Building a Culture of Peace
Ayham Alhuseen, Badael
When Ayham Alhuseen first tried to host peace-building workshops in his home governorate of Deir Ezzour, the local authorities were not convinced.
I’m just trying to work on peace, I told them, but they told me, only the regime says peace. Us, we fight.
But one year later, Alhuseen’s once skeptical audience were the ones coming to him for help, not the other way around.
When I went back one year later, there was a thriving civil society. I would arrive and they would tell me, we need training on these topics, we need workshops on this...I felt that I actually accomplished something, that I had actually made a change.
An electrical engineer by training, Alhuseen was jolted into activism in the early days of the Syrian revolution. A native of Deir Ezzour, in eastern Syria, Alhuseen became active in the revolution in early 2011, primarily on Facebook and the Internet.
But one day, when he tried to return to his job in Algeria after returning for a vacation in Syria, he found that he was banned from leaving the country.
I lost my job, said Alhuseen, describing how he was turned into the Syrian authorities and investigated. So I began a full time activist.
Since 2013, Alhuseen has been working with Badael, which means “alternatives” in Arabic, a Syrian NGO that works “to empower and support Syrian civil society activists in their peacebuilding, nonviolence, and human rights work inside Syria.” To do so, Badael supports Syrian civil society working to break the cycle of violence and to establish the groundwork for post-conflict peacebuilding.
But for many Syrians, the choice between violence and non-violence is not so clear.
In Deir Ezzour, for example, Alhuseen’s encountered rebel fighters that would be on the front lines during the day and then participate in civil society activities at night.
They would tell me, ‘we will not keep carrying these weapons forever. We will leave them someday and go back to our lives, to the peaceful life that we always knew.’
For them, Alhuseen continued, it was a matter of life or death. “We are not carrying these weapons to assault,” Alhuseen remembered one of the fighters explaining. With the region under attack by Syrian regime forces, these fighters had taken up arms to defend themselves, and protect their families.
If the regime comes to the city, they will kill us, they will kill our families", one of the fighters told him. "We are just trying to protect them.
As most Syrian activists will tell you, the utmost priority is to stop the fighting and to end the war in Syria. Yet simply laying down weapons, and even brokering a tenable solution, leaves surmountable work to be done in the realm of peacebuilding and the promotion of nonviolence not only as a strategy, but as a culture.
Even before the revolution, the culture promoted by the regime was violence. We used to go to school in military uniforms, starting in seventh grade until we finished high school…We had military classes, we had military activities: there was always a culture of violence in the air.
But as Alhuseen discovered from work with Badael, even a deeply entrenched culture of violence can be radically changed.
He recalled the story of three women from his Badael workshop who had lost their husbands to detention, injury, and for one, death by the regime. Struggling economically, and isolated from their families, these three women turned to Badael to found their own association. And with Badael’s support, and various training, they soon began operating a successful NGO.
They actually had their own office, their own place to do activities, and they became very active and influential in their area. Not only did these activities provide the women with the means to live independently, and improve their position within society, but their activities directly served to aid others and amplify the impact of peacebuilding activities.
Today, Ayham works with Badael from Turkey, having been pushed out of Deir Ezzour following the Daesh takeover of the city. But through his work with Badael, Alhuseen continues to lay the foundations for a peaceful future Syria: one in which he hopes that civil society, and the people empowered by its activities, will assume an important role.
There was no civil society before the revolution, nothing. But now, they have been given the chance to start working peacefully.
“It’s always when they are given the chance, it’s always amazing what they can do,” Alhuseen said, looking up with a smile. “They just need the chance. They just need the support and then, the results, they are absolutely amazing. And then change will be happen.”