Tuesday August 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- "I wish everyone in the world could do this exercise," said Phoebe Connolly, Assistant Program Director of World Learning Youth Programs.

The task that Connolly gave to the 12 high school students was easy or, in the words of one of the participants, "easy but complicated." The students were split up into two groups and each given a written briefing of their hypothetical situations. Both groups were assigned the role of medical researchers. One group was trying to develop a serum to cure a fatal disease contracted by pregnant women; the other research group was hoping to create a medicine to combat the effects of a nerve gas leak. The problem was that both groups believed that the rare Ugli orange, and only the rare Ugli orange, would provide them the material necessary to create their cures.

"Today," said Connolly, "we are in desperate need of oranges." The students were paired off with the task of brokering a deal with one member of the opposite camp. One side argued that minimizing the effects of a nerve gas leak was the more pressing issue. Mohammad, a researcher on the other side, said, "I don't think his case is more urgent than mine. We're all people, and no one should die."

After a few minutes of heated discussions, hand shaking, and drafting of contracts, all the negotiations were finally completed. Connolly asked each group to explain what solution they reached and why they reached that solution. Some pairs split the stock of oranges 50/50, others ended their negotiations with a stalemate. As Connolly facilitated the discussion, she walked around the room, calmly peeling oranges and handing the peel to one student and the inside of the orange to another student. The students paid little attention to what Connolly was doing, except to murmur some confused thank you's. Finally, she asked one member of each research team to read a specific excerpt of their briefing. It turned out that the nerve gas group needed the juice of the Ugli orange to create their medicine, whereas the other group needed only the peel.

The room erupted into an out roar. "You didn't tell me that you needed the peel!" said one participant. Another shot back, "You didn't tell me that you needed the juice!" Then one of the students, Nouridin, explained the problem. "We were talking about solutions, not communication," he said. If both groups had more fully explained their situation, then they could have transformed the conflict into a collaboration. Given a lot of facts, little time, and the mindset to go and negotiate for as many oranges as they could, not one of the six pairings realized that there was a simple way to fix their problem.

The 12 teenagers who took on the role of medical researchers on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 14, were high school students or first year high school graduates from Libya. In addition to 12 youth participants, there were three adult mentors who also came from Libya as well. The group arrived at the SIT World Learning campus on Sunday, Aug. 11, and stayed there until midday on Thursday, Aug. 15, as part of the Christopher Stevens Youth Network Leadership Exchange Program.

In addition to the conflict resolution exercise with the Ugli oranges, the students and their mentors learned about different negotiation styles, engaged with each other in dialogue sessions, and participated in team building and fun exercises in the Vermont outdoors. The participants left Brattleboro to start the second leg of their journey. Half of the group went to Tulsa, Okla.; the other half went to Denver, Colo. They will be staying in those two cities for 10 days, living with host families, continuing to learn about conflict transformation and peace-building, and doing community-based programming. To end of their trip, the students and their adult mentors will meet back up in Washington, D.C. 

In February 2011, not long after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in neighboring Algeria, protests broke out against Muammar Gaddafi in Ben Ghazi, Libya. Gaddafi, who was indicted for two counts of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, had ruled as Libya's leader for 42 years. Under his regime, there was widespread media repression, imprisonment and "disappearing" of political dissidents, and violent quelling of protests. On Oct. 20, 2011, Gaddafi finally was killed and captured. However, Libya's path since Gaddafi has been rocky. The weak interim government has so far failed to deal with roaming militias or gain the public's trust. In a discussion on Libya's revolution, the participants in the Leadership Exchange Program agreed that it seemed as if the government had started ignoring the people.

Dona, a dentist and teaching assistant in the Faculty of Dentistry in Ben Ghazi and one of the adult mentors, said, "We're feeling a bit pessimistic right now." The situation in Libya is confused. Omar, another adult mentor, complained that "people are not politically educated in Libya," however this is not entirely their fault. He explained that there were around 200 or 300 names on the ballot for the General National Congress, an election held last July. Sarah, the other mentor, spoke about the sorry state of political campaigns. "It was mostly posters and pamphlets," she said. "We're not even trying to understand it anymore," said Dona.

The revolution in Libya had all the potential "to create a great country," said student Mohamed Ali, but it started "going another way." Mohammed Ali is convinced that the key for Libya's success is a strong army that stands by the people. "The Egyptian army is great," he said, and he hopes to see a Libyan army that can follow that model.

Aisha, another student, is afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood's increasing influence. "Islam is a beautiful religion," said Aisha, "but we can't let religious people control us." She worries that United States financial support of Qatar is making its ways into the Brotherhood's coffers. "Nobody wants them," said Aisha, yet their political clout is strong.

"People feel that there is a huge gap between people and government," said Omar. The students and the adult mentors are committed to helping their country's development. However, their ambitions lie largely outside of the political sphere. After 42 years of dictatorship and nearly three years of turmoil and political confusion, the group at SIT is tired of politics.

Nouridin came to SIT to learn about leadership. "Leadership isn't politics," he said. Nouridin is active in an NGO that combats hunger, and recently participated in a massive campaign to distribute food to help travelers break their Ramadan fasts even while on the road. When asked if he believed that hunger was a problem in Libya, he quickly and firmly said, "No." In Libya, "everyone helps each other out."

Sarah, a medical professional in psychiatry, battles the strong stigma against both mentally ill patients and those that work with them. She told me, with pride, that even without government, "things kept going. Services didn't stop," people kept going to their jobs. Sarah has a lot more hope in her community than she does in the government. During the first months of the revolution, "in my community, Ben Ghazi, we were very connected. In my whole life, I've never seen the community more collaborative than at that time."

Aisha works in an NGO that deals with the rights of woman and children. She was concerned, not only about the treatment of women by others, but also about the way women viewed themselves. In the 2012 elections, "women didn't vote for women," she said. "Most Libyan women don't even know they have rights."

Other participants in the program want to start youth programs, study ecology, and become human rights lawyers. Most of them came to this program to foster their leadership skills and to learn about American culture. What they probably didn't expect was to learn more about other Libyans. One of the student participants, Rawan, explained that she felt negatively about Libya's prospects before coming to this program. Now "I'm hopeful," she said. "I met this group of Libyans. They have so many ambitions."

Lillian Podlog will be a junior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., this fall. She is interning at the New England Center for Circus Arts.