How Community Dialogue Helped Send Girls Back to School in Yemen

Each morning, fourteen-year-old Fairouz woke up early to take the long walk to get water from a spring outside Al-Manwar, a small village surrounded by hills and green terraced fields in Ibb governorate in Yemen. After she completed 8th grade, Fairouz left school to help her family with everyday errands, such as collecting water and firewood.

“In our village, girls have to fetch water, collect firewood, or tend sheep. My father insisted that I stop going to school in order to help get water for the family… I used to get up in the morning to get water and see other girls going to school. I burst into tears seeing them going to school. I used to ask myself, ‘Why do I not do that? Why does my father not let me go to school?’”

The Roots of Community Level Conflict

Al-Manwar is located about 200 kilometers from Sana’a, on a remote clifftop at the end of a series of dilapidated roads connecting the village to the city of Jeblah. Life in Al-Manwar can be difficult for residents of the village – particularly young girls. For years, they trekked across unpaved roads to reach their school, located 1200 meters from the village. Despite this distance, many girls were able to attend school until the country-wide conflict began in 2015. The war waging across Yemen took a toll on the area’s economy and the ability of its people to access basic services. After the conflict began, the electricity that powered local water pumps stopped flowing to Al-Manwar and families started connecting a haphazard network of private pipes to the local spring.

This created tension in the community, with some unable to afford the equipment to build the pipes. In 2016, a group of young men who saw this system as unfair destroyed many of the pipes, disrupting the flow of freshwater to village residents. Since then, young girls have borne the brunt of collecting water for drinking and washing, dropping out of school in order to carry out this task. Throughout each day, girls from Al-Manwar walk more than a kilometer along the long path to the spring and carry water back to their families’ homes. Carrying the containers on their heads, these girls walk down narrow and difficult paths fraught with danger, scared of what they might encounter. Many face sexual harassment from young men when they walk alone.

After several years of conflict within the community, local residents and community leaders of Al-Manwar were desperate to find a solution to repair the social fabric, bring water back into the homes of villagers, and help the girls go back to school.

Then in 2021, local organization Al-Shaimaa Foundation, together with PartnersYemen, designed an initiative centered on community dialogue and building support for a new water system. At the heart of the initiative was the creation of a seven-member Conflict Resolution Committee that included local sheiks, authority officials, and other influential community members and whose mandate was to peacefully resolve community issues in Al-Manwar.

Employing Dialogue to Find Sustainable Solutions

An initial dialogue was facilitated by Al-Shaimaa Foundation and PartnersYemen to assist the committee in finding a solution to the water crisis. The committee proposed the establishment of a consolidated water supply network to deliver water equally to all local households. Using their enhanced dialogue and facilitation skills, the Committee was able to secure an agreement with all the relevant parties, including a man who lived near the spring and had benefitted the most from the status quo. The negotiated compromise included extending a water supply pipe to his house.

Shortly thereafter, the villagers signed a reconciliation agreement that set the terms for access to the water supply network, formed a maintenance committee for the system, and established a mechanism for dealing with any future conflicts around water management in the village.

Two weeks later, fresh water reached Al-Manwar’s village center.

Today, Fairouz is back in school and excited about the opportunities now open to her in the future. Fairouz’s new reality only became possible after the intervention of Al-Shaimaa Foundation and PartnersYemen, who helped create and then worked together with the Conflict Resolution Committee to address a set of issues that had plagued the residents of Al-Manwar since 2015. Young girls like Fairouz, who had disproportionately suffered before the project, now benefit the most from the new water system. In all, the 23 girls who had dropped out of school were able to go back and continue with their studies.

“Had water not been delivered to the village, my father would not have been convinced to send me back to school… Thank God, I have resumed classes and I go to school regularly,” Fairouz said. “Now, water is in the vicinity of our home. We no longer need to fetch water from that faraway source.”

PartnersYemen’s Work with Communities

Since 2016, PartnersYemen has set up over 90 similar community committees in 18 governorates across Yemen. These committees have served as essential links between community members and local authorities by resolving conflicts that provide more equitable access to local services. Some committees have even established their own new civil society organizations, sustainably advocating for changes at the local level.

In recent years, PartnersYemen and its local civil society partners have found that such committees – when provided with guidance and technical support for facilitation and dialogue – can play key roles in resolving conflicts, forging multiple community reconciliation agreements over resources and service delivery issues.

Partners’ local network of CSOs, of which Al-Shaimaa Foundation in Ibb is a key member, is an important local link to communities across the country. These organizations use their knowledge of local community dynamics to select the local CRC members, develop the Committee’s scopes of work, and provide guidance to help mediate reconciliation sessions with conflicting parties.

While Fairouz and her classmates have benefited greatly from this initiative, important work remains to be done both in Al-Manwar and other underdeveloped rural areas across the country that have suffered under the pressures of the conflict. By utilizing similar conflict resolution and dialogue tools, and with support from Yemeni-led civil society organizations like PartnersYemen and Al-Shaimaa, other communities may be able to work towards sustainable solutions like Ibb’s water system to strengthen their communities and provide opportunities for the most vulnerable.

This piece was co-written by Saddam Al-Dhelaa, PartnersYemen and Matt Ciesielski, PartnersGlobal. For more information on our work in the Middle East and North Africa, please visit our website HERE.

Photo Credit: Girls in School by Julien Harneis

  January 15, 2021

PartnersGlobal and PartnersYemen strongly urge the U.S. Department of State to reverse the designation of Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, as a terrorist organization.

Because of this decision, desperately needed humanitarian aid, as well as goods and personnel coming from the United States of America, will be prevented from entering northern Yemen, where 70 percent of the population lives. Today, after six years of war, nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population is living below the poverty line; 120,000 have died and 500,000 have been wounded; and more than 7 million have been displaced both internally and outside the country. Those that remain lack access to basic necessities—food, water, and medicine. Every day this designation remains, the suffering of the most vulnerable families in Yemen will mount. The lives of millions are at stake.

Further, this designation counteracts years-long peacebuilding efforts by the international community and impacts the United Nations-led political peace process. This is not in the interest of Yemenis, the international community, or the United States. Therefore, we call on President-elect Biden and his administration to freeze and revoke this decision upon taking office; and we call on Congress to respond immediately to reverse this designation.

For over a decade, PartnersGlobal and PartnersYemen have been working with communities most besieged by the conflict in Yemen, including those in northern Yemen. We have gained the trust of actors on both sides of this conflict and together worked to mediate disputes, improve governance and service delivery, and, most importantly, lay the foundations for long-term stability and peace. PartnersGlobal and PartnersYemen are part of a network of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organizations working throughout the country to similarly build the foundations for lasting stability and peace. This new designation threatens this work and only serves to prolong the conflict.

Scott Paul, Humanitarian Policy Lead at Oxfam of America, said, “Secretary Pompeo’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is a dangerous and useless policy, and it will also endanger the lives of innocent people. This designation will not help in resolving the conflict, nor in achieving justice for the violations and abuses committed during the war; this will only escalate the suffering for millions of Yemenis who struggle to survive.”

One former minister and businessman said, “The decision will return us to the starting point of the conflict at a time when the various parties had entered a phase of fatigue and found a willingness to make painful concessions.”

Unfortunately, this sentiment has been echoed by Yemeni leaders throughout the country as well as those in the international community most familiar with the conflict.

We are calling on the United States to play a constructive role in resolving Yemen’s devastating conflict and mitigating the disastrous effects on the population. The United States is uniquely positioned to do this, but this new designation does the opposite.

by Julia Roigj and Liz Hume   November 10, 2020

2020 has been a historic and tumultuous year in the United States. The pandemic, mass mobilizations for social justice, and a bitter and polarizing Presidential election finally culminated in the highest voter turnout in our country’s history. While 74 million Americans are celebrating Biden and Harris’s election, 70 million Americans are not, and many are filled with existential dread.

Reflecting on President-elect Biden’s message of healing and unity, what will it take for us to come together? It feels impossible after the last four years of vitriolic divisiveness. However, the deepening divisions in the US have been building long before the 2016 election. According to a report from Brown University this year, the US is polarizing faster than other democracies. If we are indeed at an inflection point, as Biden declared in his acceptance speech, then we must decide how not to cause harm and also contribute meaningfully to depolarization. Building a peaceful society will require addressing the structural inequalities and grievances that drive conflict and polarization AND prioritize restoring relationships and rebuilding trust.

Here are four ways Americans can start building peace today:

1. None of us are immune to the dynamics of polarization. A progressive celebrating the Biden win called on his Twitter followers to reach out to at least one Trump supporter to offer empathy and to find an issue of common ground. He received thousands of outraged responses declaring “the other side” irredeemable. Polarization experts believe in-group and out-group dynamics in a polarized society cause all of us to become the most extreme versions of ourselves, assigning increasingly sinister motives to all those we consider as “other.” Outrage makes us feel closer to our in-group. But each of us can interrogate the effects of polarization on our perceptions. We should now seek our connections as parents, as music fans, or as sports aficionados irrespective of our political leanings.

2. Bridge-building can make polarization worse. Bridge builders can fan the flames of polarization by giving a platform that fuels polarized viewpoints. Researchers caution against efforts to build bridges in deeply polarized environments but rather advise highlighting stories of everyday people who do not necessarily reflect either extreme. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) also tweeted after the election: “So many Trump voters are also working families and believed that he would improve their lives. We must see that they are hurting and fight attempts to divide us as we work to rebuild our beloved nation.” She did not receive the same vitriol, most likely because she highlighted the commonalities of working families trying to improve their lives and called out the people seeking to divide.

3. Time to complexify the narrativeWe all draw on deeply entrenched narratives that our unconscious mind often manifests as common senseWhat is a narrative? They are “a foundational framework for understanding both history and current events, and inform our basic concepts of identity, community, and belonging.” Many live by deep narratives of freedom, faith, and patriotism, while others bring to the foreground narratives of historical oppression, systemic racism, and runaway capitalism that drive inequality and injustice. The divided mainstream and social media also fuel misinformation and can exacerbate seemingly black and white narratives. For example, a viral video of a young man in a MAGA hat in front of the Lincoln Memorial in a perceived confrontation with a Native American man received intense public outrage before a fuller picture of the incident emerged. A peacebuilding approach to social justice must include a commitment to interrogating our own biases, acknowledging different ways of making sense of the world, and promoting more complex narratives that are factual and inclusive of diverse lived experiences.

4. Instead of calling out, calling in: Some activists are already questioning our new President-elect’s focus on national healing as a moderate’s suspicious call for “civility” — or code for not making too many waves in the fight for systemic change. Human rights activists will and should continue to work tirelessly to confront insidious racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay and transgender discrimination, and inequality in our society. And yet, during this time of such polarization, we must seek to uncover healing tactics for the change we want to see that brings more supporters to our cause(s).

There is a need for human rights activists and peacebuilders to reflect together on how to “call in” those who could join our coalitions and refrain from “calling out” potential allies who may make mistakes or don’t hold the same world views on all issues. For example, a mistake in calling someone by the wrong pronoun is an opportunity for education and dialogue. No one responds well to being criticized or belittled without the follow-up of how they can better understand and participate in societal change on which we agree. Peacebuilders stand up for what is right, but we do so in a way that recognizes the power of restorative justice, what is redeemable in all of us, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings.

PartnersGlobalthe Alliance for Peacebuilding, and Humanity United are launching a new initiative to unite Social Justice Activism with Peacebuilding through applied research on polarization, narrative engagement, and taking lessons from effective depolarization initiatives in other deeply divided countries. This inflection point will require all of us to self-reflect on the role we are playing and will continue to play in healing our nation.

Julia Roig is the CEO of PartnersGlobal and the Chair of the Board of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. @Jroig_Partners

Elizabeth (Liz) Hume is the Vice President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding@Lizhume4peace

  September 21, 2020

On this international day of peace, let us shape peace together, recognizing and supporting the important role of local women mediators in community based conflict resolution efforts. In Yemen, women peacebuilders have used their conflict resolution skills to prevent local conflicts, promote social cohesion and women’s participation in community and social initiatives.

PartnersGlobal and its affiliate, Partners Yemen, collaborated in a community-based conflict mitigation program to create sustainable mechanisms for local conflict resolution in Yemen’s tribal areas. The program supported local women peacebuilders in: coaching on mediation approaches to proactively address and reduce violent conflict, creating the space and opportunities for women to engage in conflict resolution, and building women’s knowledge and capacity in conflict management, mediation, arbitration, negotiation, and communication.

Spotlight on Local Yemeni Peacebuilders:

Hayam Talib Al Qarmushi is Chairman of the National Committee in Shabwa Governorate, Yemen.  Hayam has worked as a trainer in conflict resolution for various civil society groups in her community after being involved in training programs provided by Partners Yemen. Hayam participated in the national dialogue conference in Sana’a and has been active in media, working with Shabwa Radio locally, and has participated in several meetings and television dialogues to address societal issues in Yemen.

Nusiba Saqaf Mohammed Alawi is the Executive Director of the Ruwad Foundation for Development and Human Rights in Lahj Governorate, Yemen. She is a longstanding collaborator of Partners Yemen in conflict resolution, women’s empowerment and dialogue in tribal areas, contributing to the creation of community committees to solution community grievances. Furthermore, Nusiba has involved her local community in activities proving women’s role in enhancing social cohesion and community participation.

Athar Ali Mohammed Yahya is the founding member and Director of Planning and Development of Alif Baa in Aden Governorate, Yemen. Alif Baa was also a participating organization in Partner’s Yemen’s conflict mitigation and local engagement and advocacy dialogue program. Yahya’s professional expertise spans conflict, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and institutional strengthening. With her outstanding experience and skills in conflict resolution and mediation, Athar has helped establish a second generation of young women activists who are able to work in different social fields in a society where conflict constantly permeates.

  June 3, 2020

In places experiencing active conflict, access to valuable resources like electricity can be a lifeline, making the difference between having heat and going cold or being able to access vital information and being uninformed. In fact, access to an adequate standard of living is a basic human right protected by international law.

In the adjacent villages of Al-Sabbabah, Al-Najd, and Al-Gharameh in Radfan district of Lahj governorate, a dispute over connecting power lines threatened to leave several of the area’s residents without this vital resource. Viewing access to power as a zero sum, winner-take-all commodity, residents of Al-Najd, a small village of 240 people, would regularly threaten to disconnect the power lines to neighboring Al-Sabbabah, with a population of 840. In turn, Al-Sabbabah residents would retaliate by threatening to cut the power lines not only to Al-Najd but to several neighboring areas as well – leaving some 3,500 people without power. If power granted access to advantage, then the villagers wanted to secure all of it for their own residents.

In several cases, these threats led to physical violence between villagers, further exacerbating the already tense environment and weakening the social fabric of the community, a risk factor for increased conflict.

Recognizing the need to address past grievances and mitigate further conflict, PartnersGlobal and Partners Yemen, with the support of the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, supports a bottom-up dialogue process that gives citizens a mechanism to express and address their concerns with other community members and local officials.

Ultimately, community members come together to agree on initiatives to promote reconciliation. The Ruwwad Foundation for Development and Human Rights, a key partner, worked with community members to create a community committee to address concerns around the power lines and access to electricity. The committee was specifically designed to help streamline communication and find practical, mutually beneficial, and sustainable solutions to community grievances – starting with the power lines issue. To ensure their voices were heard, each village had an equal number of representatives on the committee.

After hearing from community members and discussing solutions, the committee members and the Ruwwad Foundation jointly contacted the Public Electricity Corporation and petitioned them to expand the power lines for the three villages. Meeting daily throughout the effort, the committee worked to surface and mitigate disputes, ensuring the villagers’ buy-in and helping to resolve conflict peacefully. The committee was also responsible for collecting community contributions to the effort and coordinating volunteers who helped the Public Electricity Corporation dig, rewire, and install the power lines.

Today, access to electricity has been successfully expanded to all three villages, and the inter-village community committee is continuing its work to ensure that as new disputes arise, they will be addressed jointly, fairly and free of violence. Partners Yemen’s critical work in Lahj and around Yemen supporting locally led reconciliation initiatives is laying the foundation for future justice and accountability efforts in the country.

  December 18, 2019

The power of music to build social cohesion in a divided Lebanon

The city of Beirut and its outlying impoverished suburbs are all too familiar with conflict. The remnants of Lebanon’s 15-year-civil war that killed 150,000 and injured 300,000 linger in an undercurrent of tension and unaddressed trauma. Some four decades after the heavily sectarian conflict ended, communities remain divided by religion and ideology.

Adding to the strain, wars in neighboring Syria, Iraq and Palestine have brought an estimated 1.5 million refugees to the country, many of them settling in and around the capital city. As neighborhoods have grown denser and resources thinner, tensions between host communities and new residents have peaked, inciting violence, distrust and more self-imposed segregation.

But amid the discord, 100 children ages 8 to 15 from Lebanese and refugee backgrounds alike raised their voices for something more powerful than the divides, joining the city’s first multiethnic children’s choir. Starting with a mutually known song and little else, these singers and their families would soon discover they shared much more than music, finding common ground in a deeply divided society.

We sat down with PartnersLebanon Director May Nasr, a well-known Lebanese folk singer, peacebuilding expert and lead of the Children’s Choir initiative to find out what made the program successful and whether its gains could be sustained.

PartnersLebanon decided to launch a choir as opposed to a sports league, dialogue or other activity. What does music offer that other activities don’t?

Nasr: I’ve seen from years of performing with my guitar that these old folk songs sung by famous musicians have become pillars of our musical culture, especially among the people of the Middle East and North Africa region, those in the diaspora and even among people who don’t speak the language. It’s about humanity, not just love songs. These songs bring people together.

There is something much more powerful about music than a training or a dialogue. Music is a fundamental starting point because it has that powerful, unanimous passion and empowerment that gives people motivation and hope. Singing is expressing with the whole body. And for children especially, music and psychosocial art (mindful well-being) processes can provide them with a way to express thoughts and emotions in a way that their current vocabulary cannot do.

In our region, everything is boiling: there are refugees and there is resentment among huge swaths of people against each other. We must still do the typical work that peacebuilding does, but we never actually tried using music.

A young soloist practices her lines at rehearsal.

What are the major drivers of conflict in Beirut especially among children and youth?

Nasr: In 2017, there was a case study in an impoverished area of Beirut (Borj Hamoud, Naba’a) with many displaced people, refugees and native Lebanese residents living nearby. Because of the surge of refugees, there was a surplus of students in school, and there was a noticeable difference in levels of education among refugee children and Lebanese children, largely due to the years refugee kids spent out of the classroom.

The schools split them into two shifts: Lebanese kids in the morning and refugee kids in the afternoon. When the shifts changed and students crossed paths, they clashed and started name-calling based on what they had heard from their families and adults in their communities. The Lebanese kids were being told that refugees are taking away their livelihood opportunities and that refugees shouldn’t be there, among other things. Children listen to this. They hear and it leads to conflict.

If we don’t address this dynamic starting with the children, we are in big trouble for the future. Children are like sponges and can be easily influenced by negative or positive influence. You just have to have something positive to give.

How did being part of a multinational choir change these kids?

Nasr: When we held choir auditions, even the kids with the flattest voices were so eager to join. We couldn’t turn them away! Based on my experience, there are no flat voices when they sing together. It somehow changes the pattern of the singing. Also, this was an opportunity to engage in a free-of-charge extracurricular activity in a safe location, as opposed to playing on the streets.

But more than the actual sound, we saw children’s perspectives on life and toward each other gradually began to change. When the project first started, a Syrian child asked me: “How are we supposed to sing with these kids who beat us up on the street?”

Keep in mind we had a very diverse group: 50 percent Syrian, 30 percent, Lebanese, 20 percent Iraqi, and 10 percent Palestinian.

In our first session, we had chosen songs they would all know. The Lebanese kids were on one side of the room and the Syrian refugee kids were on the other. But when we started singing, they all looked at each other like: “How do you know this song?” Automatically you could see the barriers between them start to fall.

In the next sessions, bonds were building between them. After each session, they would all run out and play together in the school playground. We created a WhatsApp group chat with the choir members, teachers, and parents, and they started exchanging messages about songs and ideas. It was such a wow moment.

Did the impact of the choir extend beyond the members themselves?

Nasr: A key component of the project was not just to focus on the children but to think about what happens when the child leaves the training and goes home.

To help create a healthy environment at home free of the divisive attitudes toward “the other,” we set up a psychosocial/mindfulness wellbeing component for adult caregivers. While the kids attended choir practice, their mothers, elder sisters, and aunts took part in sessions on mediation, storytelling, and healthy eating, among other areas. They did this together—Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian women side by side.

This made a world of difference. The mothers would go home and share what they learned with the kids who in turn would share their songs and experiences.

Outside of the families, we held a series of concerts around the country where audiences could see this diverse group of kids singing together, laughing together and bridging divides.

Mothers, aunts and elder sisters of choir members take part in mindfulness and well-being sessions while choir practice is underway.

What is the one thing you want every choir member to walk away with?

Nasr: We need to continue to cultivate this shared sense of humanity and identity and bridge our divides.

We want these kids to walk out of this project knowing that they can resort to music and singing techniques when they are down and beaten or stressed. They can always rely on their cultural memories and shared heritage for inner strength and self-confidence. This fact was forgotten among the many problems and wars in our country. We almost forgot what made us feel peaceful, but they can apply this after the project ends in their daily lives as they grow.

What’s next for the choir?

Nasr: In phase two, for which we are currently seeking funding, we plan to extend the choir up to age 20 so we incorporate older youth.

What is really exciting about our proposed next phase is that we plan to include a training of trainers element so youth learn how to create and lead choirs in their own communities. We aim to have several self-sustaining community choirs creating spaces for collaboration, dialogue and music all over the country.

We also plan to bring the lessons of mindfulness and wellbeing to choir members as well as the adults in their households. Wellbeing and psychosocial support will be an essential component of our next phase.

Could this model work in other places?

Nasr: It absolutely could work in other places and not just in places with turmoil and protest. Music brings back a spark in societies. It really does connect us on another level!

“The Children’s Choir: Life Skills Development through Music & Arts” was funded by the Drosos Foundation. PartnersLebanon is currently seeking funding to expand the choir to other areas in Lebanon and broaden its psychosocial outreach. For more information, please contact May Nasr at [email protected].

  March 17, 2020

Years of civil war and a lack of government services from education to clean drinking water have left ordinary Yemeni citizens deeply frustrated and disillusioned with their national leaders. Citizens of Tuban, a small town in Lahj governorate in southern Yemen, for example, have been dealing with and trying to address a dysfunctional sewage system for nearly a decade.

To respond to these frustrations and put the power to resolve local grievances in the hands of citizens, the Enhancing the Role of Citizens and Religious Leaders in Yemen’s Political Transition project, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, supports a bottom-up dialogue process that gives citizens a mechanism to express and address their concerns with other community members and local officials, helping to localize the peace process and promote community stabilization.

The project is implemented by the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, PartnersGlobal and Partners Yemen. Over the past three months, it has launched 13 local initiatives across both northern and southern Yemen that address citizen concerns based on the issues they raise in the dialogues.

In Lahj governorate, Partners Yemen and local partner LCSO, Rowad Altanmiah (Development Pioneers in English) are coordinating the rehabilitation of the Al Wahat sewage network in Tuban, a project that the community has been concerned about for more than ten years. Partners Yemen and Rowad Altanmiah engaged community members and local government officials from the beginning of the effort and, as a result, they have been invested in its success, donating more than $8,000 of in-kind contributions to the $18,000 project. After years of frustration and a lack of a working sewage system, citizens and local government were able to fix the problem and restore an essential service to their community.

by Julia Roig   January 8, 2015

As we begin the New Year, my Facebook feed, Linkedin, and email inbox have been full of hopeful predictions for 2015. For example, Carl Gershman from the National Endowment for Democracy gives us reasons to feel optimistic about the triumph of democracy in the world. I’m also sure that many of us received the checklist on how we can contribute to peace from the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. And then we were all shocked by the horrible terrorist attack in Paris. In my community of professionals working in international development, we seem to share a deep sense of optimism that positive change is possible. But in the face of senseless and tragic violence and such horrific strikes against fundamental freedoms, how do we stay motivated and keep going on with our work? As I reflect on my year ahead at Partners, I find myself focusing on what I believe is the essence of our work as change agents: to find and promote more empathy.

For the past several months I keep bringing up empathy in different contexts and conversations, and more and more I am convinced that it is the fundamental catalyst for both interpersonal and societal change. One popular definition by Dr. Bren√© Brown describes empathy as the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings. This idea is what fuels genuine connections that recognize and acknowledge diverse perspectives and emotions and is a fundamental concept underlying so much of Partners’ work in peace-building and democracy building:

    • Conflict Resolution requires empathy. All mediators and facilitators know that you must negotiate based on interests and not on positions. We are called upon as neutrals to help parties in conflict understand each other to satisfy each other’s needs and reach an agreement that works for everyone.
    • Advocacy requires empathy. As an advocate for a cause, if you have a blind spot and don’t understand those who disagree with you, how will you ever address their concerns sufficiently to minimize dissent and move forward with your agenda? When training in cooperative advocacy, Partners often leads activists through an exercise of putting themselves in the shoes of the “other side” to make their arguments for them and identify the facts that support those arguments.
    • Leadership requires empathy. Effective leaders in open, transparent, and democratic institutions practice empathy. They build broad teams by understanding different talents and identifying everyone needed to get a job done. But more than that, empathetic leaders do a lot of listening and seek ways to be the most helpful to those they manage to be successful.
    • Authentic partnerships require empathy. As an international NGO, we work in partnership with our local affiliates in all our programming. We obviously come from different perspectives, but to work together effectively we have to understand each other’s realities. Some of us are sitting at desks in DC, and some are working in the field in Aden, Yemen. Empathy allows our partnerships to be flexible and respectful.

If empathy is a distinctly human capability, why is it so difficult in practice? Power, ego, insecurities, and trauma all get in the way of experiencing empathy. This inability to practice empathy affects us personally, professionally, and as a nation, and we get stuck in conflictive, vicious cycles as human beings. In the U.S., how do we find empathy for Russians? For Iranians? For Central Americans? And how should that empathy inform our public policies?

Empathy through Creativity. So, one of the most important tasks in front of us in 2015 is to work to build more empathy in ourselves and in the world. And I am particularly inspired by the power of developing empathy through creativity. One of the most popular Ted Talks (ever) is by Sir Ken Robinson discussing how our educational system is beating creativity out of us and teaching kids how to be “right” and “wrong.” We learn to develop an internal voice that makes us judgmental of others and ourselves. He cites studies of musicians, dancers, and other artists that show that the parts of our brains that are triggered when we are creative are also actively suppressing judgment and self-criticism. We hold ourselves open to all possibilities when we are in a creative flow, and are more open to empathy.

Participants in Partners' Iraq Youth Program

Participants in Partners’ Iraq Youth Program

This rings true to me, as we know as peace-builders that using the arts is an important tool for building understanding, tolerance, and reconciliation. For example, in Iraq, Partners has a program working with youth in high-conflict areas that not only incorporates the arts and sports to establish relationships, teamwork, and leadership skills, but also lessons of empathy for those of different religious and ethnic affiliations.

Building Bridges for more Creativity. One of the ways for us to use more creativity in our work in the international development field is to seek out new partnerships with artists whose profession is to entertain and inspire through powerful narratives that touch us emotionally. The Alliance for Peacebuilding is spearheading just such an exciting initiative together with the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. The Media and Peacebuilding Roundtable held its first gathering in Los Angeles last fall with representatives from the movie industry, gamers, world-builders, and other creative leaders to discuss potential for collaboration with peace-builders. What struck me the most after spending the day with these artists was how differently they think about the world and their work, and how their mediums don’t restrict them to pre-existing paradigms. They can literally create new worlds and construct new stories; the only limitation is their imaginations and their inspiration to touch an audience in meaningful ways. Reflecting with some of my colleagues from DC afterwards, one of our common refrains was “my mind is blown.” I guess that is what happens when you see the possibilities of making the world you want, while viewing different mediums to share that hopeful, better world with others.

One of the fruits of these new relationships was that Partners was able to participate at the end of last year in a creative new Peace Portals initiative sponsored by Shared Studios in Manhattan. One of our staff members entered into a shipping container that was outfitted as a studio and was able to see and hear the full body image of an Iranian citizen that walked into a similar shipping container on the streets of Tehran. They had an informal conversation for 20 minutes about life, his love of motorcycles, their jobs, and the weather, (a powerful experience straight out of Star Trek). Hundreds of ordinary people participated in the Portals and one by one they are building empathy for the citizens living in a country far away from their own reality.

Using these kinds of amazing technologies, and sharing each other’s stories in new creative ways will help us be successful in working for more peaceful democratic change in 2015. There is a lot of solidarity right now throughout the world for writers and cartoonists in particular. For the New Year, I wish for all Partners’ colleagues and friends to find a creative flow that allows you to find and promote more empathy.

by Elvira Felix   May 3, 2015

Last weekend in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, a devastating explosion by Arab coalition fighter jets killed 69 people and wounded 250, according to recent reports by Aljazeera. The United Nations estimates that more than 150,000 people have been displaced and over 750 have lost their lives. About 25 million Yemeni citizens have endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of a naval, air and land blockade. And to add more to the chaos, both ISIS and Al Qaeda have taken advantage of the growing instability in order to claim unprecedented territory.

For our Partners Yemen colleagues it wasn’t too long ago when youth from our “Strengthening the Role of Youth in Cross-Tribal Conflict Mitigation Program were actively contributing as mediators in their communities. Amir, a youth participant in the program caught the attention of the trainers as one of the least active members of the group. A troubled youth, Amir was distant and hesitant about the program. But taking into account his past, this distance was justified.

Amir joins thousands of youth in unemployment in Yemen and the Middle East. Educated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, he and others like him sit idly with nowhere to turn for employment and a future. Nowhere, but Al-Qaeda.

“Three of my high school classmates joined Al-Qaeda and are now dead

They were desperately hopeless about their future,” Amir said.

Fortunately, Partners for Democratic Change (Partners) and Partners Yemen were there to offer him and other youth with another choice and most importantly hope, hope for their future and for the future of Yemen. With the support of the Berghof Foundation, the program was able to mediate youth peer-to-peer conflicts; train young people to resolve and prevent conflict; and ultimately prepare youth to advocate for their social causes to influence district councils and tribal leadership.

As a young Peace Ambassador, Amir and his young colleagues developed critical leadership skills and were encouraged to fully realize the impact of conflict in their communities. These young Peace Ambassadors shared the outcomes of their local facilitated discussions with neighboring districts and gathered additional perspectives, which they subsequently shared with their local leaders.

Amir was a shining example of the impact youth can have in their communities. Over time he began joining the discussions and voluntarily taking leadership roles in the youth council. He has resolved conflicts in his neighborhood, built great connections with social figures and utilized his skills for the youth council’s benefit by arranging a meeting with the Mosque Imam and neighborhood leaders.

Youth Council in VestsYet, one of the most notable displays of courage and leadership was when in late September of 2014, his community witnessed a major sit-in demonstration where demonstrators demanded secession in the Khormakser district of Aden. Tens of thousands of large tents were set up, representing youth from various regions of Southern Yemen. Amir, now the president of the youth council, along with 18 additional youth from his neighborhood decided to create a technical supervisory committee to monitor the square and resolve conflicts amongst youth, protestors and residents. As a committee, volunteers made sure that the tents were neatly built on the sidewalk and didn’t block the road. The youth council even purchased traffic safety vests to stand out from the crowd using their own money.

But soon after, protesters tried to seize the local Army Base, which led to clashes between the army and protestors. As a result, two people were killed and dozens injured. Following the clashes, Amir and the youth volunteers created a human barrier by linking arm-in-arm in front of the military base, post office and other government faculties to protect protesters from clashing with security forces. Many protesters called Amir and his fellow volunteers “traitors” for preventing the demonstration from escalating to violence and gaining momentum. But Amir and his fellow volunteers just did not see the point of violence. “I want to protect as many lives as possible,” Amir repeatedly said.

As Amir admirably displayed his leadership, young women also arose to the call of action to serve their communities, as empowering young women was also a big component of the initiative. Nisma, one of the young women from the youth council has continued to display her commitment to her community by volunteering at the local hospital as a nurse. Her accounts of the day-by-day horrors and the severity of the humanitarian crisis, depict a chilling account of the world in which these young people currently live. “The situation is insane,” she accounts.

Both Partners and Partners Yemen are proud to see the continued commitment of these young people to their communities, especially as they attempt to give a voice about the dire conditions during this difficult time. Even during this crisis in Yemen, young people need to be engaged and shown how they can act as catalysts for positive change. To be these catalysts, young Yemenis must continue to be supported in playing a role in shaping Yemen. Now more than ever, they need us to help them develop the decision-making capabilities to become strong, proactive leaders. It is clear that Yemeni youth have been increasingly alienated and disenfranchised as violence engulfs their daily lives and there are few outlets for their vaulting energy and pent-up frustrations.

Young Yemenis have great potential to lead the future of their country and cannot be forgotten by their international colleagues when times get really hard. When the dust settles and the cries are hushed, and when the tremor of bombs are muted, then we will see again the rebuilding of Yemen by these great young leaders. When that time comes, both Partners and Partners Yemen will be ready to help them lead again.