Tag Archives: NGO

Podcasts tell humanizing stories from the Arab world

26 Feb

Beirut-based NGO hopes to transform the West’s negative stereotypes of region
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, February 26, 2010

BEIRUT: A podcast can’t change the world, but it can help change perceptions. Stories of Our City is a new non-governmental organization in Beirut hoping to transform stereotypes about the Arab world, one podcast at a time.

Stories of Our City was started up by American citizens Katy Gilbert and Bart Cochran in an effort to contribute to peace and provide a better understanding of the troubled Middle East. The idea took hold when Gilbert realized many of her fellow Americans had distorted views of the Arab world. “People were amazed that I lived there,” said Gilbert, who before relocating to Lebanon, lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “When I would say that Jordan was safer than any major city in the US, people would just be floored.”

To shake off the persistent stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim terrorists, Stories of Our City every Monday uploads a podcast telling the story of an ordinary Arab individual, hoping to nurture a sense of community and common ground with American audiences. The stories are told through ad-hoc conversation, touching on all sorts of subjects from dreams or memories, to fears and hopes.

One woman recounts her childhood at an orphanage in southern Lebanon and her first meeting with her biological mother as a 16-year-old. Another man talks about his work in a tattoo parlor. The idea is for Americans “to think better of the people here in the Middle East,” Gilbert said.

“That they’re normal people with faces and who are not so different that we can’t relate to them.” Better understanding of the “other” as human beings will help rally support for less violent policy making, she added. “A lot of studies have shown that when you place distance between yourself and others, it’s easier to disregard them and rationalize violence.”

Most of the podcasts currently available are about Lebanese, Jordanians or Emiratis, although there are plans to collect stories from across the Arab world. “There are hard stories here but we’re trying to share points of hope as well.” People are more than happy to contribute to the project once they know it’s aimed at transforming popular American opinion about Arabs, Gilbert added.

Listeners not familiar with the Lebanon’s long history of migration may be surprised to hear the varied accents of some of the speakers. European, American, and Arab-accented Lebanese recount stories about childhood memories of washing the dishes or moving, dreams of being artists and of change in society. “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Christian, and we just don’t know what’s going on,” laughed one storyteller. “We celebrate everything. We have no issues with religion, we’re open to everything.”

In one podcast, Beirut resident Ronnie recalled a conversation he overheard between two boys playing football. “One of them said, ‘you remember during the war when we were playing football?’ The other one asks him, ‘which war?’ That tells you how many wars have happened in this child’s life,” Ronnie said. “We shouldn’t even have any wars, period.”

With over 5,000 downloads since June, the podcasts have met with great success. “We’ve had a great response from the US, it’s been really encouraging,” Gilbert said. She hopes audiences will continue to listen to the podcasts over time to get a better picture of the lives of their contemporaries across the Arab world.

Eventually, Stories of the City hopes to tell the stories of people all over the world, not just in conflict zones. The organization is also encouraging listeners to get involved, either through submitting their own story or by collecting other people’s testimonies.

To download a podcast or submit a story, visit http://www.storiesofourcity.wordpress.com

Search for Common Ground in Lebanon

1 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT: Religious pluralism is a defining feature of Lebanon: so much so it is enshrined in the country’s political system, designed to give political representation to all communities. But with Lebanon’s  population divided across 18 recognized sects, the country’s politics and society have historically been wrought with bitter ideological differences. 

These differences are often perpetuated by the prejudices parents pass on, intentionally or not, to their children. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that Le­banon’s youngsters at times find themselves reinforcing the country’s religious, socio-economic and political disputes with peers at school. 

Aware of the need to reach out to youth, as well as the underfunding of teacher-training programs in Lebanon, one of the biggest conflict-resolution organizations in the world has instigated a national program to train teachers on ways to communicate, promote respect for diversity and mediate disputes. 

The idea of peace education is not new, but in Lebanon it has yet to become common practice in schools or universities. 

“The best way for us to really be effective [in creating a tolerant society] is to begin with children and youth … the future of tomorrow,” said Sarah Shouman, director of Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) Lebanon office. 

The pilot project is currently under way at four public and three private schools across the country, where an average of 20 teachers receive practical training in “instilling a culture of listening and problem solving in schools,” Shouman added. One exercise teachers are learning to pass on is how to frame their grievances in more neutral language, as opposed to adopting accusatory stances that usually elicit confrontational responses. 

While the project comes at a time of relative calm in Leba­non, bloody clashes in May 2008, uneasy relations with Israel, and the current political deadlock over the formation of a national-unity government, mean the possibility of renewed conflict is never too far away from people’s minds.

Teachers and school administrators were initially reluctant to participate, Shouman said. “I think some schools are sick to death of people coming in and telling them they’re doing it wrong. That’s not our intention at all. We understand that there’s a lot of pressure in the education system … we’re trying to build on what is there already.” This approach seems to be working: “Every hour in this workshop has value … every action has a new goal in my life,” said one teacher who participated in the training. 

Building on the success of the pilot scheme, SFCG will embark on similar teacher training projects in 80 schools nationwide over the next two years, in partnership with Lebanon’s Education Ministry, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, and the Hariri Foundation. “We want to capitalize on the expertise already in Lebanon and also make the most of expertise around the world in peace education,” Shouman said. 

While SFCG’s Lebanon office only opened in October 2008, the organization has already made considerable strides in promoting a culture of tolerance and conflict resolution. 

 SFCG’s first project here was the much-acclaimed television series, “Kilna Bil Hayy,” English for All of Us in the Neighborhood.” The show, whose first season just wrapped up on LBC International, follows the adventures of six families from Lebanon’s biggest communities – Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis – who live in the same apartment complex. A supernatural presence, personified as Lina, teaches the children to look beyond the political, religious and socio-economic prejudices of their parents and to build friendships with their neighbors based on commonalities, respect for diversity, and trust. 

 The series was adapted for the Lebanese context after the huge success of “Nashe Maalo,” a similar SFCG television series in Macedonia promoting intercultural understanding. SFCG Le­banon is now looking for funding to produce a second series. 

 The group is also organizing a traveling film festival on truth and reconciliation for October. The film festival has been running in other countries since 2001, screening films or documentaries that show the human face of war and contribute to preventing and reducing conflict. The festival will travel to 12 schools and eight universities around the country and will be followed by moderated talks.

Beirut nightspot looks to end sectarianism

10 Jun

Beirut nightspot looks to end sectarianism

Doubling as an NGO, Club 43 wants to bring Lebanese from different walks of life together
By Dalila Mahdawi
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Hidden away on the second floor of a residential building, it would be easy to overlook Gemmayzeh’s most unusual bar. Club 43 is perhaps one of the area’s best-kept secrets, offering more than the usual fare of drinks, music and food. The club is also a non-governmental organization (NGO), and the first in Lebanon to combine social activism with a bar and restaurant.

From the entrance lined with bright plastic flowers to the club’s choice of paint, Club 43 lacks the formal atmosphere that plagues many other NGOs and cultural clubs. “We wanted to create a place where you could come, have some drinks and laugh with your friends. I believe culture is better expressed with some music and a few beers,” says president Imad Geara.

Originally established in 1967 by lawyers as a cultural club for members of the legal profession, Club 43 opened up to the public shortly after. Run solely by volunteers, the club generates its entire income through its bar and restaurant services. Club 43’s refusal to accept donations, whether by organizations or individuals, is fueled by a refusal to be compromised by a sectarian or political agenda. Indeed, from its inception, the club has focused on social welfare activities and has continuously campaigned against sectarianism.

Two Club 43 members, lawyers Sami Chkifi and Marcel Geara were the men responsible for the court case that saw the word “sect” removed from Lebanese identity cards.

Although Lebanon’s 18-month-old political crisis was solved by the Qatar-mediated Doha agreement, sectarianism is still widespread and many of the confessional militia groups that fought in the 1975-1990 Civil War are still functional in Lebanese politics today. After the May clashes between opposition and pro-government gunmen in Beirut and other cities, Club 43 replaced the international flags that normally hang from its windows with the flags of Lebanon’s numerous political factions.

“Some people don’t like what we’ve done. But we have put all the flags together to try and say, ‘We are all Lebanese and we must accept each other.’ We are trying to send a message of peace and tolerance,” Geara said.

In line with that message, the club also produces stickers that read “Say No to Sectarianism.”

Every Friday at midday, the club opens its doors to 70-100 homeless people and provides them with free meals. During this time, they can receive free legal advice from the many lawyers who volunteer. In the past, Club 43 has also offered them free blood and cholesterol tests.

“Interestingly, 90 percent of them did not have any health problems because they walk everywhere and don’t eat junk food,” Geara laughs.

The weekly lunches have provided otherwise excluded members of society with a chance to engage with others, and according to Helene Ata, a psychologist who volunteers with the club, numerous close friendships have been formed as a result.

Geara is emphatic about the secular nature of the club, remarking: “We never ask their religious or political affiliations. They just come, feel at home and have lunch.”

Club 43 has also offered itself as a meeting space for other NGOs, such as Nahwa al-Muwatiniya, Khallas! and Rotar-Act, the youth branch of the Rotary Club. The Club is also in the process of launching an NGO FM radio station, to be launched this month, which will replace KISS 104.9. The station “will play music, give free airtime to NGOs to make public service announcements and have three interviews daily with different NGOs,” says Geara.

Adorning one of the walls in the club’s bar is a framed Daily Star article dated October 1968 and quoting the club’s then-president, Marcel Geara: “‘We decided to call the club 1943 because it was then that Muslims, Christians and Druzes were united in establishing an independent Lebanon.’ But, he pointed out, 25 years after Independence, there is still enmity between the religions.