Young Pakistani program coordinator in South Asia to the Citizen Diplomacy International organization and program coordinator of the World Peace Festival for Youth (GYPF) of Chandigarh. Aliya works for the peacebuilding between India and Pakistan and in this regard she has designed and developed projects based on citizen diplomacy to facilitate contact between the citizens of the two countries, work with hatred and suspicion of others, and create a culture of peace and understanding and educate on the causes of the conflict to bet on dialogue and peaceful solutions. She is also a mentor of young Pakistani university students who want to make projects for their community and has empowered especially young people and women to participate in the construction of peace and the resolution of conflicts in both countries. That is why she is seen by some as a spy or treacherous.
When did you start to question the perception that Indians were Pakistanis’ worst enemies?
When I was 19, I was selected to participate in an exchange program in the United States. It was the first time traveling abroad. At first I didn’t interact much with Indians because I thought they were the “enemy”, but when I was homesick I enjoyed spending time with them and other South Asian friends, because I could relate to them in terms of food, clothing, languages and similar tastes in music and the arts. The more I related to them, the more I realized how much we had in common.
The turning point was when I got sick and had to be hospitalized for almost a month. My Indian friends visited me every day to keep me company, as I had no other family or friends in the United States. Seeing them taking care of me and sharing their warmth and love made me question my prejudices.
How did those close to you react in Pakistan?
The illness also caused the change in my family’s perception. My parents and siblings were frustrated and distressed because I was on a ventilator for five days and couldn’t talk to them. My friends, however, kept informing them of my progress. The doctors even said that I would not survive. When I started to show signs of improvement, and was finally able to talk to my family, my father told me that my friends had been a constant source of support. When I told him that some of them were from India, I remember him saying: “If enemies are like that, who needs friends?”.
So my family and I changed at the same time. Back home, I told my friends how my “enemies” had become my “saviors” in a third country, and that also helped break some of their stereotypes.
What does “citizen diplomacy” mean to you?
Citizen diplomacy is based on the idea of connecting people through educational, cultural and friendship interactions and exchanges. It is about addressing artificially constructed hatred and prejudices, questioning preconceived notions. In this sense, it appeals to critical thinking, which at the same time reinforces mutual understanding, the culture of peace, trust in negotiation and dialogue, and faith in non-violent and peaceful means for resolution of conflicts.
You are the GYPF program coordinator. What impact can the training of young people have on building peace?
When you train young people in conflict resolution and peace building, you generate a whole chain of impact. With a session of 30 students, for example, you influence 30 families. When from Yuvsatta [entitat organitzadora del GYPF] we involve young people in building peace, we highlight the futility of war and conflict, promote peace and dialogue and defend humanity as a superior and global identity.
The participation of young people in peacebuilding is strongly connected to the realization of human rights, in several ways. When young people address hatred, exclusion and minority rights, they are actually promoting tolerance, equality and harmony.