Partnering for change: Varqa Foundation by Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
February 16, 2003

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Inspired in name by a follower of the Bahai faith killed in Iran, the Varqa Foundation today - while acknowledging its spiritual origins in the Bahai tradition - exists as a non-denominational, Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and works with young people all over Guyana. Run by the energetic and enterprising Brian O'Toole (who, along with his wife, established the School of the Nations), Varqa started out as an extension of the Bahai Community's Office of Social and Economic Development. Since moving into its present avatar, a configuration that both the organization's founders and funders are comfortable with, Varqa works with young people in Guyana on two main projects: a literacy initiative called 'On the Wings of Words,' and a youth activist movement called 'Youth Can Move the World' (YCMTW).

An original programme, inspired by the disturbances that rocked Guyana in 1997-98, YCMTW was founded on the basis of a number of interviews conducted with young people all across Guyana. Varqa's founders were convinced that there was a better way to address the problems of young people, and thus began this promotion of advocacy and community activism on a racially unified platform. O'Toole is a firm believer in the benefits of putting young people through a sustained, but brief, educational and training process. So you have a community of facilitators who are trained over a year-long period, who come from all regions of Guyana, and who are then expected to go back to their communities, and carry out similar work with youth groups of their own. Varqa certifies each and every facilitator, thus conferring official recognition that is useful for a range of careers and professions.

YCMTW is a wide-ranging platform; this year, in its fourth year of operations, a significant focus on HIV/AIDS and youth has been enabled by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Normally, the platform encompasses issues like the promotion of the arts, domestic violence, protection of the environment, drugs and alcohol awareness, literacy, human rights, gender equity, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, and even suicide awareness. All these platforms will remain; yet from this year on, in recognition of the urgent concerns posed by the threat of HIV/AIDS on young people in Guyana, Varqa will focus heavily on the issue in partnership with UNICEF.

Physically, the foundation is based near the School of the Nations, which is an affiliated concern. The vibrancy and potency of youth power is remarkably reflected in the tumult of shouts that emerge from the school playground. School is in session and it is lunch break: there isn't a single space left where some kid isn't bouncing a ball, chasing another, or simply just sitting around and having fun. As an environment for a youth organization, there couldn't be a better place than this.

Coordinators and facilitators of the YCMTW programme arrive; they are a reflection of Varqa's strong Guyanese rooting, as well as its international affiliations. The facilitators and peer educators - Sherah, Abigaile, Verina and Abbas - are all from different parts of Guyana. The programme coordinators - Arash, Shireen, Sarah and Alex - are from Iran, the USA, Uganda and Guyana. Two members of this group are here through the Bahai network, and all the others through a desire to work with youth mobilization and HIV/AIDS. This remarkably diverse group has a cohesive vision for social change that belies the immense geographical and cultural differences that each member has individually straddled.

Briefly, this is the format of a typical YCMTW programme. It regenerates itself every year in October. This last year, for instance, the programme was kicked off with a three-day workshop, where participants - potential youth leaders from all regions of Guyana - were invited to Georgetown. Most participants from the deep interior were assisted with scholarships to cover the cost of attendance. During that training session, Varqa used a manual it has carefully developed and refined over the years (a continuously evolving document), and relied on its wide network of local NGO and government partners to conduct training sessions. For instance, in the last few years, Varqa has tied up with Help & Shelter (a domestic NGO that works with issues of domestic violence), the Gender Equity Program of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Iwokrama, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), UNICEF, and the Health and Family Life Educational Programme at both the Ministries of Health and of Education.

O'Toole describes the conference in glowing terms, as an exciting event with a welcome level of chaos and fun. To house all the two hundred and fifty participants, for instance, the School of the Nations opened up its doors and accommodated everyone. In the first year of the programme, three hundred and fifty young people were trained; in subsequent years, the number has settled at about two hundred and fifty. Facilitators (trained in previous years) are key organizers of this event; they provide the ideas on what workshops to conduct, what games to run, and who to bring in to conduct training. Later on in the year, these facilitators will then go out into the regions and work with the young trainees on home ground. All in all, Varqa and YCMTW expect at least one interaction a month between the trainers and the community leaders in their year-long immersion.

The training sessions themselves rely heavily on non-traditional communication methods. One workshop might use puppets to simulate a role-play, and another might involve participants splitting up into groups and performing a skit. The key, according to O'Toole, is to motivate young minds through the most effective means of communication: entertainment. And it doesn't stop there. Many of the programme sessions are replicable ideas, that can be carried back to local communities and replayed.

After that initial training, the community leaders will begin the process of starting their own youth groups to carry forth the mission and vision of YCMTW. A group formed out of this process can be as large as eighty people strong. Working out the numbers of young people who might have been affected over the years by the work of Varqa leads to astonishingly high figures, even if only 40-50% of those who are chosen for the programme actually start a group. Being a member of such a local community movement has its advantages too: each year, Varqa hosts a jamboree for all its young members, both direct and indirect, with a series of competitions where groups compete against each other.

Varqa's programme coordinators and community facilitators are an active, articulate group. Sherah, who trained as a facilitator in the very first YCMTW batch, and now works as a teacher at the School of the Nations, has been a facilitator for the programme these last four years. Sherah started a church group in Lodge, Georgetown. She reports that a lot of young women in her group are adamantly against having sex before marriage. At the same time, they are for contraception, because, as she puts it, "no one wants to have a belly." The boys, she says, are not quite sure about monogamy, while the girls, are uniformly for it.

Verina, who runs a vibrant group in Essequibo (which took home a number of awards at Varqa's annual jamboree), reports a series of problems that ensued from discussions around sex: for instance, the boys started speculating about the virginity of the girls in the group. In her group, she says, people were universally against homosexuality, and thought it to be morally wrong. Sherah says that her feedback suggested that the young people in her group were equally split on the issue. Abbas, who is a recently trained facilitator (and hasn't started a group as yet) related from his general experience in school that most boys are not willing to accept any form of perceived deviant sexuality.

On HIV and AIDS, there was a wide range of opinions, and an equally passionate list of suggestions on how to raise awareness levels. Sherah opened the discussion by talking of her own experiences. A family member died from AIDS. She remembers how no one then knew anything about HIV or AIDS, and how the media have changed that situation so much in the last few years. Verina reported that misconceptions about how you can become HIV+ still persist in her community - that some people still think that kissing and touching carry the risk of transmission. Abegaile, whose own group is in Ruimveldt, said that she had to go through the A to Z of HIV/AIDS education right from scratch. Most people, she said, still weren't quite sure how you could get "knocked by the big truck" - a euphemism for dying of AIDS.

Abbas talked of the East Coast, where he lives. He said that people are still "fearsome" of someone who is HIV+ and that this comes mainly from ignorance of the issues. For instance, he says, though he is at the University of Guyana, where there are a number of condom vending machines for use, and a presumably educated set of people, there is still a lot of stigma that he can sense.

That naturally led to the question as to why this lack of awareness exists, and why young people might continue to engage in risky sexual behaviour today, even after so much exposure to the threats of HIV/AIDS. Alex suggested that to her, it was because, "Sex is sex: two people in a bedroom, and nothing else." She suggested from her own training in and experience of working with HIV+ people that the goal has to be behaviour modification. She thinks that the HIV/AIDS message needs more outreach: that is, more of it where it is really needed. Alex suggests taking the bull by its horns - going into bars and nightclubs, places where the idea of sexual activity may be originated, and running practical sessions on simple things like, for instance, for a young girl, on how to just say no.

Sarah suggested that people needed to get practical information, and further, that Varqa's format worked. Sherah stressed the need for bringing back moral values, and re-instilling sound religious values in today's youth. She lamented that few young people knew what they wanted or how they wanted to get it. She felt it important to teach how to focus on the self; to use spirituality to mould a stronger personality, one which would not succumb needlessly to peer pressure. Verina, citing her experience in Essequibo, blamed poverty. There, she said, "No one has anything to do. There are no jobs, no opportunities and the whole area needs upliftment. People need something to live for." In an interesting twist, she remarked that activities like YCMTW could in fact, become an occupation. People in Essequibo kept asking her what Varqa was, and how much it cost to be trained as a youth leader.

Razena, a youth community leader who joined in late, talked of trust and honesty. She currently lives in the University of Guyana in Georgetown, and stressed that the need is to be open and talk, even if it is hard. Morality, she said, also played a big role. Abigaile suggested that in her opinion, young people become HIV+ because of sheer rebellion. She herself had strict parents. Now if parents in general would not be as strict, and would not encourage their children indirectly to go out and have sex as rebellion, that would help.

Abbas suggested that sex is glorified. He remarked how every single thing around him is essentially about sex, in one way or another. He is tired of it, and wanted to know how any young person was expected to deal with the spectre of AIDS under the circumstances. He called for a return to spirituality, to morals, and stressed the need for a strong religious education, an opinion echoed by Shireen.

Arash thought that it was essentially habits that caused HIV infection. Whatever they may be, good or bad, habits were hard to change. He talked of external and internal forces and suggested that through a better grounding and a stronger sense of self, it was possible to have an internal force that would be strong enough to withstand an external force.

The voices of these young leaders reflect the collective vision and experience of the remarkable youth movement at Varqa. The level of involvement alone suggests that change is accelerating. O'Toole is exuberant at the prospect of training more and more people like those he already has. To that effect, the funding from UNICEF will enable Varqa to support a field service programme, where a select team of twenty-five trained facilitators will rove the country, monitoring and empowering local community youth clubs and groups. He is looking seriously at having quarterly review meetings with all their community leaders in Georgetown, an expansion in activity that would also be supported through Varqa's association with UNICEF.

As much as he expresses his frustration at having to continuously convince the outside world of Varqa's intentions and abilities, he is glad for the presence of funding organizations that enable organizations like his to grow and expand. Indeed, if the conversations with his passionate youth advocates are anything to go by, he has his work cut out for him. These young men and women aren't merely ready: they're rearing to go.

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