Photo submitted by Alouny Souvolavong

Peace camp participants practice their listening skills by responding to commands during an ice-breaking session at a peace camp for youth in Thalat village in Laos.

Just 10 years ago, Khamsa Homsombath was quiet, reserved and didn’t really speak to people outside of his cultural group.

That’s before he became involved with an MCC project in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) called Mittaphab: Youth Solidarity and Peacebuilding Project.

“I’m not a city person, so I was really quiet and very shy to talk to different people. I only talked to my friends in the same village. I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to people in different areas of different ethnic groups,” he explains.

That became a challenge when he moved to the capital city, Vientiane, to go to school and began to meet people from all over the country representing different ethnic and religious groups.

Team members Ameng SenAmartmounty (left) and Xayyaveth Vongphachan shake hands with an opponent following a solidarity building activity. Photo submitted by Alouny Souvolavong 

In 2008, a friend invited Homsombath to participate in Mittaphab as a volunteer. Over the next two years, he learned about peacebuilding, compassion, active listening and challenging stereotypes. He also had the opportunity to lead training sessions for younger students.

“I was very focused on my studies, graduating and finding a job,” Homsombath explains. But by taking part in Mittaphab, he redefined his values to focus more on building peace in Laos.

Mittaphab, which means friendship, involves 24 young adult volunteers who take part in 12 trainings per year, participate in interfaith dialogues and go on study tours led by MCC staff. The goal is for the volunteers to become leaders for peace in Laos.

A year ago, those volunteers implemented peace camps, which brings youth from various cultural and religious groups together for a weekend of activities geared towards growth in leadership and peacebuilding skills.

Learning to relate peacefully with each other is important for youth in Laos, says Wendy Martin, a recent MCC representative in Laos, because the country has 49 different ethnic groups and several religious groups that have historically had very little interactions with one another.

As the groups move to urban centers for job opportunities, they’re forced to interact and bring with them certain stereotypes and prejudices. Mittaphab gives young adults the opportunity to challenge those misconceptions, she says.

“There’s a high percentage of young adults in Laos, and this is a unique opportunity for them to come together from different provinces, different ethnic groups, different religious groups to share their experiences and learn from each others, Martin says.

That’s true for Phoudthida Soukaloun, a 20-year-old volunteer.

She’s been volunteering with Mittaphab for two years and has taken part in peace camps in that time.

A group of peace camp participants act out a Buddhist wedding procession during culture night. Photo submitted by Alouny Souvolavong

“Instead of just being a program that Lao youth can join to improve themselves, we also have a chance to live together (for the peace camp), understand each other and accept each other too,” Soukaloun says.

For her, education was paramount.

“I’ve learned more about religions which Lao people believe in and their background and their lifestyle as well,” she says. Because of Mittaphab, my life has changed so much. I can say that I’m now the one who understands more about other people and who won’t judge other people without knowing them well enough.”

Because of Mittaphab, my life has changed so much. I can say that I’m now the one who understands more about other people and who won’t judge other people without knowing them well enough.” - Phoudthida Soukaloun

Martin says because the average age of people in Laos is around 22 years old, according to 2015 statistics, it’s important to work to develop young people’s leadership skills.

“Commonly youth will say, ‘We aren’t confident. We want to be leaders; we want to be trainers, but we don’t have the confidence,’” Martin says. “I’ve seen youth develop their confidence (at Mittaphab) and through that they’re becoming leaders. I can see the opportunities that roll out for them as they graduate university and seek employment.
Their experience with Mittaphab gives them an edge.”

Homsombath is one such leader.

After spending two years volunteering with Mittaphab, he was hired by MCC to become a program assistant with Mittaphab. He worked his way up in the program and now works as a team leader.

In addition to his work with young people, Homsombath also promotes peacebuilding in rural villages and engages people who have completed Mittaphab training to do the same. They lead peace camps and teach active listening, solidarity, and understanding of different religious and cultural practices.

Mittaphab aims for volunteers and peace camp participants to get practical experience in many contexts, Homsobath said. “And we want the people in the community to learn from youth who have gone through this training and have these new skills,” he says.