.
Photo: Submitted

I was working at the Migration Research Centre at Koc University in Istanbul and was able to get involved with a number of projects. One of the main ones was looking at how Syrians react when they are in moments of real or perceived stigma or discrimination.

Ultimately, the goal is helping the Syrian and Turkish people in developing an understanding of the barriers to social cohesion and how to better navigate the power imbalance that comes with the refugee label, to safely address issues of prejudice and discrimination.

You have to remember that true co-existence is almost an impossibility because, while many Turkish people have been incredibly kind, generous, and welcoming — from the perspective of some Turkish people, these newcomers are undercutting them, willing to work for cheaper wages and perform more precarious employment.

It creates a lot of animosity, violence and discrimination, in all aspects of life.

DP: What were the results of that work?

HW: That study is still ongoing and is being led by Dr. Cetin Celik, who is a widely respected sociology professor at Koc.

“Almost every single person gave a detailed, heart-wrenching account of how this place was still safer than their home.”

In terms of my own impressions, it was very powerful to hear the stories of people who were facing all kinds of struggles in their attempts to create a life in Turkey, and some of them had been very badly hurt or victimized.

Yet, almost every single person gave a detailed, heart-wrenching account of how this place was still safer than their home. And they were hopeful, about their future and making a life for their families.

And that same sense of hope drives the professors and researchers who are leading this work. Their research will inform policy, which will inform programs and have a direct impact over the long term. It was both humbling and inspirational — and I feel like it sums up my own perspective. You can’t move forward in this work without hope.

Holly White (second from left) and colleagues from the Migration Research Centre at Koc University (MiReKoc) taking in some culture in the Fatih region of Istanbul.
Photo: Submitted

DP: What’s next for you?

HW: For now, I’m happy to be home and spending time with friends and family, and I’ve recently started a contract with the Association for New Canadians here in St. John’s so I’m enjoying that, as well.

My long-term plan is to find work with one of the international civil society organizations, such as a United Nations agency, or international non-governmental organization that supports social cohesion, refugee support and peace.

I’d like to work in zones that are near to conflict zones, which are often areas in the global south that have their own challenges with infrastructure and resources. There are significant implications in these areas when you have an influx of people, along with conflict among the fleeing group as well as with the communities they are fleeing to.

Working in areas that address these broad issues around forced migration and social cohesion — that’s what I’m interested in.

DP: What advice would you give to students or others who are interested in this work?

HW: From the student perspective, I would reiterate the importance of getting involved in our Memorial community, to learn about yourself and the many positive ways you can contribute to whatever community you are in.

“When it comes to peace work and community building — you don’t need to do that globally to make a positive impact.”

Academics were great for me at Memorial as well, but it was the fantastic student leadership and volunteer programs that made the difference for me, personally and professionally.

I would add that when it comes to peace work and community building — you don’t need to do that globally to make a positive impact.

So, I would start with doing something at home to explore your interests. There are also many courses and resources offered free of charge, online publications and communities, and websites dedicated to peace building and conflict resolution. Look into these things to figure out where your interests lie.

And I’m happy to chat with anyone interested in this field. Send me an email.

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