Speech of Leah Pisar, President of the Aladdin Project, addressed to students of the fifth International Summer University for Intercultural Leadership

Excellencies, Professors, Students, Ladies and Gentlemen,

How meaningful for the Aladdin Project, and what a pleasure to be in beautiful – and windy – Baku for this gathering of eminent officials, ambassadors and academics. And, of course, the enthusiastic and diverse group of students from 25 countries, who are about to receive their diplomas from our International Summer University for Intercultural Leadership.

Our thanks go to UNESCO, for giving its patronage to this program since its inception in 2013. And to the Baku International Center for Multiculturalism, for hosting this year’s session. I would also like to express our gratitude to Aladdin’s academic committee, chaired by Professor Tudor Parfitt.

Dear students, you are wrapping up a fascinating journey through a very beautiful land with a uniquely rich history and culture. I have heard from many of you about the magnificent sights you have visited and that your stay in the mountains was particularly enjoyable and stimulating. But this is only the beginning of your journey with Aladdin.

Azerbaijan is an ideal venue for Aladdin’s summer university because it lies at the crossroads of civilizations and cultures. This goes back far into its history – the ancient Silk road – but this is also a very contemporary statement about your society, and sets a powerful example in an international context that could use a lot more harmony.

Since 2013, the Aladdin Project, in cooperation with UNESCO and the European Commission’s Erasmus Plus program, has been holding the International Summer University for Intercultural Leadership at a different location and on a different theme each year. It seeks to familiarize students with the cultural heritage of the host country. And to create a dynamic network of young leaders from diverse regions of the world, bridging cultural and religious divides in the process. It has proven to be a very successful program, which we intend to expand and enhance. We look forward to receiving your input as we do so.

Last year’s program also took place in Azerbaijan, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. This year’s program was a new experiment: our students have joined a number of students invited by the Baku International Centre of Multiculturalism.

The philosophy behind this program lies at the heart of what the Aladdin Project is all about: to promote relations among different cultures and, through education, to foster mutual respect and help each one of us learn what the other one is about.

This is all the more vital in today’s strange – and, frankly, unsettling – world. Education and knowledge have a crucial role to play in preventing extremism.

What unites all of you, who hail from different cultures and countries, is your desire to discover and explore, to interact with people from other cultural backgrounds.

We hope to have offered you the opportunity to do both: to learn and to interact and thus to expand your horizons and your curiosity. You are now part of a large network of students from all around the world. The ties of friendship that you have forged over these last days can last for a lifetime, and really enhance your professional and personal endeavors.

Now, we want each one of you to be ambassadors for Aladdin and intercultural rapprochement. When you go home, and back to school, tell your family, your friends, your fellow students about this experience, about what you learned. About what you liked and about what you liked less.

The strength of this program depends, in great part, on the strength of the network created. And this, in turn, depends on your continued involvement.

I have had the good fortune of being involved in other international networking initiatives that seek to open participants’ minds and enrich their vision of the world. Interacting with peers whom I would otherwise have probably never met, participating in formal discussions but also in spontaneous ones, totally changed my perception of so many controversial issues. In the process, I made some great friends and keep in touch with many of them today.

Such programs, but most of all this one, because of who all of you are and the diversity of your backgrounds, reinforce my profound belief that the ability to move from one cultural set to another with ease is a huge asset for a leader in every field.

You have a great head start because you have done this at a particularly young age, and one at which you could afford the time to spend more than a week on such an adventure. Enjoy this freedom, because it won’t last forever.

You also realize that, in order to be real, and effective, these exchanges are bound to be spirited. Each one of you comes at this with your own ideas, experience, cultural vantage point.

You are not expected to see the world in the same way. If you did, we would not have assembled the right group. The value of this program is the people we meet with different points of view. This is what helps us see beyond our own viewpoints and work together to create common experiences and common values.

So I urge you to keep up your spirited discussions, to keep on challenging one another’s thinking. This will turn into a valuable skill for you in the workplace, where you are also bound to encounter differences. With this in mind, I hope that we have helped you hone your capacity to understand and manage diversity, to be able to work and to lead within multifaceted professional environments.

I will stop here because you have endured enough lecturing and I think that by now I have made my point. And ask for a round of applause for this superb group. Thank you for making the trip, and the effort and for sharing all that you have.