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Red Cross youth look to future in Solferino




Thousands of young Red Cross volunteers from around the globe are meeting in Solferino in northern Italy to discuss how they can make a difference.

The third Red Cross and Red Crescent world youth meeting, entitled "Youth on the Move", coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, which led to the birth of the Red Cross.

The youth leaders, from more than 150 countries, began meeting on June 23 to share their experiences and learn about a range of humanitarian challenges from food security, climate change and HIV/Aids to youth leadership and behavioral change.

The idea is that when the five-day meeting is over, the volunteers will go back to train their peers in their home countries.

The gathering will also result in a formal humanitarian declaration, which the young leaders will present to the international community, Swiss officials and Red Cross leaders in Geneva on July 2.

According to Roberta Zuchegna, coordinator for young people at the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the long-term aim is to raise the visibility and profile of young people.

"We want to show to the world that young people are taking action, that they exist and are motivated and they really want to do something good for their communities everywhere in the world," she told swissinfo.ch.

It is estimated that around 50 per cent of the 100 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers that make up the world's largest humanitarian network are young people, or under 30 years of age. This rises to 80 per cent in Africa.

Hidden aspects

"The camp is incredible," said Carine Fleury of the Swiss Red Cross. "It's truly global, very well organised and the young people are really motivated."

Fleury is part of a 15-strong Swiss team taking part in workshops, training sessions and other activities on the 200,000 square metre site.

During the workshops participants share their humanitarian experiences. So what do the Swiss have to offer?

"Switzerland is a rich country, but there are lots of hidden aspects," said Wim Nellestein from the Geneva branch, which boasts 300 young volunteers.

"It's a challenge to say: 'No, there are people in Switzerland who are not very well, who are marginalised and voiceless'. Migrants and refugees live in extremely precarious situations," he said.

Young blood

Currently, out of the 40,000 Swiss Red Cross volunteers nationally, only 6,000 are youngsters, and are active in only 14 cantons.

While actively trying to boost new membership, Swiss Red Cross youth leaders hope to build on the momentum of the Solferino camp to try to inject young blood into the upper ranks of the old institution.

"We are listened to at the Swiss Red Cross but this could be more and we could be more integrated," said Fleury. "It's an old organisation and there are those on the committee who are scared of losing their position to younger people."

And contrary to popular belief, young people are motivated to get involved and help other people, she added.

"I feel there is a renewed interest in real values; people always say young people do nothing and laze around, but I sense their willingness to commit themselves," she noted.

Learning experience

Another active Red Cross member at the workshops is Segirinya Hannington, chairperson of the national youth council at the Uganda Red Cross.

The national society has some 200,000 volunteers helping on a daily basis to deal with "numerous humanitarian challenges", like poverty and health issues, explained Hannington.

"Young people can make a difference if they come together as a think tank and act on their ideas. The first thing is to change themselves; then others look to them for inspiration and will act," he said.

Hannington, who said his visit to Solferino was "a dream come true", said he'd been inspired by other national societies like Israel's Magen David Adom, which does "great work in first aid", and the blood donation and community activities of the Pakistani Red Crescent.

Moshe Danenberg Ohayon, a paramedic volunteer with the Magen David Adom Society, also said he had learned a great deal just by facilitating a workshop on non-violent culture.

"Coming from a conflict area is a big challenge," he told swissinfo.ch. "On the first day here people are suspicious, but what I found was that when you lay out the carpet of great respect people come and share experiences."

"I've been talking with friends from the Egyptian Red Crescent, the Lebanese Red Crescent and the Palestinian Red Crescent. When we are abroad and there is no physical environment, we are much freer and open to explore."

Danenberg Ohayon felt young people had a tremendous power which should be harnessed.

"Back home I try to make them understand that they are the power. And if they act they can do anything they like. Unlike adults, they have no limits," he said.

Simon Bradley in Solferino, swissinfo.ch

Anniversary

From June 23-28 thousands of people from all over the world will gather in northern Italy to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, which led to the creation of the Red Cross movement.

Young people from more than 150 nations are taking take part in the third World Red Cross Red Crescent youth meeting. This is an event to train active volunteers who will go on to train their peers in their home country.

On June 27 a fiaccolata – a torchlight procession – will follow in the footsteps of volunteers who carried the wounded from the battlefield of Solferino to the nearby town of Castiglione delle Stiviere.

Following the meeting hundreds of youth volunteers will travel from Solferino to Geneva in Switzerland to present to international leaders a formal declaration addressing solutions to today's humanitarian challenges.



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