"Working in peacebuilding is bittersweet. You experience the worst and best of people."
“I pinched myself; was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare, perhaps. Soon I would wake up with a start, with my heart pounding and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…It could not be that human beings were being burned in our times. The world would never tolerate such crimes.” Elise Wiesel – Night
It can become overwhelming. The horror and the sadness of it all. The things that people are capable of doing to each other. The cruelty of mankind. History and current events show us over and over again the dark side of our species and the banality of evil. Incendiary thermite bombs being dropped on Idlib, northwest Syria, children killed and injured by barrel bombs in Aleppo, torture, rape, displacement and daily destruction. Is expressing outrage and feeling sorrow all that we can do in the face of this? Working with so many individuals who are toiling for the betterment of their communities inside Syria, as well as those who have been forced to flee the country but work hard every day to pave the way for peace, has taught me that the answer to that question is, categorically, no.
Working to build peace in the midst of conflict means engaging with, watching, talking about and listening to the pain and suffering of the victims of violence and brutality. For me, it means treading a fine line. One that in one moment requires professionalism, objectivity and rationality – writing project concepts to donors, fitting initiatives and activities into logical frameworks, making them flow perfectly and seamlessly through a ‘theory of change’ – and in the next moment confronts me full force with bitter truths about humanity and overwhelms me with shame and sadness. Shame over how little we do to protect the vulnerable and stand up to those who commit brutal acts and sadness in the face of so much loss and destruction.
Engaging with war, violence and conflict – even if I do so from a place of safety outside of Syria – takes me to the edge of things. The edge of my emotions and the edge of my faith in mankind. But, somehow, it is right at that edge that I have come to know the most inspiring people, the brightest sources of hope, the true models of resolve, and embodiments of love and kindness. It is at that edge where I have found the light in the darkness.
The people I, and the rest of the team at International Alert, work with in Syria are working tirelessly to bring some hope, support, and basic services to the people in need in Syria. They are, against all setbacks, trying to create the space, the conversations and the support systems to help people to cope with the awful things that are happening to them. The people that we work with and come into contact with in Syria are true visionaries who are imagining a better future, a peaceful future and who are working hard towards it every day. Through their visions and their actions they are pushing us – all of us – to rediscover and reconnect with the better parts of our humanity. These people remind us that we can do a lot with very little. They remind us of what is possible even in the face of so much resistance. From the two peacebuilding activists who started with a few thousand pounds of start-up funding four years ago and have since gown a global network of people committed to rebuilding Syria and promoting peace, to the four volunteers in a refugee camp in Lebanon who have, in just a few years, created an organisation that reaches thousands of refugees and people in need inside Syria and the neighbouring countries through education, livelihoods and psychological support. It is these people who are the foundation stones for change and action towards something different, something better.
No doubt there are plenty of sceptics who have difficulties in understanding the effectiveness and value of working on peacebuilding in the midst of war. There are indeed many people who would not consider the possibilities that could be created for the victims of the war through community-based projects which give small slivers of support and the space they need to process their trauma and grief. Part of our work is to remind people and convince people that these things can and do happen and that they can and do have a positive impact and the potential to create something more hopeful and more peaceful for the millions affected by war.
Working in peacebuilding is bittersweet. All at once you experience the worst and best of people. In the depths of despair you find the people who are dedicating their whole lives to elevating the rest of mankind. The type of resolve and commitment that the people I have the privilege to work with demonstrate each day has emerged through situations of extremity, when backs are against the wall and the world they knew has disintegrated before their eyes; but the spirit with which they work is also a reminder that it is not only in such situations that these qualities can emerge. All of us can – wherever we are and whatever you do – commit to using our energy in similar ways; use it to rediscover and reconnect with the better parts of our humanity and improve things for ourselves and for others, just right where we are.