Peace is Possible - Building Leaders 4 Peace
April Klassen grew up in the Fraser Valley, but has found herself impassioned by the opportunities of a global world. The cultural exchanges she embraced as a youth led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in International Studies at Simon Fraser University. Upon completing her degree, the next 10 years of her life were spent working and volunteering with NGO’s in the areas of global development, and peacemaking. She has worked in France, Turkey, Iraq, Burundi, Bangladesh and Cambodia amongst other countries. Receiving a Rotary Peace Fellowship, she hopes, will help equip her in her work to walk alongside women and youth in areas of conflict. 


Rotary Meeting- Feb 23, 2021
Peace Scholarship Recipient April Klassen
I want to start this presentation on peace by reading a small quote.
“Peace is the only battle worth waging.” (This quote, which you may have heard before, was from Albert Camus, a French philosopher and Nobel Prize winner).
But while this quote sounds nice, or maybe even familiar. I want to read it to you again, in the hopes that it will speak to you in a different way. This time, I ask that you close your eyes as I describe where I was, when I saw this quote.
It was a hot mid summer day in Northern Iraq, just over 2 and a half years ago. I was travelling with a small group and we were about 20km away from the city of Mosul. The van we were squished inside stopped for us to get out and stretch our legs. We’d been driving for hours after having spent a the day visiting and working with survivors of ISIS camps. It was a day I will not be able to easily erase from my mind, although some of the stories we heard, I wish we could erase from history. We listened to women share about horrible atrocities and held them in our arms as they expressed their rage and sadness. And there in that car ride as we drove away, we were all processing what we’d heard. The stories were heavy, like the air now, hot, dry and reaching almost 50degrees Celsius. As we stepped out of the van, my foot stepped on something hard. I leaned down to look at what I’d stepped on. It was a bullet casing. The dusty dry road had casing scattered all over. I looked up at what used to be a beautiful little town. Fragments of the town were left in piles everyone. Rubble. Bombed out shells of buildings, broken pieces of glass, remnants of windows that used to house vibrant growing families. There was nothing left to look at except a tiny church steeple that had somehow avoided the last bomb. But then, as I walked down a dilapidated ally way, I saw a quote, which had been graffitied onto the side of one of the last standing walls.
“Peace is the only battle worth waging”
I have never forgotten those words.
My great grandparents came to Canada as refugees because of their faith, and my parents and sisters and I have lived in peace because of those hardships and journeys they lived through. The author of my faith is often referred to as the Prince of Peace, and in his example, peace came by presence and self-sacrifice. “SERVICE ABOVE SELF”… as Rotary would say. And so, I have been blessed by opportunities to take these words to heart. To work with refugees and immigrants around the world, predominantly in Europe, Turkey and Iraq but also here in Canada. These have been families who have started small businesses, schools, peace initiatives… Their stories of perseverance and hope have continued to inspire me and helped me to believe that how we live our lives matters. What we choose to invest our passion in matters. Not just for us, but for our grand-children and their children. I am thankful for organizations like Rotary, who believe in investing in PEACE. Because peace matters.
“Peace is the only Battle worth waging.”
What I want to share with you today on the topic of PEACE, is how the theme in my journey as a peacemaker, has been centered around the idea of PRESENCE.
I started travelling at a fairly young age, au-pairing in France for a family with twins when I was 18. I learned the language, the culture and was suddenly aware of how small and interconnected our worlds were. When I decided to pursue a degree in International Development my studies and continued work experiences which followed showed me again and again, how much we needed to learn from one another around the world, how our lives were connected and how building peace was more than a concept or theory. It took work, dedication, self sacrifice and required presence. SHOWING UP. It was when I met and spent time in the company of such amazing people that this concept of presence became to vital to my understanding of peace.
In my first years of work with Food for the Hungry, I met with survivors of a genocide in Burundi who learned to reconcile with neighbours after months of killing one another. Somehow they were re-building their lives and focusing on the future of their children. They spent time in one another’s physical space, re-humanizing those who had devastated their hopes, but new hope was growing.
Working in France for several years with refugee and immigrant families, the racial divides between French citizens and newcomers only seemed to ease when both parties began to spend time in one another’s homes. Playing together. Learning together. Seeing one another as friends and not as ‘the other’. Peace came through presence.
During peace camps in Turkey and Iraq, this theme of “Presence” or of being together became even more so apparent to apparent to me.
I want to share a short video with you about this project that I have been involved in for 5 years now. The peace camps, run through an organization called Building Leaders for Peace, started with a small group of friends who saw what was happening to Syrian refugees and wanted to do something. But not just from afar. Something that would bring our worlds closer together. To get us into the same space to learn about peace together. Through Building Leaders for Peace, we have now held camps for 3 years in Turkey and Iraq, before taking a COVID break. These camps have brought together refugees and host youth from these countries in order to be in the same physical space as one another. To create room. To invite people in. To see what walls break down when the presence of people’s from different nations, different beliefs and different histories come together, to collaborate, play and listen to one another’s stories.
You will see a young Syrian man in the video, talking at the beginning. His name is Ayman. He is a dear friend of mine. Who helped us get our first peace camp going in Turkey. He lost his home in the war, along with many of his family members. He was working for the Red Crescent in his city, Aleppo which was bombed to fragments of what it used to be. He would cross over enemy and government lines drawn through the city to retrieve dead bodies for family members. He never knew if he would be shot when he crossed the lines. When I met Ayman and heard his story, I knew I wanted to work with him in some way. Being up close and hearing his stories, HIS presence changed how I saw what was going on in the Middle East. It became personal.
And so, I joined a group of 20 or so individuals to start planning a peace camp. Here is a video from our first year:
Building Leaders for Peace is an initiative that has forever changed me. These peace camps, which we ran for 3 consecutive years in Turkey and Iraq focused on the idea of the power of presence. To create spaces for refugees, host country participants and for those coming from around the world. The week at camp includes a different theme each day of the week: Celebrating diversity (we shared music, food and games from our countries), collaboration (we built and created together, shared our resources), forgiveness (We shared stories, listened and make choices to forgive), leadership (learning what it meant lead from a place of peace, to impact others) and changing the world (we finished with a service project in the local context, something that was initiated by locals to the people they felt to serve).
Moving through the week there was consistent transformation in all of us. EACH CAMP. Because you cannot sit in someone’s presence and hear their story and not be moved. I saw young women forgive people who killed their fathers. I saw a Yazidi refugee in Iraq declare that he would put his gun down and forgive if ISIS walked into the room. I saw many of us from North America chose to forgive wounds from people in our own lives who had hurt us, and lean into the pain of brothers and sisters who experienced a different kind of suffering. We played games. We laughed. Danced. Told our stories and we forgave.
Each summer we wore t-shirts with different camp themes on them:
Peace is Possible.
Peace in progress.
These summer camps, which so inspire me during the year and keep us connected while we are planning and creating for summers ahead show me that I have a global family of peacemakers who want to invest their lives and their passion in something that will make our world different.
Peace is the only battle worth waging.
Many of the young men and women who attended the peace camps have gone on to start what we call “peace chapters” of their own. They are choosing to love their neighbours by bringing flowers to the hospitals, making bags of candy for refugee children at Christmas time, organizing womens’ handicraft classes to teach income generating projects. It’s beautiful. And each time we meet online to discuss what new ideas are being dreamt of, who needs help with what project, it’s time together, being in one another’s presence that reminds us of what we are working towards. PEACE.
In my current job I see the need for peace. Where I currently live in Vancouver BC, I work at the YWCA running a holistic employment program At Risk Youth,. I mentor and train youth who enter the program as refugees, Indigenous Youth and youth who have been in and off the streets or just coming out of recovery and/or abusive situations. Many of these youth, in their early 20’s have already experienced trauma and chaos. I love my job, and it is such a privilege to walk alongside young men and women who seek restoration in their lives. 
Brokenness, conflict, a need for peacemaking does not just exist ‘over there’. It is here. Yes, I saw brokenness in the refugee camps I have visited, on the Turkish-Syrian border town. But Yes, I see brokenness in the lives of the participants who attend the program I run at the YWCA. I also see the brokenness in my own life, and the lives of my family and friends. It is in each of us, in our families, and the stories we are living. And so often it requires our ‘presence’ to step into situations that are difficult. To collaborate, to share our stories, and to forgive. It is a life-long lesson that I am learning. But I do believe that this is where peace begins. With each of us.
I am so thrilled to have been accepted to the Bradford University on the Rotary Peace Fellowship Scholarship. I want to learn more about the agents at play in conflict and grow in practices which foster peace. I have chosen to study a MA in Advanced Practice in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution. The program includes courses focused on Middle East conflict, gender in conflict and peace building, as well as creative practices in peacemaking. I hope to glean everything I can from the professors and fellow peace practitioners that are attending, in order to grow as a leader in the arena of peace, to inspire others that we can work towards change together. I hope to be able to multiply the investment that Rotary is making in me, to impact others.
I truly believe that Peace is the only Battle Worth Waging. And I am grateful to connect with people like yourselves who believe the same.