The Italian region of Tuscany is widely known for its beautiful countryside with rolling hills, tall pointed cypress trees, carefully tended Chianti vineyards, and groves of ancient gnarled olive trees whose branches are the universal symbol of peace. The landscape is dotted with small towns, villages and hamlets.
In the midst of this bucolic setting, just outside the town of Arezzo, is Rondine – a tiny hamlet that is home to Cittadella della Pace, the Little City of Peace. It is a place where young people of university age from conflict and post-conflict areas around the globe come together to understand “the other” as well as themselves, in a safe environment, for a two-year program of intensive study and transformation.
Their course of study has been described by Rondine as a personal experience based on three principles. The first is “vision” – to see beyond conflict and develop new ideas. The second is “gratuity” (in the sense of generosity) – to learn to be generous, giving up self-expectations while considering the other. The last is “team work” – living together, sharing projects and a new vision.
The Rondine method revolves around creative transformation, forging new relationships, building trust, overcoming the feeling of enmity, hostility, fear, anger, and much more, ultimately discovering the commonality among fellow humans. The students are given strong training in psychology, history, diplomacy, and leadership. They live all together under the same roof, each sharing the same space “with the enemy.”
The students of peace currently come from some 30 countries and enroll for a two-year program. When they arrive they spend the first three months in full immersion study of the Italian language. All become fluent as the instruction is conducted in Italian.
At their recent presentation at the United Nations, it was heartwarming for Italian speakers in attendance to see young people from places like Palestine, Bosnia, Nigeria, Colombia, and other far-flung countries all speaking fluent Italian with one another!
Rondine was founded in 1998 by Franco Vaccari, a trained psychologist from Arezzo, who started by bringing together a youth from Russia and another from Chechnya. His innovative and visionary approach to conflict resolution was successful and the rest is history. In the founder’s own words, the participants at Rondine learn to “discover one another as humans, not enemies.”
Rondine is not a formally accredited educational institution, but an Italian civil society non-profit organization. Thus, at the end of the two years of study there is a graduation ceremony but no diploma or degree is granted. However, students who enroll at nearby universities (e.g. Florence, Siena) are able to receive credit for some of the courses taken at Rondine.
After more than 20 years, Rondine today has about 200 alumni who have formed a global network active in a new culture of peace. The graduates have formed the “Rondine International Peace Lab” –individuals capable of intervention in incipient conflict situations, hopefully to nip them in the bud.
At least one graduate has entered politics. Maria Karapetyan is a member of the Armenian Parliament, where she has put her experience into practice.
A current student from a post-conflict state told the story of her childhood years living in fear of falling bombs and being killed. Even today, the sounds of a train passing on a nearby bridge over the Arno River in the middle of the night remind her of the bombing sounds of her youngest years. Now in her second year at Rondine she is making plans to start a documentary film company dealing with social issues and intends to use the growing alumni network for inspiration and assistance.
Rondine enjoys the support of Pope Francis, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italy’s current Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. With such backing, the Italian Ambassador to the United Nations, Mariangela Zappia, last year brought Rondine’s founder, staff and students to the United Nations for the first time to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to introduce the Rondine concept of “Leadership for Peace.”
In the words of Ambassador Zappia, “a future of peace can be built through dialogue and by overcoming differences.” On their recent return trip to the UN in December, the participants of Rondine reiterated their successful method.
Rondine is not only the name of a Tuscan hamlet but is also the Italian word for swallow, a small bird lauded in many poems that always seems to fly in a massive flock every evening at sunset, blanketing the sky over the countryside. Just like the swallows, the graduates of Rondine have spread around the global sky, living and transmitting their message of peace.
The need for Rondine’s method of conflict resolution is evident today as more and more belligerencies arise around the world. Rondine’s Cittadella della Pace currently has a full house and needs larger quarters. Recently, they purchased a nearby abandoned castle and will eventually move into larger quarters after extensive renovations are completed. The castle is so historic that it can be seen in the background of a Leonardo da Vinci painting! (Vinci is a nearby town.)
Transforming society by first changing one’s way of thinking about “self” versus “the enemy” leads to the discovery of the fundamental humanity of both. Reconciliation is essential to peacebuilding and the Rondine process can be viewed as a modern-day manifestation of the biblical mustard seed. They are sowing the seeds of peace in Tuscany, one youth at a time.
St. Francis of Assisi once wrote in a prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Today, just over 100 kilometers away from Assisi, Rondine is doing precisely that!
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association at the United Nations.