Peace Through the Eyes of Refugee Youth

By: Sophia Dianne C. Garcia

What does peace mean to you?

This question, though simple, can be one of the hardest to answer. I have learned in my classes and professional experiences that peace can be defined in many ways. It is shaped by multiple factors: experiences, culture, gender, and home country. Each person has their own perception of peace. 

Have you ever wondered what peace means for young people who had to leave their home countries to seek refuge and safety? Let me share with you my experience as an intern of Owl & Panther (O&P), a US-based organization in Tucson, Arizona. O&P offers opportunities for refugee survivors of torture and their families to find community, recreation, and solace through the power of expressive arts. The organization has three key main direct service programs:

  • Expressive arts
  • Community building
  • Engaging with nature

Currently, 76 individuals participate in O&P programs. On Thursdays from January to April 2022, the organization facilitated art activities and delivered donations for hundreds of Afghan parolees—Afghan Nationals who have been granted temporary entry into the United States through Humanitarian Parole.)

I am blessed to be involved in all O&P’s programs. One of the most memorable experiences I had was a peace essay-writing contest we organized. In February, I developed the contest for five O&P youth participants ages 16 to 19 years old. I mentored three of the youth in writing their essay. Each of them had unique perspectives and it was a meaningful learning experience. 

This internship is my first time working with refugees. Being a mentor took a lot of patience and perseverance. I worked hard to ensure participants enjoyed the process of writing their essays as much as or more than the final product. This is one of the main philosophies of O&P: process over product.

The poster for the Peace Essay contest
Andi Hammonds, program director of Owl & Panther delivering opening remarks during the Peace Essay Awarding Ceremony. Also pictured here is one of the youth participants and his mom.

Returning to the question at the beginning of this blog post, here are excerpts from the essays of all five participants on what peace means to them:

“. . . peace means the part where there is freedom. A kind of peace where there is no war; a place where there is no hate and aggression. Peace is needed wherever you are.”

“Peace is the path we take for bringing growth and prosperity to society . . . Peace is not the absence of chaos and problems, but it is the art to stay calm, focused, and united even in the middle of those.”

“I believe that providing education and eliminating poverty, inequality, and exclusions are the areas to work on to achieve peace both within and outside; from personal to interpersonal. And that can’t be done without a complete understanding and acceptance of ourselves and others. That is what peace is for me. It has many layers which are all interconnected. Where one cannot exist without the other.”

“Peace is about reaching our full potential as individuals, strengthening our faith and spirituality, and living in harmony with others. I am hopeful that one day, peace will reign in the world we live in. It is indeed the greatest thing in human life and the journey to peace begins with you and me.”

“From a very young age, I learned that it is essential to think about what peace means. Not only was it important for me to think about what peace meant on a more personal level, but what it meant on a global scale, because of the differences in experience for each person. With all the time I have spent contemplating what peace means, I have determined that peace is equality and is achievable through people striving to be accepting, humble, empathetic, and honest.”

This essay-writing contest gave me an opportunity to get to know these youth better. It became a window for me to have a glimpse of their experiences and their perception of peace. Truly, it has many levels. 

It has been five months since I arrived here in Tucson for my six-month internship as part of my Masters of Global Affairs program. I have learned so much about refugees, their experiences, and how O&P empowers them through its programs. It has deepened my understanding of peace as a process and there are many ways we can build it, including the use of arts. 

As the O&P youth reflected in their essays, being at peace with oneself, doing activities to stay calm and focused, taking part in raising awareness on issues that threaten peace, building genuine relationships with people, and the power of community are all essential in the journey to sustainable peace.

Donations for O&P programming participants

You may ask, what does peace mean to me? 

For me, peace is not just the absence of war, it is also the presence of justice and well-being. 

How about you? What does peace mean to you? It’s worth considering.

Standing in front of the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix during a 
Refugee Education Day event led by We Are All America, 
a refugee support organization.

Top photo: Art activity session with Afghan kids who arrived at Tucson in November 2021