Embracing Diversity to Build Peace
By Hiba Antoun, Generations For Peace Volunteer and Pioneer Facilitator
If values were described by colour, we would see a broad spectrum, ranging from one extreme to the other. When light passes through, these colours stand out, symbolising different interests. Being the youngest member of my family was challenging, especially since it was accompanied by low expectations of what I could achieve. As a result, I have always felt the urge to prove that accomplishments do not come with age. It also intensified my passion to shine a light on the many different colours around me, illuminating how rewarding it can be to embrace a diverse spectrum.
Let’s go back to the beginning of my story.
As a child, I was always bursting with energy, so my parents helped me find creative ways to channel it through different activities. By the age of six, I was already a scout member, ballet dancer, taekwondo fighter, and an honors student. Over the years, jogging, belly dancing, community youth groups and basketball were added to the growing list. However, when I was 11 years old, I broke my ankle. Stuck on crutches for one month, my interests began to shift to community engagement.
In the summer of the same year, a family friend invited us to the inauguration of a public park in Jezzine, which is a rural area in the mountains of Southern Lebanon. It has the biggest pine forest in the Middle East and a panoramic view of its 90 metre waterfall. This park was one of the first public spaces in the area and was established by DPNA (Development for People and Nature Association) – a non-governmental organisation with a vision to achieve a non-violent democratic society where individuals enjoy all their rights and freedoms without discrimination. During the park opening, I got the chance to meet people from different countries and continents, which I really liked. Only 12 years old at the time, I asked how I could support this park, and luckily there was a place for me! Over the course of three months, I went to the park from 8 am to 8 pm to welcome people and explain the region to them. And that is how it all started. I found my true passion as I ventured on this path.
I continued my volunteering career with DPNA throughout my teen years, and my passion for this field grew day after day. I also lived abroad for a year, which exposed me to different cultures and communities, and fed my desire to discover new things. These experiences made me more aware of my surroundings and the context that I live in.
Despite being the smallest country in the Middle East (10,452 km sq), Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries with 18 religious sects, numerous political parties and a plethora of cultures and beliefs. These differences have made Lebanon grow richer in its identity. That said, since its independence in 1943, those differences have also been pushing people together and pulling them apart, resulting in unstable social, economic and political situations. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Lebanon (being a bordering country) has welcomed a huge influx of refugees – approximately 1.5 million people according to UNHCR and UNRWA. The response to the crisis was an emergency humanitarian one, but when it was foreseen to be a long-term situation, psycho-social support and social cohesion activities became a necessity.
I was first introduced to Generations For Peace (GFP) in 2014. Looking for potential partners and sharing a common vision of peace building, DPNA came across an international organisation that uses sport as one of its tools to promote peace, which was a newly introduced concept at the time. DPNA partnered with GFP to implement a programme in Lebanon that incorporated sport and arts into psycho-social support for Syrian refugee children. Being selected as a volunteer to take part in the programme shaped me as a person, and also added sport and arts for peace building to my diverse experiences as these were new to me.
It was also my first experience working with Syrian refugee children. At first, it was a challenge to deal with people from different backgrounds and socio-economic status, especially as they had fled a war zone. But session after session, I overcame those differences and started to feel a deeper connection with those children as I developed more tolerance and empathy. I began to care about them and genuinely wanted to connect with them, despite the differences between us.
By the end of 2015, and upon the completion of the programme as a pilot phase, a new and bigger programme was launched to meet the needs of the local communities. The programme – Engaging Youth for Human Rights and Social Cohesion Programme – aims to mobilise 1,200 Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese youth in 10 high-risk communities across Lebanon to transform conflict, improve social cohesion, and promote the respectful practice of human rights through youth-led sport and arts-based behavioural change activities and community initiatives. At this stage, I was introduced to two new concepts: human rights, and monitoring and evaluation. The variety of experiences I was being exposed to was the primary incentive that drove me to keep going.
Working with youth is different than working with children when it comes to communication and building acceptance, especially when participants are from three different nationalities and 10 communities. We can engage in meaningful conversations and tackle topics of concern, core values such as respect, and non-violence and human rights. In some cases, this has the power to change how you perceive certain situations in your community and helps you see the reality through a different lens. Bit by bit, you start to establish links and bridges between and among the various pieces of information and skills. Looking for details that show change becomes a habit and helps to determine the effectiveness and success of your programme. It also helps you better understand peoples’ behaviours and actions. You learn how to identify the different dimensions of conflict in your community and how to transform them via different vehicles. Over time, acceptance, trust, and respect become core life values, and you begin to recognise positive behavioural change on both a professional and personal level.
In October 2016, I got the opportunity to participate in the annual GFP Samsung Advanced Training. The training facilitated horizontal and vertical learning among volunteers from many countries: Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Palestine, Rwanda, and Uganda. We were introduced to one another and were able to analyse different conflict contexts, which left plenty of room for us to share good practices and lessons learnt. I had never met Ugandan nor Rwandan people before, however seeing the same passion for peace building and embracement of diversity that unites us felt good. We had already established a connection before truly getting to know each other. Throughout the training, we exchanged our different cultures by working in groups and even preparing a culture show together.
Vertical learning from the Pioneer Facilitators and staff whom we look up to, also meant we could learn from their experiences in the hopes of strengthening our capacity. Seeing their journey from volunteer to Pioneer Facilitator/staff is inspiring. As a training participant, you aspire to grow and expand your knowledge, and this is where the mentoring process plays an essential role in your personal and professional growth. Guidance from an experienced person who genuinely cares about you and follows up on your journey helps to pave the way to reach a shared goal. As a result of the mentoring process we receive from GFP, I have learnt how to manage my time, priorities and skills better and to invest in them for the collective and personal benefit. I have matured.
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, said recently: “Diversity is the engine of invention. It generates creativity that enriches the world.” This quote summarises why I am always eager to meet people from different backgrounds, and seek to explore different contexts and cultures. I believe that diversity is the recipe for success and that this is how growth is triggered. At GFP, we are exposed to this on many levels; it starts with consistent learning opportunities and exposure to new contexts, and then applying newly acquired skills and knowledge in your local community to create positive change at the grassroots level. Building acceptance, fostering cooperation, ensuring inclusion, developing respect, taking responsibility, and building trust, contributes to changing your life for the better, and when you work as a team, it also leads to collective growth.
Peace used to feel like a myth to me when I observed the global situation, but now I know the steps I can take to build it. It starts with embracing and investing in our diversity as we venture into the world of peace building. Once people allow this light to pass through them and let their true colours show, then they can recognise the beauty in the colours that surround them. We will then find that the road to peace is paved with a broad spectrum, including every colour imaginable.
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