In fractured Lebanon, starting reconciliation at a young age
An organization helping teachers to promote conflict resolution in classrooms hopes the effort could blossom into a more peaceful national culture.
Joun, Southern Lebanon
Some Lebanese, especially those with a sense of irony, like to share an American traveler's impressions of their homeland on the eastern Mediterranean:Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Of the Muslim sects, he wrote, the Sunnis "excommunicate" the Shiites, "both hate" the Druze, and all three "detest" the Alawites. As for the Christians, "the Maronites have no particular love for anybody and, in turn, are disliked by all." The Greek Orthodox "cannot endure" the Greek Catholics, and "all despise the Jews."
"They can never form one united people ... and will therefore remain weak, incapable of self-government, and exposed to the ... oppressions of foreigners," Mr. Thomson concluded.
Thomson's comments could be those of a contemporary observation. But he wrote them in 1870 in "The Land and the Book," an account of his travels as a missionary in the Levant.
Breaking such deeply embedded and historical suspicions is no easy task, but one nongovernmental organization (NGO) is turning to Lebanese schools in a grass-roots approach to promote a culture of problem solving and tolerance in the classroom.
Search for Common Ground (SFCG), an international NGO specializing in conflict resolution, has launched a nationwide initiative to train schoolteachers in techniques to mediate and resolve classroom disputes among Lebanese youths.
"The idea is to institutionalize listening and problem solving among 8- and 14-year-olds in the schools," says Sarah Shouman, SFCG's country director for Lebanon.
Lebanese youths argue and fight over childish issues much the same as other young people all over the world. Additionally, however, the political and religious prejudices of their parents can seep onto the playground, particularly at times of heightened internal tension, perpetuating the legacy of communal mistrust.
Even Hezbollah participates
SFCG's pilot project focuses on seven schools, three private and four public, in cities as well as rural regions. One of them, in Akkar Province in north Lebanon, is a private Greek Orthodox establishment with priests as teachers. Another is a mainly Shiite school in Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley run by the militant Hezbollah organization.
Hezbollah, which runs a vast social-welfare network in Lebanon but is better known for its military exploits against Israel, initially was wary of submitting its teachers for training by a foreign NGO with offices in Washington and Brussels.
"They took a month to think about it," says Ms. Shouman. "But afterward, they were so happy with the experience that they want us to train teachers at all their schools – and they are willing to pay for it, too."
The trainers, from Lebanese civil society groups and from groups linked to the SFCG project, are from as religiously and politically diverse backgrounds as the schools to which they are sent. Training was carried out in Cyprus by Valerie Dovey, a South African peace educator who worked in postapartheid South Africa.