I work for a charity called the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA). We try to make the world fairer and more peaceful in lots of ways, for example, by working with groups in Wales and partners across the world to change those what is unfair, to teach people about issues that affect everyone (like climate change or inequalities).
We also give people experiences that enable them to connect up with individuals from outside of their own bubbles. We all need the opportunity to tell people the stories of our experience, and through doing this with diverse audiences, we hope to share pictures of the world we live in.
Lately, though, I’d become sort of concerned that I’d not stepped outside of my comfort zone for awhile. My work, though always fascinating, had gained the glow of familiarity. This should have brought me a lot of happiness and it did to some extent.
However, in the shadows of that glow, I was really aware of how the world has changed in the last five years. The aftermath of Covid, the war in Ukraine, advancing technology, cyber security risks, the UK’s relationship to the world since Brexit and the advancing urgency around climate change have all changed us in extraordinary ways. I felt that I had lost touch with the world I was working with so, when the opportunity to join a Taith peace exchange to Belgium came up, I agreed to go along.
Taith is Wales’ answer to the Erasmus+ programme (the UK withdrer from Erasmus+ following Brexit) which enabled people to take part in international exchanges to build connections, understanding and peace. The exchange I was to be part of involved taking university students to Brussels to a Peace Conference at the Flemish Peace Institute, and learning about peace-building. I only a little about peace building. I knew little about leading an exchange. I knew very little about Brussels. I reasoned though, this was a good chance to learn.
It’s hard to fully explain my first impressions of the trip because, in the run up to the day we left, I think I secretly believed it wasn’t really going to happen. I read and re-read the itinerary (at the time, a huge number of organisations with either Peace and Europe in the title that blended together in my mind). I ensured I had all the tickets, the plug adapters, the multi-purpose shoes. However, when I stood on that platform with five strangers, that was the first time that it hit me. We were actually going to Belgium.
What a strange proposition that was. We were mostly strangers to one another, with little to no knowledge of where we were going or what we were doing. It was like walking up to someone on the street and saying “Hiya, I don’t know you from a hole in the ground. Want to come to Belgium?” (to be fair, we do have a screening and induction process for exchanges, but even so, it is a strange experience!).
When we arrived, of course we knew nothing about the area and the first day passed in a blur as we went/got lost from place to place and met the people we’d be working with. Those first few days were like opening a huge jigsaw puzzle and gradually starting to find the corner pieces, then the sides, and then finally a picture starts to come into view.
The picture of us as a group also started to grow. By day three we had subconsciously and collectively allocated roles to different members of the group, and gotten to know each person’s habits. One of us was the “maps guy”, developing a sense of the city’s layout almost instinctively. One of us was a natural leader, clearly able to put together what needed to happen way before the rest of us got there. Two of us were early sleepers. One of us was the joker, always able to bring a smile to sometimes quite stressful circumstances. The list goes on. It was a great lesson to me that living an experience is very different to talking about it. I had carried out countless pre-departure trainings for trips just like this one. I had spoken about the stress of it, the unexpected friends and how as time passes, you adapt to these new people, this new environment. Somehow, though, what I noticed happening felt like a minor miracle.
By the time the conference rolled around on day five, we had become each other’s “people”. The people you sought out in a crowded room, the ones you checked on, and the unspoken friendship of that was heartening to watch.
As a group, we were also starting to learn. The different organisations we’d heard about came into focus when we spoke to them and heard about their work…it was like looking at a jungle in varying shades of green. Initially, the whole ecosystem had simply looked green but as our eyes adjusted, we could see how each part supported another part. How each one part, in fact, relied upon the others. Part of our role during the conference was to report and summarise on the talks we’d been part of and, when the time came to summarise, I realised we had somehow learned the language of this conference. A crucial part of that was that we did it together. Walked out of lectures asking “what did you think?” and reflecting together, sometimes debating together the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments we put forward.
By days eight and nine when we were writing final reports, it was apparent to me that we were not quite the people I’d stood on the platform with a week earlier. When the peace institute worked with us that final day, they were beset by questions. Where was the next study going to take place? Did they work with other organisations, which organisations? What might they do in the Autumn? We were students who, having ingested so much knowledge, didn’t want to go until we had absorbed everything we could. When the final day came, one of our group said: “It’s just hitting me that we’re never going to see each other again.”
A play therapist I worked with once held a session on goodbyes. She told the group that “the goodbye is only painful if the experience meant something to you.” I really felt that truth as we travelled home. Our journey back was very difficult, beset with delays and last-minute decisions but one thing I was grateful for was that I didn’t have to say goodbye to all of the group at once. With each one, as they peeled off to go to their separate destinations, I felt a tug of farewell and wanted to tell them how their courage, their intelligence and their warmth had put me back in touch with a world I had been away from for awhile.
Luckily, we will have a debrief. We will have opportunities to work together again and build on those connections and all of that learning because, when good things happen, you have to keep hold of them. Here’s to the next adventure.
A trip like this is not possible without a large amount of work from a large amount of people so I’d like to thank all of the organisations who supported us. Thank you to the Flemish Peace Institute (Flemish Peace Institute (vlaamsvredesinstituut.eu)) for hosting us and teaching us. I would also like to thank Taith for the funding and the experience (Homepage – Taith – Wales’ international exchange programme), an opportunity that I hope more young people will take up and apply in the future. I’d like to thank the Quakers for teaching us about their peace building work including mediation and policy development, the European Peace Institute European Institute of Peace (eip.org) about their practical development of peace in the global South, Catherine and the team at Wales House for helping us to see the links between Wales and the World. WHEB. Finally, thanks so much to my fellow travellers and the supporting team at WCIA Welsh Centre for International Affairs – Welsh Centre for International Affairs (wcia.org.uk). Thanks for bringing your sense of adventure.