The daily news is often filled with stories of conflict in the Middle East – whether it’s Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, the West Bank, or Yemen. The deluge of ‘bad’ news might give the impression that the region is somehow condemned to turmoil, that understanding and cooperation are so rare, they are almost impossible. But a few innovative initiatives are trying to work towards crucial peace building that reaches across racial, ethnic, religious and gender boundaries.
In Iraq, the second season of a special television show is about to begin. Salam Shabab – “Peace Youth” in Arabic – brings together teenagers between 14 and 18 from different regions of the country for a reality television show. Based on a curriculum co-designed by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and Iraqi educators, Salam Shabab is part education, part entertainment. Theo Dolan is the Senior Program Officer at USIP Center for Media, Conflict and Peace building at USIP.
“Salam Shabab has an underlying curriculum …to promote in Iraqi youth – both the youth participants on the program as well as viewers of the TV show – various peace building aspects, such as respect for diversity, self-confidence, citizenship, and civic action,” he said.
In the first season, USIP worked with local partners to choose contestants from six Iraqi provinces. Dolan says the group – nine youth from each province – were divided into three teams of three and given some initial training before competing in four categories.
“One is sport; another in mental challenge; there’s a short film competition and a performance arts competition,” Dolan said.
“So in season one, the first six episodes are regional competitions, so the youth are just competing against teams from their own province. And then the last three episodes, the winning team from each province comes back for the championship round of each competition,” he said.
“For example in some of the Arab Spring countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt for that matter, Salam Shabab could be a very good model for youth in those countries,” he said.
Outward Bound Peacebuilding – Search for Common Ground
Another initiative working to build understanding in the region was developed by the Search for Common Ground in cooperation and later partnership with Outward Bound Peacebuilding (OBP) . The Palestinian and Israeli Emerging Leaders program uses a special, year-long program that involves a wilderness expedition, workshops, and retreats to bridge gaps between people.
Sharon Rosen and Suheir Rasul are the co-directors of the Search for Common Ground’s office in Jerusalem.
“An example would be – we do a large, 10-day expedition that they go out and they have to be able to develop how to be leaders of this group through the activities which they are actually doing,” Rasul said.
“For example, taking an entire group on a hike, where some might not be able to do the hike, or crossing the river, where some people might not be willing to go into the water. So it’s activity, it’s learning, it’s developing their leadership skills through actual activities,” she added.
Participants have to meet certain criteria – they must be 25-45 years old, they have to be physically capable of making the trek, and successful applicants are usually leaders in their respective fields.
“But we also want to take people who are still malleable, so to speak, or are still able to easily learn more skills,” Sharon Rosen told Middle East Voices. “We definitely want to have a mix of men and women. They need to be physically fit enough to go on an expedition like this. But what we hear is that in fact they enormously surprise themselves with the fact that they are able to do it, when at first they might be a little bit scared about going on such an expedition,” Rosen added.
Once participants complete the expedition, they have a month of reflection, and then go on another retreat for work with the program facilitators. They also receive one-on-one coaching, work on personal development, and later go on another trip together with previous alumni to help develop a network of leaders both across their societies and across nations.
Sharon Rosen says the experience has helped to form lasting friendships and bonds in its four years in the region.
“And we are really astounded at the results of them,” she said. “And people have taken enormous leaps forward in terms of their own work and in their openness to meeting and seeing and getting to know the other,” Rosen added.
Suheir Rasul says since the program has been underway, many lives have been changed.
“There are several memorable stories where people who said ‘they don’t want to go out on this trek, this is not something that they are interested in, they don’t need leadership development, they don’t want to meet other people from other sectors,’ and they actually come back with an extraordinary eye-opening experience and a bond with each other,” she said.
Though conflicts will continue to grab the headlines, Salam Shabab and Outward Bound Peacebuilding seem to offer hope that bridges can be built between former enemies and that understanding can overcome hostility even in a turbulent region.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.