By Rebekah Sears
This is the second of a two-part series called Voices of the Peacebuilders, focusing on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working for peace at the grassroots. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.
In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part blog series outlines points from each lecture and provide a video link. The second lecture, held on October 17 and hosted by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, was entitled: “The Role of the Peacebuilders: Iraq, Syria and Beyond.”
Years of protracted conflict in Iraq and Syria have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances, and millions of forcibly displaced peoples.
Just under the surface are deeply rooted grievances based on: ethnic, national and religious divisions; multiple and overlapping conflicts and quests for political power and control of rich natural resources, such as oil; alliances and interests of the global superpowers; and even climate change.
In these circumstances, how do we even begin to think about solutions or possibilities for peace?
Perspectives that are often missing in the reporting on Iraq and Syria are those from the grassroots. These include voices caught in the crossfire and even deliberate targets of violence. But they also include voices and movements of local leaders from the grassroots – individuals, communities and organizations – who are seeking to address the complex roots of conflict and build peace from the ground up.
These are people that have been dedicated to building peace long before the world took notice of escalating conflict. They are standing firm at the height of violence and they are committed to continue long after the world’s attention has faded. Their voices and their work bring a renewed sense of hope amidst the rubble.
MCC has been working alongside local partners in the Middle East for about 70 years, and in Syria and Iraq specifically for over 25 years. I want to introduce you to some of these peacebuilders and their projects, who at great personal risk to themselves and their families, exemplify the dedication, courage and commitment necessary for long-lasting peace.
At the end of 2016, the world watched as the Syrian government and its allies doubled down on its siege on Aleppo. The images flashing on the TV screens was one of destruction and civilians trapped in the crossfire. And, while these images ring true at a certain level, they do not tell the whole story – that of non-violent peacebuilders, like MCC’s partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). As much of the international community fled Aleppo, and Syria in general, FDCD remained.
FDCD, working in multiple urban areas across Syria, focusses on peacebuilding through ethnic and inter-faith bridgebuilding, tackling deep-seated divisions. From 2015-2016, as fighting intensified in Aleppo, FDCD organized and ran a theatre and education program for the public, promoting inter-faith dialogue between Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and others.
The theatre production, funded in part by the Canadian government, attracted over 1200 people in Aleppo, much more than anticipated. As one representative of FDCD told the National Post in 2016: “Now [Aleppo is] the most dangerous city on earth. You can hide and cry, or you can fight, or you can try to make a positive change.”
Bashiqa, Northern Iraq
The Yezidi people, an ethnic and religious minority from Northern Iraq, have suffered unspeakable acts of violence and torture throughout the conflict in Iraq, especially at the hands of ISIS. Bashiqa, in northern Iraq, has a significant Yezidi population and was under the brutal control of ISIS for three years. But despite great suffering, MCC partner Yezidi/Azidi Solidarity and Fraternity League (ASFL) is seeking not only to provide material and psycho-social relief to survivors, but empower local Yezidis to be agents of change and reconciliation.
As part of a campaign, “Forward Together,” ASFL in sending out teams of volunteers to help in the reconstruction and beautification of Bashiqa. These reconstruction teams specifically reach out to neighbourhoods with people of different religions and ethnicities – Muslims, Christians, Arabs and Kurds – to promote reconciliation and a portrayal of Yezidis as not only victims of conflict but agents of change.
One participant reflected: “We felt very relieved to help people from other religions. Working in this campaign broke the boundaries that were created by the events on Sinjar Mountain [notorious massacre and torture site of Yezidis by ISIS] and in other areas. It felt amazing.”
Finally, in southern Lebanon, MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is supporting both Palestinians in Lebanon and Syrian refugees (including Palestinians from Syria), with food baskets, vouchers and other provisions, while also bringing these groups of people together, to share and find healing together.
The influx of over 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon has no doubt had significant economic, social and political impacts. To meet physical needs while promoting reconciliation, PARD supports refugees and their host communities struggling with economic needs. Bringing together these groups in formal and informal settings, PARD hopes to foster positive relationships between communities, providing necessities, easing tensions and building peace from the ground up.
As Syrian peace talks stumble and drag on in Geneva, as government forces clash with Kurdish forces in Iraq, and millions of people remain displaced throughout the region, the situation remains grim. But there is hope amidst the rubble in the persistence, courage and dedication of those who work for peace from the ground up.
See a full link to the lecture here.
Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst