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Istanbul, Turkiye – 5th World Youth Congress

Video 1 + Video 2

I first visited Istanbul as an 18-year old on my way to a work camp in Southern Turkey. It has always been one of my favourite cities so it was a joy to host one of our Congresses there.  The Turkish team faced stiff competition from bidders from Germany and elsewhere to host this 5th Congress – but, with the support of their Minister of Education and the whole cabinet, it was the almost unanimous choice of the Congress advisory committee that met in Murzuschlag to make the decision in July 2007.

Their theme was “Imece” – a word meaning to help each other finish a task with joy in your heart. It was, from Ottoman times, a system of solidarity that transcended the frontiers of language, ethnicity, religion and culture: pure Peace Child!  Imece is now the name of a famous NGO working in Turkey and around teh world. It was a privilege to work with a group of incredibly sensitive, patriotic and committed young people at a time when Turkey was beginning to become an economic powerhouse.  It was excellent, also, to explore with them the themes of Imece and inter-religious tolerance contained within the musical, Peace Child – Alpha Omega, which they produced as part of their Congress. The book they published at the end of the Congress captures the excitement we all felt about doing the Congress in Istanbul.

Sadly, events did not turn out as either we, or the Turkish youth, had hoped. The Turks announced their Congress with the Minister at the Canada Congress – and the first tranche of funding for the administration and promotion of the Congress arrived on time. Then there was a cabinet reshuffle – and the Minister of Education lost his job. The new Minister was not nearly as enthusiastic and the funding suddenly dried up. By this time, we had over a thousand delegates accepted and EU funding for a major production of Peace Child – Alpha Omega. There was really no way we could cancel it.

All through the Autumn and Winter of 2009 / 10, we pestered the Turkish Government – and the minister in particular, to make a final decision on the Congress. The young Turkish leaders, Aydin Fenerli and Abdulrahman Temelli were confident that their government would find a way to host it. “It always works out in the end.”  I was not so sure – as weeks stretched into months with no formal answer from the Turkish authorities.

I flew to Ankara at the end of May – and, on 8th June, we got a brief phone  message from the Ministry of Education telling us that they were not proceeding with the Congress.  Strangely, our friends at the Ministry of Youth were delighted by this development as it cleared the way for them to host it out of their Ministry. Which they subsequently did!  It was not plain sailing even then as we were destined to house the delegates in brand new Dormitory Blocks – which were still not completed. (The beds were moved in on the day the delegates arrived!)

But Aydin and Abo – and Nur and their whole team worked 24/7 to make the Congress happen and, though they were still erecting the stage at 16.00 on the opening day – when the opening ceremony was due to start(!) – the Congress went off reasonably well.  The Action Projects around the city were much enjoyed – and the wide variety of workshops, round tables and seminars were universally well-received.

The turning point for us all was when every delegate was bussed into a beautiful theatre in downtown Istanbul for an English-Language performance of the Turkish version of Peace Child – Alpha Omega. It was a hectic, energetic beautiful performance, involving Turkish, British and Estonian cast members.  And in that moment, the young people of the Congress merged with the young people of the Cast to recognise that their future lay in working together to solve the great challenges facing their world – together!  There was a lovely talent show on an open air stage at the University where the Congress was held – and Katie Christie’s Voices United group gave a moving performance. But for me – this Congress will always be defined by the power of that performance of Peace Child – Alpha Omega.

The UN – and UNFPA – slightly upstaged us by organising a World Youth Conference in Leon, Mexico two weeks after our’s ended. We tried to emphasise the synergies and links between the two Conferences – but there was no way that, in the eyes of young people, the two were competitors. And – amusingly – the Mexican Conference was one of the worst organised, most deceitful youth events I have ever witnessed. Among an endless catalogue of insanities, there was no conference programme printed – so none of the delegates knew what was happening when – or where?  The international Delegates had not been given the right visas or flight tickets with the result that many were arriving after the Conference was over. Or at a time when they were not allowed to join in the government-led discussions. It was so badly organised, the organisers were terrified of a rebellion by the international delegates, so banned them from the Closing Ceremony. Instead, they bussed in Mexican school kids and put them all in uniform dark blue shirts, rehearsing them to cheer the Mexican ministers at key moments of his speech. It was farcical!!   But the worst thing for me was that, at the Conference party in a disco club, the young delegates were encouraged to drink all they wanted. With the result that many emerged at lunch-time the next day, holding their heads in pain.  Not the kind of international understanding one wants to promote!!