The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime holds a youth forum event where young men and women worldwide come together to learn about substance use prevention and how they can develop and implement science-based programs in their communities. It will also give them the opportunity to address representatives of different countries to encourage them to support effective drug use prevention interventions and also to involve youth in this essential work. This amazing event started a decade ago, and to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, four passionate youth wanted to share the experience that, in their own words, changed their lives; their names are Joannes from Uganda, Merve from Turkey, Divaghar for Malaysia, and Alexandra from Peru.
From their experiences, we can learn that everyone has a unique journey full of adventures and learning opportunities; not a single event defines a life; instead, a series of choices shows the values and hard-work spirit of a person that, given the opportunity, chooses to make the world a better place by volunteering, researching, and advocating.
2018 - Joannes from Uganda teaches us that no matter where you begin your journey and the odds you have, your desire, strength and resilience will help you achieve your dreams.
Joannes, a Youth Forum participant of 2018, grew up in one of the most crime-ridden areas in Uganda, a place where the younger generation is left "hopeless and with no dreams". Growing up wondering if there was a possibility to change the chaos her community was living in, she knew the importance of prevention even before knowing what it actually was. She recalls, "I am one of the lucky few […] It was a bumpy ride with sharp curves, but the desire to bring change to my community helped me stay focused". It was that desire that helped her become a passionate and driven young woman who got accepted as an intern at UYDEL, one of the biggest youth organizations in Uganda; there, she worked to identify and refer people between 13 to 24 years old who were affected by substance use, trafficking and exploitation to rehabilitation programs. Besides that, she cooperated with families to overcome psychosocial, health, physical and economic challenges they were facing and promoted youth participation and involvement through training and mentoring young people.
With a smile on her face and excitement in her eyes, she describes the Youth Forum as "an informative and profound learning experience and a priceless opportunity to connect with other passionate young people, advocates and other change-makers seeking to see a constructive transformation globally on issues concerning drug use." The event and its participants showed Joannes that even with the diversity we have worldwide, there are similar substance use problems across the globe. The Youth Forum reassured her desire to improve her community and reinforced her conviction to work hard for that. "It planted the seed of empowerment and proved that when we collaborate, serve, help, and bring the positive change, we become the change we desire to see."
2019 - Merve from Turkey teaches us that we, as a youth, have the potential to change the world and should seize every chance to speak up and act for ourselves and others.
Merve from Turkey, Youth Participant of 2019, began her substance use prevention journey while volunteering with the Green Crescent, a very well-known Turkish public benefit society, to eliminate negative social behaviors such as substance use. Driven by a desire to learn, she also worked with psychologists to learn how to detect when people are seeking help, not knowing those experiences would shape her future in academics. She recalls the joy that she felt when she was selected as a representative of her country because youth initiative programs are intensely for the involvement and engagement of youth on the urgent agenda topics: “I was given an essential chance to raise my voice […] you know what they say; nothing about us, without us”.
Not only was she able to engage with different perspectives of cultures around the globe broadened her vision and improved her cooperation and negotiation skills; the experience also motivated her to engage with national policies and participate in international environments to continue volunteering in youth initiative communities. However, her journey with the UNODC was not over because she was also selected to be a member of the Positive Youth Programme, a study organized by the UN where only 7 young adults worldwide have the opportunity to work with the professors and policymakers to develop a handbook for CND, that allowed making an impact and increased her motivation and will to engage in youth initiative activities. She is still involved in the UNODC activities, and her message is: "We, as the youth, have a significant potential to change the policies that will affect our future and the Youth Forum is such a unique opportunity to renew those policies in favor of us, for our well-being."
2020 - Divaghar from Malaysia teaches us that there are a million and one ways to help others, and if we work together and commit to it, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
Divaghar from Malaysia, a Youth Forum participant of 2020, shares that his love for humanitarianism and community advocacy comes from his family background, especially from the stories his grandfather told him. At the age of 10, he started volunteering in his local temple, distributing food and water to devotees and did not stop. His work made him realize the essential role of the youth and inspired him to be more involved in helping underprivileged and vulnerable communities. He joined ASEAN and served communities in need by battling disaster management on natural hazards. He also joined Project EduSparks at Samlout province in Battambang, Cambodia, a community education program aiming to provide equal opportunities for children and youth. Teachers were equipped with new teaching tools, and a new training centre for youths was built. Furthermore, he is currently working with an NGO called Institut Onn Ja'afar in the capital of Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) to provide temporary relief to the underprivileged.
Divaghar believes the youth have an essential place and an important task in shaping the present and future. He was part of the group of young leaders that developed the Handbook on Youth Participation after the Youth Forum. And this is why he encourages youth to embrace the responsibility to advocate and cooperate to solve major world problems like substance use because "only when we are there for each other can we be successful". Like many of us, Divaghar had to adapt after the Covid-19 outbreak: "The UNODC team was with me every step of the way; thanks to them, I was able to conduct some virtual webinar sessions with teachers, parents and students using the Listen First Materials to spread information […] that is why I know that the UNODC team will continue supporting young adults to overcome challenges".
2021 - Alexandra from Peru teaches us that no one is too small to make a big impact, even when that impact goes unnoticed.
Alexandra from Peru, a Youth Forum participant of 2021, states that her goal has been to "make the world a better place" for as long as she can remember. She is aware of the challenges, but she perseveres: "it seems like an impossible task; however, the youth forum showed me that every little action, even the ones we do not count as an important matter because they create a butterfly effect, which means that they have consequences beyond what we can imagine". Alexandra found out the power of helping others when she volunteered in children's homes and saw the joy and hope that small details can bring in others. Now she is a clinical psychologist promoting mental health and well-being among underprivileged people in Peru, and she owes a big part of that to the Youth Forum. She recalls she almost did not even apply to participate in the event because her contributions were not grandiose but overcame the fear and it was one of the best decisions she made.
For her "UNODC gives a chance to youth achieve their goals, they work with us because they believe in us, in our ideas, in our dreams, and our possibilities […] for me, the initiative means trust, faith, support, empowerment, knowledge and, most importantly, hope". Alexandra explains that she learned about substance use prevention and how to use that knowledge to build science-based prevention, but she emphasizes that the most important lesson she took is that every action has the potential to make the world better even when it is small; it all leads to change. After the youth forum, she keeps working with the UNODC team implementing community-based programs and writing for "Butterfly Wings", a youth magazine that aims to make the science of prevention understandable for everyone.