Social cohesion in Lebanon

International Alert has been helping healthcare organisations in Lebanon to support peace between Syrian refugees and local Lebanese.

Between February and May this year, AMEL Association International and Première Urgence – Aide Médicale Internationale (PU-AMI) held a series of awareness-raising sessions for mixed groups of Syrian and Lebanese participants, which Alert helped to make more interactive and use dialogue to build trust between the communities.

PU-AMI’s sessions focused on raising awareness of family planning and reproductive health in Akkar, Saida and Mount Lebanon, with six groups (five female and one male). Each group attended six sessions, with the first three providing space for discussion on family planning, and the latter three discussing contraception and sexual health. A child minder took care of the female participants’ children during the sessions, so the parents could fully participate in the discussions.

Meanwhile, Amel Association conducted awareness-raising sessions for 12 mixed groups of Lebanese and Syrian participants in their centres in Bazourieh, Khiam, Halta and Sour in South Lebanon province. A total of 277 people took part in the sessions. Each group attended five sessions on different topics ranging from prevalent health conditions (e.g. osteoporosis) to contemporary social issues such as use of technology and risk of abuse. The social workers adopted a participatory approach to selecting the topics covered and organised the sessions in accordance with participants’ interests.

Encouraging dialogue

Many healthcare organisations and local clinics in Lebanon conduct awareness-raising sessions for their patients as part of their work on prevention. These sessions are usually highly informative, with a social worker presenting information to patients in the form of a lecture. The approach that Alert promoted relied heavily on the use of dialogue. The assumption was that the sessions can provide a safe space for Lebanese and Syrians from the communities to discuss various health-related and social issues, understand each other’s perspectives and build relationships.

Alert worked closely with its partners to develop the methodology for their sessions and set up a system for monitoring progress. The PU-AMI team developed a sequence of six sessions to be delivered for each group of Lebanese and Syrian women or men, whereby the first sessions tackled family planning in a new way. While family planning is usually seen by health organisations as education on contraception, the pilot initiative by Alert and PU-AMI approached it as a discussion on the multiple factors affecting the decision of a family to have children. This approach allowed participants to share their views and the cultural, religious and social perspectives affecting their choices.

Amel’s team developed a different approach for their sessions. The first sessions for each group had a strong focus on information delivery, with the social workers using 70% of the time to present on the topic and only then opened a discussion between participants. In the second phase, when participants were getting to know each other, sessions were designed to be 50% presentation and 50% debate. During the third phase, participants were then divided into several mixed groups of Syrians and Lebanese, and each group received a questionnaire related to the discussed subjects. The questions were first discussed in small groups and then debated in the larger group.

Increasing social cohesion

In PU-AMI’s sessions, almost all participants agreed that it was normal to have Syrians and Lebanese in the same group (95%) and were more encouraged to interact with other members of the community from a different nationality (95%). The majority agreed that common joint activities can change the way Syrians and Lebanese think of each other (90%). Participants in the northern region of Akkar, which borders Syria and was the first to receive refugees in 2011, saw “no big differences in the way Syrians and Lebanese think about family planning issues”. In other regions, participants were more divided in their views. Participants interviewed at the end of initiative stated that they enjoyed the mixed awareness sessions and recommended more projects of the sort, with focus on other topics such as raising children in complex settings and women’s rights.

PU-AMI observed different dynamics across the regions: mutual respect was shown by Syrians and Lebanese in Saida and Akkar, but less so in Mount Lebanon. This might be due to the fact that differences on the social, economic and cultural levels were more pronounced in Mount Lebanon than in the other two regions. But participants showed a progressive acceptance of the other and became more comfortable in sharing personal stories, experiences and opinions. Women in Saida and Akkar gradually expressed their satisfaction with the sessions in regard to the content and the general atmosphere. Those in Mount Lebanon took more time to understand each other because of the initial tensions detected. In all regions, women were very excited about the subject and reported having learned new information and wished to have more sessions.

Amel also reported a visible change in beneficiaries’ relations: in the beginning they sat separately, but after the third session they started sitting together and actively discussing the topics. The general feedback from beneficiaries was positive, with the majority motivated at the idea of coming to learn together on specific topics. The sessions provided an opportunity for participants to express themselves, share their feelings, and learn about and discover each other.

The awareness sessions were therefore successful in decreasing misunderstandings between the communities and discovering that all individuals are facing similar challenges, regardless of their nationality. The centres where the awareness sessions were held were “like relief centres”, said one participant. Another woman said that, after attending several sessions, her perception of the Lebanese had changed. “I used to think that Lebanese didn’t have problems,” said a Syrian woman from Mount Lebanon. “But once I came to Lebanon I realised that you Lebanese have more problems than us.” A Lebanese woman from Saida similarly reflected, “We used to think that Syrians don’t share common challenges with us.”

Of particular interest was Amel’s session on culture and traditions, which allowed participants to learn about each other. Participants noticed that they were sharing the same culture and had common political and social history. Amel concluded that this realisation is essential for building social cohesion and counteracting the prejudices Lebanese and Syrians have of each other. Amel recommended extending the use of dialogue in mixed groups to other sectors such as child protection, and to other regions through mobile medical clinics.

Alert supported the sessions as part of our work on conflict-sensitive aid, under the EU-funded project on conflict reduction through improved healthcare services, led by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health and implemented by UNHCR, WHO, UNICEF and Alert. Find out more about the project here.