Disclaimer: This paper contains references to war, bombing, and violent acts including killing. Some readers may find the content disturbing or triggering. Reader discretion is advised. If you are sensitive to these topics or feel they may cause distress, you may choose not to proceed further.

When the war started in my country, I was 14 years old and in middle school preparing for my exams, unaware of how my life was going to change forever.

As bombs went off in every corner of my city, I began to hear news of people I know who got killed or injured, people dear to my heart who I never got the chance to say goodbye to or share one last cherished moment with.

A time I have feared with every fiber of my being came when I was forced to abandon my home. How do I fit 16 years of memories in one suitcase? What do I leave behind besides the walls that sheltered my childhood?

My 16-year-old self was naïve enough to think I would be safe in our new sheltered place.

As soon as I settled in, a huge explosion killed a girl in my class along with dozen other students. Coping with losing the people and places I loved, while balancing school and friendships seemed impossible.

After a year of being displaced in another city, my family was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who got to return to our home. But home was no longer familiar. Our district was empty, and a wave of unfamiliar faces emerged embodying the pain and displacement of families who had sought refuge in our area.

As a young person growing up amidst the war, I carry with me the weight of responsibilities and the scars that were given to me long before I possessed the tools to comprehend or heal from them.

My name is Laura and I am from a country in the MENA region that most people know for its conflict, but I know as home.

As I blow my 26th candle this year, there are a few things I want to write about.

I no longer want to write about the war.

I no longer want to write about the lost years.

I no longer want to write about saying goodbye to friends.

I no longer want to write about losing myself searching for a place to belong among the chaos of a destructive environment.

I want to write about what the years have taught me, growing up in a war-torn country.

I want to write a story that my younger self can read and be hopeful that things do get better.

I want to write a story that young people my age who can relate to the inequity, and the trauma but also the resilience- can be reassured that they can dig tunnels through dead ends.

Don’t compare yourself to other people

Growing up in my country, I have always had very limited opportunities to contribute to improving my society. I have always felt that my change-making work is never good enough.

Sometimes, it feels incredibly disheartening to be a young person filled with boundless passion, desperately wanting to make a difference in the world. It’s like living in a bubble, surrounded by a society that just doesn’t seem to understand or believe in you. And on top of that, the isolation of being in a country that feels cut off from the rest of the world only adds to the weight of it all. I have lived my whole life in survival mode, wanting to prioritize my safety over anything else, and feeling guilty about it. If you are reading this and can relate, know that I understand. I have been there, I am still there, but I am slowly escorting myself out.

Despite the limited opportunities I had to become a changemaker in my own country, I discovered the incredible power of the Internet. What may hinder my physical presence and active participation cannot hinder my ability to have similar transformative experiences online. I have eagerly participated in numerous internships, and international organizations, acquiring skills that are rarely accessible to young people in my country due to the lack of proper mentorship. One of those transformative experiences is being a MENA ambassador for Peace First Organization.

Peace First helped me believe that the ability to effect change transcends nationality!

With the proper mentorship, you can lead transformation by being open to change and proactive.

I do admit, it is still triggering for me to witness individuals from other countries making greater contributions, and I can empathize with you if you share my sentiment.

However, please remember that no one shares your story or your challenges. So, take pride in your resilience and appreciate the fact that you continue to navigate and confront significant obstacles.

Learn to be with yourself

Self-care is one of the trendiest words right now, you will hear it in conversations with friends, or catch it on your Instagram or Tik Tok feed from one of today’s biggest influencers.

Self-care to me involves having a tough conversation with myself, unleashing my thoughts instead of running away from them within the chaos of a busy lifestyle. These moments serve as an opportunity for growth and improvement. They allow me to acknowledge my mistakes, consider alternative approaches, and grasp why certain remarks trigger me.

Like many, I initially struggled with being alone and avoided spending time by myself. I kept myself busy to run away from the discomfort of self-reflection. Slowly I realized that I am my sole constant companion throughout my life.

My advice is, to learn to sit with yourself, and not expect it to be pleasant at first. Be patient with yourself, and the people who choose to remain by your side will embrace and accept the authentic you in its entirety.

Every effort counts

When I was a teenager, listening to adults’ stories and how they graduated college with no useful skills to match their career goals or being prepared for the professional world scared me. I was determined not to follow the same path. As a young female from the Middle East, I was driven to achieve financial independence and acquired skills through practical work and volunteering opportunities.

One exceptional experience was being a Peace First ambassador.

I was introduced to a global community of young changemakers with like-minded values. Motivated by these aspirations and supported by my environment, I embarked on my professional journey at the age of 20. Despite being the youngest employee, I embraced the challenge with unwavering determination. It was vital for me to demonstrate that youth can excel in fast-paced work environments, executing tasks with the same level of expertise as experienced professionals.

If life has taught me one thing, it is that everything is connected in an incredible way. The choices we make in one area can open doors to incredible experiences that lead us to remarkable places.

Navigating through the unfairness and inequality in life can bring us to a dead-end. Learn to acknowledge your challenges, embrace the story you tell yourself about yourself, and make micro-efforts that are bound to change the course of your story. After all, that’s what 26 has taught me and I can’t wait to see what lessons I will learn by 27.

To join and support Peace First become a Youth Investment Fund donor today!

— — — Peace First has omitted certain identifiers from this story to safeguard this young leader — — —

By Laura A.J, Peace First Ambassador in MENA