A Nobel Calling

Betty Williams owes Ivan Suvanjieff ten bucks. He keeps in close contact with Williams, founder of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement and winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, just as he does with all the Nobel Peace Prize winners (although communications can be tricky with Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner, who's under house arrest in Burma), and while his conversations with the Nobels usually focus on PeaceJam, the organization that Suvanjieff co-founded a decade ago, and increasingly on the decade-long world-peace project that a dozen Nobel Laureates will kick off at PeaceJam's tenth-anniversary celebration just two months from now, Suvanjieff has also found time to make a few side bets on the current World Cup games.

Denver, an unlikely home for an international peace movement, stands to win big this September when it hosts the largest gathering of Nobel Peace Prize winners outside of Oslo -- ever -- in mid-September. And when the People's Republic of China wanted to remove one person from that list of attendees -- with representatives even flying in to urge Mayor John Hickenlooper not to allow the Dalai Lama into this city -- the mayor's representative held firm and declined the request.

"They knew they weren't getting anywhere with us," Suvanjieff says.



"Everytime the Dalai Lama goes anywhere, they do that," adds his partner-in-peace, Dawn Engle. And she should know, since back when she worked as a congressional aide twenty years ago, she lobbied for Tibet. That was before she met Suvanjieff when they were both working on a project at Naropa in 1994. Before she heard his idea -- inspired by a couple of northwest Denver gangbanger wannabes who, even during the Summer of Violence, knew all about Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- to help kids effect social change through non-violent efforts. Together, Engle and Suvanjieff took their PeaceJam idea to an audience with the Dalai Lama, who'd won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He liked their idea of working with young people and suggested that they bring in the other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. And so they did.

"PeaceJam is about youth learning to do a better job than we did -- you have the opportunity to show us up and get it right," says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who married Suvanjieff and Engle six years ago.

"One of the things I most admire about PeaceJam is that it does not seek to teach young people about peace, so much as it encourages them to become actors for peace themselves. PeaceJam takes the struggle for peace out of the virtually inaccessible realm of international politics and law and places it back in the hands and minds of people," says Oscar Arias, the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who invited Engle and Suvanjieff to his inauguration as president of Costa Rica a few months ago -- when Suvanjieff wound up under house arrest in his hotel room because he looked suspiciously out of place among the other august invitees.

"For the past eight years, I have participated in this dynamic outreach program whose goal of inspiring youth to become compassionate agents of positive change in their communities continues to inspire me," says José Ramos Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was unable to make a PeaceJam event in Detroit earlier this year because of unrest in his country -- but over a very tenuous TV hookup managed to tell 400 young people about the importance of peace and, incidentally, about the Viagra-like qualities of East Timor's native coffee, which Horta noted that the kids wouldn't need, but might come in handy for Suvanjieff.

"They all bag on me," says Suvanjieff, an artist, publisher (54 editions of The New Censorship), musician and PeaceJam's unofficial photographer. He was wearing a T-shirt from his band, the Ramrods, while he filmed a discussion between several Nobels one hot day in Bali last year -- and after Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner, admired the shirt, he took it off and handed it to her, sweat and all.

"I'm very sincere, and Suvanjieff's very passionate," says Engle. "The Nobels expect incredible things of us. They expect world-class stuff from us."

And in September, that's what they'll deliver: a tenth-anniversary celebration bearing the slogan "Change starts here," with "here" being Denver. From September 15 to 17, a dozen Nobel Peace Prize winners will descend on the University of Denver campus, where they'll work with several thousand young PeaceJam leaders from around the globe. The Nobels will take breaks to make a few public appearances -- the Dalai Lama will issue the keynote, all of the prize winners will offer a public talk September 16, and the six female Nobels will join in a special event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on September 17 -- and then go right back to working with the kids. They will also kick off an international version of PeaceJam Juniors, a study guide designed to take the message to kids who aren't yet in high school -- because most kids around the world never make it to high school -- complete with a chapter on each of the Nobels. And there may, just may, be a world-class rock act. But the lineup is already beyond world-class.

Engle is puzzling over "how to make this an international event and involve a rock star but still keep it true," she admits. "The Nobels are the rock stars. We keep resisting the standard celebrity-driven formula."

In November, when they went to Rome to accept the 2005 Joseph Rotblat Special Man for Peace Award from Mikhail Gorbachev, during the sixth Nobel for Peace World Summit ("A Peace of the Action," November 10, 2005), the awards ceremony kept getting pushed back. Sting had shown up. "It was surreal, and a big lesson from the universe," Engle says. "Be careful with celebrity."

"I started signing autographs as Sting," Suvanjieff says.

"I signed as Mrs. Sting," Engle says.

From there, they traveled to England three times, to Taiwan, to India, to Costa Rica.

"Were we in Kenya this year?" Suvanjieff asks.

To Minnesota, to Michigan.

"Were we in Argentina?"

"We've been on the go for six full months," Engle says. But now they're back at their Arvada office -- an 1899 bungalow that was the home of Arvada's first mayor and now houses a half-dozen savvy staffers, several of whom signed on to PeaceJam when they were kids -- finalizing details for the September celebration. (For those details, go to www.peacejam.org.) The star power isn't their only concern. There's the challenge of providing security for the Nobels, several of whom are accorded head-of-state treatment. "PeaceJam is an incredible, warm exchange with the Nobel Laureates, and how do you do that with all the security?" Engle asks. "We want to stay true to what we are and what we do. We don't want to lose what really works about this program. You don't want the Nobels used up. You want them there for the kids."

"Before they win the Nobel Peace Price, they're screaming to get their voice heard," Suvanjieff says. "Afterwards, they say one small thing and it's front-page news."

So far, the PeaceJam celebration hasn't made front-page news in Denver, which has exacerbated another challenge: paying for everything. PeaceJam operates on a wing and a prayer and a lot of goodwill, but good could get expensive in mid-September, when Denver is also hosting its largest trade show ever, a consumer electronics show. "I'm thinking, oh, yeah, I'll get free stuff," Engle says. "Then all of a sudden, there's a big convention, and it's a money-making weekend. So everything's hard, logistically." Finding buses to transport the kids is hard. Finding companies willing to help feed them is hard. It'll help if they get that rock star. And next week, a crew from BBC World will be in Denver to start filming a PeaceJam series that will be shown around the world next year.

Tomorrow the world. Today, Denver.

"It's a blessed life, but it is difficult," Suvanjieff says. "Everything's in relationships after ten years of diligent hard work. Putting up, shutting up. We've built the relationships, and there's trust."

Some of those relationships have been harder to build than others. Ten years ago, Suvanjieff went to Burma, taking letters of support from other Nobel winners to Aung San Suu Kyi, and taped their talks. "I spent three days with her, and right after I left, her chief of staff was put in prison and killed," he remembers. Suvanjieff himself was searched and beaten, but he managed to smuggle out the video.

And just last week, he says, "The foreign minister of East Timor asked me to lobby for his country with the president of Costa Rica."

But right now, France scores, and wins.

"Betty owes me another ten bucks," Suvanjieff says.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >