We Have to Be the Change

writing the declaration
Youth at the World Congress of Youth in Morocco meet in small groups to write the text for the Casablanca Declaration

This generation is inheriting a world of war and the divide between the West and the Arab world is deep. I think we can do better. I'm 23. I'm an idealist. But this summer I went to a World Congress of Youth, and beyond learning of a truly universal love for the 50 Cent "In Da Club" song, I learned that we carry history in ourselves. We are more like our parents than we know -- and this is dangerous.

In August the world converged at a 1,000-person, two-week long World Congress of Youth in Morocco, which was put on by the King of Morocco and Peace Child, a non-governmental organization (NGO) from the United Kingdom. Our theme was, "Together for Tolerance, Solidarity and Sustainable Development." Little did I know what these words would come to mean.

The goal of the Congress was to write the "Casablanca Declaration," a unified world youth statement that would represent our common vision. We would use it to tell U.N. agencies, governments and world financial institutions what youth have done for economic and social development in our communities so that they would invest in us instead of putting their money into governments and programs that don't reach the people, or do more harm than good.

The plan was to present the Declaration to the King Mohammed VI, and then later the Moroccan government would present it to the U.N. General Assembly. Several divisions of the United Nations, UNICEF (the U.N. fund for children) and the World Bank had also agreed to take a look at the document.

The youth, ages 14-25, came together with incredible credentials. We were founders of organizations, leaders in our communities, delegates of governments, journalists and artists. Gandhi's words were our mantra, and we said them over and over, "You have to be the change you want to see in this world."

And what better way to be the change than to have people from 154 countries write a declaration in Arabic, French, English and Spanish on behalf of the world's youth? Or rather, as I was soon to find out, what better way to find the differences between the Western and Arab world than to have them agree on paper?


At one action project, participants dug holes to place signs at a new park.

After arriving at the Congress in our mix of fashion, religion and dance moves, we met by region to discuss our aims for the document. We drank mint tea in the sun, ceremoniously ate enough cous cous to fill a small swimming pool, and dressed up in national dress to meet the King's brother. Then a team of 12 regional delegates met day and night for five days straight to write the declaration (communicating in four languages), while everyone else was shipped off for five days of "action" projects.

In a spectacular feat of logistics, participants were sent across Morocco to the tops of mountains and into the Sahara desert. We returned with mixed feelings. The action turned out to be tourism, and the sustainable development was more scenic than participatory. In some cases the youth were more there as an international parade for the local population. In between being escorted around and drinking sweet mint tea with the locals, only a few satisfying hours of action occurred. There was some trench digging, park renovation, tree planting, camel riding, orphanage visiting, rabbit breeding and basket weaving.

After everyone returned to the Congress, people sat around for hours confused about what was going on, until suddenly each region had only two hours to make amendments to the declaration and propose them in the Congress forum. Although the bad organization and confusing translations didn't allow for people to put their concerns together and accurately represent their regions, the actual downfall of the congress session was the chaos caused by the first proposed amendment.

Bringing Down the Tent

The opening words to the Declaration specified that the youth were united regardless of nationality, class, gender etc. So, to add to this list of descriptors, Latin America, North America and Europe suggested including sexual orientation. The proposition brought down the house, or rather, the tent.

As soon as the translation went through in Arabic, many Moroccans and other delegates from Islamic countries were on their feet shouting in Arabic, chanting, and heading for the plenary stage. The arguments against adding in homosexuality weren't complex; there was no way homosexuality could be alluded to, because in Islam it does not exist. Though it wasn't specifically argued, there was no way a document could be handed to the King (who paid for the Congress) with such a reference.

A young African American man came to the stage and made a speech about why such a reference would be important. Then several young men came up and yelled in Arabic, and translation wasn't given. After that the tent was divided, almost exactly in half. Those in opposition sat on one side and those in favor on the other. One side was a sea of black and brown faces (African and Arab world) and the other a meld of lighter skin tones.

Mob Mentality

i am sad
The only way youth got to express their feelings at the meeting to address the violence -- through a sign.

The tension hung. Then after a workshop to fundraise for a youth peace coalition between Israelis and Palestinians, a Moroccan-led mob of Palestinians and their supporters stormed in, ripping apart the posters and t-shirts about peace, and flaunting their destruction in front of the watching Moroccan TV cameras. Several people were hurt in the confrontation, and the only Israeli girl attending the Congress was assaulted.

Let it be clear that the mob was not the majority, the violence was not committed by every Palestinian there, and many were trying to be reasonable, but an angry mob is formidable and not open for rationalization.

I grew up in racially divided public schools, but I had never seen a group hate another group because of their citizenship. It was difficult to decide how I felt, other than sad, because I understood that in many respects the Palestinians had no way of expression other than violence because of their country's economic oppression, daily destruction and humiliation by the Israeli occupation. The dreams of their young people can go nowhere, and right next door is a country that receives over $3.3 billion each year (Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs), or about $5,000 per person, in aid from the U.S.! A state of despair leads to desperate acts. But what is the state of our world if at an international youth meeting, a place where everyone was to have a chance to speak and people would listen, that people still knew no other way to express themselves than through violence?

For the rest of the day, Palestinians wore their flags like capes around the camp, and the rest of us were stunned that the Middle Eastern war had played out right in front of our eyes. When the Moroccan organizers finally called a meeting to address the violence, they said they would not take responsibility for the attack because they had not invited the Israelis to the meeting, their co-sponsor Peace Child had. They did not say that the assailants would be expelled. They would not directly condemn the attack because the Arab states do not recognize the country of Israel.

I was shocked. I couldn't understand why they could not at least assure us that those who committed the violence would be asked to leave. When I asked a young Moroccan, Mohammed, age 20, why they could not publicly expel those who hit the girl he said that it would have made no difference to single out individuals because each person in that mob would have hit the girl had they had the chance. To publicly denounce the attack, regardless of how the Moroccan organizers really felt, would have only stirred more anti-Israeli solidarity among participants and made the situation worse. It was impossible for justice to be served for this one small act of violence because it is impossible for justice to be served to the whole. Steps toward peace would not be beginning that day, and for me to expect that was to overlook the complexity and severity of the conflict.


holding hands
Youth hold hands and sing John Lennon's Imagine.

I had never felt the weight of history so deeply. The word solidarity was suddenly sour: solidarity means that you all think the same and act the same together, you are solidified as a group and therefore empowered to do far more than you could as an individual. Solidarity means mob mentality. Solidarity is dangerous. Solidarity meant that Morocco had to act in accordance with all the other Arab countries it allied with. There was no moral high ground; there were just political alliances and a history of division.

After the meeting to address the attack (which ended with a handshake between an Israeli and a Palestinian, but no youth had been allowed to speak, and personal safety of the Israelis had not been addressed) we all held hands and sung "Imagine" by John Lennon, the Palestinians with their flags draped around their shoulders. I could not sing, I kept thinking about what Mohamed had said, -- "they could not punish one because they all would have done it"-- and I cried the kind of tears where you are choking, and I could not stop. I wasn't crying because one girl got hit, I was crying because they all would have done it.

The strength of my reaction surprised me. Was I really so idealistic that this relatively small act of violence shattered me? Part of it too, was anger. This was a youth meeting, youth must be the ones speaking to work this out, and the adults had sold us out again by managing this problem, and not addressing it head on. Youth then, were only allowed to address problems in the abstract, on paper, but when something arose that did affect us, we were not allowed to talk about it.

We live in a world of violence, pain and injustice, and the world's young people were singing "Imagine" and holding hands. At that moment I did not believe that peace was possible because no one would take responsibility and each country has alliances that are too large to change. It was too much to stomach.

Casablanca Non-Consensus

The presenters pose before the ceremony to present the declaration to the the Princess. Countries L to R: Kenya, United States (the author), Morocco, Comoros

After that, any semblance of democratic process fell to the wayside as Peace Child and the Moroccan Youth Forum tried to hold onto what little order was left. When the time came to vote to accept the Casablanca Declaration the next day (two hours before it was scheduled to be given to the King) the youth were at a gridlock.

All Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries refused to vote because the declaration had not been translated, as originally promised, into Spanish. Many other delegates refused to vote because Israel was not allowed to vote (Palestine was) or add amendments, though it was a state recognized by the United Nations. Others, completely frustrated that the document had been created in such an unnecessary rush (we did have 12 days), with no time to debate because of tension and confusion, refused to adopt it because they felt the point of the Congress had been missed: there had been no real youth democratic process, there had been no time to really write it together.

So 45 minutes later, with 21 abstentions (U.S. and Europe and Asia), 17 opposed (Latin America, some Africa and some Europe), 17 in favor with reservations (a mix, including Canada), and 26 (primarily Africa and Arab) in favor, the Declaration technically passed, though it was originally intended to be adopted by consensus. It was then presented in a quick ceremony to the Princess (the King didn't make it as promised after all), which was broadcast on Moroccan national television. The congress had actually been in the Moroccan news every night and in the newspaper each day.

We were dressed to the nines for the ceremony. A Scottish bagpiper in a kilt played a serenade, the African girls had elegant head wraps and the Moroccan girls looked like princesses in their embroidered full dresses. The men looked nice in their long robes and round hats, and sharp in their suits. We pressed our different faces together and took pictures. To see all of us was moving in itself.

Learning from our Mistakes

By now you're probably thinking that the Congress was a spectacular failure, but to me it was far from being a failure. To go to a smoothly run democratic meeting in a western country wouldn't have shown me much more than I already knew. Despite the tensions and conflicts, I feel that progress was made because change is slow and the Moroccan monarchy opened up its doors to give Moroccans the chance to meet youth from the entire world. Girls with tattoos were talking to girls in headscarves, and young Pakistanis and Indians made a peace coalition across their two countries (to make a phone call from India to Pakistan is monitored by the police). Learning, sometimes, is all that we can do.

In the end alliances were formed on all sorts of levels and will continue. Youth "tolerance, solidarity, and sustainable development" did happen, just in conversations over tea about how Dakar was the world's hip hop capital second to New York, or in the girl from South Africa teasing the boy from Saudi Arabia, "I just got my license to ride an elephant to school." It happened in subtle and symbolic ways, like when a girl from India used a shovel for the first time, when Arab Muslims and Americans talked about dating and marriage on the bus, or when one Mongolian girl's folk dance received a standing ovation.

Because there was so much frustration with the processes at the Congress, a group formed called the "Positive Feedback Committee," launched a website, and have since posted a long list of the how and why of what went awry. Their hope is that if the Casablanca Declaration does get presented to the U.N. General Assembly, a background on the conditions it was created in will be given. Meanwhile, because of the declaration, the United Nations Development Program of Morocco may dedicate .7% of funds to be spent on youth-led development projects.

The fact is, most large-scale international youth meetings are organizational disasters that produce documents that aren't fully implemented (much like the U.N.). But they proliferate because there's no better way to learn than by meeting the entire world in one setting. As humans we live far beyond processes -- we learn from each other when we are staying up all night working together, flirting, dreaming, playing soccer and arguing.

The congress was really about the meeting of the Arab and Western world, the global South and North, the developed and developing world -- because for once, we were all represented. People came from Australia and the Caribbean, Tokyo, Hawaii, China and Comoros, Togo, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Scotland. At another U.N. youth assembly this summer in Russia nearly half the participants got stuck at customs and did not reach the meeting. For youth just to meet is a big deal in a world of tightening visa restrictions!

The King paid for the food and lodging, but we each had to raise our travel costs. So why did we come? Because we know there is enough wealth in the world for everyone to live with dignity and because we love to meet each other and we think we can do better.

Still, there is much to be gained from realizing the truth about the world you live in. No one ever said reality was easy and fun. I came to Morocco with minimal expectations and prejudgments. It was a lot of work to discover how different we are. I walked away with more prejudices than I came with because I saw them to be true. I'm still an idealist. But if the youth can't do it, I don't think anyone else can.

The Future

Two weeks after the Congress, the World Trade Organization talks failed for similar reasons as we did: mysterious processes of document creation, politicized leadership, inability for people to put their concerns on the table right away, and the blatant ignoring of certain country's contributions, though they had every right to contribute.

This generation can be a bridge, but not if we don't change ourselves. If we keep acting like our parents do, we're going to end up with a world that isn't fit for our own children. I wish I could tell you the answer, I wish I could tell you Arab and African Muslim youth and Western youth get along and communicate with ease, but we don't. One is a culture of endless individualism, in the other there is a unified Arab or Muslim identity, which often politically and culturally lacks self-criticism. Both are changing, but each side wonders why the other can't be more like itself.

So where do we go from here? We stay vigilant that everyone is heard and has a chance to speak. We look at ourselves and the history we carry. We find our differences and then we keep talking. Those of us who are privileged need to live for more than ourselves. We work together, because if you can share in one way you can eventually share in another. We realize we share the same goals for a peaceful world where everyone can live with dignity, and that we already share culture. We recognize that necessary change will not come from governments because they are too stiff. It will not come from any government that does not allow for the diversity of their society to develop. It will come from flexibility -- of our governments and ourselves. If seemingly large setbacks occur, we realize that we value the small connections enough to keep going.

This is your challenge too. Because we have to be the change we want to see in this world.

Emily Freeburg, 23, works for a non-governmental organization at the U.N. in New York.

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