Crossroads: Building new paths to peace in our cities

People in every generation and every city around the world will, at some point, reach a moment in their lives when they can choose a path of peace or conflict. It is the role of International Alert to support them in finding and choosing a route towards peace.

What follows is the tale of four cities and the young people growing up in them, explaining the frustrations and choices they face. And examining some of the ways Alert has helped and will continue to help them find and follow the path to peace.

Cities are centres of diversity and growth, but also often of marginalisation and inequality. With more than half of the world’s population now living in urban centres, and that figure expected to rise to a staggering 70% by 2050, the potential for conflict in many cities is reaching concerning proportions. But this means it is also in cities that the prospects for peace are most striking.

In this photostory, we explore the stories of young people we have worked with in four cities around the world, where they stand at such a crossroads. If you live in London, you can visit the exhibition in person. It is on display at Emma Cons Gardens near Waterloo until 3 October. Find out more here.

Beirut, Lebanon

Here, we introduce you to three leaders of the country’s political youth wings, whom we are helping to challenge a history of sectarian division in Lebanon by building bridges across political lines.

"You can sense that people here are tense, especially because they are afraid that there will be a new war," says Leen, from the Progressive Youth Organisation Party. "The political instability and all the problems here are fuelling their fears. You see that there is no social trust between us, between the different sects. When we are raised with such an ideology that we should hang out with people like us, people who are from the same religion, the same area, the same political party, this really affects our daily lives. When you mix, when you blend with other communities and when we get closer to one another, we are building trust and we are reducing the tension between us."

"If you look at the cities now, there are cities that are purely Maronite, or purely Shia, or purely Sunni. So people end up not knowing the other," reflects Nadeem, from the Lebanese Forces Party. "This creates a kind of fear of the unknown. In the dialogue process that we have been part of at International Alert, we can see how the representatives of the parties who sit together come from different communities, different religions, different cities, and year after year we are getting more and more comfortable talking to each other and getting closer as friends and as political party representatives. So sitting with the other and getting to know them is a big step towards a peaceful city, country and region. We are all Lebanese and we all belong to this country."

"After the civil war there was no real reconciliation process at the community level," comments Ayman, from the Democratic Renewal Party. "So people just stopped fighting each other and stopped being in conflict, but there was no real process of reintegration. International Alert enabled us to look more closely at reality. It is like they gave us a magnifying glass to detect real problems, developing skills in exploring and managing differences, listening to ‘the other’, etc. Now when there are struggles in universities [where violent clashes break out between supporters of the different political parties], we know that we can call these people [from the other political parties] to defuse tensions. It is important to take advantage of the lack of conflict to create channels and mechanisms through which people can reach their rights and their aspirations in a cooperative and constructive way."

Kampala, Uganda

Here, we introduce you to three young people in Kampala who, as part of our Safer City campaign, are awareness-raising of the damage caused by crime and violence in the city and encouraging other Ugandans to adopt non-violent ways of resolving conflicts.

"I used to close my business to participate in [violent] demonstrations," remembers Lukas, 24, a barber. "I did not have any idea about the negative impacts of my actions on other people, because I thought joining other youth groups to cause conflict was the right way to show our dissatisfaction with government services. When I participated in the Safer City campaign, I became aware about how important peace and security are for business activities, and can now take independent, smart decisions. Kampala is not yet very safe, especially at night, since there are many crimes, like iron bar hitmen, who kill their victims, and the murder of Muslim leaders. Police still use tear gas to disperse youth political gatherings. But the Safer City campaign has helped to increase peace and safety in the city."

"Bwaise is a slum area; an environment with all the bad characters you can mention," comments Nakazibwe, 22, a head teacher. "It is not safe for children to come to school at 7am. Before there would be massive riots that could disrupt the children’s classes. But since the Safer City campaign, the riots have reduced and community members now know why they have to watch over and take collective responsibility to support these kids, and help them get to school safely. We have also trained our children and teachers on keeping peace within and outside school, responding to victims of violence in and outside school. Thanks to the campaign there is now increased security by the police, but also by responsible citizens who are more conscious of their role in improving security."

"Bwaise is one of the most notorious areas for riots," says Kafeero, 20, a mobile phone repairer. "At any time a conflict could happen and people would break into our shops and take almost every item. The Safer City campaign was important to me because it helped to raise awareness about the need to promote peace and security, without which businesses would suffer. Now there are fewer riots and we can work with our hearts settled. For example, before you would not leave your shop opened, but now I can leave my shop and go to the mosque while my neighbours are watching over my business."

London, UK

Here, we share some of the stories of young people taking part in Diversity, a joint project by Alert and YMCA Hayes bringing together young people from different diaspora communities to explore how conflict in their countries of heritage or origin affects their lives in the UK, and what actions they can take to promote peace – both here and abroad.

"At the moment it seems like a wonderful peace in the UK, but there would be more peace if people talked to each other," reflects Omar, 19, of Somali origin. "There is no communication. At [the Alert and YMCA Hayes project] Diversity, young people share their opinions and talk about the differences between their countries and conflicts, and the problems. If I hadn’t been to Diversity I wouldn’t be where I am today. I have more confidence and I really want to make a difference. You can see young kids dealing drugs who are the same age as me. But their parents don’t know and the government doesn’t know. They don’t have a choice. They do it because they see their friends doing it, but they get to a stage where they can’t come back and they have to keep doing it. Diversity is a really good project because it has changed a lot of young people’s lives."

"We had a project at Brunel University about countries," says Mehran, 19, of Iranian origin. "We had a map – a big map – and some glue, and asked people, ‘Where are you from?’ Then you could see how many people were from Iran, from England, from Nepal. We had different groups from every country. When people came in they asked, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What’s your language?’ or ‘What do people do there?’ We then explained about the different countries. I spoke about Iran. The world would be a better place if there were more opportunities to get young people together and think about the future. You know someone will have problems with other countries – I don’t like to say this word, but they are racist. These groups can make them friendly."

"Peace means respecting each other and loving each other, and not keeping any bad or harsh feelings for each other," says Kalsoom, 20, of Pakistani origin (left), pictured with her friend Ailda, 19, of Albanian origin. "It makes your mind clear that everyone should be treated equally. I met so many people at Diversity, even from countries I never knew existed. I got to know their culture. I made new friends. It was quite amazing. The people in London accept all cultures from their heart."

Tunis, Tunisia

Here, we share some of the stories of those living in two neighbourhoods of the capital Tunis, Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, marked by high unemployment rates, school drop-outs and insecurity, and often described as hotbeds of radicalism. By understanding the concerns of these communities, we can now begin ensuring that the voices of these marginalised young people are heard and help to improve the prospects for sustainable peace.

"I don’t feel safe," comments Malek, 25, from Ettadhamen . "God knows what will happen one day to the next. You can get mugged or your face might get slit. It’s a dangerous neighbourhood. Sometimes when you go to the police to report it, it falls on deaf ears. If you’re weak here, you get eaten alive. It’s one of the main reasons violence is so prevalent. Dog eat dog. Making the country safer is a huge problem the government needs to fix. Not by building a wall in the south [referring to the plan to build a wall along the border with Libya], but by building better schools and building its people to be proud again. We need to preserve the young generation and stop it from sliding into delinquency."

"There is violence, both verbal and physical, for girls and boys," laments Karim, 30, from Douar Hicher. "The reasons are drugs, alcohol, bad influences, dropping out of school, the lack of mentoring. Even from religion, there’s no proper guidance. Parents are not necessarily present either, because they need to work to provide for their family, but that comes with them leaving their kids uncared for. We can fix this if we all cooperate. There’s some social work that needs to be done. The security system needs to be reformed. Mosques can help too, as places to meet and discuss. As well as parents obviously helping to shape a different mentality. I would love to see cultural centres too, so youngsters can go there and learn something instead of sitting in cafés all day long."

"After the revolution, our security decreased massively," reflects Mehdi, 19, from Ettadhamen. "The cops just don’t come around here, or when they do, they raid quickly and get out. Recently they have been raiding the religious groups. They are frightened of them because it seems like they are capable of anything, these groups. For me, terrorism is caused by the bad quality of education and the gullibility of young unemployed kids. The country needs to take care of its youth, because people in neighbourhoods like mine are pushed to the edge, and desperate, and that leads people to do desperate things. I hope to find a job, live a comfortable life, and for this terrorism bullshit to stop!"

What are the challenges to peace in your city? What are you doing to help build peace? Share your message of peace for your city @talkpeacefest using #peacecrossroads.