Mainlehwon Ebenezer Vonhm, SIS/MA ’04, was a junior undergraduate student at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, Florida, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The university—like the rest of the US—was reeling from the single deadliest terrorist attack on US soil that had just occurred, but alongside the shock came feelings of tension and fear, as Muslim students at FSU began to be ostracized by their fellow classmates.
“After the attacks, we had many students from predominantly Muslim countries who were afraid to walk outside because students on campus would bully them,” says Vonhm. “They had to rely on friends to go out, get groceries for them, and bring the food back to the dorms.”
As the president of the International Student Association, Vonhm knew many of the students who were being harassed. And as a refugee who fled Liberia at the height of the country’s first civil war, he was familiar with how tragic the consequences of othering could be.
Surviving Ethnic-Based Conflict
Vonhm was 19 when Charles Taylor, then-leader of the Libyan-backed rebel group, and his forces invaded and attacked Liberia from Ivory Coast, instigating the country’s first civil war. At the time, Vonhm and his family lived in a county bordering Ivory Coast and were forced to move closer to Liberia’s international airport. Later, when the rebels reached this area, Vonhm and his family members separated, in order to run for their lives.
“The conflict I experienced in Liberia was an ethnic conflict. If you were in a rebel-held area, not only were rebels looking to kill government employees, they were also looking for people who were not associated with their ethnic group,” says Vonhm. “Some of my own classmates and teachers in Liberia were killed during the civil war because they were of a different ethnic group. I could have gotten killed, but I was just blessed and spared.”
A Conference to Mitigate Tensions on Campus
Having experienced identity-based conflict in Liberia, Vonhm was driven to take his experiences and use them to ease the identity-based tensions stirred up at FSU after 9/11. He reached out to and worked with the university’s administration, the student government, the African Student Association, and other on-campus groups to organize an all-day peace conference.
“During this conference, I wanted to use my story to showcase how identity-based conflict could be a grave danger on campus if we didn’t find a way to mitigate these problems,” says Vonhm.
After bringing together different groups—including Christian and non-Christian fraternities and sororities—and Muslim students, he spoke about how he lived in and survived identity-based conflict in Liberia in order to emphasize the real-life consequences conflict can cause. He also asked Muslim FSU students who were being bullied after the attacks to speak about their experiences on campus.
“We wanted to give them a chance to tell their stories and relay how fearful they were,” says Vonhm. “After seeing how the Muslim students were affected, some of the students who instigated the bullying apologized. We had a lot of questions and conversations—lots of back and forth. Right there, you could see a change in attitude.”
According to Vonhm, these interactions spoke to the power of using “I” messages in conflict resolution. These messages are when people communicate by focusing on how they feel, rather than stating what they believe the intent is of the person with whom they are in conflict.
The day after the conference, Muslim students who were scared to exit their dorms started going back to class. Some normalcy returned to campus. For his peacebuilding efforts at FSU, Vonhm was recognized with both the university’s Courage and Ethics Award and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Rosa Parks Tolerance Award in 2001.
Further Developing Peace and Conflict Resolution Skills
After he graduated with an international affairs degree from FSU, Vonhm wanted to focus on a specific area of the field with which he could have some form of impact on the world. When he learned about SIS’s Peace and Conflict Resolution master’s program on NPR, he thought it would be a good fit.
“I thought that I could use my own experience in the peace and conflict resolution field—not just discussing it but making an impact in people’s lives and trying to foster peaceful coexistence,” says Vonhm. “SIS was very unique and a great fit for me because of the school’s practitioner instructors, so I decided to enroll.”
While at SIS, Vonhm learned from and was mentored by the late SIS professor Abdul Aziz Said, who supported Vonhm’s efforts to help displaced Liberian children who suffered from the war and taught him negotiation and mediation skills. Vonhm was also impacted by Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, who helped him develop skills for finding common ground between groups in conflict.
“At SIS, I started thinking about engaging with my own Liberian brothers and sisters, young folks who are coming up. Teaching them to understand the ethnic groups in Liberia, not as ‘us-versus-them,’ but that, instead, ethnic diversity can be appreciated, and we can celebrate one another,” says Vonhm.
A Career Dedicated to Fostering Peace
After earning his SIS degree, Vonhm founded the Center for Peace Education (CPE), a nonprofit dedicated to serving communities in both Liberia and the US in which a cycle of violence permeates. The organization works directly with many different communities, including youth who are ex-combatants, refugees, internally displaced persons, amputees, orphans, and victims of sexual abuse. CPE recruits diverse peace educators, who are then trained to work with students in ways that can genuinely impact them.
In Vonhm’s view, one of the most gratifying aspects of this work is witnessing not only the positive changes in CPE students, but also how these changes reverberate in the students’ communities. He recalls how one student now goes out of his way to help his community members with daily life, whether that be by volunteering to clean a house before a birthday party or by sharing with them what he’s learned from the organization.
“I’m so proud of the children, especially those who were child soldiers, who came into the program, and now their attitudes and behavior have changed so that they are good citizens,” says Vonhm. “Seeing students positively impacting the community at large—their families, their teachers—it makes me happy and proud about the work that we do.”