Syria, 5 years on: Building peace in the midst of war

Image: A peace education class for 16-year-old Syrian refugees run by Adyan, International Alert's partner in Lebanon.

Whenever I tell people that International Alert and its partner organisations are doing peacebuilding work in Syria, frankly they laugh. "Not very successfully then," they quip.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I assume that this is nervous incomprehension, not all-out callousness. And they have a niggling point. Can you really build peace in the middle of a war? It certainly seems at best a counter-intuitive, bad use of time and money. Or does it actually make a lot more sense than any other course of action?

Today, 15 March, marks five years since the absolutely brutal civil war erupted, leaving Syria a broken and divided country. The figures are shocking: Some 6.6 million people are internally displaced within Syria, and 4.6million have fled, mostly living in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.

At the same time, the next round of peace in Geneva is under way and Russian President Vladimir Putin has just announced that Russian troops will start to withdraw from Syria. People are suddenly feeling more optimistic for the first time in months.

But there are so many Syrians who, in spite of everything, never lost hope and have been working quietly behind the scenes to support a future for their country.

In February, I visited our partner NGOs implementing a ‘peace education’ project with Syrian refugees in Lebanon – a project designed by the organisation Adyan and funded by the British government.

Think of this as part citizenship classes for children whose citizenship has been blown to smithereens, part the fun of a Saturday drama class, part therapy for kids who have been through hell - and are still living it. It was a deeply touching experience.

Mr Bastoni is a senior teacher, with a beautifully trimmed grey moustache on his wrinkled, kindly face, and sporting a smart blue suit. You would love this man as your uncle or grandfather - or teacher, which is indeed his profession. Asked how hopeful he is about a peace deal, he pauses for a long time, before saying that he thinks the war will not end quickly. It has become a world war, he sighs. It is no longer down to the Syrians - now it depends on the superpowers:

It will be a long time before peace is built. The war in Syria is now a worldwide war, with a conflict of interests between the superpowers. So we are living on this hope of the kids.

It is an utter joy to watch him talking to teenage Syrian refugee boys about cultural and religious diversity, as part of this peace education programme run by Alert’s partner Adyan, and funded by the British Government

Image: Mr Bastoni leading a peace education class on religion.

The kids all participate eagerly - none of your London cool kids causing havoc at the back of the class syndrome here. These kids are hungry to learn. As Mr Bastoni says:

"They talk, they talk a lot - they are living through a lot. They like coming to the school as it gives them a break from their situation. And I am with them. I lost my house and two nephews, I had to come here to Lebanon. So we are living it between the teachers and the students. And we see the impact of these classes on improving student behaviour - especially when they start talking about peace."

Mr Bastoni asks the children about the common values between all religions. They call out the values: love, peace, fraternity, solidarity, fairness. Then they call out the threats to common positive values of humanity: violence, hatred, war, murder, becoming refugees, "we left our homes", "destruction", "we were living in good conditions but now we are poor and we have lost our houses".

"We used to be able to visit each other and respect all these good values. But now we are seeing the threats and we are killing each other".

When we walk into the next door class, a lively young teacher is killing himself with laughter. The class clown has given an example of diversity as: "My cousin always gets good grades and I always get bad ones...".

Others chip in with examples of differences: "When you differentiate between others, it is something violent. When you say you are Syrian and you are Lebanese..." Another calls out: "They tell us that we are terrorists; they say in the streets that we are ISIS". And soon the class are deep into chatting about how to manage such situations.

Next stop is to Shatila refugee camp, which has hosted tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees since 1949 - a special area of the city absolutely zinging with life. And now somehow another mass of Syrian Palestinian refugees are squeezing in.

Basmeh & Zeitooneh (meaning 'smile and olives' - like the British women activists' call for bread and roses, capturing that people need love as well as the basics to survive) is one of International Alert's partners implementing the peace education project in Lebanon.

Their office is a tall, tiny building that is as bursting with life as its surrounding streets. Going up the rough concrete steps we squeeze past women flowing out of a literacy class, kids hurtling up to get to their classes on time, workers, volunteers, teachers, people selling snacks, and finally crowd into the cramped office of the young Syrian CEO.

I ask him whether he ever doubts the point of peacebuilding in a time of war. He too pauses a long time before answering:

I often ask that question myself. I wonder what we are doing. But the alternative is to give up, to despair, and to lose all hope. So we must keep going, we must believe in the next generation, we must stay as the centre is important, it gives an assurance to the parents.

Image: Syrian refugee children at a peace education class run by our partners Basmeh & Zeitooneh in Shatila camp, Lebanon.

So they are working, little child by little child, to build peace.

Aida, who coordinates classes for younger children, is a Palestinian living in Lebanon. She tells me:

"After five weeks, the kids' attitudes began to change. At first they were much more violent. Now, about 60% of the kids are talking openly about issues - they feel safe here. For the kids, this is two and a half hours of peace and security, a special time for the children to be children."

She adds:

"At first the parents are not sure. Not now they are asking for classes to happen twice a week, for adult classes, for longer classes."

Tears in her eyes, she tells me about a little girl who draws 10 graves, and makes 10 graves out of playdough - her uncle and other family members who have been killed. Then she smiles at a lively little nine-year-old who used to respond aggressively to other kids - using pencils to jab everyone. Now he is chatting normally with everyone, cuddling up to the teacher. She says:

"They are surrounded only by violence. So no wonder that is how they respond. How they express it is different, but they all feel rage. We are showing them that there is another way to be, to behave."

Many Syrians point to Lebanon to prove the point that you have to start working now, even in the midst of the war, to build the future peace. Lebanon thankfully ended its civil war 26 years ago and came to an uneasy truce. But they never fully addressed the underlying issues that caused the conflict, so the old divisions are paralysing - the country hasn't even been able to agree on a president for 18 months.

Syrians want to be sure that their war doesn't drag on that long.

In fact is, the worse the war, the more you have to do now, they say, to create the groundswell of people ready to find peaceful ways forward. Mr Bastoni says:

"When we first came here, we were angry. We had no hope, we thought we had lost everything. But we made a choice to act positively. We know that reconciliation is important."

He explains:

"Two years ago, we didn't want to do this peace education. It's so hard to talk with the children about dealing with death. But when we started the project, we saw how it could help. To avoid a 15-year war like Lebanon, we have to begin the process of reconciliation now. We have to teach the children that in a war, we all lose. The past is the past - it is gone. We have to look to the future, to rebuild a different future."

Alert is also working with very brave people actually inside Syria. People who could leave but chose to stay; chose to face aerial bombing, or starvation during a siege, yet chose to stay with their community and help them face the future.

Their bravery and bitter determination is so humbling that you have indeed to believe, along with them, in the triumph of hope over despair.

Indeed, we should surely dramatically scale up our peacebuilding work - precisely because we are right in the middle of the most terrible wars in Syria - as in too many other countries around the world.

Read more about Alert's work in Syria.

All images: © International Alert