Is peace defined by not being conflict?
Or is merely a lack of violence not enough when people suffer from systematic injustices and poor social and political systems, as I learned in my Global Peace and Social Development class last year?
Or can peace be as simple as bringing together people of many different backgrounds and identities to talk, listen, eat, and dance together?
In June I spent a week in Lillehammer, Norway at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue with 36 people who were dedicated to fighting for peace and against injustice. Hearing about the work they do was inspirational and life-giving and hopeful. I grew in my knowledge of the vast reaches of those working for peace in the world. But what felt even more meaningful was the moment I realized how close the 36 of us had become over such a short time.
Going into that week I knew shockingly little about the conflict in Ukraine, and shockingly less about the conflicts in the Balkans. I can now say I have good friends who are intimately familiar with violence in those areas, who have lost relatives, and who feel scared to work for peace for fear of imprisonment and torture (but who do so nonetheless). I understand much more now.
I came to this understanding by listening, talking, eating, and dancing. In a large part, it was really that easy. We had many difficult conversations, we disagreed on U.S. involvement in Syria, we cried over our friends’ losses, and we requested breaks when the dialogue became too much to handle.
But the main thing I saw us doing was building relationships, which can be incredibly simple and painless. My Ukrainian friends taught us to love Ukrainian music and dancing, I engaged in a rather violent game of Spoons (a favorite card game of mine)—followed by one of the longest and strangest Uno games I have ever played, and I fell to the ground giggling during an ultimate Frisbee match. Then, here in Oslo—where many of us joined over 500 students from all over the world to study in a variety of disciplines—we became each others’ lifelines. We went off to our separate classes and made new and fascinating connections, but with the certainty that if we needed someone to count on—whether it be for a hug, going out for coffee, or holding a seat during the crowded lunch wave—we could find one of our 30 or so Nansen friends amongst the crowd.
Steinar—one of our main teachers and dialogue leaders at the Nansen Center—once said (I’m paraphrasing but it’s pretty close): “this is not magic, what we’ve done here this week. We talked, we listened, we ate, we danced.” And yet we became a family, and we grew in our understanding of each other’s lives and daily struggles.
Can this, this method of having dialogue, really create peace? As our mentors reiterated time and again in Lillehammer, we will never know until we try.