Press Clip Source: San Antonio Express-News
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Rieek Nyoa

By Mitchell Kukulka
October 11, 2019

For two hours this week, Creative 360 studio was home to a lively discussion about the state of world peace, specifically in the county of South Sudan.

The event was hosted by the Midland chapter of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) as part of its annual fundraising effort. Established in 2002, NP boosts a roster of 261 workers — separated into 15 teams — stationed in various conflicted areas across the world, primarily in four countries: South Sudan, Iraq, Myanmar and the Philippines.

"We protect civilians in violent conflicts through unarmed strategies," said NP member Jeanne Dellar, who served as moderator for the event. "We build peace side-by-side with local communities, and we advocate for the wider adoption of these approaches to safe-guard human lives and dignity."

The night's keynote speaker was Asha Asokan, a human rights specialist with a special focus on child protection in armed conflict who served with NP between 2012 and 2016 in South Sudan.

Asokan began her professional life as a lawyer in the High Court of Kerala, India in 2006. Inspired by Kevin Carter's infamous 1993 photo "The Struggling Girl" — which depicts a vulture stalking a famine-stricken Sudanese child who had collapsed while attempting to reach a United Nations feeding center — Asokan relocated to Sudan in 2010, initially working as a contractor for the UN Peacekeeping Mission. She moved to South Sudan and began working with NP in 2012.

"The country has been in constant war and violence for decades, so (citizens) don't have any livelihood opportunities," Asokan said. "Initially, when I moved to South Sudan, I saw this country that was so fertile, I started asking myself 'what is happening — why aren't people out cultivating? The power struggle and struggle for resources is always a problem in South Sudan."

Asokan worked to subvert the country's culture of retaliatory violence through the process of "unarmed civilian peace keeping," which follows four core philosophies:

• Protective engagement — employing a "strategic protective presence" around vulnerable people within a community.

• Relationship building — building trust, diplomacy and dialogue in safe spaces.

• Capacity building – educating locals in creating a "protection infrastructure."

• Monitoring — being aware of rumors of violence and conflict, and practicing early warning and response.

"The people in South Sudan have seen only violence and conflict," Asokan said. "For them, they handle problems by retaliating — that is the mindset, that is the only way they know how to solve a problem."

Two other speakers followed Asokan: NP donor relations officer Amy Hansen, who gave more insight on the organization's efforts around the world, and Rieek Nyoach, a 27-year-old student at Saginaw Valley State University, who was born in South Sudan. Nyoach's family left South Sudan when he was young, and he spent his teen years and early adulthood in a Kenyan refugee camp before earning a student visa through his hard work in school and support from his older brother.

"As I live now, in a country where there is peace, I have a different perception than the way I was," Nyoach said. "I say a lot of things about what is happening in South Sudan, but I'm happy to see other people helping our people live in a better way than fighting all the time."

Now in his second year of studying sociology, education and technology at SVSU, Nyoach plans to "take something back" to his people after graduation.

You can protect civilians who are living in or fleeing violent conflict. Your contribution will transform the world's response to conflict.