Feature Interview: Dr. Wee Teck Young (Hakim) of the Afghan Peace Volunteers

Relationships can overcome all the barriers of the world

In December 2014, we sat down with Dr. Wee Teck Young (known by Afghan youth as “Hakim”) for a conversation about his views on nonviolence, relationship, and community.

Ten years ago, Hakim, a Singaporean physician, decided to leave the comfort of his medical practice to instead provide humanitarian and social assistance to those most affected by the war in Afghanistan.

He has since become friends with many ordinary Afghans who are tired of war and dream of a peaceful, nonviolent future for their families and their country. Many of these friendships have developed through his role as a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, a group of multi-ethnic Afghans dedicated to building nonviolent alternatives to war.

Can you explain briefly what the Afghan Peace Volunteers do, and the type of work that they’re currently involved with?

Hakim: The focus has gradually crystallized into seeking a life of nonviolence and the promotion of nonviolence. It didn’t start off specifically that way. At its start, it was a group of young Afghans in Bamiyan (a province in central Afghanistan) who wanted to have their voices heard and wanted to come together to talk about the insecurity and war that has been going on in Afghanistan for decades. But since then, the mission has honed into a clear mission of nonviolence.

There are five different areas that our volunteers now work on: nonviolence in community and in self, nonviolence towards the environment, a nonviolent economy, nonviolent education, and a nonviolent way of resolving conflicts.

An early photo of Hakim with the Afghan Peace Volunteers from when the group was based in Bamiyan province.

And what does nonviolence mean to you?

Hakim: My views towards nonviolence have changed. I was never a nonviolent activist. My training is in medicine, and in medicine I didn’t think about peacemaking and nonviolence. I had ideas of service, ideas of helping people, but not specifically in relation to nonviolence. Over time, through studying some of the people who have spoken out about nonviolence and practiced it in their countries, like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I now understand nonviolence to be a way of life that demonstrates love towards fellow human beings as well as to the environment.

Hakim interacts with youth at the Borderfree Nonviolence Centre in Kabul. The Afghan Peace Volunteers run an educational program for street kids.
“I now understand nonviolence to be a way of life that demonstrates love towards fellow human beings as well as to the environment.”

And how does nonviolence work? How does it bring about change?

Hakim: By asking, everyday, in our interaction with people and their communities and the environment, if we can build feasible alternatives to violence. By asking ourselves, Why not love? Why not justice, instead of injustice? Why not talk over problems, instead of fighting over problems? Why not listen, instead of arguing? And I’m hoping that we channel our energies into building small, local and viable alternatives, which would help us relate to one another. We have very challenging conflicts going on in this country, such as taking care of the environment and education. Nonviolence is a method of discovering very practical alternative ways of doing everything.

Members and friends of the Afghan Peace Volunteers at the opening of the Borderfree Nonviolence Centre in Kabul on August 7, 2014.

Can you describe the members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers community? Who are these people?

Hakim: The young people that we have in Kabul now at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre are youth from different ethnic groups. There are four major ethnic groups in Afghanistan: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazars and Uzbeks. Then, there are probably about eight other minor ethnic groups. Among the youth, there is quite a good variety of the different ethnic groups coming to the center and participating in the activities.

Our doors are open to any Afghan, both male and female, who are interested in joining the activities that promote nonviolence. We also have been deliberate in including the most vulnerable segments of Afghan society, the women who are illiterate, the impoverished, and the street kids. We want to continue to allow any person who wants to engage in the practice of nonviolence, to be a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

What sustains the work, not just for you, but also for the community?

Hakim: Relationships. I know the world is a messy place and people often get very cynical. Relationships, I think, can overcome all the barriers of misunderstanding that are prevalent in the world today. I think relationships can motivate us.

From left to right: Dr. Hakim, Patrick Kennelly (Director, Marquette University Center for Peacemaking), Billy Malloy (Nursing ‘11), and Abdulhai (a peace volunteer) at the Borderfree Nonviolence Centre in Kabul in December 2014.
“Relationships, I think, can overcome all the barriers of misunderstanding that are prevalent in the world today.”

Could you reflect and share with us how you’ve changed since you left the medical profession and then started this work?

Hakim: I used to think I was educated. And maybe people in different parts of the world would think that if I received or had an opportunity to finish medical school, I am educated, but I was not.

When I moved from Singapore to work among Afghan refugees in Pakistan more than 10 years ago, I would have quite easily accepted the thought that the current systems of governance are necessary to maintain order in society. I have changed with regards to how I relate with people.

I used to be very quick to place people in different ‘categories’ according to their lot in life. This whole mindset, which I had, that there are certain kinds of people that are predisposed to certain ways of living, which are inferior or less than those who have had other opportunities, has also changed. I see everybody as just as capable as the other.

I use the phrase “wisdom of the masses,” which means, the age of a few human beings claiming to know and understand how the world should be run, is over. I think the farmers, the shepherds, the factory people, even the children even who work to earn a living and help their families, are the masses. They are the ones who have awakened. And with that “wisdom,” I will be able to help people understand how human beings can work with one another.

You’ve developed some strong friendships, certainly, Kathy Kelly and Bashir, as well as others. Can you just comment on those friendships and what they’ve done for the Afghan Peace Volunteers and for you?

Kathy Kelly (left), founder of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, with Hakim and members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers at the Band-e Amir National Park in Bamiyan.

Hakim: We managed to get more than 20 international peace activists to come to Kabul in 2011 and that began my friendship, not only with Kathy, but also with others. I cannot ever say enough of the friendships I’ve had among Afghans who’ve taken me in as a part of their family, like Ali and Abdulhai who are like my brothers. Basir has been an anchor, especially in the last year in helping to guide the youth.

I think relationships are everything. I think that Kathy has brought her passion and her love for people, and the work of building peace, and shared it with not only myself but with the other volunteers. So has each and every international that has come to visit us.

There is a story I can tell with regards to relationships:

This was when I was working as a medical officer in a hospital in Singapore. I think it was close to midnight that I finally got some time to go see a patient in his room who was in his last days. He wanted to tell me something, which he indicated through a piece of paper and a pen. In those few moments he wrote a message for me — and I regret not having kept that piece of paper. The message was about relationships.

He wrote, “I have enough wealth to last me a lifetime, and not only me but my next two generations, but all that is not very meaningful now. Please, please, please don’t, don’t pursue money; pursue relationships.” The note continued, “You will not regret another hour earning another $1,000 more; you will regret that you didn’t spend more time with your families or your friends.”

Relationships with people have changed my life, have changed the group, and I believe can change the whole world.

Dr. Hakim featured in the “A Million Smiles” movie project. Video by Mike Worsman.

For the past five years, representatives from Marquette University’s Center for Peacemaking have visited the Afghan Peace Volunteers through a partnership with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Center for Peacemaking representatives have documented and published on the peace movement in Afghanistan and developed an online course that assists the peace volunteers in learning more about nonviolence.

This interview was conducted by Patrick Kennelly, Director of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking and edited by Lexie Athanasourelis-Athis.