Embracing Plurality and Complexity to Forge Peace

Abraci di Pace presentation at UWC Adriatic

This is the text of a speech that was delivered on 26th November 2022 at the Prefettura in Trieste, Italy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of UWC Adriatic and to launch Abbracci di Pace, a collection of essays on peace published over a 10 year period reflecting the journeys of young people who previously lived on opposing sides of conflicts but who have found common ground at the United World Colleges.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, friends, colleagues, leaders of the present and leaders of the future: it is a great honour to join you here today in this historic building to reflect on history, to acknowledge the present and to look towards the future. We are gathered here to celebrate 40 outstanding years of an unshakeable commitment to envisioning and enabling a world characterised by peace, international understanding and interpersonal cooperation.

Let me start by acknowledging and expressing deep appreciation to the leadership of the region Friuli-Venezia Giulia, past and present, for the firm belief in the power of education as an extremely potent vehicle for shaping minds, shaping societies and reshaping the world. And to all the partners – organisations, businesses, government agencies, international associations and individuals – who have worked hand-in-hand with the leadership of this special college, the United World College of the Adriatic. Thank you for everything that you have done over these four decades to influence the paths of young leaders from all corners of the world who have bravely left everything that they have ever known and made the pilgrimage to Duino; people who have now come to think about this country as home. In your own way, you have changed the course of history and created global ambassadors for this Province and this country all around the world. Thank you!

Today, we speak of history because history could be an extremely powerful force if we choose to learn just enough from it to influence the ways in which we choose to move forward, rather than allow our knowledge of history to lock us into a chokehold of regret and retrogression.

I believe that if the very land on which we stand today could speak, surely it would have many stories to tell – stories of war and bloodshed, stories of devastation and ruin, stories of empires come and gone, stories of economic boom and bust; eventually stories of cautious co-existence and now stories of cultural confluence. This special place of ethnic and linguistic plurality with all its beauty and complexity provides the perfect backdrop to reflect on 40 years of educating for a more peaceful and sustainable world.

Participants at the Prefettura in Trieste
Participants at the Prefettura in Trieste. Image credit: Giovanni Aiello

When we think back to the state of the world 40 years ago when this college was founded, and we think about the founders of the UWC movement and what they had seen in their lifetimes, perhaps we would gain a deeper appreciation for what they chose to make possible as their legacy. People who have lived through war are very likely to cherish peace. Choosing to establish this college at the literal intersection of Eastern and Western Europe was very strategic, but even more so the decision to welcome students from places in the socialist world in Eastern Europe who would otherwise have found themselves ostracised at that time, and then to lend expertise to develop national committees in the Balkans before and after the fall of communist regimes in Europe in order to continue to extend olive branches to young people who know what it means to be on opposite sides of each other. That takes courage, conviction and commitment.

When the world loses its conscience, our best response has always been to act with compassion. That is the value of our brand of education. During the worst periods of the war in former Yugoslavia, UWC Adriatic opened its doors to welcome their young men and women; and when refugees escaped from the Balkans to neighbouring Slovenia and here in Italy, this college was right there with them. We washed their feet, we enveloped them in a warm embrace, and we listened to their stories.

Let us forge common understanding and protect peace at all cost.
Let us forge common understanding and protect peace at all cost. Image credit: Giovanni Aiello

And for the last decade, this cultural association that brings us together today, Cinzia Vitale Onlus, has graciously extended a platform to young writers from our college to reflect together on this most valuable aspiration that we hold dear – a world of true peace. I find it really fitting that the winners of this essay competition each year receive a prize named after our former UWC President, the great Nelson Mandela. When I read Katarina and Anjesa’s joint essay reflecting on their unique journey of mutual discovery through different-coloured lenses of history, I recalled Mandela’s own words, saying “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” I know that Nelson Mandela would be proud of Katarina and Anjesa and all who came before them.

So, as we dedicate this collection of treasured stories today, let us take the occasion to recommit to doing everything in our power to continue to build bridges, to forge common understanding and to protect peace at all cost. If anything, this is one cause that is worth fighting for.

Thank you very much.

PS: Some of the published essays can be read here.