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Graduating from Ulster University today, Cristal Palacios Yumar from Venezuela is taking the lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s peace process back to her home country as she continues her life’s work supporting communities affected by urban and political violence.

Founder of Psiquearte, a non-for-profit creative arts therapies organisation, Cristal spent a year studying at Ulster University’s International Conflict Research Institute (INCORE) and has graduated with an MSc in Applied Peace and Conflict Studies.

She said: “I am a psychologist and art therapist who works with communities affected by violence in Venezuela. As the political and social conflict escalated in the country, I needed to enhance my knowledge of peace and conflict resolution so I could better support the people I was serving.

“I wanted a graduate training opportunity that would also provide an immersion experience into a post-conflict society, and Northern Ireland was therefore the natural choice. The reputation of INCORE’s work in psychosocial approaches to peacebuilding sealed my decision to apply to Ulster University and I was lucky enough to secure a Chevening Scholarship, which helped to fund my study.

“As part of my studies, I chose to research the area of corruption for my dissertation – a topic pivotal to the structural change in Venezuela. I was interested in the relatively new phenomena of the Venezuelan diaspora, and how the experiences of these migrants in their new host countries changed their perception of corruption in Venezuela.

“My research suggests strong link between the increase of corruption in Venezuela and the migrants' decision to leave country. It also showed that Venezuelans abroad are in fact experiencing new forms of democratic and social participation that are slowly contributing to build a new sense of civic responsibility.

"I now have a much better understanding of the impact of corruption fuels the Venezuelan conflict and the influence that our diaspora can have in shaping a healthier and more peaceful society.

“Returning to Venezuela, I have resumed my work as director of Psiquearte. We were fortunate to receive a grant for the Niwano Peace Foundation in Japan that has allowed us to scale-up our school-based psychosocial support initiative. I have also become a lecturer at the School of Psychology at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and I'm currently working on developing a PhD proposal that will hopefully see me return to Ulster University next year to further my research.

“I loved everything about studying in Northern Ireland -  the people, the history and the landscape. My year away was a peaceful retreat in contrast to the hectic Venezuelan situation. I appreciated people's warmth and curiosity, as well as their eagerness to share their personal stories with me.”