Debunking What it Means to be a Global Citizen at the Inaugural MiSK-UNDP Forum

Debunking What it Means to be a Global Citizen

at the Inaugural MiSK-UNDP Forum

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In 2011, a lack of economic and political opportunity fueled what became known as the Arab Spring movement. Although Saudi Arabia was less involved than its Middle Eastern neighbors, the country’s frustrated youth still mildly petitioned for economic and political progression; they wanted to be heard.

HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia listened and founded the MiSK Foundation; a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth through education, media, culture and technology. Six years later and MiSK has come to the United States; teaming up with the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, to enforce their mission of empowering young people to utilize a global mindset for change.

Last week, MiSK-UNDP hosted their first-ever stateside forum in New York City. Grounded by the foundation’s mission to promote tolerance for sustainable peace and development, the forum brought together over 400 international leaders, visionaries, representatives and entrepreneurs to address some of today’s most challenging topics in our rapidly-growing world. Headliners among these discussions included former NYC-mayor Michael Bloomberg; former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright; Director of Programs at the Elman Peace Centre in Somalia, Ilwad Elman; and the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake.

Philanthropist Muna AbuSulayman (right) on Leaders Empowering the Next Generation to Create Tolerant and Peaceful Societies

Among the messages of diversity and inclusivity, emerged the visible product of what happens when we embrace our differences, rather than setting them aside, to use them as fuel to combat topics that affect us all as human beings. From violence rooted in terrorism and extremism; understanding the refugee crisis; and practicing tolerance–or as Madeleine Albright suggests, respect–the one-day forum existed as a way to cultivate what it entails to exist as a global citizen.

Preventing Violence

According to the MiSK-UNDP press release, “Nearly 600 million young people live in states that are conflict-ridden and fragile…yet youth in every region of the world see themselves as global citizens with a wealth of opportunity ahead of them.”

So, in a world where violence has become so mainstream that positive news headlines exist as a shock to our numbed systems, how do we re-focus the conversation and reset our systems to not accept this state of humanity? The predominately female-led panel on preventing violent extremism wants us to start with understanding why young people convert to violence and to keep that discussion relevant; something panelist Nicola Benyahia shared through her firsthand experience.

In 2015, Benyahia’s 19-year-old son ran away to join the Islamic State in Syria. She spoke to the small changes he exhibited in the year and a half leading up to his disappearance–wardrobe changes, a new hairstyle, and work disruptions–small changes she could only understand in hindsight, and all behaviors that are also typical in teenagers.

Benyahia left the audience with two key points surrounding radicalization; just because we’re seeing less news stories on teenagers leaving home and converting to radicalization, doesn’t mean it’s not still happening. Secondly, although humans are wired to think of young kids as symbols of innocence, these radical groups are only recruiting younger and younger; therefore, ignorance will not aid in combatting extremism and must be replaced with awareness.

The female-forward panel on Preventing Violent Extremism. From left to right: moderator Zain Verjee, Nicola Benyahia, Arizza Ann S. Nocum, Hajer Sharief, Steven Siquera

While her story and experience captured the conversation, the rest of the panel–UN Deputy Director of Counter-Terrorism, Steven Siquera; Overall Head of KRIS Library, Arizza Ann Nocum and Co-founder of Together We Build It, Hajer Sharief–also weighed in on the significance of community support in counteracting extremism. The panel also tackled the role of women in preventing extremism by using their inherent qualities to settle disputes peacefully. This is particularly important for international female leaders who can openly set an example that violence isn’t the only way to solve issues; if violence is removed from the headlines, hopefully it will be removed as a societal norm.

Embracing Diversity

For a conference with more than 400 attendees from 50 different countries, diversity was a naturally apparent theme; however, embracing diversity doesn’t come so naturally in many social settings.

The forum focused its conversations on collaborating and using inspiration from different cultures to curate progression, but also dove deep into the theme of adopting diverse practices and abiding by a diverse lifestyle. This was highlighted as part of Michael Bloomberg’s speech on living in a metropolitan generation, where cities cultivate the ideal environment for becoming a global citizen.

The idea of practicing inclusivity, discussed in a panel focused on leaders empowering our next generation, as well as one of the workshops, ‘Inclusion of Refugees,’ depicted that it’s necessary to talk about something that makes you uncomfortable, in order for change to be most effective.

As part of the ‘Inclusion of Refugees’ workshop, a mix of refugees and coaches who have worked with refugees discussed one of the largest human crises the world is currently facing. Founder of Omaha Talons, Koang Doluony, shared his firsthand experience of shedding the label of ‘refugee’ after he left South Sudan, stimulating an audience-wide realization that simply because a refugee may have escaped a horrible situation, does not mean their life is now hurdle-free. 

“One of the hardest things in my status as a refugee has been my relationship with the world around me,” said Doluony. “We’re naturally social creatures, but the label that comes with a refugee means people constantly undermine why I’m here.”  

After Doluony’s confession, the workshop was split into smaller groups, where the audience was asked to brainstorm other hurdles that refugees may face not just during their initial adjustment period, but possibly for the rest of their lives. Obstacles ranged from the obvious language barriers, professional setbacks and isolation, to less evident obstacles such as identity struggles of living in a new country, only to be recognized as an outsider.

Panelist and Vice President of Deaf Planet Soul, Zaineb Abdulla, concluded the panel with a message that the most important thing we can advocate for is communication. “If we aren’t listening to their [refugees’] voices and giving the ability for them to speak for themselves, we are missing out on a huge, important voice.”

Practicing Respect

Although tolerance was the original term coined for many of the day’s panels that included  ‘Building Tolerant and Peaceful Societies,’ and ‘Tolerance for Peace and Sustainable Development’, by the end of the day ‘respect’ had replaced ‘tolerance.’ This was due to former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright’s explanation that tolerance means ‘to put up with;’ and instead of simply ‘putting up with’ someone, we should instead respect them.

The various panels and workshops focused discussion on how tolerance can be taught and that humans aren’t born to hate a certain race or religion. Thus, the importance of introducing different faiths, cultures, and backgrounds at an early age are significant in developing a more global perspective, and as a result, a more ‘tolerant’ or respective outlook.

Ilwad Elman, Co-founder of Elman Peace and Human Rights Center

One exceptional piece of advice that honed in on respect also came from Albright, straying from what society may typically experience with racial or religious tolerance. Albright highlighted a unique perspective on sexism and how women don’t always make it easy for one another, as “they don’t always support each other; they don’t always respect each other.”

“Anyone who says the world would be a better place if only run by women have forgotten high school,” said Albright. “Women don’t always support each other.”

It was this idea of not just supporting one another, but also of listening and communicating with one another that emerged as the common thread throughout the day’s discussions across violence, diversity and respect. And as the forum concluded, I couldn’t help but leave with one quote playing over and over again in my head. One quote that seemingly encompassed this entire theme of communication.

It was spoken by Ahmed Badr, writer and social entrepreneur behind the art project of “UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage;” a movement to share the stories of refugees’ past and present in an effort to ‘humanize’ their path to a new life. Badr is 19-years-old and a refugee himself; his speech captured the definition of a global citizen as he took the audience through finding out his home in Baghdad was bombed by militia troops, to relocating to Syria, to moving to the United States. This was his story, that became the inspiration for him to tell other refugees’ stories.

And that’s exactly what the first MiSK-UNDP Forum was about–sharing stories. Stories of difference, of hope, of change. Stories from leaders and stories from youth to share unique perspectives and to open communication between generations. Badr explained, “Because, really, the shortest distance between two people is a story. All you have to do is listen.”

Stories of tolerance. Stories of respect. But mostly, stories of truth, stories of reality. Stories that the audience could listen to and hold onto in order to keep the conversation going outside of the forum’s walls. Stories that hopefully became the audience’s inspiration to live as a more global citizen.

All photos courtesy of Rasha Sidahmed

Jillian Dara

Jillian grew up an island girl but converted to city style after living in Boston, London, Santiago, and now, NYC. She is a writer, editor and content creator with a desire to share stories in the lifestyle genre. With a particular focus on travel and profiles, she prides herself on sharing the most authentic story for those who aren’t able to share their own.

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