By Sara Klassen, edited by Rachel Bergen
Jahan Ara has worked to build peace in India for almost 20 years.
It isn’t the most glamourous or lucrative job in the world, but Jahan loves it and feels called to do the work.
Jahan grew up in a Muslim home. Her mother and father placed more value on helping others than making money.
“They were very supportive of my field work jobs. Making a change in someone’s life—this sort of work was appreciated. My family’s support is one of the biggest encouragements in my work,” she said.
Jahan felt called to address violence in her own community.
“I have seen violence between Hindus and Muslims. In my initial stages of career formation, choosing which direction I would go, I saw that violence. That’s when I shifted toward peacebuilding and interfaith activities. Before, I was interested in development work, which I do continue. I still work for children’s education, health programs, and women’s issues. But I ask, through these, how can we achieve peacebuilding?” Jahan said.
“I have seen violence between Hindus and Muslims. In my initial stages of career formation, choosing which direction I would go, I saw that violence. That’s when I shifted towards peacebuilding and interfaith activities.” – Jahan Ara
Jahan went from undergraduate to graduate studies, getting a Bachelor of Arts and then a masters degree in social work. She began her job with Henry Martyn Institute after graduation.
The institute, located in Hyderabad, India, works with interfaith dialogue and peace, focusing on issues related to inter-communal violence and caste issues. Their academic and praxis departments offer educational opportunities for students, volunteers, and interns to learn about different religions.
The praxis department is divided into conflict transformation and community development programs. The conflict transformation team facilitates training programs for pastors, peace practitioners, and teachers in several of India’s states. Jahan works predominantly with the community development aspect, which engages communities who have experienced violence.
“Many communities need development, but few people go into these areas because they fear what might happen,” she said.
This was a dangerous job when Jahan began fifteen years ago.
“Coming from a Muslim family and going into those areas, there was no promise of coming back. In those days we had to walk half an hour or 40 minutes to and from the work. And there was nothing in the schools, nothing was organized; we didn’t know what to do with the children. They were all different ages, from different communities. Now it’s better; it is all organized and formal,” she explained.
“Coming from a Muslim family and going into those areas, there was no promise of coming back.” – Jahan Ara
Jahan has been in this job for almost 17 years and still enjoys it. The work never gets dull because it is always adapting to the needs of the communities as they develop.
Jahan has not only gleaned immense insight and experiential knowledge from the length and breadth of her work with Henry Martyn Institute, but she has also watched Interfaith Cooperation Forum grow from its birth.
Before it became Interfaith Cooperation Forum, this group was Center for Justpeace in Asia and they met in Hyderabad at Henry Martyn Institute, she explained. Initially she and a few others helped host and organize seminars and activities.
In the early stages of the movement, Jahan and a few others, including Max Ediger, focused on forming relationships to understand local issues in the South and Southeast Asian regions and solidify a core group committed to responding together from a shared ideology of interfaith justpeace.
“Friendship with Max has been very nice throughout this process and working with him has always been positive because he has a high respect for each person as well as the work,” Jahan said.
Her ongoing friendship with Max and association with ICF led her to attend a mini School of Peace in Bangladesh in 2011.
“SOP was nice because it brought in people from different backgrounds. I got to meet a lot of people. The best thing is that every person gets to know the issues of the different cultures and countries,” she said.
Jahan believes it’s important to work with locals, not supposed experts from abroad. The people who live in conflict-prone areas are the real experts.
“ICF is not engaging with the very high people, it is with the common people who are making a difference, the change-makers.” – Jahan Ara
“I also appreciate that ICF is not engaging with the very high people, it is with the common people who are making a difference, the change-makers,” she said.
These “very high people,” as she calls them aren’t necessarily flexible to meet the needs of a community, but sometimes have their minds made up already.
“At the institute, one of my friends and I were talking about doing some program with all these highly qualified scholars. I feel that those people have their mind adjusted to what is ‘the best thing in the world.’ It is tricky to work with them. But the formative people, who can make change at the level where violence is happening, ICF works with these people,” Jahan said.