Meet Dr. Bella Kovner, PeacePlayers Middle East's New Managing Director

April 10, 2024

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PeacePlayers: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Bella: So, I’m originally from Latvia. I came to Israel when I was a year and a half. I live in the same kibbutz where I grew up. My professional journey in international development and social justice started at Brandeis University, where I did my master’s degree between 2004 and 2006. I did an internship with World Education in Cambodia, working with World Education and Unicef’s counter trafficking program, and that led to a full-time job with World Education in Boston, and later in Nepal and Uganda. 

For the last 10 years, I’ve been back home in Israel. In that time, I got my PhD at the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and my dissertation focused on child rights and access to justice in conflict areas, with the focus on East Jerusalem. And so this is kind of my professional background. I live in the Kibbutz right now. The same Kibbutz where I grew up. I came back here after 20 plus years away, which is wonderful. I love it. I really enjoy being back. I love raising my daughter here.

What I would like people to know about me is, I think I’m very target oriented. When I want something I’ll do anything in my power to pursue it. And I feel that when I see injustice, it really makes me angry. It makes me motivated for action.

Before I went to study at Brandeis, I went for a long trip; a lot of Israelis do. And one of the countries where I visited was Burma/Myanmar. I remember we were kind of off the tourist trail, and we went to a guest house in a small village, and I saw this little boy who was living in the house. He was working there cleaning the house. He was a very, very young, sweet boy, and you could tell that he was not part of the family. He lived there, but he wasn’t one of them.

And then, after I came back to Israel, this kid stayed in my mind, and I started researching the whole issue of child labor, of bonded labor, exploitative labor. And I realized that this was the case with this kid. And this was kind of what drove me to become extremely interested in child labor and trafficking and children’s rights. And so I feel like when I encounter these inequalities, these injustices, that is what drives me to do and act.

PeacePlayers: I think it’s a really stark example of how your starting point in life just influences everything. It’s not about how good you are at something. It’s not about your character. So much of it is just about where you’re born, and in which circumstances.

 

Bella: Exactly. I remember my first supervisor. He was an amazing person, and was a mentor for me. He worked for many years in Iran with USAID and with other organizations. So he used to say that what drives your career, like the major things that you do professionally – they start from childhood. It’s like the story of your life. That’s where your passion comes from. 

PeacePlayers: So it’s not a coincidence that you chose a certain pathway, right? Do you think joining PeacePlayers is an extension of that? 

Bella: It feels like this was the very natural next step for me, professionally. I’ve been working in the field of children’s rights and youth empowerment for many years. Then I did my PhD dissertation in East Jerusalem, working with Palestinian children. And I felt that it was the right time for me to work domestically. I’d been working abroad in international development for so many years. And it was time to bring my expertise, skills and knowledge to work here. 

So, I came across the opportunity with PeacePlayers Middle East, and it really seemed like the right thing at the right time. I think that especially now, with everything going on, it just strengthened my decision and made me realize even more that my place is here in Israel working on peacebuilding, on conflict resolution, working with youth in my own context.

PeacePlayers: Is there anyone in particular who influenced your path? 

Bella: There are two women who were very influential in my life. The first is my PhD advisor. She is Palestinian-Armenian who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. She’s a very inspiring individual.

 

The second one is my former supervisor, who’s now a very good friend. Her name is Helen Sherpa. She’s a New Zealander who’s married to a Sherpa in Nepal. The Sherpa are a tribe who live on the outskirts of Mount Everest. She’s been in Nepal for forever. And she’s this amazing resource. She’s been the country director of World Education for many years. She’s full of knowledge, and she’s very passionate about what she does. She’s just really amazing, super smart and super kind. And a really inspiring role model and leader.

PeacePlayers: What’s one piece of advice that you would give your younger self?

Bella: Don’t be afraid to make difficult decisions. It’ll be ok. Just don’t be afraid. Even if it seems difficult to leave a certain relationship to move to a different place or leave a certain workplace that’s not good for you, go ahead and do it. You’ll be fine.

PeacePlayers: What are your hopes for PeacePlayers Middle East?

Bella: I think I want to see that we continue to have this great impact on the beneficiaries and the communities. Also, I hope that we’re not affected by the current situation, and that we’ll be able to continue to reach more girls, reach more kids, and more communities. I really appreciate that we’re a kind of under-the-radar grassroots organization. So, I just hope we can continue to have this amazing impact and reach as many kids as possible.

 

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