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Light the Fire Within

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Emily Sinkovic | University Relations | 23 March 2011

Joining a youth community basketball team isn’t such a strange thing to do – unless walking into your teammate’s neighborhood means that you get pelted with rocks or urine-filled balloons. Your parents would probably be supportive of you joining the team – unless you had already lost them to AIDS. Basketball doesn’t usually connote the words peace or health – unless you play for PeacePlayers International. To individuals separated from their families, community members, or fellow countrymen by race, disease, religion, or politics, a dream of creating “peace internationally” is just that – a dream. That is why BYU–Hawaii was a perfect gathering place for PeacePlayers International managing directors and volunteers from South Africa, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and the United States in February 2011. 

BYU–Hawaii’s diverse student body has caught the attention of an international audience, and with over 70 countries represented on campus, the group couldn’t have selected a more fitting gathering place.  Dr. Chad Ford, director of the BYU–Hawaii McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding, has visited the program in Israel and Cyprus over ten times.  Eleven BYU–Hawaii students have accompanied him on trips, and three students have served as interns for PPI. This was the first time, however, that PPI’s international managing directors had set foot on the BYU–Hawaii campus.

During their visit, the group received peacebuilding training from Dr. Ford. The training focused on concepts from The Arbinger Institute, a friend of the university and international organization designed to help individuals and communities bridge gaps and improve relationships. Students involved in the Intercultural Peacebuilding program study the same curriculum that brought this unique group together. 

As the group stood in front of the McKay Foyer’s mosaic and heard those prophetic words we so often repeat of President David O. McKay’s vision for BYU–Hawaii, the generally boisterous group was quiet. “You mark that word, and from this school, I’ll tell you, will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally” Theirs, too, is a vision for peace and harmony among people with differences.

According to their website, PeacePlayers International, or PPI, was founded in 2001 with the vision that “children who play together can learn to live together.” The organization uses basketball to bring young people together and teach them life, leadership, and peacebuilding skills. “It’s important for us to use sports to communicate these concepts in a way that the kids will understand,” commented Spo Vilakazi, South Africa’s PPI managing director. The act of bringing the children together to do anything is an accomplishment in communities where the two sides of the conflict are as radically divided as in these areas. The ironically-named “peace walls” in Northern Ireland separate Catholic and Protestant communities, both literally and figuratively. A buffer zone stands between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Yet youth from both sides of the conflicts are willing to face the consequences of crossing those boundaries to shoot hoops with the other side. 

BYU–Hawaii students Katie Williams and Julie Hawke had the opportunity to accompany Dr. Ford on his visit to PPI’s Middle East location. Williams was impressed by the impact PPI is making; “I loved seeing the staff interacting with the kids. The coaches loved doing what they were doing and though the staff was small, they do big things for the kids.” In addition to doing “big things” for the kids, the trips, internships, and the visit from the PPI staff also have great impact on BYU–Hawaii students. Hawke emphasized the influence her visit to PPI had on her education, “It was putting theory into practice, and it showed me that having an influence isn't an idealistic notion. In a way, the trip solidified my education. After my interactions with PPI, I am seeing my classes and class material in a new light with a seen purpose. I've never learned better.”

With their hope to create peace, the group’s mission was probably more widely accepted on the BYU–Hawaii campus than in many of their home communities. In a forum for students, Marina Vasilara, the Cyprus PPI managing director stated, “Everything – the media, the parents, and so on – works against us. We have very few allies.” Yet these managing directors and volunteers press forward in their efforts to teach principles of peace and life skills to their youth and were eager to share with students the good PPI is accomplishing. 

On both a personal level and in the interactive forum, students probed the group for advice and inspiration about starting their own non-governmental organizations. One BYU–Hawaii student Mason Ison got advice from Tal Alter, PPI’s director of operations, about what makes a successful NGO.  “He was insightful and open to collaborating with our program in the future,” said Ison. “We have communicated since then, and PPI has even helped us in putting together a business plan. I admire that whole group of people. They are varied in their experience and abilities, but they each have a vision of peace.”

When questioned about their setbacks and challenges, the group shot understanding looks to one another and laughed. “If we could start all over again, I would start from where we are right now,” responded Joanne Fitzpatrick from Northern Ireland. “Like any program, you have to try it out. There are going to be mistakes, but you have to try,” added Vasilara.

“With so many setbacks, how do you know if you have succeeded?” questioned one student. Fitzpatrick responded, “If one Catholic child leaves friends with a Protestant child, I have reached my goal.” Their vision doesn’t end there, though. This group, like President McKay, believes in the power of individual leadership. Gareth Harper, managing director of PPI Northern Ireland summarized, “Our program is really about building champions for peace to light the fire within their communities.” 

Photo courtesy of Ke Alaka'i