When I visited Lebanon and Syria in March 2014, I met an ecumenical youth group called Eid b Eid; they are based in Lattakia, my home town, and they work to support the many Christians in that region. They knew the work of the Foundation well, and they asked for our help to teach young Christians how to become leaders and reconcilers in their churches and in their communities. They believed that this would benefit everyone in Syria, whatever their religion. Over the course of several weeks, I met many Christian leaders in Syria and Lebanon, and they strongly supported Eid b Eid's request.
In addition, on this trip I visited one of the refugee camps in Lebanon. Afterwards, I could not leave this camp and just go back to my normal daily life. I had to find ways to help these, and other, refugees. Having spent a little time with them, I could see that among all their needs there was one thing that could make a tremendous difference to the lives of the refugees now and in the future: EDUCATION.
These two experiences, of the need for teaching young Christians to be ambassadors for peace and the need to help the children in the refugee camps, led me to formulate our Ambassadors for Peace Programme.
We set a date for the very first Ambassadors for Peace Programme - 2nd to 6th October 2014 - and we chose Lattakia as the venue for this ground-breaking event. Lattakia is on the Mediterranean coast and this region has been spared much of the conflict that has ravaged Syria, making it an ideal place to begin our new programme: a place of relative safety and a sanctuary for Syrians from across the country. I then worked with Eid b Eid and the churches around Lattakia over the following six months to ensure their support and to encourage the churches to propose candidates for the training. The Awareness Foundation, working with Eid b Eid (pictured below), received the proposals and selected participants to ensure that all denominations were represented.
Father Habib Daniel of the Maronite Church, (pictured below left), is one the local clergy who sent their young people to the training.
In August I returned to Lattakia to finalise the programme, complete all preparations with the venue and the speakers, and ensure the continuing support of churches of every denomination. All we needed now was the permission of the local government. H.E. Archbishop Nicholas Sawaf, the Melkite Archbishop of Lattakia and Tartous, acted as our referee; thanks to his support, we obtained official permission and the event could go ahead. At last everything was ready and the young participants had been selected.
The Revd Nadim Nassar, Director of the Awareness Foundation, and I flew into Lattakia on 2nd October, after a night's stopover in Beirut, Lebanon. We arrived in Lattakia at noon, and the training began later that same day.
We were astonished and delighted by the number of young Christians who had accepted the challenge to become ambassadors of peace for their communities. The participants mostly came from Lattakia, and a small number had bravely travelled from Aleppo and Damascus. There are many more Christians in Lattakia at present due to the conflict, and our participants, although currently staying in Lattakia, actually hailed from all across the country; one participant was even from Palestine! All denominations were represented, which is a big achievement for everyone, especially as fundamentalist Christians from the West have been actively recruiting in the Middle East, leaving the local Churches fearful of engaging with others.
When the participants arrived, they were asked to complete a questionnaire to measure their current involvement in community activities and how they view current relationships with other denominations and faiths. From the results, we learned that only 33% of the young people had previously taken part in inter faith activities in their communities. The most worrying result came in the questions about inter faith relations: just 24% reported that relations between Christians and Muslims were 'good' and only one person said the relations were 'very good'; the participants highlighted a lack of both understanding and respect between the faiths. As a Syrian, I know that this result would have been very different before the current conflict and the rise of fundamentalism in the region. Sadly, in the current situation even relations between the different Christian denominations are not as they should be. We shall be repeating this exercise in a few months to help us gauge how the 'Ambassadors for peace' have grown as a result of the training, and how relations between the faiths have benefitted from their activities.
The five day programme featured lectures on:
Essential skills of leadership
Handling conflict, hostility and disputes
Transforming and empowering communities
Building bridges with other faiths: learning to trust again
How to enter into dialogue with Muslim communities to promote peace and understanding.
We also had group discussions on:
What makes a good leader?
Finding solutions to local crises
Planning, preparing and running a conference or a day at a refugee camp
How to be a peacemaker