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Youth UPF

Reflections on the Conference in Paris Promoting Eurasia-Europe Cooperation

Paris, France - I was walking along a street in the morning twilight, coming down a hill from the house where I was staying. I had an amazing view of the misty Paris from there and even saw the Eiffel tower poking through the mist. I took a deep breath as I passed by a bakery and got a lungful of the warm smell of fresh pastry. The day was going to be extremely interesting for me, as I had been selected to attend a two-day European Leadership Conference, Dec. 3-4, 2013, and was now heading to the hotel where it was to be held. The conference focused on the relations between Europe and Eurasia, a topic very interesting to me due to the border location of my home country, Finland, and the ever-so-reserved atmosphere towards our neighboring country, Russia.

As I arrived at the hotel, I followed a sign to a staircase and suddenly popped into a lobby with people from all over the world. I met a Finnish girl, Sonja, who had kindly helped me to find my accommodation the night before, and we headed to the conference room together. As the speakers at the conference spoke English, French and Russian, we were all given headphones through which we got translations in all three languages.

The morning session started at 9:30 with an opening plenary session on Europe and Eurasia relations and a culture of peace and human development. It consisted of opening remarks and words of welcome by speakers from diverse backgrounds and organizations. Among others, we were greeted by a message from the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr Boutros Ghali, and we received a video message from Federico Mayor Zaragoza, the former director of UNESCO. We were encouraged to make an effort for the culture of peace throughout the conference and after.

The second session focused on the role of women in Eurasia and Europe, and strategies of cooperation for a culture of peace. It consisted of speeches by four passionate women and was followed by speeches of four men on the same subject (intercultural cooperation) in session three. Intercultural cooperation was above all presented as a way of creating unity and stability and reducing tension between nations. Cooperation on concrete and common interests was encouraged and the importance of the interdependence of people and the state was emphasized. In addition, the panelists highlighted that a nation’s resources should be seen as means to bring people to work together, not as a source of war.

For me, the most interesting conversations of the day took place at the fourth and last session, which concentrated on character education and human development, comparing the philosophical perspectives of a culture of peace in the east and the west. I found the speech of Marietta Stephanyants, a Russian professor of philosophy, of great interest as she addressed the topic of prejudice in her home country, Russia, and came up with a concrete idea for tackling the issue. Having much experience of working with children, Stephanyants noted that children in Russia have a great deal of prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds and very little knowledge of coexisting cultures even within the society. Therefore, Stephanyants would encourage schools to educate children more about other cultures and nations so they become more familiar. She is currently working on an educational program and a book on the subject for schools in Russia.

Other important concepts of the discussion included the differences between eastern and western thinking: the western associated with materialism and the eastern with traditional spirituality. Thao Chan also made an interesting remark saying that: “The thinking (eastern and western) is not actually so different, but the approaches are.” It was stated that cultures are constantly evolving in more international and individualistic directions and that societal trends should be encouraged to promote human development. The panelists agreed that change in people’s minds would be more easily achieved by focusing on the youth and by repeating the message when people are still young. However, change needs to happen not only in people’s minds, it has to happen in society as well.

After these constructive thoughts, the conference day was over at 6:00 pm and I felt happy but exhausted. So much so that I had to say good night to my new acquaintances and head back to my host’s house at Issy-les-Molineaux. In the evening there was time for a little walk, and I used it to go and see – surprise, surprise - the mighty Eiffel Tower. Decorated with thousands of lights it was shining as night fell, and I could not help but think that it was about a time I was visiting Paris.

The second conference day started at the hotel with a youth panel discussion on volunteer projects and activities for youth, and how these projects could contribute towards a culture of peace between Europe and Eurasia. A young history graduate and activist, Marat Shafigullin, opened the discussion by telling about projects and programs in Russia and highlighting the importance of youth contributions in achieving peace. Volunteer work abroad was addressed by various speakers, and as Marlies Haider pointed out, in addition to creating a positive change in the local society, volunteer work projects provide volunteers with better understanding of other cultures. When it comes to active citizenship and volunteer work at home, Anastasia Nefedova gave a presentation that stimulated many questions and emotional reactions from the audience. She introduced a student-run “JOY project” that takes place in Russian orphanages. It started with one student, and now there are many volunteers visiting the orphanages and caring for the children.

I found the second discussion of the day of high interest, as it focused on intercultural and interreligious exchanges and how they could shape human development. Rather than seeing religion as a cause of conflict, the panelists encouraged us to view it as a provider of solutions. They considered the influence of religion on social and political values, and emphasized its importance and necessity in society. Each of the panelists considered interreligious dialog vital for peace, and Rafig Aliev presented it as the first step towards a culture of peace, with intercultural dialogue and dialogue among civilizations coming only second and third.

In the third panel, the conversation changed from religion to family, and the speakers considered family values, balanced marriage, and the importance of the family for an overall culture of peace. The panelists noted that the family is where the child first learns important values and interaction skills and is therefore closely connected to how the child behaves in the outside world. The quality of the relationships among all members of the family has a great effect on the child, including the relationship between the parents.

The conference ended in a conclusive discussion that I, unfortunately, could not participate in. I had an early flight to catch, and was forced to say goodbye to my new friends during the last coffee break. I had packed my bags already in the morning, and I left for the airport straight from the conference site, stopping only at a small chocolate shop to buy souvenirs.

All in all, the conference was a very exciting experience and served its purpose as an event connecting people from Europe and Eurasia. I enjoyed hearing such diverse opinions on the subject of peace, and am sure they provoked plenty of emotions, thoughts and new ideas in all participants. The topics of greatest interest to me were the intercultural educational programs for schools, creating societal change through impacting youth, and valuing religion as a provider of solutions to conflicts. I will surely be participating in activities related to this conference in the future and continue promoting a culture of peace.

For photos and links to presentations at the conference, click here.

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