Lessons Learned in the Congo and Costa Rica: Safeer Bhatti’s Eye-Opening Journey to Mediate Conflict

By Susan Gettlin | August 27, 2015

“Peace is possible.”

– Dr. Safeer Bhatti ’08M

“Why aren’t you smiling?” asked Dr. Safeer Bhatti ’08M, propping his video camera to record her reaction. “You’re 18 and in the prime of your life.”

Gazing back at him with flashes of distress visible in her eyes, the young Congolese woman responded to his question with an air of ambivalence: “What is there to be happy about?” She, a rape victim, who watched helplessly as her sisters were raped and murdered by the same Rwandan rebel soldiers who had attacked her, found smiling almost as futile as Dr. Bhatti’s investigation.

Dr. Bhatti had just completed his master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution at Arcadia when he traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi to perform field research and provide peace talk trainings to various embattled groups. During his visit, he was asked to speak with women who were victimized through rape and HIV/AIDS infection. Some wanted their stories recorded, even demanding it for the sake of educating others on the state of their village. Others, like the forlorn 18-year-old he interviewed, were less inclined to share their plight for fear of being ostracized within their community.

“I’m not a psychologist,” said Dr. Bhatti modestly, “but using a technique I learned at Arcadia, called narrative mediation, I was able to dig to the core of the issue and help her move forward.” He asked her to forgive herself and think of a time when she was most happy. He listened to her pain and anything else she wished to divulge. Two days later, he was approached by the head of a local women’s shelter. “What did you do to this girl? She is smiling now, wearing makeup…she even bought herself some jewelry!”

When it comes to resolving conflict, listening is half the battle, explained Dr. Bhatti, who learned this tenet firsthand during a study abroad trip to Costa Rica with Dr. Warren Haffar, dean of International Affairs at Arcadia. There, he was tasked with mediating a conflict between the government who wanted to build a dam on a section of holy land owned by the Borucas—an indigenous community in Costa Rica—and the Borucas who felt they were not being given a fair say. In order to better understand their displeasure, he spent two weeks living in their villages and speaking to them, through broken Spanish, about their experiences. “All they wanted was to be consulted on the project and to receive some royalties from what the dam was producing.” Dr. Bhatti and his team pitched this new understanding to the government and whatever conflict there was between them was tactfully smoothed over. 

“When I was looking to apply for a master’s program, it was Arcadia that appealed to me the most since it had more of the field research component built into it. I wanted to be part of a program where I could learn something and then apply it immediately, and that’s what Arcadia has here compared to other master’s programs, which just entail straight coursework. You know, some of my peers have asked me, ‘Hey, Safeer, how did you know what to do when you went to the Congo or Burundi? How did you learn to go into an environment and build social capital?’ And I told them, I got the practice when I did my first master’s at Arcadia, where we were able to take classroom theories and actually apply them directly in the field.”  

Following their fieldwork in Cost Rica, Dr. Haffar co-authored the book, Conflict Resolution of the Boruca Hydro-Energy Project: Renewable Energy Production in Cost Rica, with Dr. Bhatti serving as a contributor (New York: Continuum, 2010). 

Fast forward to 2015, Dr. Bhatti is publishing a book of his own, International Conflict Analysis in South Asia: A Study of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan, scheduled for publication in December 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. The book details compelling accounts from two conflict-embattled groups (the Shiites and the Deobandis, a conservative group of Sunnis) facing sectarian violence with each other. Ultimately, Dr. Bhatti’s book is designed to help readers understand how conflict evolves, the struggles that occur due to the current misrepresentation of extremist groups, and what potential solutions could be found.

“Each chapter is organized by subheadings of what their religion is, followed by an appendix (word-by-word) translating interviews of what a Shiite or a Deobandi actually believes and says based on various beliefs. When I did the interviews and the analysis, I found that both sides agreed that we need to accept each other for who we are and accept our practices…if we can move toward tolerance and harmony then we can end the sectarian violence.”

Dr. Bhatti employs many of the conflict styles and mediating methods that he learned at Arcadia into his peace talk trainings abroad as well as into his lectures at Florida International University (FIU). When he’s not telling his students at FIU to “go outside” if they want to understand what happened during a certain period of history, he serves as chair of the Social Studies department at iGeneration Empowerment Academy of Broward in Margate, Fla. 

Among his many distinctions, which include a Presidential Volunteer Service Award in 2008 and 2011, Dr. Bhatti is the recipient of the Nuclear Age Foundation Peace Leadership Award, The Peacemaker Award (2008), and has been included in Who’s Who Among American Colleges, to name but a few honors on his resume.

To view some of the live interviews Dr. Bhatti conducted with the women of the Congo, as well as videos on his peace training sessions and other interviews, visit: https://www.youtube.com/user/safeerbhattiorg.

Favorite Arcadia Professor

“Dr. Haffar guided me a lot. You could say he was like a father to me in the program, taking a 24-year-old individual who knew nothing about peace and conflict resolution and then molding me into one of his ‘conflict resolutionists!’ He helped us [students] to visually connect the dots, taking what we learned in the classroom and applying it in the field. That’s what I think every education program should have…that field research component. It’s also what I try to build into the curriculum that I teach.”

Dr. Bhatti’s “A-ha” Moment

“In the Congo, individuals told me, ‘We wish you were here prior to 1988 [when the outbreak of civil war happened] because if we had the skills and lessons you just taught us then we never would have had a civil war. We can’t tell you how many lives were lost just because of a misunderstanding which led to war and conflict for years. Life would be different.’ That was one of the huge takeaways I had on how just a matter of learning how to resolve conflict can empower a community to take what they’ve learned and collaborate peacefully.”

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