Photo: The Peace Education program using the five strategies of art, psychosocial support, research, critical thinking, and gamification as creative paths in designing and developing curricula and facilitating dialogue and activities.
One of my favorite memories of MPI’s 2019 Annual Peacebuilding Training was the late-night gatherings in the restaurant by the sea with participants from all over the world. We would try to explain the geographic location of Syria as a country and share the stories of the civilization and culture that were hidden behind the horrifying events captured by the media of the 10 years of conflict. It was then that I realized that we as activists should share more about the context in which we work, our practices, and the challenges we face in order to create a broader and more inclusive perspective of peace and conflict. I look at it as if we have a chance to play an authentic role in telling the stories that reflect what really happens when we roll up our sleeves and work for peace and justice.
The analysis of the conflict in Syria is an ongoing process into which peacebuilders still need to go deeper. It is a process where the historical and political context of the region, the international agenda and interventions, the trans-generational trauma, and the truth behind religious violence needs to be further navigated and the relationship between these issues and the current situation further studied.
These aspects are not only important regarding the analysis of the conflict but also to understand their effects on the work and practices of peacebuilders, who have been working inside Syria with communities in the dark times of violence and dealing with its tragic consequences, such as poverty, loss of loved ones, displacement, identity crisis, and injustice. At the beginning of the crisis in Syria, organizations, NGOs, and activists had little experience in civil work. They found themselves in a position where they were morally obliged to intervene, build their capacities, and deal with local and international changes.
In the past 10 years, the word repression took different forms depending on those involved. Many civil workers faced the danger of being arrested and had to leave the country because of the critical work they were doing with different parties. They were particularly in danger when they were working in the areas under the control of terrorists.
Local communities and the displaced citizens also played a role in putting civil workers in danger. They tended to blame them for the difficult circumstances with which they were dealing and looked at civil workers as people who were not trustworthy. These feelings, triggered by the circumstances and the lack of transparency, sometimes led to physical attacks on social workers and activists.
The previous two scenarios were somehow direct and easier to spot. However, there was another circumstance where the oppression was concealed and indirect. It was the pressure applied on civil workers by international organizations. Hidden intentions were not shared and donations and funds were restricted to certain political views and did not take into consideration work and activists that did not meet their perspective, leaving the true needs of communities behind. This deeply affected the work of activists as they found themselves implementing activities that did not relate to the context of their communities. This, in turn, created a gap between them and the beneficiaries.
These various forms of repression happening simultaneously brought forth an important question: What should we do and how should we shape our work to overcome these threats and challenges? This is a question that is not easy to answer in the presence of uncertainty, fear, and an environment with few resources. However, creative answers started to find their way to the surface, which I will highlight in the next few lines.
Bottom-up interventions: Activists returned to their communities trying to learn from them about their needs and best practices to meet them. They also began to reach out to key people to create a higher level of communication and gain their support to work more easily with communities. It is a well-known approach globally but not an easy one to apply in a country that is still in an acute stage of suffering and in which civil work can be described as immature.
Leave terminology behind and practice: Activists noticed that big words they were learning and/or adopting were not doing any good in building a relationship of trust with communities. They started to embed the terminology into practices that were closer and more familiar to people. This made the concept of peace more relevant to the communities.
Capacity building, gamification, and art: These were three key strategies that were used in different types of approaches to building common ground between people who could not meet in ordinary circumstances. They helped in creating channels between them so they could listen to one another’s needs, stories, and experiences. These processes helped them navigate through the similarities rather than focus on the differences and lessened the dehumanization of the other.
In a country that is now suffering from an economic crisis and a destroyed infrastructure, it is difficult to talk about conflict and peace as a priority. However, as activists, we knew that contributing to the education of communities about their rights was a starting point. It was essential to start talking about social justice, transitional justice, identity, human rights, conflict analysis, violence, and peace to empower a new generation to be able to defend their rights and build a future of their own choosing.
Unfortunately, these terms and the theory of change we had in our minds if applied directly would have put us in danger. A group of colleagues and I decided to take this program forward as the first Peace Education program to be applied in the country. We used art, gamification, psychosocial support, critical thinking, and research as strategies to control the impact of this program on beneficiaries as our main concern was to “do no harm.” We also insisted on building a team to develop this curriculum with members from different places in the country and from different religious, academic, and political backgrounds. We facilitated the process of determining terminology by setting the experiences of people and their reflections as a starting point. Through these strategies, we were able to gain the trust of the community and the approval of the supervisors from the government to conduct two trainings of this program.
It is not easy to work in a context where you never know if you will be able to reach your goal or even finish your planned work. Knowledge, passion, creativity, and solidarity make a magical potion that keeps us going and helps us overcome major challenges towards a vision of a more just world.
Jana Alloush works as a Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning (MEAL) Assistant and in curriculum development and social research for peacebuilding organizations. She attended MPI’s Annual Peacebuilding Training in 2019 and the Facilitation Skills Training of Trainers in the same year.