Mention Syria and images of massacres, chemical weapons, militants and refugees fleeing violence come to mind. Despite six years of war, this country with 5,000 years of history and home to some of the most ancient, diverse cities in the world is still so much more than that devastation and mindless destruction. In the midst of it all, an ever-expanding network of dedicated Syrians—young and old, mostly women but many men also— have been working to heal the torn society.
At the center is Ghada Rifai, a trained architect who has drawn on her professional skills of design, structure and vision to build a human network rooted in the values of peace, diversity and non-violence.
Rifai, along with her colleague Abir Hajibrahim, an engineer, co-founded the Mobaderoon Network (translated as Initiative Takers) in 2010. In its infancy, the network’s goal was to promote active citizenship—but with the break-out of conflict, the network has emerged as perhaps the largest grassroots organization in the country with over 4,000 members and counting. Advocating values of citizenship, peace building and coexistence, from the start they raised awareness about the need to end the violence and address the conflict through dialogue and negotiations. Over the years, as more blood has been shed, they have remained consistent in their commitment to build a better, more inclusive future for Syria.
ICAN’s Aya Nader spoke to Rifai about her experience.
What kind of work does your network do?
El-Mobaderoon is working on establishing common spaces for people to come together across their political, sect or ethnic differences. They are safe spaces where people can talk about themselves, about ideas, share what they believe in, and discuss their fears. At these discovery discussions, people begin to understand each other, and find common ground in problems they all face. This understanding acts as prevention from going extreme. We believe by doing this, we are able to encourage people to find the advantages of diversity, discover the magic of differences, and celebrate this plurality as an added value to the community instead of a reason to fight.
Our activities also encourage people to launch similar initiatives in their own communities, gathering more people from different backgrounds in order to close the gaps.
We work with both adults and children. One of our recent initiatives was between a group of children from the coastal city of Tartus, and another group from Aleppo. They sent messages of love and solidarity expressing how they care, how “we are all one, and whatever is happening to you, we are all Syrian.” The children organized a big event to draw these messages and decorate them. The children discover in these spaces that they are a part of a bigger community and that there is so much to do together.
Another initiative involves working with children living on the streets. Nowadays, in areas of conflict and especially inside Syria, a huge number of children are out of the education systems, their lives have totally changed. People deal with these children in such an inhumane manner. They try to avoid them, to close the windows when they approach, and they don’t want to talk with them. Our network members decided to bridge this gap. They conducted activities with the children to build trust, and then later on put together a referral system to help them get off the streets. We want to ensure that these children are protected from crime, either being victims of it or out of desperation to get some food and shelter, turning to crime themselves.
How do you see the role of women in achieving peace?
Our country has become a country of women since the war. Many men fled or have been killed. The country is now full of the elderly, women and children, and they are playing a big role in implementing peace. At a certain moment, politicians will come together and have a peace agreement. But who will implement it in the community? Women.
Nowadays, there is a growing interest in women’s inclusion and activating women’s role in the peace process, and the international community is truly trying. There are women on the advisory board for the UN Envoy, and there has been some integration for women’s activities into the peace process. But because it’s a trend, not a mentality or mindset, it will not be sustainable. They talk a great deal about women’s involvement during the peace process, but the action is limited and once it ends, we worry that women will be sidelined and the men will take over again. We need to integrate all community members as part of this process, and recognize in particular that women are playing major roles. They share stories, concerns, fears and hopes. I’ve noticed that recently a lot of young people are planning their life as if the war will be forever. Imagine if they are part of the peace process, and their mothers get involved, they will have different plans, which will feed the peace process, instead of war.
How do you find working under such stress in Syria? What are the difficulties you face?
It is not easy at all because we are dealing with matters that affect all aspects of our life directly, not just the work that we do. I have suffered from trauma, and at times considered ending the work. But then I overcome it because I see the impact of the work that we are doing, and get inspired by the stories of other members in Mobaderoon. Being part of a network is a safety net by itself at an individual and at a professional level. We always have several mitigation plans and alternatives based on the resources that we have in Mobaderoon network.
The difficulties lie in instability. We are losing people all the time. They move from one area to another or flee the country. Nevertheless, we prefer to focus on opportunities because whatever happens, we find a new way around it, along with new opportunities.
Where does partnering with the International Civil Society Action Network come in?
ICAN forum is a place where we can come as local organizations to listen to the real voice coming from local communities, not from international organizations. We are able to share ideas and understanding of what is happening around us because it is all connected. So for me, the ICAN network focuses on what is really happening and not just the politics. It is also about building these networks between local actors. I feel very supported because I’m part of the ICAN network. If there are any concerns I want to raise, I believe that all of the members will support me. It gives us the power of being together to act together.
When you hear the word “extremism,” what comes to your mind?
Within politics, the word ‘extremism’ has been introduced to be used in certain ways and to serve certain interests and agendas. But in reality, extremism is taking a side without considering others’ rights or perspectives. Extremism could exist in every nation, in every political action, and even on very small scales, such as family level extremism. Extremism already exists everywhere.
People think they are doing good in fighting extremism with extremism. However, extremism incites further extremist reaction; it is a cycle, once any group or individual starts taking part of it, they actually feed it.
Why is the world failing at facing violence and extremism?
The issue is that governments counter violent extremism with violence, which only results in more violence. Destroying or changing any mindset is not done through bombing, or performing military actions. Extremists would only feel that it is their right to take revenge, that they are the victims, and other people will join them. Even countries which think that they are saving the world through militarism are extremists. They think that it’s their right to take somebody’s life or to bomb a certain area. They regard the death of 100 civilians as acceptable in their fight against groups like ISIS.
What would be the solution to such violence?
Through supporting peace activism, there will be a long term impact on changing mentalities. This is mirrored vividly in one of our success stories. We were conducting an activities class with children in Damascus. We invited some of the kids holding weapons and standing at checkpoints to join in. After attending a session about rights and responsibilities, about really understanding others, and how there are other people who suffer from our actions and how to analyze our actions, one of those youth decided to disarm and never turn back.
It takes time. The voice of peace activism is very quiet and requires a degree of patience in comparison to violent actions. People want to have an easy and fast way out.
Investing in peace is very cheap. It just needs passion and encouragement. Imagine if the money paid for military missions went into economic development or education. We would have a different world. It is not expensive, we just need a plan and to know exactly where we need to go and have a will to do it.