Opening Address at European Youth Parliament: NON SIBI SED OMNIBUS
(This speech was delivered at the Opening Ceremony of the European Youth Parliament in Cork, Ireland on the 23rd of January 2016.)
Distinguished guests, organizers, and fellow delegates of the European Youth Parliament. My Dear Fellow Humans — good morning.
When Caoimhe, the Head Organizer of this European Youth Parliament session in Ireland invited me to speak at the Opening Ceremony — I couldn’t say no. Because you don’t say no to a classmate, especially when they have been a fellow medical student. After all, we need more doctors who are aware and immersed with the interconnected global challenges that confound us all as opposed to those who do not see the need to. So I am glad that she has successfully been able to get the future of Europe into this room today.
So today, as you embark on a weekend that has been organized for young people by young people under the theme of “Europe in the Wider World”, I hope that what I share with you today will be of use to you as you create and debate resolutions surrounding the pressing issues of our time. Today I will not give you operative clauses for your resolutions, but I will give you stories of young people I personally know, who are leaving a mark on this planet we call home by being mind-blowing millennials who have the power to imagine better. Because to me stories make up the essence of who we are as humans, and being cognizant of this fact especially at a time when human life has become a mere statistic or a picture of young child that is washed onto the shore — as in the case of Aylan Kurdi.
But before I get to these stories, let me give you a background to my intricate connection with Europe.
I was born in Sri Lanka, which is a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean and if you want to know how beautiful it is — it’s the type of place where there is no need for Instagram filters because it puts editing to shame, as it is naturally unedited and beautiful. So it is no surprise that over the centuries as per the praise of ancient travellers such as Marco Polo, the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British were also obsessed with my island home and we reigned under their rule from the 16th to 20th century. But regardless of the negative connotations associated with colonization such as the notion of “divide and conquer” which was very real, also came the beauty of merging races and ethnicities to create what we now have as a Sri Lankan identity. So my first connection with Europe is a genetic one, as my grandpa is of Dutch descent.
I went to a Christian School that was founded during the time of British colonial rule, and it was here that I learned my school motto that I have now made my life motto — Non Sibi Sed Omnibus; not for one but for all. It is this principle of humanity that I try to adopt every time I embark on a new grassroots level project or any other form of active citizenship. This is my second connection with Europe.
When I was twelve, I was schooled in London for a term in secondary school where for the first time I was put outside my comfort zone. But it was also here that I took one of the most interesting classes on World Religions. I learned of the beauty in diversity that culminates from the teachings of all faiths that at its core prescribe kindness over hatred and peace over war. It was also my time in England that I was able to explore fully my love for Harry Potter, which even made me try auditioning for a part in the movie. This was my third connection with Europe.
When I turned eighteen, I found myself representing the voice of young people at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps of Davos. Recently, I was going through some old emails and I came across an invite by the Chairman of Nestle to a private Breakfast Discussion on childhood and youth in the 21st century. And along with that I found the transcript from that discussion over breakfast where I sat alongside Sheryl Sandberg -COO of Facebook. She spoke on how Facebook was connecting people and their stories across and beyond borders, and when it came to my turn I said,
“The world will not be made for us, but by us.”
And even today, I believe that and that is the very reason you are all seated here today — because you believe that too. My experience at Davos changed and shaped my life in that I realized that the adults that run our world sometimes need to be told by the toddlers like you and me that run the world that we are tired of picking up the pieces from the mistakes they continuously make, and that we will be adults in the room and recreate a mosaic of sustainability. This was my fourth connection to Europe.
I then moved to Montreal, Canada, which I like to call the North American Paris and is very much home to me. Living in the French-speaking province of Quebec, I used the French I had learned from Alliance Francais in Sri Lanka but had to adapt to the French Canadian dialect — yet another connection to Europe. So at this point I should say, merci de m’avoir invite — It is indeed a pleasure to be here.
Now, I study at University College Cork in Ireland and I room with two very cool Europeans — a German and a British. And our meals together epitomize the concept of Food Beyond Borders because we often enjoy German Spaetzle along with English Shepard’s Pie, over a conversation of Sri Lankan tea and politics. Because being engaged with the world in which we live in, regardless of whether it is about an issue that is on our shores or otherwise is what we ought to do as the most connected generation in human existence. We have no excuse to not use our Snapchat stories for good causes.
So here are the three millennial stories I promised to tell you about.
They are stories of bravery beyond defeat, stories of courage to preserve against all odds, and stories of peace that ensure that basic human rights are met. And the common thread that joins these stories is they are the stories of millennials like you and me, but who are bold enough to create real life fairy tales around issues of the state of asylum seekers and refugees, the growing strategic importance of the Artic region and the environment, and the role of the EU in supporting sustainable growth in developing countries — the very topics you will be caucusing on later today.
Story #1: The Girl Who Lived
Meltem Avcil — was a former child detainee. On the 27th of August 2007, she woke up to eight immigration officers who rushed into her house and occupied every room. She was put in a caged van and taken to the police station, and from there, to the B-class prison Yarlswood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire. In her moving talk at TEDxTeen in London last weekend, she told her story.
“They say there is a school in there so I go to see how it is. I find myself dipping cut potatoes into colour then stamping the blank paper. Really? I am thirteen years old so I leave. A month has passed and because of undesirable food, lack of vitamins and nearly no appetite I start having pains. I cry and the guards take me to a room, which they call the health centre. I’m still crying and the doctor comes out and tells me “shut up, where do you think you are?” I don’t have any energy so I don’t reply. Finally a nurse takes me in and grins at me so I ask her if she had to go to university to get this degree only to work here. She gives me painkillers, calls me rude and sends me back. It’s been two months now and I hear my mum speak to the lawyer desperately. She says, “we lived here for 6 years and now they want to deport us? But we left once, we cannot go back.” My first miracle happens. A woman is brought in by accident, she stays for two days and before leaving gives me a number to call. It’s a number to start a campaign. So I do it, and it’s called ‘stop Meltems deportation.’ It attracts media’s attention and they want to know more.”
She started her first campaign while still in prison to stop children’s detention. And upon her release, she is currently campaigning with Natasha Walter to #SETHERFREE. Her first award was the Liberty Human Rights Award. She went onto receive the Christie Jackson Young Person of the Year Award in 2014 and Cosmopolitan Ultimate Campaigner of the Year in 2015. Now, Meltem is a 22 year-old award-winning human rights activist, and currently lives and works in London where she studies Psychology at the University of Goldsmiths in London.
So as you create possible legislation that is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 of promoting peaceful and inclusive societies and access to justice for all ans build effective and accountable institutions encompassing the role of asylum seekers and refugees at your sessions at the European Youth Parliament, I hope you remember this girl who lived — and after all that hate and trauma chose to love. After all, humans are never liabilities but only assets and we need to create equal value for human life — Non Sibi Sed Omnibus; not for one but for all.
Story #2: The Planet Boy
David Saddington — is my global brother in peace and has been an earth child from the first time I met him when we were both 16. When he was only yet a teenager, he established an eco gardening social enterprise and developed his first eco garden at his secondary school in the North East of England. When he was selected as a Climate Change Champion for DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), he travelled to Switzerland to see first-hand the impact of climate change on Alpine glaciers and talked about these experiences at conferences, schools, shopping centres and even prisons around the UK. He met with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street and discussed the implementation of climate change on the UK national curriculum. In 2007 the UK became one of the first countries that included climate change in the national curriculum. He studied the science of Climate Change at Durham University and led a ground breaking glacier survey expedition sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society to Iceland, to study the third largest ice mass in the world. He is now working with the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) relating to Education & Youth Empowerment surrounding COP21 as a Climate Change Communicator, because he believes that we must act as a species rather than via fragmented interests in order to tackle this remarkable global disruptor.
So as you head to the negotiation table and discuss SDG 12 — to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts as you role-play as the Arctic Council or the European Union — or even as the companies interested in resource exploitation, I hope you realize that we have only one viable planet for life and that we need to be as passionate as David on this global issue by not being myopic about economic benefits, but hypermetropic about human benefits on the longer run is imperative if we want a planet that is sustainable and reflects intergenerational equity. Because the results of the human contribution to this scientific phenomena that is changing our planet as we know it is a very undeniable karma we are going to have to pay for and are already paying for — for the way we treat the very place we call home. And a home that cannot be replaced regardless of how hard we try to explore our universe for other options that can sustain life, because other planets may have traces of water but they don’t have the perfect combination of elements required to sustain life. So we need to preserve our home — Non Sibi Sed Omnibus; not for one but for all.
Story #3: The Donating Backpacker
Orcun Dursun — is a friend who changed the way I saw aid and charitable giving. We met as volunteers at Web Summit in Dublin last year. And as we visited the National Art Gallery in Dublin after the summit, and sat opposite the famous Caravaggio that was accidentally discovered hanging in a house in the 90s, he told me his incredible story and I realized that I had discovered someone who saw charitable giving through the lens of his borderless travelling — like never before. Until a year ago, Orcun worked as a successful banking analyst for JP Morgan in Geneva in private banking and wealth management, but decided to give it up because he wasn’t making the type of impact he wanted to make in the world. Armed with a solid background in finance, he decided to pursue his master’s degree to first prove or disprove his hypothesis of the idea of social giving through a storytelling platform that connects donors with messengers and recipients via building a system that primes on active participation between donor and recipient and is transparent and minimal in transaction fees associated with charitable giving. And all this arose from his travels over the last seven years, where he backpacked from country to country. But it was when this German boy of Turkish origin went backpacking across India a few years ago that he did something different. He took with him all the extra toys from his nieces and nephews and gave them to children he met along the way. He took a picture with them and sent it to his siblings who were then stunned by the emotional journey encrypted in this singular gesture. And this laid down the seeds for what will become a potential social enterprise and one that I hope to support and work with him on in the future.
Because he blew me away and he said to me,
“What if I tell you that with the small amount of money you currently have in your pocket you could right now donate a chicken to a poor family living in the suburbs of India, and witness the whole process in real time. You would get to know how the chicken is being bought at the local food market, brought to a family with low-income backgrounds, and lastly served as dinner. Your little contribution would have filled the bellies of several people including children. And the best part of it, you are there — at least virtually. Or that you could buy a woman a sewing machine for her to start her own business and she could employ others to work for her, all from that single donation you made. How would you feel? This little story is just one out of million of potential stories. You can contribute anytime, anywhere and be always sure that your contribution has a direct impact with full transparency.”
As the venture capitalist Saul Klein described us millennials at the Web Summit that Orcun and I were both attended; millennials have different attitudes. We move more for work and the use different tools for work. We have a different attitude to leisure because of Airbnb and Uber. We are less focused on owning assets, whether they are a house, cars, phones, computers or energy. And in a sense this movement away from ownership into a world where we are happy to rent, borrow, swap, and donate assets changes opportunities radically. So our solutions to the world in which we live in will also be different from the rest.
So today as you discuss SDG 9 — to build resilient infrastructure and foster innovation and SDG 10 to reduce inequality within and among countries, and identify the reasons to give or change the way you give developmental aid to the developing world, I hope you remember to be creative in your approach whilst ensuring that although you may need to give a man a fish if in the form of temporary relief if he is in dire immediate need of food, you need to teach the man how to fish (or buy him the equipment which he can then use to fish) and become self sufficient. And in this process, I hope you ensure that his assistance is equitable — Non Sibi Sed Omnibus; not for one but for all.
These are the stories of three of my friends.
I hope they moved you and will move you to be the catalysts of change in Europe — and the wider world.
Let me leave you with the words of Beyoncé from her song “I Was Here” — that she beautifully performed at the UN General Assembly for World Humanitarian Day. I know together we can all get there.
“I want to say I lived each day, until I die
And know that I meant something in somebody’s life
The hearts I have touched will be the proof that I leave
That I made a difference, and this world will see
I was here
I lived, I loved
I was here”
Here is a clip from the speech: