This post was originally published on the Ashoka Peace Blog
One result of Lebanon's civil war was an undermining of sectarian diversity among the country. Violence forced people to be confined to their villages, with few opportunities for interaction with other communities of varying religious sects. As borders and checkpoints were dismantled, psychological barriers remained and people stayed confined to their small towns. As a result, generations have grown up self-identifying solely with their town, village or tribe and countless young have never set foot among Lebanese communities with different backgrounds from their own.
One result of this isolation on youth is a significant focus on ethnic and religious differences as opposed to an emphasis on a collective youth Lebanese identity. Unable to relate to others from different backgrounds, youth lack a national unity and are disconnected from their common land, history and heritage. As conflict prevails in Lebanon’s post-civil war era, a number of initiatives have attempted to build peace and unity through conflict resolution, while others have led programs aimed at preserving Lebanese heritage. However, none combine the two approaches to build peace and solidarity among youth by linking them to their common history.
Ashoka Fellow Joanne Bajjaly (shown above) is a pioneer in using heritage as a tool for building citizenship and harmony in post- conflict countries where confessional divides and psychological barriers around identity prevail. Her work targets Lebanese youth in three ways: First, she organizes school trips to sites of national heritage to acquaint children with their history and their fellow citizens from different backgrounds. Second, she provides extracurricular activities to complement and enrich in-school history classes, with rigorous teacher training to implement these activities. Last, Joanne trains and coaches local tourist guides and professional archeologists on using her tool kits and methodology to make heritage sites alive to their clients. By combining all three approaches, Joanne has provided the first integrated model to build a national identity in post-conflict countries through exploring heritage.
To date about 5,000 students from international schools, public schools and orphanages have discovered another face of Lebanon through Biladi, Joanne's social enterprise.
Joanne's model is applicable to countries such as Iraq, Sudan and the Balkans, which remain dominated by ethnic and confessional divides. Joanne will also adapt her model to countries, such as Egypt, where tension prevails as people place religious identity before national identity. Her approach can also be replicated in other countries where cultaral heritage is often undervalued among citizens, such as Egypt and Jordan.