Rotary Peace Fellows are helping refugees start over.
Photo Credit: ©Flo Smith/NurPhoto/Corbis

Every 10 minutes, a baby is born without a state – without citizenship in any country. The crisis in Syria and conflicts in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and many other nations are producing new generations of refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers. Increasingly, they are long-term exiles who are spending years, even decades, in makeshift refugee cities with their families, unable to return home.


The number of people forced from their homes by war and conflict has surpassed 50 million for the first time since the end of World War II, when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created.

Among the graduates of the Rotary Peace Centers – nearly 900 since the program's inception in 2002 – are agents of change working to help this growing population of refugees.

Each year, Rotary Peace Centers host up to 100 peace fellows in a three-month program at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, or a master's degree fellowship at universities in Australia, England, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. Four alumni, who work for nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits that aid refugees, shared their stories with The Rotarian.


In 1988, when he was 10 years old, Mahamoud Ahmad fled his home during Somalia's civil war. He and his family made their way to an encampment for internally displaced persons (IDPs) far from their village in the semiautonomous region of Somaliland. "We had to roast wheat – there was not enough water for it to be cooked," he recalls. Because of the lack of food, "I have seen, as a child, people dying," Ahmad says.

"Until the age of 14, I could not go to school," he recalls. Once he could go to class, he seized every opportunity to learn. He finished 12 years of school in four years, studying from 6 in the morning until 6 at night. "Later, because I loved education, I spent 13 years attending four universities," Ahmad says, fueled equally by sheer determination and by benefactors such as Rotary.

His education includes a master's from the Rotary Peace Center at the University of Bradford, England, where he was in the class of 2008-10. As his understanding of peace and conflict deepened, his mission emerged: to help refugees overcome the problems he once endured. Ahmad traces the arc of his journey: "I have been a refugee, I have been an IDP, I have been a returnee."

He applies that knowledge as education program coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council's Ethiopia program. NRC camps in the Horn of Africa and Yemen sheltered more than 100,000 people in 2013. Every year, the organization also provides education and job training to thousands of refugees, from Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.


Noëlle DePape, who spent much of her 20s working overseas, including at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, imagined becoming a globe-trotting emissary of goodwill after finishing her Rotary Peace Fellowship in 2005 at the University of Queensland, Australia. "I was trying to figure out how I could make the most impact as a peace-builder and as one who would fight for social justice," DePape says.

Encouraged by Godfrey Mukalazi, a Rotary Peace Fellow from Uganda, she returned home to Winnipeg, Man., which has the largest urban indigenous population in Canada. The arrival of transplants from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, and other countries – about 15,000 immigrants each year in Manitoba, 10 percent of whom are refugees – created a combustible mix with an Aboriginal population facing struggles of its own.

DePape joined the staff of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, which operates a transitional housing complex and provides services such as counseling and after-school programs for at-risk youth.

"Some of our refugee youth were getting involved in gang life because they didn't feel a sense of belonging in Canada," says DePape, 35. The teenagers often had little education, so "they struggled in school with basic literacy in addition to refugee challenges," she says.

The Youth Peacebuilding Project, which DePape launched in 2008, featured a weeklong summer gathering for teens from indigenous, refugee, and suburban white communities. They swam and played basketball, but they also learned about other cultures and religions, observing Muslim prayers and a sweat lodge ceremony led by a tribal elder.


Etsuko Teranishi yearned for something different from the college scene in Osaka, Japan: She wanted to see the world and serve others along the way.

Teranishi, who studied at the Rotary Peace Center at the University of Queensland in 2005-07, is a project manager for the International Organization for Migration. She leads a crisis response unit in Nairobi, Kenya, which last year supported about 40,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, and South Sudan, as well as Kenyans uprooted by conflict and natural disaster. "We help unemployed youth and victims of sexual and gender-based violence," she says.


As program coordinator of the International Rescue Committee's Resettlement Support Center, Langan Courtney is based in the Malaysian megalopolis of Kuala Lumpur, which has one of the world's largest urban refugee populations. The organization resettles about 10,000 refugees to the United States every year.

"Millions of people are languishing in refugee camps. It's difficult accepting that the need is far greater than the capacity to help," says Courtney, who studied at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in 2012.

Her experience as a Rotary Peace Fellow provided a lesson in examining crises from various perspectives, she says. "The peace fellowship is designed to bring people together from many professional backgrounds," she notes, and the practical approach provided tools for diplomacy.

By Brad Webber

Adapted from a story in the February issue of