Preparing at grassroots for a peaceful, post-war Syria

When International Alert were asked to come up with a peace project spanning Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, they looked at the role peace education could play in reducing young Syrian’s vulnerability to recruitment into violent extremist groups. But what peace means for someone in London watching the war unfold in Syria, and what it means for someone living it, can be two different things.

“Peace in the context of some of the communities we’re working in is such a loaded term. We actually avoid using it because peace can mean surrender, submission, there’s a whole baggage attached to it for the Syrian-Palestinians and the Palestinians in Lebanon. But also talking about Aleppo, and for some of the people we’re working with, peace would mean surrendering to the regime or the people that are attacking them,” says Caroline Brooks, Alert’s Syria projects manager.

Alert’s partner organisations, who work on the ground in these three countries, prefer the term “community service” to “peace education” or “peace building”. They work with some 6,000 young adults, including within both regime-held and liberated areas within Syria itself, to offer participants a safe space to discuss their thoughts on the conflict or diversity, for example, and teach them strategies to cope with psychological trauma. Some of the programmes within Lebanon and Turkey teach traditional crafts, like embroidery for the mothers whilst their children are in the workshops, or how to start small enterprises within their communities. Despite the psychological conflict the term conjures up, Brooks says many believe that peace is possible. Whilst official, round table peace talks in Geneva have been described as a farce, Alert’s project is firmly focused on peace at the grassroots level.

The starting point for Alert’s involvement on the ground was through Adyan Foundation, an organisation based in Lebanon. They currently run an Integrated Peacebuilding Educational Programme (IPEP) in education centres and refugee camps across Lebanon offering interactive learning sessions for 6-15 year olds, in which forty-six Syrian facilitators, both men and women, teach 1,300 children. Many have been displaced by the war and have, as peace projects manager Samah Halwany puts it, “witnessed conflict raised from the mismanagement of diversity”. Through a series of workshops Adyan aims to strengthen their internal peace and their resilience to joining any of the armed groups operating in Syria. It also aims to prepare them for the post-war period so that at some point they will be ready to go back and reconstruct their communities. At the workshops students analyse religious texts, take part in drama therapy sessions and learn about the history of non-violent jihad.

The programme draws together children from many faiths – Alawi, Christian, Shia and Sunni are just some of the denominations present. Halwany tells me that their work is grounded in interfaith understanding and strengthening their sense of inclusive citizenship. The facilitators themselves come from very different backgrounds, she says. “We had those with the regime, those against, those conservative and those who don’t believe in God... in the beginning they were playing in a diplomatic way to accept each other, but now they are becoming friends, they are supporting each other.”

Women played a major role in the early days of the revolution, founding some of the biggest grassroots organisations, yet more recently there has been a distinct lack of women around the official negotiating table. It’s heartening to see the prominent role they now play in peace education, yet there’s no doubt they have suffered under the war – many of the female facilitators have been direct victims of the conflict. “We work with them on different levels and in the end they became really in love with the idea of diversity, about going to talk about peace,” she says.

In some cases the facilitators have taken the programme further than the classroom and offer additional sessions to ensure that they can answer all the questions raised by students. “Our facilitators became key people within their communities,” she explains. They are regularly contacted by people working with refugees, for example, to help solve problems that arise in the camps.

“One of the facilitators told us that if it wasn’t for this job and the fact that I can see that I’m having such a positive effect on my community then I would be on the front line with a Kalashnikov,” Brooks had told me earlier.

There are also many success stories from the students. Brooks highlights the story of a 17-year-old boy from Syria who had been attending the peace education sessions and consulted with one of the facilitators of the session about possibly returning to Syria and joining Daesh. “Through the trust, rapport and relationship the facilitator built with this young man, and the alternative options he could show him, the guy decided he would not return to Syria. A young guy from Lebanon had returned to Syria a year before to join ISIS [Daesh] and it was that person who was reaching out and saying life is awful in Lebanon and you should come, you don’t have respect or dignity,” she said.

“What we’ve seen for a few young men that we’ve spoken to is that sense of marginalisation and hopelessness that they feel as refugees in other countries,” she continues, “plus the peer network that they’re part of, are some of the main driving factors”.

During another session a participant pulled out a knife and gave it to the facilitator, explaining that he carried the knife at night when he was walking because Turkish people have attacked him. “Here is a safe space and I know I don’t need this knife,” he told the facilitator. “That’s what the project is about,” explains Brooks, “providing young people with supportive, safe, confidential spaces with responsible adults who they can trust. They can actually work through these very difficult decisions and internal conflicts they have about their place as refugees and their place as Syrians and young men in this conflict”.

Recently, Alert released a report which details what makes young Syrians vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremist groups. Rather than religious fanaticism, it cites lack of economic opportunity, autonomy and education and feelings of trauma and loss as key drivers – it is building resilience to these factors that their peace project aims to address. But whilst extremist fighters often make headlines, the work of civil society organisations that are dealing with both the aftermath and the prevention of recruitment, are largely hidden.

Beyond the media’s love of violence, there are a myriad of reasons why. One of them is that working on “alternative narratives” of the conflict and against recruitment into armed groups carries a great personal risk for activists. In Turkey and south-east Turkey, explains Brooks, activists have been assassinated outside hotels and in their own homes.

Another reason is that amidst war, good news stories can be interpreted as naïvely optimistic. “However, I do feel that these good news stories are so important to share because they can shift people’s perspective, not only of the potential of Syrian civil society but also one’s own role within it. You could encourage people by showing all these great things that are going on and the success stories and the positive actors that have come out of the Syrian conflict. It not only provides the nuance but it could provide some sort of hope or alternative option for engaging in the conflict and give people some sort of sense of agency – how could I do this, in my own community.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor