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Mary Valentino, a Talented WPDI Youth Peacemaker, Attends the 2018 One Young World Summit

This past week, Mary – one of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative’s (WPDI) talented youth peacemakers in northern Uganda’s Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement, was invited by our partner, the Western Union Foundation, to participate in the 2018 One Young World Summit. This year’s summit was held in The Hague and aimed to gather “the brightest young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections to create positive change.”

Mary, a 24-year-old South Sudanese student at Makerere University in Uganda, is not a typical attendee of the One Young World Summit that one would meet. Like other summit participants, Mary is bright, perhaps one of the brightest youths in her generation. But unlike her peers at last week’s summit, Mary is a refugee; the conference was actually the first time she had left the African continent or even boarded a plane.

Indeed, Mary is one the 46 youth leaders WPDI has supported since 2017 in and around the Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement in becoming successful mediators and entrepreneurs. Most of them are refugees like Mary who had to flee South Sudan, then a region of Sudan, due to the conflict there. They migrated into northern Uganda, yet another region that had been torn apart by civil war. At eight, Mary had to walk for a week and carry her infant brother, to reach safety.

Far from taking a toll on her, her ordeal strengthened her belief in what could be achieved in the future. Mary fought for her own education and then focused on helping other girls, many of whom had dropped out of school, to resume their education. This is how she found WPDI’s program in Kiryandongo. “A community stakeholder informed me that WPDI and the Western Union Foundation established a leadership program and suggested that I should apply because I was a person of influence”.

Thankfully, Mary did apply and was accepted. Eighteen months into the program, Mary has proven to be an exceptional recruit. With her 45 peers, she underwent a year of intensive training in topics including conflict resolution, information, and communications technology (ICT), entrepreneurship, and life skills. Once certified as one of our peacemakers, she started training young people and vulnerable women from local clusters of the settlement – more than 100 of them – and additionally began teaching conflict resolution in primary and secondary schools within the settlement. Earlier this year, Mary entered in Makarere University to study journalism thanks to a scholarship program managed by the MasterCard Foundation. As she admitted, “it is thanks to the certificates I got from WPDI that I could enter the scholarship program.”

With her already profound experiences, Mary quickly felt at home at the One Young World Summit. She mingled easily with the other young women and men brought by Western Union from Asia, the Americas, and Europe. After exchanging her hopes and ideas with other young people and learning from them, Mary felt strengthened in her resolve to make difference in her community. “As a young woman, I am very sensitive to the situation of women and girls where I come from. We do not value them enough. As I gain experience, I want to continue supporting girls that are not in school or have dropped out of school. Education is the key for them”.

Mary has drawn many lessons from her presence at the summit. Among others, she has stressed the need for programs such as those developed by WPDI and the Western Union Foundation in Kiryandongo. “This is so important for our future. I think of my country, South Sudan. Its political leaders just signed a peace agreement that everyone hopes will hold this time. But a peace agreement is just a piece of paper if people do not have peace in their minds. Therefore, is it so important to have young people trained and ready to build peace in their own country. This is why the work of WPDI is so important for us.”