by Bianca Neff, Executive Director
So what is this Petra Peacebuilders? What do we do? And more importantly, why do we do it? What's our story?
The answer, as with so many things in life, lies in the heart of a person. The individual in this case is me, Bianca. I founded Petra with the aim of addressing what many of us feel is a crucial and dangerously neglected element within the humanitarian sector: that of resilience.
Shift of Focus in Bradford, 2010
Here's how it went down:
I was working toward my Masters degree in Conflict Resolution at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK as a Rotary Peace Fellow in 2010. I had it all figured out: After having worked in Kyrgyzstan and Morocco in grassroots endeavors using my BA studies in cultural anthropology, I was now pursuing an MA in order to combine conflict resolution studies with my anthro degree to provide cultural consulting to high-level mediators and negotiators to understand the radically different cultural contexts in which they operate. I'm a native of the United States, and 30 years of failed or absent diplomatic relations with countries like Iran and Cuba weighed heavily on me. I felt this path would be my contribution to international peacebuilding. My studies centered on applied mediation, reconciliation and dialogue in radical disagreements, mainly in a Central Asian context.
Yup. I had it all figured out!
But then I met someone who changed my entire trajectory...
The story behind the Public face
She was the wife of a student colleague of mine. They are Palestinian. Without going into too much detail, he was involved in a number of well-known grassroots organizations fostering peace in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is a sought-after public speaker and I quickly came to see why: The man is simply incredible. He is a former combatant who, after critical encounters in prison with real people from "the other side," now works arm-in-arm with other Palestinians and Israelis laboring for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Furthermore, they are one of the many families who have lost a child from this nightmare; their young 10-year old daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper. My friend works closely with one Jewish brother in particular whose 14-year old daughter was also killed, by a Palestinian bomb attack. They work now arm-in-arm as brothers to help transform the conflict.
In my eyes, there are no greater heroes. These people are just on another level entirely. Few people, if any, have the authority to speak to these issues of reconciliation and conflict transformation in the way that they do. And one of them became a beloved friend of mine during our course of study.
I found myself in this Palestinian family's home one evening (in northern England, remember), just sharing some tea and some time together. I had gotten to know the husband as a fellow student and friend in different discussion groups, etc. but I didn't know the wife at all. To my knowledge few, if any, of our cohort did. She had her hands full raising their five children and mainly stayed at home, not to mention that she didn't know much English.
What That Encounter Did to Me
Meeting her changed everything for me.
It was a simple encounter, but in the midst of the few words that were spoken there was so much more that was left untold.
I left that simple tea with a thousand questions about her:
- Who is this woman who finds herself in a foreign culture so far away from home who, after just 5 minutes with her, I feel a kinship bond where I feel I'd be willing to do anything she asked of me?
- What is it like for her to be home so long while her husband studies all day and then often leaves on the weekend for speaking appointments throughout the UK with his peacebuilding work? Does she get lonely, and how does she cope with it?
- What must it be like for her to raise her 5 surviving children in the UK school system, in a strange culture where she doesn't speak the language? The family has followed dad all the way to England as he pursues this valuable degree for the sake of their work back home ... but behind the public face, which is him (whom I positively adore, don't get me wrong), do people see the supportive family members who need attention and resources, too? In short: Who is caring for this woman?? If the answer is "No one," then how can I help change that?
- Has this precious woman had anything so basic as grief counseling even now, 3 years after the murder of their daughter? More likely she has been left to fend for herself, to put one foot in front of the other for the sake of their critical work, though she may still be dying of grief inside.
- Does she have any idea there is someone like me who deeply cares about her well-being? Does she know how tremendously valuable her role is in the peacebuilding efforts of that conflict? I imagine that her well-being and resilience are connected to that of her husband's, who is the public face in this operation. Does she know that someone is deeply concerned about their mental and emotional health and is staying up at night racking her brain, asking herself which lasting solutions will make a practical difference?
- What could I and my networks do to help keep these people happier, stronger, and more resilient against the million challenges they faced daily?
These and so many other questions about this woman and others just like her flooded my mind and they would not leave me alone.
It all started in that one encounter back in 2010.
Fast-forward a few months to summer 2011, when I was conducting my dissertation research on Afghanistan. (If you know me well, it won't surprise you that Afghanistan also plays an important role in Petra's conception...)
My impossible dissertation topic: Reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, that is, exploring the ways in which the many actors in that quagmire could and should be looking to include the Taliban not only in political negotiations but also in social reconciliation as major stakeholders in Afghanistan's political and socioeconomic future. (<Whew>) Not a very popular topic, but one I was (and remain) deeply passionate about.
Some crazy stuff went down in Afghanistan during the summer of 2011. I watched that summer -- shocked, horrified and wounded in my heart, as if it had happened to someone I knew personally -- as the Taliban murdered a series of high-level politicians including President Hamid Karzai's brother and also former president Rabbani (who sat on Afghanistan's High Peace Council). These men were seen as ones who could possibly broker a peace deal in the current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan national government. I was so vicariously wrapped up in that peace process that when these assassinations occurred among all the other mayhem, the effect on me was devastating.
My response after the initial shock and grief came to be a very telling one for my future and the future Petra Peacebuilders. My immediate response was, "Who is caring for those most affected by the assassinations of these high-profile leaders: their wives, sons and family members? Who is walking with them through their grief and loss? Political leadership can be a lonely, scary place with few you can trust -- so who is there to provide the safe place, the shoulder to cry on, who will support and sustain them during dark times so that when the sun shines again, they will hopefully come forth stronger than before with a message of light, hope and reconciliation to share with the world instead of one of darkness, bitterness and revenge?
A Growing Passion for Strengthening Courageous Peacebuilders
As I'd seen in the lives of my dear Palestinian friends: No one has more authority in the message of reconciliation than someone whose flesh and blood has been murdered by the other side. If these people can extend their hand to the other side after what they've suffered, anyone can.
I started to see this work -- that of the carer rising up in me -- as being much deeper than about just these Afghan politician's widows themselves. I saw the seed of the valuable message of reconciliation they might already carry within them, if there are people in place to walk alongside them and help foster it until the time is right to speak that message forth. In my view, there is very important work to be done in preserving and augmenting the power of the peacemaker in so many situations...but first, they must get the personal care they need.
In fact, getting that necessary care and accompaniment as they walk from brokenness toward wholeness may be a key element in the process of preserving compassionate humanity in the midst of pain and suffering.
So the question naturally followed (a question to which I hope Petra Peacebuilders has begun to become a constructive answer): What is the peacebuilding sector doing to preserve in courageous peacebuilders the dignity, the compassion and the capacity for reconciliation in order to grow that irresistibly powerful force for peace? What part can I play behind the scenes with strategic peacebuilders in transforming evil into good, the type of good that no one would have imagined out of the original tragedy?
Pain is Raw Material for incredible Peacebuilding
This long-running dialogue between my head, my heart, my intuition (plus lots of prayer asking for God's wisdom) led to my current stance on all this stuff.
Bad things are going to happen, those experiences are unavoidable. But when difficult things happen in the lives of peacebuilders, whether that's post-traumatic stress that paralyzes, or depression that clouds, or anxiety that inhibits -- these realities aren't the end of the road by any means. They can and must be transformed, because these are actually the raw materials for very, very positive peacebuilding. (There's lots of work that's been done and written about this dynamic.)
The only problem is, no one can do this kind of work alone for too long. Transformation is often most profound -- not to mention safest -- in the context of community. Who is walking alongside peacebuilders, caring for them in their hour of greatest need?
These people are too valuable to lose, and the global peacebuilding endeavor desperately needs healthy, whole people who are deeply in touch with the message of life and reconciliation inside them.
So who is caring for these people?
Answering My Own Question
Petra Peacebuilders was founded to be the answer to that very question.
I've always heard that if you have a strong burden for something, chances are high that you may be the most apt person to be the answer to someone's prayer to meet that very need. That's pretty applicable in this case.
With time, I came to the realization that there are other people who can capably do the kinds of peacebuilding work I thought I'd be involved in. But hardly anyone was doing anything about mental health and emotional resilience, at least not in the way I felt it needed to be approached. It was then I decided to change my current trajectory at great risk in order to address the need.
The need for resilience in this line of work was nothing new to me. I was already aware firsthand of the many hurting, traumatized, grieving, anxious and depressed people in my field. But it got to the point where I felt I personally needed to step out and really do something about it.
So here we are.
Petra went from an idea to something that began to grow and take actual form.
The Solution: humanitarian Coaching for resilience
In addition to my field experience and my academic background in anthropology and conflict resolution, I still felt the need for additional preparation. I didn't see counseling per se as the solution. While counseling is exceptionally valuable (yet notably absent) in the peacebuilding sector, I didn't see it as being proactive and preemptive enough for what I had in mind.
Besides, my research showed me that there are number of quality organizations offering counseling to help combat the plagues of the humanitarian sector. They are doing fabulous work and I couldn't endorse them more highly. But as far as my own fit in the mix: I'm not a counselor. I have the heart of a counselor, but it's not my niche.
So I looked into coaching and quickly realized that was my sweet spot. Coaching was a natural fit, I loved doing it, and every one of my clients benefited from the coaching relationship. Some clients in my early days underwent significant transformation, even coaching with a novice like myself.
After discovering coaching in the years following my Masters work in 2010-2011, I pursued an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential with the International Coach Federation (ICF) which I now hold.
Meanwhile, due to a number of factors, I had my own encounter with clinical depression in 2013-2014. Though horribly painful at the time, I see it as a critical experience, another tool in my kit which only makes me a better candidate for this kind of work.
So that's our story behind how we got here.
The Petra concept is one that has been sat on, chewed on, and worked toward for years. Petra Peacebuilders is being launched now that all the stars have aligned and circumstances have come together to functionally set things in motion.
Beneath it all, there exists an overarching why behind the what that we do, which is to walk alongside peacebuilders toward greater resilience:
1) Because courageous peacebuilders are too valuable to lose, and
2) Because the sector needs it like you can't imagine.