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Building for peace amid the war in Syria

Short of a political solution to the war, grassroots work is an essential part of maintaining Syria's social fabric.


by Rachel Shabi

It may sound impossible and even naive, but there are good reasons to keep trying to build for peace in the midst of a devastating war.

While a seemingly endless, bloody battle rages in Syria, while thousands are killed and injured, while hospitals are bombed, while a death cult has captured swaths of territory and enslaved populations, while a terrible human exodus continues - the piece of the picture that we might not always see from afar is at the grassroots level.
Here, networks and organisations are fighting to maintain a semblance of society, to sustain the day-to-day fabric that holds people, families, communities and human life together.

Those efforts on the ground cannot stop Bashar al-Assad's relentless barrel bombs and they do not reduce the need for an urgent political solution to the war - but they are no less vital.

One key reason such efforts are so essential was highlighted by a recent report looking at why young Syrians join extremists groups, by International Alert, a peace-building organisation that works with grassroots Syrian partner groups.

Economic hardship

It is not religious fanaticism or extremist ideology that is the driver here, according to this charity's research, based on interviews with 311 young Syrians, their families and community members in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria itself.

Rather, one major factor is economic hardship: the collapse of the jobs market in Syria has meant that young men might only be able to survive - or support their families - by joining an armed faction, with the well-funded al-Nusra Front being the most attractive.

ALSO READ: Why doesn't Britain want to take refugee children?

Lack of education is another major factor in a war-ravaged country where one in four schools is no longer operational. With no work and no school to go to, a sense of purpose instantly vanishes - and that regularly is given as a motivation for joining radical groups in Syria.

Lack of education is another major factor - in a war-ravaged country where one in four schools is no longer operational. With no work and no school to go to, a sense of purpose instantly vanishes - and that regularly is given as motivation for joining radical groups in Syria.
Those most at risk of being recruited by such groups are adolescent boys and men, aged 12-24. Another reason is the desire to avenge the murder of a loved one, while extreme trauma and loss and the collapse of social structures are compounding factors.

And this is where the peace-building and grassroots networks come in - because this work, at a societal level, is what builds resilience, so that young men don’t end up joining jihadi groups.

This work on the ground doesn’t have just one focus but it is strictly community or local group led, not least because it would otherwise lose credibility.

So, for instance, the organisation Syria Relief has local partners working to provide education and safe spaces for children, as well as independent livelihoods for adults.

In Idlib and Aleppo - even during the recent, terrible, two-week bombardment of this city - this covers a range of activities including providing agricultural and equipment training, or sometimes sending teachers door to door with homework if fighting has made it impossible to keep a school open.

Signs of normal life

As well as trying to provide means of self-sufficiency, the idea is to build some routine and provide continuity at a time when these sanity-saving signs of normal life are nearly impossible to maintain. But it is also about giving young people some control over their own circumstances - the agency of having a regular education that will lead to a degree, a career, a fulfilled life.

Meanwhile, safe spaces for children are offering psychosocial support to those traumatised by war, bereavement and displacement. Being able to talk openly, with trusted adults, about such issues as identity, or dealing with terrifying emotions and rage, or being able to discuss the conflict, or the future can very often be what gives them back their ability to be children again, in the middle of a war that has snatched this from so many.

But it is not just the counter-extremist power of such work that is of value. What this steady, community-building, grassroots activity builds is a generation of people capable of sustaining a future peace.

Restoring dignity, hope and a sense of agency, these Syrians are working against terrible odds and at considerable risk, maintaining day-to-day contacts between people of different social backgrounds, or creating spaces for non-violent collaboration, or generating discussions around the structural causes of the war, so that it doesn't become poisonously personal or sectarian

This is not a way of shirking international responsibility to reach a political solution to a brutal war. But these are some of the measures that keep a society from breaking down, from tearing apart.

Needless to say, there are many other elements to this: As just one example, the Syrians who have managed to remake lives elsewhere are very often financially supporting and sustaining a life, if not several, back home - which is one more reason, if one were needed, why refugees need host countries to welcome and not shun them. It is also one more reason why the deriders are so wrong about migrants being motivated by benefits.

Meanwhile, the countless Syrians on the ground, who are not fighting and - for so many different reasons - not fleeing, are asking to be seen and supported. They are preventing the collapse of their own country, their own people. They are the ones who stand a chance of rebuilding all that has been devastated by war.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

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