The guy who dreamt of peace

Anytime that I am asked about my experience of staying at a Folk High School in Denmark, there is always one person who springs to my mind first and that’s my friend Shah. I think it’s important to share my story of Shah because not only did he offer me and many others a new global perspective and appreciation, but it was also an incredibly important time for his own life and mission.

I want to tell you about Shah; his life, his outlook, his actions and his impact. Whilst impressing the importance of these things, I also want to continue sharing this story because I am lucky enough to be from UK – a country where I can speak freely without fear of persecution and violence, and unfortunately Shah doesn’t have the same luxury.

Shah is from a place called Baluchistan, a province within Pakistan that shares boarders with Afghanistan and Iran. He made the journey of over 3,000 miles from his city of Quetta to Denmark in order to begin a peace mission. We were over 30 nationalities at our International High School in Helsingør, and this is why Shah wanted to come.

He felt it was the best way of meeting many other young people from across the world. It was in a way a shortcut to meet the world. He was arriving with a huge mission ahead of him – to promote peace within a war-torn part of Pakistan to a bunch of people who had never even heard the name of his region before.

Make change, not war

Following some initial visa and transportation problems in getting Shah to Denmark, he arrived a few weeks late to school. We came in one morning to see him standing in front of the whole school looking tiny as he was surrounded by laptops, cords, projectors and slides. The first thing to notice was that Shah was dressed in traditional clothing including a long white robe and a turban.

The image of a Middle Eastern man dressed in these clothes has long been associated with violence and terrorism; there are usually guns and explosives strapped to these robes when we see these images in the newspaper and television.

But Shah had instead used the belt section of the robe to fill every pocket with pens, paper and pencils. He explained that he wanted to combat the stereotypes we have in our minds of these traditional clothes being associated with violence. Shah wanted to express that his people weren’t desperate for violence and anger, that instead they were desperate for basic rights and education.

As Shah stood at the front of the school, he explained that he wanted to give a presentation about his home, and he spoke of many things, including daily life in Baluchistan; the lack of transportation and infrastructure meaning for example that none of the women in his village could ever be educated because there was simply no way of getting them there.

He asked us how it would be like if we knew that growing up in his village as a woman you would never have an education, or as a man to know that your daughter would never learn to read or write. Shah was very lucky in that he was educated, because he knew that it was essential for him to be able to communicate through reading, writing and speaking English in order to have the best chance of making change.

Unwavering hope

Actually one of my strongest memories of Shah is when he started to learn Danish and he had heard this phrase ‘Tak for mad’ and so he just started saying it all the time. You could hear Shah anywhere in the school greeting everyone with his new favourite Danish phrase, regardless of the time of day or situation. Even during the period of Ramadan while he was fasting, you could still hear his voice cheerfully ringing through the corridors ‘Tak for mad, tak for mad’.

But, the more we learnt about Baluchistan, the more we learnt about the vastly different lives we’d had from Shah’s. In addition to the lack of education in Baluchistan there is also huge amounts of violence and fighting, because many people in Baluchistan want its independence. However, because it’s a very resource rich part of the world, Pakistan is very reluctant to allow it to separate. Shah explained that the struggle for independence from Pakistan was a bloody one and that it was having devastating effects on his community and the wider areas.

Shah had seen death, violence and persecution on a level many of us could never even imagine, and it was a very powerful experience to hear about it from someone who still maintained this positive outlook and unwavering hope. Despite the challenges Shah was facing every day in his country, his pride for that place was incredibly strong. He had this belief in the power of the people. While we heard a lot of Shah’s experiences with the police, time in prison, and deaths within his community, he also said there were so many other things that he just couldn’t talk about. I wondered what could possibly be worse than all of the things he had already told us. But still to this day he says he cannot share much of what’s happened in his life.

To fight with kindness

Shah was fleeing a repressive place and searching out somewhere that he could spread his message and have his freedom to speak without fear of persecution in order to change the world in some way. He organised many discussions, projects and activities with all of the students from our school holding banners with messages of peace, spreading the information and discussing his project. Shah truly believed that from our tiny corner of Helsingør we could do something, we could make a change and that was inspiring. He taught us that we could all be active global citizens in the way that he had imagined.

After Shah gave his talk, there was a resounding silence and sadness in the room, but you could also sense this feeling of people wondering: what can we do? I went up to him later that day and just asked him to tell me what could I do to help. It felt very small and pathetic because I felt I had nothing to offer to this man who had overcome such difficulty in life with such bravery. But to this day he reminds me that just offering help was very important for him. It meant his journey had some meaning.

The international perspective at our school was a powerful place for Shah to express his views and to garner support and momentum for his activism back at home. He showed us how powerful it was to fight with kindness, not violence.

Any small victory was a huge accomplishment in Shah’s eyes. He was published in some newspapers with the photos of our school holding banners up for peace in Baluchistan, and it meant the world to him.

It was incredibly humbling to play any small part in that.

Outside our own little worlds

If I was asked what the longest lasting effect of meeting Shah has been, firstly I would say a sense of global perspective. To realise that struggle is relative, and that worries can always be minimised by having a meaningful awareness of the world.

One example for me was one day I woke up feeling tired and kind of annoyed for not really any reason at all. I went into the common room and met Shah where we shared some coffee. I asked about his day and he told me he was feeling a bit sad. I’d never heard him say he was sad before.

When he explained that he had just had a message to say that two of his best friends from home had been killed in a car bomb explosion, I felt so ashamed by the fact I had been complaining all day of how tired I was, whilst Shah was quietly mourning the loss of his two friends. I told him I was sorry for his loss and he just said ‘trouble is part of my life’.

I am reminded of Shah every time I feel the urge to get too annoyed or upset by anything minor that’s happening in my own little world.

When the bubble bursts

Shah is currently back in his city, working in order to fund a school he is creating. His main reason for doing so is to try and help protect the children in his area from being taken by the Taliban as child soldiers, as they have already lost many children from the community due to this. Sometimes I think about the day ahead of me and the day ahead of Shah, and I still cannot fathom that just a few months ago we were safely together learning and understanding from one another, and now the reality is so vastly different.

Just knowing someone from a place where war and terror are so prevalent informs my decisions and opinions daily. For example with the current refugee crisis, I can imagine that every one of those people is like my friend Shah, escaping from somewhere that isn’t safe and trying to create a better future for themselves and their families. So why would I not have empathy and not want to help in some way?

Without this international experience and perspective, I imagine I would still feel a deep sympathy towards the refugees, but not necessarily have the opinion that I simply have to do something. Now it doesn’t feel like I have a choice.

If we are going to increase collaboration and peace in the world we need to focus more on our connections rather than our differences by sharing stories from around the world.

It was very difficult to say goodbye to Shah because we knew all too well of the dangers surrounding his village, and also because he was embarking on a journey to bring peace and understanding to Baluchistan and the rest of the world, and we knew that the journey towards that would be treacherous.

When the bubble of folk high school bursts people like me just go back to our studies or our jobs, and our normal lives resume. But for some others this just isn’t the case. As someone who has the privilege to speak freely and openly I have a voice to share their stories, to continue their message.