A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Giving Peace a Real Chance

By Colleen Kearney Rich on November 3, 2015


Sixte Vigny Nimuraba, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’14, was a young boy away at boarding school when civil war erupted between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in his native Burundi in 1993.

“I didn’t know my ethnic groups,” he says of those first days of the war. “I didn’t know my ethnicity.”

Mason PhD student Sixte Vigny Nimuraba at the Arlington Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Mason PhD student Sixte Vigny Nimuraba at the Arlington Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Friends wouldn’t talk to him. He struggled to find a group to be with, but he ended up alone. The school was eventually evacuated, and after a short time, Nimuraba was reunited with his family. But the civil war continued for 13 years with an estimated death toll of 300,000 in an African country the size of Maryland.

“Running from soldiers, stepping around dead bodies in the streets, that went on for years,” he says. “All that impacted my thinking and my trajectory.”

It took several years, but Nimuraba was able to get his education back on track, finish high school, and attend the University of Ngozi in Burundi, where he majored in economics. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he began working with human rights organizations.

But one day he realized he needed more.

“I was too young,” he says. “I was challenged dealing with conflict situations and didn’t have enough skills. That’s when I decided I needed to go back to school.”

Nimuraba came to Mason to work on a master’s degree in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is now enrolled in the school’s PhD program, but maintains almost daily contact with people in Burundi. He even traveled back to his home country over the summer break to help ensure a peaceful election there.

“From the very beginning, we took it upon ourselves to focus our attention and our efforts on students who came from conflict-saturated parts of the world.

Mason PhD student Nilofar Sakhi runs an NGO in her native Afghanistan while working on her degree at Mason.

Mason PhD student Nilofar Sakhi runs an NGO in her native Afghanistan while working on her degree at Mason.

That was our mission,” says the school’s dean, Kevin Avruch, a cultural anthropologist who has taught at Mason since 1980 when an academic program in conflict resolution was still an idea being kicked around by a group of Mason social science professors.

“We understood that what we were doing was less teaching them things and more giving them a vocabulary to articulate many of the things they already knew,” Avruch says. “Many of them had come to us working in civil society, for human rights groups, working in government or the police, and what they lacked wasn’t experience in the world, but a theoretical foundation for what they were doing—and a comparative foundation.”

Avruch says that individuals from societies enmeshed in conflict often think their situation is unique. Coming to a place like Mason helps the students step outside of their society and look at conflict processes and peace processes that have worked—or didn’t work—in other areas of the globe, and how that could apply to their situation.

Many of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution students take what they’ve learned back to their home countries.

Father Clement Aapengnuo, president of the nonprofit 72 Africa, conducts a planning session with staffers at their office in Ghana.

Father Clement Aapengnuo, president of the nonprofit 72 Africa, conducts a planning session with staffers at their office in Ghana.

While pursuing her studies at Mason, PhD student Nilofar Sakhi continues to work with a nongovernment organization (NGO) she founded in her native Afghanistan in 2002, Women Activities and Social Services Association. It was the first women’s NGO in Herbat, Afghanistan. She is also executive director of the International Center for Afghan Women’s Economic Development at the American University of Afghanistan.

Part of her desire to earn a PhD stems from her interest in starting conflict resolution academic programs in Afghanistan.

“I realized we don’t have a degree at any university there, public or private,” says Sakhi. “The degree [from Mason] will help me in practical areas and provide me with the knowledge to create a curriculum.”

Sakhi will be in good company. When Mason enrolled the first master’s class of conflict majors in 1981, it was the only program of its kind in the world. Now there are many programs worldwide, more than 100 in North America alone, and a large number of those are staffed by the school’s PhD alumni.

“I’m happy to say so many of our students and alumni have gone back and done remarkable things,” says Avruch. “We continue to support them in many ways.”

Avruch says the school often signs memorandums of understanding (MOU) with a graduate’s new university program or their new NGO to provide consultation or support. For example, the school recently signed an MOU with Mason alumnus Clement M. Aapengnuo, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’08, PhD Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’13, president of 72 Africa, a nonprofit working toward stability and economic growth in parts of Africa. (Read more about Aapengnuo’s work here.)

“Mason has been remarkably supportive of us.  We couldn’t have accomplished what we’ve accomplished at a more traditional university,” says Avruch. “We have had three presidents and a number of provosts and all of them have kind of ‘got us.’”

Additional School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution students doing important work:

  • PhD student Sarah-Rose Jensen is using her Fulbright to study how citizens respond to government oversight in Cambodia.
  • PhD student and Jesuit priest Innocent Rugaragu plans to use his peacebuilding skills in his native Rwanda.
  • PhD student Adeeb Yousif is from Darfur, a region of Sudan. While at Mason, he is developing a model is aimed at creating harmonious coexistence and sustainable peace and reconciliation between all Darfur tribes.
  • PhD student Ernest Ogbozor knows firsthand the importance of humanitarian aid workers in conflict zones. For more than a decade, he worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Nigeria before coming to the United States to further his studies.
  • Graduate student Charles Crawford believes it could take generations to heal the scars left by civil war in his native Liberia.
  • A book by Mason professor Karina Korostelina led graduate student Ihsan Gunduz to study at Mason with Korostelina as his advisor.

 


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