An interview with Nhial Deng on the International Day of Peace by Charles Falajiki
Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Nhial Deng. I am 21 years old and I was born and raised in Western Ethiopia in a place called Gambella. My father originally comes from South Sudan and moved to Ethiopia more than fifty years ago during the Sudan Civil War. In 2010, I fled to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya when our village back in Ethiopia was stormed by armed militias.
The attack separated me from the rest of my family members and I had to trek on a two-week journey to reach safety in the Kakuma Camp, where I have spent the last ten years of my life. I have been able to find hope and education; and this is an opportunity that I have to build my life and look towards the future, fulfilling the dream from when I was a child.
Why do you work for peace? What's your motivation?
When I was fleeing my country as a child, I saw young people like myself picking up guns to fight. I took a stand that, if young people are not too young to fight, they are not too young to lead and contribute towards building a more peaceful and safer world for themselves and the generation to come.
From my experiences, young people often bear the heaviest burden and devastation of armed conflicts and it is crucial that they are seen as not only victims but also as key actors in achieving long-lasting peace in conflict-affected countries. That motivated me a lot to encourage young people to realize their inner power and use it in building a safer world for themselves and generations to come. I’m passionate about the Sustainable Development Goals as a key to transform our world and my work focuses on advocacy, quality education, policy-making, peacebuilding, mental health, human rights, gender equality, and social entrepreneurship.
What has been the impact of your work since its inception?
I have been engaged in several community-based initiatives in different societies and I am passionate about volunteering as a force for social growth. When I was in high school, I helped set-up a Peace Club at my school and this club included students from 10 different nationalities. The students came together to learn about peace and conflict, get peer support, learn basic negotiation skills, and have dialogues on how to promote peace in their communities. This was a great forum for young people to learn peace building and how they could promote peace in their communities.
When I graduated from my school, I founded the ‘Refugee Youth Peace Ambassadors’, a refugee-led initiative which works towards enhancing peaceful coexistence between different communities in Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei integrated settlement, empowering young people as ethical leaders and social entrepreneurs. By the end of 2019, we had reached out to more than 1000 young people in Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement with our activities.
I am a member of the Amala Youth Advisory Group, formerly called Iskia school. It is a global high school for refugees where I empower young people with skills that help them to be agents of positive change and social transformation in their communities and we have programs in six different countries. So far, more than 100 refugees and members of the host community in Kakama have graduated from our program.
What's your interpretation of a peaceful world?
Peace is when people are living together in harmony and it's the foundation of building a nation. I truly believe that we cannot achieve sustainable development without peace and stability. Peace is when everyone has an equal opportunity and makes a living regardless of their race, religion, gender, nationality, social status, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other aspect of identity. It is when everyone has human rights and access to the basic necessities of life such as food, clean water, shelter, clothes, education, healthcare, and a decent living environment. Everyone lives in safety without fear or threat of violence and no form of violence is tolerated by law.
Why should the International Day of Peace be celebrated?
The International Day of Peace should be celebrated for two reasons. First, it is a timely reminder and an opportunity for us to track our progress towards building a more just, peaceful, inclusive, secure, and sustainable world and also it as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment towards building a more peaceful and safer world, make personal pledges, and hold ourselves accountable. I believe that accountability is very important when it comes to achieving anything in life and it is crucial that we hold ourselves accountable for building a more just and peaceful world.
How do you think we can achieve Goal 16 of the SDGs?
Looking around today, I see the greatest challenge towards building a more peaceful world is leadership. From my experiences, I often think that we use the wrong approach of trying to solve the results of bad leadership by giving out tents, food, and water to vulnerable communities. This will not stop these crises. I think we can only solve our problems fully by developing ethical leaders and entrepreneurs who will ensure everyone has an equal opportunity in their communities, put the interests and desires of their communities first, and make the rule of law the guiding star. And most importantly, I also feel that it is crucial that young people are also given a role, in fact a huge role in building a peaceful world and I will always say that we don’t only deserve a seat at the table at the peace negotiations, the whole table should be brought to young people because it is their future.
What has been your greatest challenge as a changemaker?
To me, I would say the greatest challenge as a refugee is that you're often approached with first with people’s perceptions of you, meaning you have to work extra hard to prove that they don't define you. I also think this is a challenge that young people face. Young changemakers are often seen as inexperienced, untrained and unable to achieve.
How do you approach challenges?
Over the last few years, I have been able to grow the power of my heart to heal and deal with the challenges I face every day. To me, I see challenges as an opportunity for me to learn what doesn’t work and approach the situation with a stronger and bold solution. So, I don’t see them as challenges at all, I see them as opportunities. I take them as learning opportunities and renew my approach to a situation with a positive mindset. That will put you in a great position to see and identify opportunities within that situation.
What advice would you give to other changemakers working to make the world a peaceful place?
As young people, we will inherit all the problems our world is facing today if we fail to take action now. That’s why it is crucial we own our voice, break barriers in our communities, and disrupt systems of power. But most importantly, let’s lead with empathy and be comfortable taking the back seat. Let’s see the communities we work for as partners, not beneficiaries. Let’s listen to them and ensure our work is informed by their voices. There can never be an effective solution without the people that have been affected. Let’s bring those we are trying to serve to the decision-making table at our organization or initiative, making sure that they can participate fully. Finally, let’s be brave, courageous, and demand change now. Our Time, Our Turn, Our Future.
Where do you see yourself in the near future?
I have so many big and scary dreams. But first, I hope to have the opportunity to return to my home country and join young people in rebuilding our nation. I also hope to be able to use my voice to advocate for refugees and engage policy-makers, government officials, and the institution that dominates the world of the displaced. Lastly, I hope to continue seeing young people thriving and playing a key role in building peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable communities.