Last week marked the fourth annual United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Forum, a three-day conference held in Doha, Qatar. The UNAOC began in 2005 as an initiative of the Spanish and Turkish governments with the aim of creating alliances across different cultures and sectors of society. Its focus was and remains on education, youth, media and migration. Over 2,500 participants attended this year’s Forum, including heads of state, academics, business leaders, journalists, activists and many other representatives from a broad range of backgrounds. I flew halfway across the world to be there. Why?
It wasn’t because I was dying to see Doha, and it wasn’t because I particularly enjoy 13-hour plane rides. Nor was it because I like large crowds of people. In fact, I hate them. Rather, I went to Doha because I believe in the power of alliances — across borders, mindsets and civilizations — to change the world. I went because I believe we can’t achieve alliances among civilizations without first achieving them among individuals. I went because knowing you have friends in the same business — particularly if that business is dangerous or unpopular — is vital. As an activist, I am familiar with this reality firsthand.
I’ve been an activist since I was 13 — younger if you count organizing the neighborhood kids around successfully lobbying the ice-cream man to adjust his route and include a short drive up our inordinately steep hill. At 13, I was the treasurer of my 8th-grade class, and ethnic cleansing was the in-thing in the former Yugoslavia. After seeing the cover of Time magazine feeaturing a photo of an emaciated man in a concentration camp, I decided I had to do something. So, I proposed sending the several thousand dollars we had in our Student Council coffers to a hospital in Croatia. Everyone else voted to spend it on a dance. Though I attended the dance, I spent the whole time walking around with a collection bin, soliciting money for the hospital. I amassed a couple hundred dollars (mostly from teachers), and quickly learned that being a human rights activist wasn’t going to make me popular.
Nevertheless, I kept doing it — eventually starting my high school Amnesty International chapter, writing countless letters to military dictators and demonstrating outside of Shell Oil stations while my classmates went on dates and attended Friday night football games. Justice and Human Rights were my love interests, and Speech & Debate was my sport. In effect, I remained an activist — through high school, college, law school and graduate school. I also remained relatively unpopular. No one gives awards for that kind of stuff, and fighting for social justice often makes you more enemies than friends. At least that seemed to be the case back then.
These days, however, it’s not necessarily so, and my short stint at this latest UNAOC Forum helped prove that to me. There’s something illuminating, even sacred, about hanging out with over 2,500 people speaking God-knows-how-many languages, discussing current events and pressing global issues with the lofty goal of creating alliances across civilizations. When I was a kid petitioning the ice-cream man and the CEO of Shell Oil, I had no idea that forums like this even existed. But today, I do, and more importantly, today, thanks to bold initiatives like the UNAOC, other kids like me do too. Now, we are included in the dialogue, and I know this because I met more such comrades in Doha than ever before — young people who think it’s cool to be into human rights, young people who are leading movements and revolutions around the world, young people who are tearing down barriers between cultures and civilizations.
At this latest UNAOC Forum, I had the privilege of moderating a panel of several such luminaries. The panel focused on youth political participation and activism, and the panelists included a 21-year-old Moroccan medical student, an Egyptian blogger, two Palestinian activists, an American artist and a Polish-Canadian political leader and organizer. A diverse bunch to say the least, but they were all young activists bringing about positive change. Through the Forum these young activists, myself included, were able to learn from each other, and even more importantly, to recognize they aren’t alone. It’s the kind of realization that can make all the difference, the kind of realization that can spark and maintain movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and it’s the kind of realization that’s well worth traveling halfway across the world ten times over.