By Nour Barakeh, Alpbach Learning Program Co-manager, European Forum Alpbach, Austria
“I don’t want this war to end. I grew up carrying my weapon and fighting. I have lost everything. I can’t remember the shape of my life, my dreams, before war.”
I still remember my shock when a 23-year-old man said these words to me while I was traveling from city to city in Syria to interview young people about their opinions on the present and their dreams for the future.
In the decades long absence of a collective and free political atmosphere in the country, being critical about social issues, seeking knowledge for deep understanding despite the lack of real and reliable recourses, and doing research was immensely difficult, and at times even dangerous. I however firmly believe that the power of sharing ideas cannot be overestimated.
This brings us to the value of education. When I was younger, I was lucky enough to have been able to complete my academic studies in Syria – I am a trained pharmacist. Unfortunately, most people in Syria today have a very different experience. One only needs to look at the number of children living in camps around the country – children who have had to stop their education due to military conflict. Not to mention the number of young people involved in military life, and all of the others forced to suspend their education for any number of reasons.
In light of this, in 2013, a group of young activists and I who were living in Damascus, decided to change our work approach from what can be described as an emotionally supportive level to an approach focused on opening up creative spaces for critical thinking. Creative spaces for analyzing and exchanging thoughts, fears, and visions about our current situation. We organized art workshops during which we could work around political issues without the danger of being directly involved in them.
After three years of conducting these workshops, I noticed recurring themes. I started doing social research in an effort to predict the post-war period and the possibilities of rebuilding our country with realistic data aimed at addressing the causes of the underlying problems rather than just the consequences. That was how I started traveling around Syria and meeting people through my research.
It was also during this time that I discovered just how isolated we really were, each of us in our individual communities. We didn’t know each other. In addition, in the absence of the aforementioned collective and free political atmosphere in Syria, we were deprived of understanding our shared problems, which forced us to become involved in imagined conflicts based on assumed divisions.
This realization led me to a series of questions. If we could imagine that the war in Syria hadn’t yet started, how could the war have been avoided? Furthermore, how could we build sustained peace in our country? The emphasis here is of course on the word “build”, because peace cannot be imposed on societies. Achieving sustained peace is the fulfillment of revolutions aimed at rooted changes.
In my own life, sometime after doing those interviews in Syria, I was lucky enough to immigrate to Austria. Here, I see peace represented as a culture. I have experienced it through close contact with people, with their way of life, and their psychological structure. I am convinced that the fact that peace has been achieved in this country is the most important factor contributing to progress, not only on a general economic, political, and social level, but also on the level of human consciousness.
Therefore, for me, achieving peace has taken its place next to the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals as a main factor to close the circle of our interrelated world. An expression of interconnected problems that can only be solved on a global level.
In trying to realize the mechanisms of our interrelated world however, my interaction with the culture in Austria has forced me to re-evaluate concepts such as identity and nationality. Forced me to revisit these and other concepts that has been used to create conflicts and to break down awareness of our shared interests and shared pains as human beings.
All of this has motivated me to become more open to a broader sense of belonging, to global citizenship where we can see the full picture and everyone can contribute to the common good. Not as an idealistic dream, but rather, as a necessary condition for our survival.
We need to have one eye on the microscope and the other on the telescope. We need to combine all sectors to achieve the desired impact.
In my work with my partners and colleagues, this has meant combining scientific studies and artistic work through projects like the art-science performance Migraspectives* at the IIASA/JRC Evidence and Policy Summer School, to support the establishment of sustainable educational projects focused on empowering people to transcend the effects of war. It is a method of involving audiences in tricky topics such as migration, and realizing that data alone cannot be the only tool to reach people in making a change, and trying to bridge the gap between researchers, policymakers, and society.
*Migraspectives is a research project that involves artists and scientists in exploring the current debate on Migration through the lense of diverse and often conflicting world-views. The project culminated in a participatory performance during the Summer School for Evidence and Policy, organised by IIASA and the European Commissions Joint Research Center under the auspices of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, where a new approach to solution finding with an audience of researchers and policymakers from 40 countries was tried out for the first time.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.