Feb. 13, 2019

UCalgary nursing students challenged to be champions of peace

UN peace summit shows students a future as nursing leaders in global health


Faculty of Nursing Staff

University of Calgary nursing students, from left: Ivan Lerida, Sylwia Andersen, Kirnvir Dhaliwal and Sareena Mithani pose at international peace summit in Bangkok. Photos courtesy Kirnvir Dhaliwal

From left: Ivan Lerida, Sylwia Andersen, Kirnvir Dhaliwal and Sareena Mithani.

Kirnvir Dhaliwal

Four Faculty of Nursing students — two undergraduate, two graduate — have returned from a life-changing conference in Thailand with a mission to change the world — or at least their part of it.

The inaugural United Nations Peace Summit of Emerging Leaders, held in November in Bangkok, was designed to equip young leaders from all over the world to be champions of peace. “The hope was not to create massive change among us, but for us to return to our communities and lead small initiatives to make a difference,” says doctoral candidate Kirnvir Dhaliwal.

Moving stories of suffering and triumph

The students heard powerful stories of loss and survival during the three-day Together for Peace event including that of Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, who experienced the Rwandan genocide and witnessed his father being killed and fed to dogs. He founded the Hyppolite for Peace Foundation to try to stop inter-generational transmission of hatred.

“How he rose above that to forgive his neighbours was inspiring,” says Sylwia Andersen, a PhD student. “We really saw how related all these stories are to the profession of nursing. People come with a background: they all have a story that can’t be ignored. As nurses, when we look at our patients, we have to pay attention to their background and in that way, I think we are uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of peace.”

This is exactly what Dr. Sandra Davidson, nursing dean, was hoping the trip would instil in the students. “Definitely the summit aligned with the Eyes High strategy and our own nursing strategic plan,” she explains, “but it also aligns with the role of nurses and our capacity to be leaders because we understand the social determinants of health and because we understand advocacy.”

The students meet Ponheary Ly (centre), a Cambodian national who survived the Khmer Rouge.

The students meet Ponheary Ly (centre), a Cambodian national who survived the Khmer Rouge.

Kirnvir Dhaliwal

Driven to action

The story of Ponheary Ly resonated most strongly, says fourth-year student Sareena Mithani, for the  message of education as key to a more peaceful world. A Cambodian national, Ly survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, but her father, a teacher, was murdered. Her mission, to educate the youth of her country by providing school supplies and the basic necessities so they can stay in Cambodia, prompted her to establish the Ponheary Ly Foundation, which will be the recipient of a fundraiser the students have set up.

“Illiteracy is prominent in these villages,” says Ivan Lerida, a third-year student. “Ponheary became a teacher herself and saw many children working in the fields instead of going to school. Her foundation raises funds to give these kids an education to help their communities out of poverty.”

Their final day of the conference was a peacebuilding challenge, set in the year 2040. “A new island had been created, called Gary,” Dhaliwal explains, “and we were divided into groups representing countries or stakeholders to determine who would govern Gary.”

Dhaliwal was the operations centre of the winning stakeholder team and says that last day had particular meaning to her as a registered nurse. “I wasn’t an international relations student like most people thought. Yet I succeeded because of my skills as a nurse — my conflict management skills, advocacy, negotiation and leadership: these are all required in all areas of nursing.”

Charities of choice

The students, now considered Humanitarian Affairs Peace Ambassadors, must fundraise for an international charity (the Ponheary Ly Foundation Canada) and a local charity as part of their mission. They chose the Veterans Food Bank of Calgary, which is run by veterans for veterans (to support the fundraiser, visit the website). 

In addition, Andersen is supporting Operation Underground Railroad, a foundation to rescue children from global sex trafficking, after she witnessed a disturbing incident while in Thailand for the conference. She has set up a viewing of the documentary Operation Toussaint, which focuses on a special forces team that goes underground in Haiti to bring a ring of sex traffickers to justice. The movie will be shown on Feb. 28 in Science B 142. Tickets are $10 each.

Davidson is pleased with the outcome of the faculty’s sponsorship of the students. “Our goal in sending these students to the peace summit was to give them an opportunity to develop their future as nursing leaders in global health and peacebuilding. This experience will positively impact them for the rest of their lives.”