Rotary Peacemaking, Duke University Limabenla Jamir, 29, is the founder of NEIMUN, a youth-led non-profit educational foundation that develops leadership skills among youth in northeastern India

Limabenla Jamir grew up in a small town in Nagaland and has seen and experienced the armed conflict and its devastating impact on the social and psychological lives of the people of Nagaland. This tragic, life-changing experience sparked his passion for founding a youth movement, promoting peace and teaching conflict resolution skills to young people in his region.

She is the founder of the nonprofit organization NEIMUN, a youth-led educational foundation, a Rotary Peace Fellow, a TedX speaker, a global trainer for the World Economic Forum, and a founding trustee of Kohima Hub Global Shaper.

Limabenla at Naymun and the World Economic Forum

In conversation with Limabella Jamir.

What are you doing?

I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in international development policy at Duke University.

For the past six years, I have been helping youth in Northeast India learn more about the work of international organizations in the field of youth, peace and security. The goal is to initiate social and economic change in their communities in partnership with educational institutions, government and international organizations.

As a child, you experienced armed conflict. Can you tell us what happened in 1994?

In 1997, when we were growing up in Nagaland before the ceasefire agreement between India and the Nagas, there were some events that were not very pleasant. One of the most important events was December 27, 1994, and I must admit that it is the inspiration for everything I do today.

Nagaland is a small state in northeastern India. Many call this region an anthropological paradise. There are over 200 ethnic tribes with many wonderful cultures, and of course beautiful hills, lakes and people.

But the region is known for another problem: It is home to one of the longest unresolved armed conflicts in the world.

I remember the 27th. December like it was yesterday. I have seen our car burn along with many others, seen hundreds of shops burn, seen men, women and children (including our family) lying on the road for hours as we were caught in the crossfire between the Indian army and the Naga rebel groups.

I often talk about this event because it sparked my passion for political conflict.

How did people react to this incident?

This incident was never recorded. It remained invisible, unseen, forgotten by the rest of the country. So are thousands of other untold stories about people around me: brothers who were murdered, sisters who were raped, parents who were shot or kidnapped.

These incidents are still vividly etched in our memories.

But in my area, we don’t talk about this experience. I don’t know if we moved on, forgave or just accepted our fate. But one thing I have learned from this experience and from my life in Nagaland is the resilience that our people have developed. It is resilience that gives us the strength to withstand the horrors of armed conflict and to cope with our environment.

So do you have a degree in psychology and sociology?

I have experienced the effects of armed conflict first hand and have always been interested in how people behave in tense situations.

I was curious why the Indian Army, the governments of India and Nagaland or the rebel groups do what they do. This fascinated me and inspired me to study psychology.

How did you come to London to do your Masters?

When I finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Delhi, I wanted to do a master’s degree.  I have tried to understand political conflict in terms of social psychology.

After graduation, I worked for the UNHCR refugee programme for six months and then started working on my application. I was fascinated by Royal Holloway’s Applied Social Psychology course at the University of London, and I am lucky enough to study with some incredible social psychologists.

I didn’t get a full scholarship for the course, so I worked part-time in London to support myself.

After graduation, you returned to Nagaland. What was it like to go home? Has anything changed?

During my studies, I participated in many international seminars, conferences and trainings. All of these forums had a common theme: a call for young people to voice their opinions and participate in decision-making processes to make a difference in our communities. This experience opened my eyes and filled me with many hopes and ideas.

But when I got home, my return was disheartening and disappointing.

If you live in a first world country, I think we’d better compare and see what we’re missing.

But my experiences during my studies in Delhi and London helped me to see my country’s developmental backwardness.  What struck me most was the high rate of unemployment, the helpless youth and the lack of opportunities due to the political and economic instability in our region.

The most frustrating factor is that young people have lost faith in their abilities and potential.

What did you do when you were so disappointed?

While I was disappointed, I also met inspiring young people who challenged the system and achieved success on a national and international level. I met like-minded people and together we created several programs – community centers and learning spaces for youth in the Northeast.

Why did you found NEIMUNE?

In 2013, I returned home and founded Northeast India International Model United Nations (NEIMUN), a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to developing and testing culturally relevant programs for the youth of Northeast India. This was demonstrated in my master’s thesis on conflict, anxiety and identity, which showed that the self-esteem, life satisfaction and general mental health of those affected by conflict decreased.

Young people have the will, ability and willingness to challenge the system and make changes to improve society. What we lack is not motivation, but an environment that equips young people, opportunities that invite them to participate in decision-making and policy-making processes to participate in the governance and reconstruction of conflict-affected societies.

NEIMUN aims to create such a platform to share our struggles and stories, develop our skills, build our self-esteem, improve our life satisfaction and empower us to shape our future.

That’s why I founded NEIMUNE.

How’s Neymoon?

NEIMUN conducts youth policy and advocacy research and provides opportunities for young people to learn about international organizations, social issues, peace and security, and to initiate social and economic change in their communities. Since its inception, Neumoon has been an active participant in Model UN conferences, where participants gather to discuss, debate and pass resolutions. Conferences are held annually throughout the region.

Source: Northeast window

At NEIMUN conferences, we bring together passionate young people from across Northeast India to learn about leadership, diplomacy, negotiation and how they can make a difference in their communities. Their stories, their dreams and our shared hope for solutions to the challenges we face in our region are truly inspiring.

What challenges did you face in setting up your own NEIMUNE organization?

It was difficult to convince people, because I was not taking a civil service exam, but founding an NGO. The 23-year-old woman in your office asked you to invest in her organization, and her work was not something people here found fascinating.

Source: NEIMUNE

But my friends and I kept telling our stories wherever we went. This had a great impact on the decisions of others who began to support us. That’s why we built Neymoon around our stories. Neymoon was born because there was a group of passionate young people who wanted to move forward. Even now, there are young people who believe in his mission and are pushing him forward.

What is the next step for your NEIMUNE organization?

Source: NEIMUNE

Ultimately, I want to facilitate communication between the people of Northeast India and the rest of India and the world.  We hope to engage young people across the country in a dialogue to improve our bleak reality and build a better future for our regions and country.

Tell us about an event you remember from your work experience?

At a conference I attended, a young man told his story.

I lost a loved one during the Kargil war in 1999. After that, whenever I thought of the war in Pakistan, I was filled with anger and rage. But after studying the impact of the conflict on a region like Pakistan, I realised that the problems we face in Nagaland and the problems they face in Pakistan are similar. Both are conflict zones. The young people of Pakistan want the same future as I do: a secure future. The anger and frustration I felt towards them is gone.

This story touched me and will stay with me forever.

You are currently enrolled at Duke University in the United States, where you are pursuing a master’s degree on a scholarship. How did you get this award?

Ten years ago I started reading about learning opportunities around the world. I was naive and ambitious to study abroad. One of the features I kept seeing in the requirements is the holistic approach that all universities take. So during my studies, I not only got good grades, but also participated in extracurricular activities. I have always taken advantage of volunteering opportunities, continued to develop my profile and looked for opportunities where I could make a meaningful contribution and learn.

At one of these meetings, I met a law professor from Mumbai who sent me a link to the 2015 Rotary Peace Fellowship. To qualify for the scholarship, a minimum of five years of relevant professional experience is required in addition to a good academic record.

I wasn’t ready then. I also looked at other scholarships like Fulbright, Open Society, Tata Trust Funds, and I ended up with quite a list because I searched for years. I applied to several large universities and received several rejection letters.

In 2017, I finally applied to Rotary and received a full scholarship to attend Duke University.

I chose Rotary because it focuses on international development and peace building. As a Rotary Scholar and candidate for the Master of Arts in International Development Policy at Duke University, I am interested in exploring the complementary relationship between economic development, security, and policymaking. I hope that my time at Duke will enable me to gain a greater understanding of applied policy research and analysis and contribute to strengthening civil society governance and institutions in conflict and post-conflict settings.

I am passionate about exploring the role of leadership in peacebuilding, transparency and accountability mechanisms in public institutions, and promoting resilient societies.

You said you received several rejection letters. What stopped you? What did you learn from this bad experience?

GRIT. That’s what kept me going. Those were difficult days.

The rejection letters weighed on me, made me feel incompetent, that I was dreaming too high, unattainable and unrealistic. But my friends and family helped me through it.

During this time, I have received more feedback on how the youth organization helps young people challenge themselves and aim higher. I think these reviews have validated my vision and mission. I think going back to the people and books that inspired me really help me understand my purpose.

Diploma or not, I did my best to be a small change.

The rejection letters kept coming for other scholarships and other schools. While I felt an incredible passion for my work and strongly believed in its impact, I also began to see the risks and limitations I had to take to achieve the desired effect. I knew I had to learn and relearn. But with each request, I grew stronger and more confident that the outcome would not determine my success.

What did you learn from your study abroad experience? What is really important in the application?

Honestly, advice on applying abroad will be another long conversation. But there are so many valuable resources for students to draw from. I often used the Happy School blogs, the Alumni Café. It is important that you are well informed before applying to schools in the UK and US. I haven’t reached the other countries yet, so I can’t say much about that.

The most important thing is that you explain very well in your application why you want to follow a certain study at this university. You don’t have to be rich or successful to get into these schools.

It took a lot of self-reflection, writing a letter of intent and looking for scholarships and schools I could apply to.

What you need to do is show who you are, what you’ve done, and where you want to go. I’m definitely not a nerd, I don’t get good grades and I don’t come from a rich family. My application showed what kind of person I am, what kind of work I have done, what kind of impact I want to have after graduation, and how committed I am to my vision and goals.

Have you always been sure of your true calling in life?

I had no idea what my true calling in life was, because it was constantly changing. But I am sure of one thing: I want to glorify God in everything I do and make a small difference in society in whatever way I can.

When you hear stories in the media about high-achieving people in their twenties, you often get the impression that they haven’t achieved anything yet. That you’re nobody.

But it’s not.

Everyone did a lot, some more than others. Moreover, the way we measure success is different. Some people are destined to start a business at 25 or graduate at 35. No achievement is less important than another.

What did you do in uncertain times? When you were not sure what you wanted to do?

When I had moments when I wasn’t sure, I always liked to look at what inspired me – a book, a person, a movie, a moment in my life. Remembering what inspired me has always helped me reconnect with myself.

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered along the way? How did you overcome each of these challenges?

The first challenge was to overcome the collective misconception that only certain professions are desirable or determine success.

In Nagaland, you are not successful until you pass the UPSC and get a government job. That’s how you can be in power and successful. If you work for an NGO or the private sector, you are not considered a success. So it was not easy to challenge the status quo.

I’ve been told that 23 is too young to start an organization, that it’s crazy to go back to school at 28 to get a double major. But I have learned that success has different meanings and different definitions.

Source: NEIMUNE

The people around me – parents, mentors (both junior and senior year), friends and cousins who understood and believed in my unique path helped me through the difficult times.

The second is to maintain a good balance between work, family, school and well-being. There were days when I was so busy with work and study that I couldn’t enjoy the little pleasures and happiness of life. I learned the impact of being healthy and mentally fit on productivity.

How do you deal with your worst moments?

What has always helped me is prayer, a run, and time with family and friends.

When you look back and think about how far you have come, how far do you think you have come?

I feel it’s a miracle. I am very grateful to have been given these opportunities. But it comes with a great responsibility, to use what you learn to come back and make a difference. I hope to finish what I always wanted to do.

Source: Global designers

What are you most proud of?

The chance to inspire people on my journey.

A quote that inspires you.

I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of it. A courageous person is not one who does not feel fear, but one who overcomes that fear.

– Nelson Mandela

What advice would you give our readers?

If something is going to happen, it will happen, but not overnight. At every stage of your life, make sure you recognize your abilities, understand your surroundings, and continue to do your best. It’s never too late.

Also, accept that while it’s great when your fire burns constantly, your zeal and passion don’t burn in you every day. And that’s good. Whatever happens, keep going. Don’t forget GRIT.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to take care of your emotional and mental health.

Did you find it interesting? Watch as Soumya Sankar Bose, 28, tells the story of Indians in need, forgotten or outcast by society.

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