Peace talks: Amherst’s Karuna Center for Peacebuilding’s grassroots path is working.

  • A Rwandan youth photographs a reconciliation scene between a survivor, right, of the country’s 1994 genocide and an instigator, at left, of the violence. Karuna Center staff have worked to help forge peace in the country for over 20 years. Photo courtesy Aegis Trust

  • An interfaith dialogue in Sri Lanka in 2012. Karuna staff and nonprofit groups in Sri Lanka have worked with the country’s different faith communities to build reconciliation following Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. Photo courtesy Karuna Center for Peacebuilding

  • An interfaith dialogue session in Myanmar in 2018 between Muslim, Christian and Buddhist community leaders. Photo courtesy Karuna Center for Peacebuilding

  • Young women take part in a team-building exercise in Sarajevo in Bosnia/Herzegovina, as part of a leadership program for Serb, Croat, and Bosniak youth that Karuna and peace groups in the country have developed. Photo courtesy PRONI Center for Youth Development

  • An interfaith group of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka rebuilds a Buddhist temple in 2014 that was destroyed during the country’s civil war. Photo courtesy Sarvodaya Shanthi Sena

  • Ginny Morrison, in center, the Karuna Center’s program director, in a camp for internally displaced people in South Sudan in 2015. She is developing a curriculum to help Sudanese people, who were attacked by government forces, deal with their trauma. Photo by Mary Jo Harwood/courtesy Karuna Center for Peacebuilding

  • Karuna Center for Peacebuilding Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier speaks with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/ KEVIN GUTTING

  • Paula Green, center, the Karuna Center’s founder, in Bosnia circa late 1990s/ealy 2000s. Photo courtesy Karuna Center for Peacebuilding

  • Olivia Stokes Dreier, the Karuna Center’s executive director, says a key mission of the group is to try and break cycles of violence between people — and foster respect and understanding between them. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Karuna Center for Peacebuilding Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier speaks with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Karuna Center for Peacebuilding Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier speaks with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Karuna Center for Peacebuilding Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier speaks with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Karuna Center for Peacebuilding Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier speaks with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kristine Downing, Karuna Center for Peacebuilding local events coordinator and peacebuilding intern, speaks with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

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    "Karuna in the World", a family tree type of illustration, on dry erase material, plotting some of the wide-ranging and ongoing initiatives and collaborations of the Amherst-based nonprofit. Photographed at the home office on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of “Karuna in the World,” a family-tree-style illustration that showcases some of the wide-ranging initiatives and collaborations of the Amherst-based peace group. Karuna has worked in close to 30 countries, including the U.S. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kristine Downing, left, local events coordinator and peacebuilding intern at the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, and Karuna Executive Director Olivia Stokes Dreier speak with the Gazette at the nonprofit's home base in Amherst on Thursday, May 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 5/30/2019 1:36:48 PM

Violence is a given anywhere in the world, at pretty much anytime. But the 1990s saw some especially horrific examples of it.

Perhaps nothing was quite as shocking as the genocide in 1994 in Rwanda of the minority Tutsi people by the country’s majority Hutus; estimates are that as many as 1 million people were killed and possibly half a million women raped, while hundreds of thousands of people (including moderate Hutus) fled Rwanda.

Then there was the violence that erupted when the former Yugoslavia broke apart in the early 1990s, setting off a decade of destruction, killing, rape and torture involving newly independent nations and different ethnic groups. Indeed, “ethnic cleansing” became a byword of the conflict, most notably in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, and ultimately as many as 140,000 people were killed and perhaps four million displaced, according to a number of sources.

Twenty-five years later, a good number of those scars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have healed or at the very least have been addressed, in part due to the efforts of a small nonprofit group in Amherst.

The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, begun in the wake of Rwanda’s genocide (though not specifically created in response to it), has since the mid 1990s sent small teams to areas of conflict across the world — Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and other countries — to work with people and groups at the grassroots level, at the invitation of these groups, to try and identify the roots causes of conflict, help bring about reconciliation, and ideally have an impact on future government action.

It’s a job that requires patience, trust, empathy, good listening skills, and an ability to build relationships and recognize a community’s specific needs, says Karuna’s executive director, Olivia Stokes Dreier. “It’s important that we understand people’s perspectives, working with them to help them identify the steps that can help them” build peace.

The Karuna Center defines its works in part with a number of terms that might seem a bit jargon-y at first glance — dialogue, human rights training, trauma healing, risk and conflict assessment — but which in fact have very specific definitions and purposes. And collectively, they are all designed, at a basic level, to get people on opposite sides to talk to one another, to realize their shared humanity and needs and to break past cycles of distrust, prejudice, hatred and violence.

Another key component of this mission is to train people in other countries in these methods, to give them the skills for fostering dialogue and bringing people together, in the process becoming partners with close ties to Karuna. And Karuna staff say it’s a reciprocal process: Their work, they say, couldn’t be done without the close partnerships they’ve developed with peace groups in other countries, groups from which Karuna is always learning something new as well.

“We’re always looking for a point of entry that will get people talking but that won’t feel too threatening,” says Dreier, who joined Karuna in 2002 and has traveled widely for the organization for years, leading training sessions for people and building links to a wide network of nonprofit groups in other countries. “The goal is to get different people’s viewpoints, their concerns and fears, and figure out how reconciliation might work.”

As just one example, Dreier and a few other Karuna staff and consultants made a number of trips to Sri Lanka between 2011 and 2013 after the country’s 26-year civil war had finally ended. The chaotic and bloody conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils had been exacerbated by dint of the country being home to four distinct religious groups: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. So Karuna, working closely with its partners in the country, helped put together an interfaith group of religious leaders and select community members that in turn brought different people together for community projects, such as rebuilding places of worship that had been destroyed in the civil war.

With a laugh, Dreier says that Sinhalese and Tamil youth involved in this effort, who previously had little or no contact, “felt like they had permission to fraternize, and suddenly they’re hanging out, they’re texting each other … those are the kinds of bonds you like to create.”

She and Paula Green of Leverett, the veteran peace activist who founded Karuna and now serves as a senior advisor to the group, feel they’ve likely made their greatest headway in Rwanda, in part from their long tenure there (Green first started visiting Rwandans in refugee camps following the 1994 genocide). “We’ve developed a lot of connections there, and in some cases people we trained [to be peace builders] are now leading trainings,” says Green. “That is humbling and very gratifying to us.”

The effort over the years to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, and to bring perpetrators of the violence to justice, has garnered considerable media coverage, and Karuna’s work has received attention as part of that. As one example, the center, working closely with three Rwandan nonprofit groups, has developed a multi-tiered program, “Healing Our Communities,” that, among other things, brings survivors and instigators of violence together to try and settle lingering disputes over property and other issues — and to foster forgiveness and redemption.

“There’s no geographical division between [the groups],” says Dreier. “In many cases, they’re living side by side.”

In the best instances, the Tutsi survivors of violence have forgiven their Hutu attackers, and the latter are committed to atoning for their acts. For its April 2018 issue, which focused on race and tribalism, National Geographic got in touch with Karuna to find some of these people — and then featured a prominent photo of Marie Uwambaje, who lost four family members in the genocide, and Boniface Twagiramungu, who was part of a group that attacked Uwambaje’s home. The two hold each other in the photo, which notes that Marie chose to forgive Boniface after he asked for forgiveness “from his heart.”

“It’s the kind of story that make us feel we’re doing work of real value,” says Dreier.

Physically, the Karuna Center, in the small business area in South Amherst near the intersection of Route 116 and Pomeroy Lane, is a modest affair with a handful of offices and employees. It started even more modestly: in Paula Green’s living room. At one time a therapist, Green had been drawn to international peace work in the late 1980s and early 1990s before establishing Karuna — which means “compassion” in the ancient Sanskrit and Pail languages of India — as a nonprofit in 1994.

Her first “employee,” she notes, was a part-time graduate student who helped her in her home office. But today Karuna has a staff of about 10 people — normally it’s 11, Dreier says — which includes six full- and part-time employees in Amherst, two staff members in Bosnia and the equivalent of 1.5 in Rwanda. Dreier notes that the center also hires people on an as-needed basis in other countries to help run some of their larger programs, and they hire translators when needed (much of their work takes place in English, and Dreier also works in French).

The breadth of the center’s work might better be understood by the size of its annual budget: about $1.7 million, much of which comes from grants for its programs, most notably the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which works closely with the U.S. State Department. In addition, Karuna relies on about two dozen specialists in peace work in the U.S. and other countries for assistance with some of its efforts. 

The center’s website includes a number of detailed resources, in English and other languages, for trying to resolve conflict. One, for instance, is a guidebook on running a community dialogue session; the book was developed following a project Karuna did in Myanmar over the last three years to try and ease tensions between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

“There’s a big difference between dialogue and debate,” says Dreier. “With dialogue, you’re really trying to listen to the other person and understand their point of view … It’s not about trying to convince them about your views.”

The Karuna Center, with its partner groups, also works with younger people in areas of past conflict, many of whom say they want to learn more about a subject their parents or grandparents may be reluctant to talk about. Part of the “Healing Our Communities” program in Rwanda, for example, involves young people — Hutu and Tutsi — videotaping interviews with survivors and instigators of the 1994 violence. That work has become part of a genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.

“We learned we really needed an intergenerational dialogue here,” says Dreier. “Young people were frustrated that elders weren’t talking about [the violence]. Now they’re learning how to identify and create stories on camera.”

Dreier notes that in some of the areas Karuna works in, tensions between groups can be traced at least in part to the legacy of colonial rule. In Rwanda, at one time a Belgian colony, the minority Tutsis were elevated by Belgian officials because they were considered superior to the Hutus, creating lasting enmity that finally boiled over in 1994.

Now there’s another concern: climate change. Karuna staff fear that resource depletion, crop failures brought on by drought, and catastrophic weather events may rekindle ethnic and religious tensions and violent extremism in some places, especially Africa and Asia. Karuna is now working with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on plans that Dreier says are designed to strengthen early responses to emerging conflicts.

The rise of authoritarian regimes in more countries — Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, among others — is also alarming, especially the way some national leaders scapegoat certain groups for a nation’s problems. And Dreier was shocked and saddened by the Easter Sunday attacks on Christian churches and other buildings in Sri Lanka by Islamist suicide bombers in April, and by a corresponding wave of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism in parts of the country.

Karuna has been in touch with its partners in Sri Lanka, who are equally shocked but also “committed to working to prevent the manipulation/politicization of tensions,” Dreier said in a follow-up email.

As Karuna reflects on 25 years of working for peace around the globe, one thing the center is committed to is doing more of that here in the Valley and elsewhere in the U.S. Though it wasn’t specifically a Karuna project, the “Hands Across the Hills” program that Paula Green has led in the last two years, in which liberal residents from Leverett have met with conservatives from rural Kentucky to discuss their differences, was first conceived as something the center might do.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” says Green, who has received national and even international attention for the effort. It hasn’t been about changing people’s votes — Leverett went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, the Kentucky residents for Donald Trump — Green says, but rather about “trying to understand people and not seeing someone else as the ‘other.’ ”

The center already has links to a group based in Longmeadow, Critical Connections, that works to educate the public about issues affecting Muslim Americans. Kristine Downing, Karuna’s local events coordinator and peacebuilding intern, says the center also wants to offer a series of programs — interactive speakers’ panels, community dialogue sessions — this fall and winter on issues in the U.S.

“It’s becoming more apparent to us that there are things we need to be working on here,” says Downing, who ticks off white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. “These are all things that can be difficult to discuss but need to be discussed.” 

If peace building is an incremental and often frustrating business — “It can seem like two steps forward and one step back,” says Green — it’s also something you can’t quit on. She says she’s probably most heartened with the way nonprofit groups in so many countries Karuna has worked in have picked up the mantle of the center’s work over the years, and that Karuna has learned much from these groups in turn. “We plant seeds,” she says.

And for every bellicose and calculating politician trying to turn prejudice and ethnic differences to his or her advantage, or for every group using hatred and violence to advance its agenda, Green believes there are many more people “with good hearts and open minds who believe in peace and understanding and are willing to do the hard work to have that.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

You can read more about the Karuna Center at






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