t is now Wednesday night and I have made it home to Moraga after 30+ hours of travel. Internet access in KL was more difficult than it should have been so I was not able to send several reports that I did prepare. I hope you will have time to read this and the next several reports as I believe you will find them interesting.
The previous several days were focused on the Young Leaders Program but today the actual SEAPac Regional Meeting begins. About half (16) of the young leaders are staying to participate in these meetings.
The Regional Meetings bring together 35 leaders of the 38 Cooperation Circles in URI’s Southeast Asia and the Pacific Region (SEAPac), one of URI’s eight regions around the world. There are also about 6 guests who are involved with other interfaith organizations throughout the region who are interested in becoming URI CCs and they are here to learn more about URI and how they would fit into our vision and structure. SEAPac encompasses Australia, New Zealand and their surrounding islands; Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippine Islands. We will meet basically from 8am to 10:00pm each day with breaks only for meals. It is invigorating and exhausting.
After some various opening rituals from the numerous faith traditions represented by the meeting participants, the group reads out loud and together URI’s Preamble, Purpose and Principals, to highlight the core values and vision of URI. As the meetings themselves begin, Dr. Amir, who is a member of the Global Council and the chairman of the Region’s Executive Committee, welcomes the participants and introduces me. I then welcome them on behalf of URI Founder and President Bishop Swing, Executive Director Charles Gibbs, everyone on the SF URI hub staff as well as on behalf of President’s Council Chairman John Weiser and the entire PC. In my welcoming comments I attempt to tie together the work they are doing in their local communities and in the region with the work other CCs are doing around the world emphasizing that while they are making a difference in their communities, by being part of URI they are part of a global community that is working together to make a difference in the world. To try to make it a little personal, I talk about my introduction to Bishop Swing and URI and my long term commitment to do whatever I can to help them and URI achieve their goals. I also introduce them to the PC and our purely advisory role to be a resource to the hub leadership as well as to the leadership of the Global Council, the Global Council itself and the CC leaders. And I talk about our fund raising efforts to build great support for the world wide URI infrastructure.
The meeting then turns to each CC leader reporting on their activities – this is the highlight for me as I am inspired by the amazing work the CCs are doing. I will briefly highlight some of those here because this work is really at the heart of what URI is all about. I have to admit that what I report here is from scribbling notes I took during the numerous presentations and may not be completely accurate and may be amalgamations of various CCs but these “examples” will provide you with a good sense of the work of the CCs:
- Pheng Saochheng is a Buddhist from Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia. Saochheng is 33. His CC is called “Youth Partner in Development and Peace”. It is made up of local business people in Phnom Penh, though mostly Buddhists, their members are also Muslims and Christians. There are 95 members of the CC including 33 women and about 80% young people under 25 years old - all working together to try to improve their country – doing work that the government should be doing. Saochheng explains that the government of Cambodia is so corrupt that its interests are more in sustaining and enriching the leadership than addressing the issue of its people – a theme we hear a lot about in URI. And the poor are often lazy and spend their time drinking, on drugs and with any money they can generate by any means they waste it on gambling. One of the popular means to generate money is to send their children, often as young as 4 years old, to beg in the streets of the cities. And the proceeds go to feed the parents’ vices rather than providing for their children. The children are all malnourished and often abused. Saochheng's CC seeks out these children, feeds them, provides medical and hygiene care and education as well as a refuge from the streets. They also reach out to the parents to provide training and resources to help the parents find work or start small businesses. Most of the CCs funding comes from the US State Department but they also raise money from and have local business people as members.
- Sam An is a Muslim about 30 years old and heads a CC called Interfaith Youth of Cambodia. Their CC is made up of about 500 members, mostly young people including 230 women. They meet periodically to discuss interfaith issues and to develop projects to help educate the children and young people. What is interesting and scary is the government does not allow such meeting but the CC members believe so strongly that they need to do what they are doing, they meet at great personal risk. One of their projects is a youth interfaith soccer camp. In its first year they had 48 participants – Muslim, Buddhists and Christians - and they anticipate increasing this over time. At the camps, they educate the young people about the different religions helping them at a young age to understand and accept people of different religions. The CC gets the bulk of its funding from the US State Department.
- Ahmed Ahmed, is a Muslim originally from a family of 16 in Somalia but was able to leave at a young age, lived in Cairo and now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he works in international development to the Australian government. He founded and heads the Bumblebee CC, which is comprised of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and ingenious people. Ahmed tells the story of a school in his home village in Somalia where the classroom is outside under one of few trees. As the sun moves across the shy, the “classroom” moves in order to keep the students under the shade of the tree. Under Ahmed’s leadership and partly out of his own pocket, Bumblebee built a small 2 room school so the students could be inside out from under the burning sun – a better environment for learning.