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When government officials in Saudi Arabia went looking several years ago ​for someone who could help establish mediation and conflict resolution as ​a pillar of the kingdom’s judicial reforms, they ran into a problem.

“This was a bit sad to hear, but they said they couldn’t find an expert in the field ​who could speak Arabic,” recalls Sherif Elnegahy. Fortunately, Elnegahy, a Rotary ​Peace Fellow from Egypt, had just co-authored a book on the topic — in Arabic — ​and it caught the eye of the justice minister himself. The Saudis had found their ​expert.

One of about 100 peace fellow alumni working in the Middle East or North Africa, ​Elnegahy has expertise that is in high demand in a region with a tremendous ​need for peacebuilders. Elnegahy, who completed his fellowship in 2016 at the ​former Rotary Peace Centre at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, remembers ​calling out the need for such a Centre in the Middle East on his programme ​feedback form.

Now, he has reason to celebrate. This month, after years of planning, Rotary is ​announcing its newest peace Centre partnership, with Bahçeşehir University in ​Istanbul. “It’s a dream coming true,” he says.

Sherif Elhegahy in a suit sitting at a desk with books.

For Sherif Elhegahy, a 2016 Rotary Peace Fellow from Egypt, the opening of a Rotary Peace Centre for ​the Middle East and North Africa is “a dream come true.”

The certificate programme will train peacebuilders who are from or have worked in the region, or who do related work elsewhere in the world.

The Istanbul Centre is another step forward in Rotary’s plan to establish a total of four certificate programmes by 2030 in Africa, the Middle East or North Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The programme at Bahçeşehir (pronounced BAH’-che-sheh-hir) is the second of those after the Centre at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, which welcomed its first cohort in 2021. In addition, the two-decade-old peace Centres programme has five master’s degree offerings around the world, including at the University of Bradford in the UK.

The need for trusted local leaders to become effective advocates for peace is greater than ever, as evidenced by the war between Israel and Hamas and other long-running conflicts in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere.

“This Centre will provide a place for fellows to openly talk about long-standing conflicts and the future of the region, and to explore new approaches and paths to building peaceful communities,” says Laura Descher, director of the Rotary Peace Centres programme.

A view of the city of Istanbul from the top of a hill.

For Sherif Elhegahy, a 2016 Rotary Peace Fellow from Egypt, the opening of a Rotary Peace Centre for the Middle East and North Africa is “a dream come true.”

Among the 1,700 peace fellow alumni working in about 140 countries today are leaders in governments, nongovernmental agencies, education and research institutions, media and the arts, peacekeeping and law enforcement agencies, and international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.

One of the goals for the new Centre is to build on that network of professionals who can create the conditions needed for peace by addressing the underlying causes and drivers of conflict. That concept, known as Positive Peace, addresses issues like poverty, discrimination, ethnic tension, lack of access to education, and unequal distribution of resources.


Elnegahy is a former public prosecutor and a chief judge in his home country ​who now specialises in mediation and conflict resolution. The work takes him ​from packed courthouses in the Persian Gulf region to village streets in Egypt’s ​Nile Valley.

Now, he’s training the next generation, teaching mediation to law students in ​Egypt and facilitating a nationwide student mediation competition.

While a Peace Centre in the region has been a dream for Elnegahy and Rotary for ​some time, the effort gained momentum with the single-largest gift to the peace ​Centres programme, a pledge of $15.5 million accepted by The Rotary ​Foundation from the Otto and Fran Walter Foundation in February 2021.

The next challenge was selecting a university partner. “We’re bringing Rotary’s ​global network and our reach, and they’re bringing their expertise about the ​region and about peace and development,” says Descher.

The lobby of the new Rotary Peace Centre in Istanbul with large windows, chairs and tables.

The new Rotary Peace Centre is set to welcome students from 2025.

Among the criteria, it had to be in a country with a Rotary presence, it needed to be accessible to all international students, and the university had to demonstrate a commitment to a true partnership with Rotary. More than 30 institutions in 11 countries were considered.

With campuses and offices in more than 10 countries, and more than 7,000 international students in Istanbul alone, Bahçeşehir promotes a global focus.

When the Otto and Fran Walter Rotary Peace Centre at Bahçeşehir University welcomes its first students in 2025, its success will also hinge on the involvement of the region’s Rotary members, who will host and engage with the visiting peace fellows and connect them with peace fellow alumni in Turkey, whose three Rotary districts have a long history in peacebuilding.

The opening of the new Centre is cause for hope. The region’s conflicts may seem intractable, but Elnegahy’s view is that peace and justice are possible, even in the aftermath of humanity’s worst atrocities.

A group of people running around a refugee camp in the desert in Turkey.

Turkey has been home to the largest population of refugees in the world in recent years, including more than 3.7 million people fleeing the war in neighboring Syria, like those at Suruç camp, seen here in 2014. Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo; (Opposite) ozgur donmaz/Getty Images

This story was first published in Rotary Magazine, February 2024.

Additional reporting by Diana Schoberg

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