Glimpses: Moments with the TYF Delegates
"I want to work on climate change," says Paridhi Rustogi.
It's December 8, the first official day of Telenor Youth Forum 2016. At a hightop table in the Scandic hotel lobby, TYF delegates from India, Norway and Bangladesh lean in to talk about what's to come. Later in the day, they'll be broken into teams and assigned one of seventeen possible global goals. They've had no control over either of those steps. So, which global goal do they each want to work on? Most hedge. They're open minded. A challenge is a challenge, and the experience will be good no matter what. But Paridhi--an environmental engineer and a delegate from India--shakes her head.
"Climate change is what matters most to me." She is definitive.
Two other delegates gently challenge her choice--or, indeed, any choice at all-- especially in an opportune environment like TYF. Better to get something you're not as familiar with; you'll learn more that way.
"Hey, I thought this was a safe space," says Paridhi with a laugh.
Her fellow delegate from India, Sharad Vivek Sagar, answers, "A safe space isn't a comfort zone."
He's right. But I still give a little inner cheer later that day when the Climate Change team calls Paridhi's name. Hurrah for young people with resolve.
I blogged the whole four day event--the fun and games, Oslo by firelight and by rain, the Nobel Peace Prize reception and exhibit preview, the meetings with dignitaries, the hard hard work, and the final pitch competition--for the Telenor Youth Forum Blog. But a few things didn't fit there. A few moments I want to bottle up. Keep. Share.
On the bus to Telenor HQ, I slip into a seat next to Sara Babiker. Because of her hijab and my own subconscious assumptions about religion and ethnicity, I incorrectly guess that she's here from Malaysia.
"Sweden," she corrects me.
Sara's Sudanese parents raised their daughter in Stockholm. Both of them are doctors, and Sara swore she'd never follow them into medicine. Her interests are diverse and fascinating. Sports journalism, because she enjoys football; writing, though academia has managed to numb the joy of it in recent years. So what's she studying now?
"Medicine," she says, and dips her chin toward the irony with a soft smile. "I was interested in Biology, but I like working with people."
Ani Koleva of Bulgaria studied journalism before switching to economics. The latter felt like a better foundation for a later career choice. On a bus ride, she teaches me that Cyrillic--often called the Russian alphabet--was actually born in Bulgaria. She tells me about her country's beautiful beaches running along the Black Sea.
Over a meal of reindeer and rice at Laavo on the first night, Ani talks about the time she visited Jordan as part of a student exchange program. That program turned out to be something of a scam. She and her fellow female Bulgarian students experienced religious conservatism firsthand, kept separate from their male counterparts, forbidden even to laugh. She is proud that, when the time came, she and her friends stood up for their liberal values of personal freedom and gender equality. Ani's group was able to leave the country safely, but she carries those memories with her.
Bojana Minic is from Montenegro, buts she studied law in Vienna. Everyone in her family is a lawyer, but she doesn't want to join them. They think she's a little crazy, but she doesn't mind making choices that buck the trend. Bojana is a prospective member of the International Institute of Space Law in Paris. She worked for Hard Rock International and runs a blog called Lifestyle Montenegro.
"In Montenegro, we eat a lot and sleep a lot, but we work hard when we need to work hard," she says.
Jovana Daljevic of Serbia is passionate about helping children with disabilities. She's a writer, and has written in English for the Novak Djokovic Foundation blog. Bright-eyed and bright-minded, Jovana is organising a humanitarian drive "Our kilometre for their better life"(Naš kilometar za njihov bolji život) in Serbia.
Her team worked late into the night on Saturday. But Sunday, when they awoke and returned to the table, the group realized there was a better way to present their product. Taking the advice of the alumni group (use the best idea, not necessarily the one in which you've invested the most time), they scrapped what they had and started over. A brave move that seems to pay off.
Wearing cut-off denim shorts and dark tights, Tamara Kojic (also of Serbia) fights a yawn on the last day of teamwork. Stepping back from the table, she falls forward into a yoga pose, nose to knee. Her voice rings out in any space, almost always backed by laughter.
When she was assigned to the Mental Health team, Tamara wasn't terribly excited at first. She felt her own experience and resources could have been better used in the group on young refugees, for example. But then she remembered how this opportunity came to her.
"We were selected from so many others," she says, gesturing to the rest of the delegates, mingling in the lounge at the Telenor Arena. "People believed I was the best choice to do this. So I did my best." Indeed, they all did.
It's difficult to do Sharad Sagar justice in writing. He dazzles. Even standing still, his energy seems to pulse forward. But he rarely stands still. Over the span of four days, we talk everything from Trump to India's recent demonetization shock to matriculation rituals at Tufts University. Data peppers his dialogue. He is the kind of person who can talk for hours. (When his team's 5-minute pitch ends on Sunday, Sharad uses the opportunity of a panel question to expound further on their product, a move that garners both applause and slightly backhanded compliments later in the day. "That was so rude. I loved it.") But he is also an articulate listener and respects the necessity of team support.
I tease him about his political crush, President Obama, a Nobel laureate and, as Sharad describes, a "Politician 2.0." Sharad recently had the opportunity to meet President Obama, an experience that left a predictably profound impression. When I ask whether Sharad thinks about going into politics, the question feels clunky in my mouth. Of course he does. What intelligent, eloquent young person with a passion for social entrepreneurship and entré into the upper echelons of global power doesn't think about that possibility?
"There is danger in having that ambition too young," says 24-year-old Sharad. "If a person aims too high too quickly, their attempt could easily get labeled as a joke. They could burn out and ruin their chances of winning and making a difference later on."
I can see how this hypothetical haunts him. For now, Sharad is the Founder and CEO of Dexterity Global; one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 class of 2016; a Rockefeller 100 Next Century Innovator; and a Telenor Youth Forum 2016 delegate working to turn the Lost Generation of young refugees into World Citizens.
And he's always up for a good game of keep-the-balloon-from-hitting-the-floor.
Parting from the group after Sunday's concert reminded me of the end of summer camp. It was that familiar pain. The one I had as a camper, and then later as a counselor. I've always been one to love people quickly, a quality equal parts happy and hazard. It means easy conversations and lots of learning, but it also means my heart hurts a bit when people I have known briefly and deeply return home. It is unlikely that I will see these folks again. But I'll be pulling for them. And I hope you will be, too.
Photo by Ihne Pedersen
(the brilliant photographer
who was at my side the whole way)