Posted by Hugo Genest, Rotary Peace Fellowship Candidate
Global Grant Scholarship Committee Chair, Katie Burke, tells us that Hugo Genest was selected by the RC West Ottawa as their candidate for a Rotary Peace Fellowship 2017-18 (certificate program).  He is currently in Thailand at Chulalonkorn University and will be finishing his Peace Fellowship by April 10th 2018.
Wali gazes meditatively at the Mekong stretching before our eyes. “In the last week of January alone, fours attacks were perpetrated in Afghanistan. Three in Kabul, and one in my hometown of Jalalabad, which targeted Save the Children, an NGO dedicated to improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable. A friend of mine was killed in all of this madness. Terrible.” Wali stays calm. I don’t know how he does it. I want to peer through the veil of his resilience to find answers: Do you ever get used to the bloodshed? Do you become accustomed to incessantly shattered dreams? 
Omid Wali and I are Fellows of class twenty-four of the Rotary Peace Fellowship professional development certificate program held at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. This three-month intensive practical learning course is designed to train midcareer professionals in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Part of the program includes a local field trip in northern Thailand to learn about environmental conflicts surrounding the Mekong River. We just spent the day with representatives of grassroots organizations in the village of Boon Rueng to understand how they harness the knowledge of the local people to come up with a credible defense against development projects they perceive as harmful. We made it back to our hotel a few minutes ago and I decided to sit with Wali at the hotel restaurant, perched atop a small cliff overlooking the mighty Mekong. We chat about our impressions of the day, but the discussion quickly becomes an exchange on our respective realities and our reasons for being here. 
As a Canadian civil servant, I tell him, I worked on migrant and refugee programs and policies after a master’s in International Conflict Analysis in 2008. I joined the Fellowship to bridge the gap between the theoretical knowledge I gained a decade ago and the work on migration I have done for my government. I tell Wali that since I recently relocated to Ethiopia to accompany my wife who started working for the United Nations in Addis Ababa, acquiring practical knowledge on conflict resolution and mediation may help me make a difference, however small, in the Horn of Africa. Wali has more ambitious dreams: “I want to become Afghanistan’s Minister of Higher Education”. Curious, I want to know more about his life.
Born in Jalalabad at the end of Soviet-Afghan war, he grew up during the Afghan civil war and under the Taliban regime until he was 12. Graduating with a BA in 2012 from Nangarhar University in his hometown, he was quickly offered a position as a full-time lecturer of English in his university. In 2013, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do a one-year postgraduate certificate in Academic English Writing at the University of Georgia in Athens in the United States. In 2014, he resumed teaching English at Nangarhar University, but soon left for India where he did an MA in English with a specialization in English Language Teaching at Andhra University in Andhra Pradesh. He simultaneously did an online MA in Policy and Public Administration at the same institution and graduated with two master’s in 2017. That year, he resumed teaching in Afghanistan and worked on the creation and implementation of a new curriculum on peace studies that is now mandatory in all universities across the country. He then joined the Rotary Peace Fellowship in Thailand.
I am stunned by his ambitions for his country. Afghanistan’s dizzyingly complex realities and historical intricacies have bred so much violence. It is as if peace died in the treacherous Khyber Pass and never reached Wali’s motherland. Why try to become a Minister? I ask. One politician alone can’t be strong enough the reverse the powerful tides of war that have engulfed the county. Why bother? I wonder aloud. Wali clears his throat as if to get ready for a speech in front of a skeptic audience. “I strongly believe in the power of education to improve critical thinking as a bulwark against unintelligent extremist rhetoric, and to change perverse cultural patterns. We need to focus on the youth as they have the power to change old mentalities and vicious conflict dynamics. I know it works.” Visibly excited by the subject, he continues. “You see, I started a project with friends a little while back, where we tried to convince young people to give a flower to Afghan soldiers serving in their communities as a symbolic token of appreciation for their work to keep us safe. Just a few years back, engaging with national soldiers was frowned upon, as the prevailing extremist message that associated these men with ‘evil’ Western powers still resonated among many locals. But our initiative slowly helped change the mind of young people. Now I see soldiers being warmly welcomed in many neighborhoods. Baby steps. But it eventually leads to a culture shift.” 
Wali tells me that the Rotary Fellowship is one of these steps towards a greater goal. After the program, he wants to do a doctorate focusing on the role of communication in peacebuilding. Once this is done, the next rung of the ladder leading to the top will be his engagement in the political process in Afghanistan. “If I do become Education Minister,” he says confidently, “I will have to tackle corruption and focus on increasing the rate of attendance of women in school – their education is key to meaningful social change. Almost no girls could go to school under the Taliban; now they make up 30% of the overall student population of Afghanistan. My uncle was once vehemently against sending his sister - my mom - to school. Now, he takes his own daughters to class everyday. It takes a while, but you eventually get there. Baby steps.” 
Contemplating the Mekong as our conversation stops and the sun disappears behind the Laotian mountains on the opposite side of the river, I find myself wondering what this Peace Fellowship means for me. I have no grandiose dreams of holding ministerial office, or any lofty hopes of transforming the young minds of a war-torn country. But thinking of Wali’s story, I realize that while the lectures and practical learning experiences of the Fellowship bring me a lot, what makes the program a truly impactful experience are the other Fellows’ stories, experiences and aspirations. Like Wali, the twenty-two of them, hailing from nineteen different countries, help me draw inspiration and knowledge to guide me in my next endeavors. Frank and his unwavering commitment to protecting children in troubled areas of his native Cameroon; Kum and his steadfast desire to play a  role in easing the tensions surrounding the constitutional issues of his mountainous Nepal; Maria and her stubborn optimism in her work to support the peace process in her beautiful Colombia; Elizabeth and her tireless quest to advance women’s rights in her region of Kenya... and the list goes on. In a way, every Fellow is a giant on whose shoulders I stand to see further in my journey to learn how to sow peace more effectively.
I catch Wali reflectively looking at the Mekong. Maybe in his head, he is back home on the banks of the Kabul River that runs through his town, thinking about the future of his country and his role in it. Regardless of how far it all seems to him, he is already progressing in his mission: with the simple act of sharing his Afghan story by the Mekong, he is inspiring me to work harder for peace. 
Editor's Note — Hugo has an extensive international background:  he was a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Finland and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to Belgium as part of his Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis earned through the Brussels School of International Studies/ U of Kent, in the UK.  His work experience includes working for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as a policy analyst, working in Haiti as an short-term election observer, he working at the Canadian High Commission in Kenya as a Foreign Service Officer, working in Haiti at the Embassy of Canada as a foreign officer and working for the Consulate General of Canada in New York as a foreign service officer.  At the end of April he will be going to Ethiopia where he has lived since last September.  Hugo's language proficiency is in English, French and Spanish and he as a basic knowledge of Finnish, German and Arabic.