AN INTERVIEW WITH A SUMMER YOUTH FACILITATOR: Haifa Souilmi discusses life in Tunisia and hopes for
Tell us about yourself:
I hold a BA in English and an MA in American Studies from Manouba University in Tunisia. I am a trainer in conflict resolution. In the past I have taught English and French in Poland, Turkey and Tunisia and participated in youth leadership programs in Tunisia.
In 2015, I led an Arabic language course and organized cross-cultural events at SIT Graduate Institute as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant. While at SIT, I took courses in Post-War Development, Peace-building and Conflict Transformation, and Youth Program Leadership and Design. Following the completion of my program, I became a Drama and English Teacher in a Tunisian International School and I continued my involvement in civil society as a member of Amnesty International and Tunisian American Alumni Network.
How does being a woman and a Muslim shape your peace-building and conflict transformation style?
There is a Quranic verse from Surat al-Hujurat that has been inspiring me throughout my life, "O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you should despise one another). Indeed the most honorable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous." As a Muslim, this verse sums up my understanding of life and humanity. Allah created us to be different but we are all equal in front of him. Only our good deeds and what we have to offer to each other matter. We were created different so that we can learn from each other and we are supposed to honor our differences because they are a source of knowledge and growth for the human race. That always keeps me aware of the importance of preventing violence and hatred and establishing sustainable peace. On the other hand, as a woman I have learned how to be patient and resilient while facing prejudice and underestimation. Being a woman and a Muslim has always played a crucial role in shaping my holistic style in approaching conflicts and peace-building. Virginia Woolf once said ''As a woman I have no country, as a Woman I want no country, as a woman my country is the whole world''. While I do have a country and I am proud of being a Tunisian Woman, I do believe that I have a responsibility to advance the cause of peace beyond geographical boundaries and contribute to making the world a better place for all people regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or any other difference in identity.
Why are you interested in serving with young American, Israeli, Palestinian peace-builders this summer?
As someone who grew up in what is known as the MENA Region it has been nearly impossible for me to avoid the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I studied about it in high school and at university and I grew up watching and discussing its impact on innocent people. I remember how hopeless and helpless it felt because there was nothing I could do that would actually make a difference. This brings me to the reason why I am eager to contribute to JPB's interfaith peace-building efforts. I believe I will make a real difference through touching peoples' lives, which will have a positive impact on the future of peace in the Middle East and the world as a whole.
What do you hope to contribute and learn this summer at JPB's Leadership Institutes?
Through speaking and presenting at JPB's Leadership Institute in Vermont, I am hoping empower young American, Palestinian, and Israeli youth because they represent the future of peace. I also think this is a great opportunity for me to learn more about other religions and practice my skills in interfaith dialogue.
What's the hardest thing you've done in your life?
When I reflect on my life I remember many challenges and it is really difficult to choose one experience as the hardest because each one of them felt very difficult at the moment. But I believe the hardest yet most enriching thing I have done in my life was traveling abroad. The first time I traveled on my own was when I went to Poland to teach and I believe it was the hardest because at the time the situation in my own country was not stable in the aftermath of the revolution. I was very worried hearing the news reports about the assassination of two political leaders. At the same time, I tried to keep myself focused and balanced between my teaching duties and working on completing my MA degree. It was a great experience though because it challenged me and taught me how flexible I can be.
How can the lessons from Tunisia's history and experience in the Arab Spring benefit Palestinians and Israelis?
Looking back at the overall history of this small North African country that goes back to more than 4000 years ago can inspire us to understand that there is always hope even in the darkest times. It also teaches us the intrinsic value of dialogue in times of heightened insecurity and hostility. In the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution and what came to be known as the Arab Spring, the socio-economic situation became very unstable. It was shocking for Tunisian people to witness the assassination of two politicians in less than two months. The political conflict was exacerbating the violence and it seemed that a civil war was looming. However, Tunisia's active civil society and leadership played a crucial role in starting a national dialogue. For sure, I am aware that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is very different than the situation in Tunisia but I believe we can still learn a lot from it regarding the importance of dialogue in times of conflict and the role of civil society, not only in resisting injustices, but also in peacekeeping.