Three women, two from Lebanon and one from Syria; one a Shi'a Moslem, one a Christian and one a Sunni Moslem, have built a friendship that models a foundation for peace. They have found ways to work together, share in trainings and give support across the border of their two countries throughout the Syrian war. They spoke together at the 'Living Peace' conference in Caux, Switzerland, in August 2016. Marie Chaftari from Lebanon, started the story:
'From1975 until 1985, 'the other' for me was the Muslim, and this was the case until military and political changes made 'the other' for me any person that had a different opinion, in politics, and even in everyday life. All of a sudden my parents, my neighbours and even half of the Christians became 'the other' to me. I was lucky to be forced to leave my house and my region, to experience displacement, fear, bomb attacks, mistrust with accusation of being traitor, and solitude. I found myself living with 'the other'. It is only now, after all these years, that I can say I was lucky; but of course then, I felt deceived by all the things just mentioned. That new situation made me redefine the enemy and my way of seeing things.
'Meeting Moral Rearmament (now Initiatives of Change) in 1988, in the town where I resettled, made me look again at my opinions and deepen my faith, and in this place my personal change started through the encounter with some human beings in the true meaning of the word, especially after my stay in Caux that year with my son who was then 3 years old.
'Later I met Lina in a summer camp of MRA in Lebanon. In the beginning, we tried to do something together, but our visions of what we could do were not very clear. It was not until 2005, after the assassination of the head of government Rafic Hariri and the division of the country into 2 clear sides (those for or those against the Syrians) that a Creators of Peace international coordinator, Australian Jean Brown, came to see us in Lebanon. She asked me to make an appointment with Mrs Rabab El Sadr, eminent Muslim personality, known for her openness and her tolerance (Madam El Sadr is the aunt and mother-in-law of Lina). Hesitating between refusal on a personal level, feeling embarrassed that Jean didn’t ask me to take her to meet a Christian woman on the one hand, and on the other hand by wanting to do as she asked in the spirit of MRA, I decided to call Lina to ask for the required appointment. I was surprised by the speed of the positive response, although Madam Rabab was only just back from a trip outside of Lebanon. Lina was also present and it was during this appointment that the movement Linaltaki (a movement that brings children from the various denominations and communities together) was born. Although I was of a different political view than Lina, I saw the same fear for the fate of our country in her eyes.
'The second thing that struck me was the ridiculous feeling that I had had to wait for a foreign person to come to Lebanon to help me to meet a treasure that existed in my Lebanon just a few kilometres from my home, which I had not done before only because of our political and religious differences. I also remember what Jean told me on the occasion of Mothers' Day, 'If one single mother can change the world, what is possible when 2 mothers try?' I was very receptive to that idea and I decided to meet Lina again, but this time as mothers, responsible for what we could do and leave behind for our children after us.
'We thought that friendship and love would help us know each other in a better way and above all if you love someone you stop believing everything troublemakers tell you about them. And when we love each other as mothers, our children will end by loving each other and not make war again. I would even say that the truth about the other would be much more precise and true if we got it from that person and not a third party. This is how a series of meetings started between my (Christian) friends with a group of ladies from Lina’s (Muslim) family. We spoke about the veil and the nikab, about marriage and divorce, even about Christ and religious beliefs and about everything that one had heard about each other.
'I often ask myself what would have happened if my partner in this work had not been Lina and would not have had such good qualities and this deep inner richness, and what I would have continued doing and thinking. I have to admit that through her personality Lina helped me to discover the beauty in 'the other' and strengthened my idea that one should always give 'the other' a chance by loving and including them.
'With the bubbling up of global terrorism and the explosion of the Syrian war, as well the great number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many difficulties and huge challenges are facing us. Fanaticism is increasing and so is fear. All we have to save us from the wars around us, from fanaticism as well the risks of a civil war that is brewing, are the friendships that we build. When I am tired at times, and I feel weary about everything, especially the situation in the Middle East, and I tell myself that I have spent my life in wars and that we are retreating instead of moving ahead, I remind myself that every encounter of CoP strengthens the power and hope in me to continue to work in our corner of the world.
'About Iman, my Syrian friend, I met her after all these experiences that I had been through. Because I had been a refugee and displaced myself, I better understood her situation and the feelings of the displaced and refugees. It is because good people surrounded me during the war, for whom I am grateful, that I tried to do the same for Iman, and we have tried with ‘Linaltaki’ to help her and help the new team that she has created in Syria.'
Lina Hamade, co-founder of 'Linaltaki' and a university lecturer took up the story:
'I live in a country full of contradictions - religious, cultural, and social where most believe that they hold the whole righteousness. It has been bleeding for the past 40 years due to all kinds of wars and conflicts, leaving its citizens tormented and agonized.
'Marie and I were unlike others - those who believed that God wanted us to fight. Each, in her own way, believed that change would never come if we were like them – doing the same thing over and again and expecting different results. Our differences were never an issue, On the contrary, we cherished them, as if they were an incentive for introspection, a motive to reach out and learn more about the other, an aspiration for discovering what is missing in each of us and how can we complement each other.
'Trusting each other, we were united in pain, not necessarily the exact same pain, it may not be in the same spot or with the same intensity; but don't those who suffer pain feel with others the most? Aren't those who were done injustice to, seek to lift injustice from others?
'Trusting each other, we were united in fear, fear for the future of our country, fear of polluting the tender hearts of our children with the hatred of the grownups.
'Trusting each other, we were united in our courage to change, to change the prejudices, condescension and prejudgments. Those who lived the war cannot but spread peace. I asked myself: Does Marie share the same belief system? I accept her the way she is, but does she reciprocate that? I really like her, respect her, appreciate her courage, the way she turned despite what he has been through. I see her as a true reflection of what Jesus wanted her to be - a messenger of peace and a labourer for coexistence. She devoted herself tirelessly to model what Christ wanted her to be - a true image of the Creator. What else would I want from a partner in this work?
'Then we met Iman. She was in pain. We did not see her first as a Syrian nor as a Muslim nor as Sunni. We saw her sorrow and anguish. We saw her love for freedom and dedication for peace. Our differences were numerous, for sure - religious, cultural, and social.
'Trusting each other, we were united in God – The Most Merciful, The Most Graceful. 'Though each of us may go in her own way we care less about what each one believes in, and more in how she translates that belief. Whoever said that difference is bad and evil? Whoever said that religion divides? Isn't it power and authority that does that? Couldn't have God made us all into one nation with a single faith? Isn't diversity a choice of God and a Divine message in itself?
'Trusting each other, we were united in the Goal. We never looked at the hurdles on the road. That made it rather easy for the three of us to walk the way together. We walked the talk and talked the walk, where the child in each of us refuses to grow up until we regain our countries. Faith is an invitation to reach out to others? Isn't the best altar that of serving the other - any other? Isn't the best prayer that which calls for reaching out to my brother and sister in humanity?'
Iman, from Damascus, a teacher, then addressed the other two:
'Lina, Marie, thank you for opening your hearts, homes and accepting me as I am. Lina once said. “Why do we have to find the commonality in everyone in order to build bridges with him or her and allow them to enter our world? Why can't we accept our differences'! She said that with deep passion and frustration. She told me many times that she accepted me as I was and always answered my unlimited questions about faith and the differences in one religion. Lina have I told you that you make me feel secure. Thank you for your trust in me and generosity and love.
'Marie once said, "The only way you can defeat hatred and wars is through love." We have two kinds of love in Arabic, 'hub' is conditional love and 'mahabbah' is unconditional love. Marie meant 'mahabbah'. Marie told me this and showed it to me too, through her love, hospitality, and support.
'I went to Lebanon in 2012 to attend a Creators of Peace Circle and facilitation training. I went with various concerns from stories I had heard. I was confused and in a struggle. Would I surrender to the deep voice inside me to be optimistic and leave a space for everyone, without any expectation of being accepted? The other struggle was the voice of fear of being rejected as a Syrian and sometimes as a Muslim. History, media and some minor incidents create a troubling reality. This fear underlies many of our actions. However, things went well. I experienced a great amount of care and sympathy towards me and my country Syria, and I was able to hear stories that helped me to understand the histories of others. Let me tell you, understanding other people's struggle helps melt some layers of fear. Sharing stories, crying together and learning new skills, helped in building a new horizon based on humanity and respect. That event opened doors to build friendship and heal hearts from heavy burdens.
'Lina and Marie helped carrying this burden with me. Many times they invited me to stay some days with them after facing rough times in Damascus when the fight escalated. I was like frozen meat filled with anger, anxiety and uncertainty. I would then return to Damascus with joy, love and hope. Our friendship expanded to include others Love is meant to be shared and inclusive so the blessings can be like a chain. Marie, Lina and I organized a one day event that aimed to gather Syrians and Lebanese together and to allow the Syrians to get out of the box and learn from others who have been through the same dilemma.
'Meeting Marie's husband and hearing him talk about his journey as a fighter in war to now being a non-violent fighter for peace, was very inspiring. It left my Syrian friends speechless. Their experience in Lebanon was shared with their spouses, families and friends back in Syria. Some shared that they were amazed by love and care they were received when they first met with the Lebanese friends, and the warm way I was treated. At the beginning they were suspicious, asking if it was real, but after many visits to Lebanon trust has been built. They now wait for the annual summer meeting to travel to Lebanon to meet our Lebanese friends and also others from different countries. Finally, these Syrian women could go beyond labels such as "I am Muslim", "Suni", "Shi'a", "Christian" or "Druze". They see a human being first.
'I learned from my friendship with Lina and Marie;
'Never be afraid to ask questions about the other's faith, culture and tradition as long as you come to this person as a learner not critic. I have to check my heart.
'When I get exposed to a situation that leaves me fragile, I have to remind myself that not everyone acts in the same hurtful way. It heals the broken heart right away.
'Create a vision and share it with the universe. God / the universe will set you up with someone who has the same vision then you can start your journey together.
'God has put IofC and the Creators of Peace family in my life and has given wonderful people from all over the world to support me. I went through rough moments during this terrible war but having Lina, Marie and friends across the world has been like fresh air in the middle of a 49 degree Damascus summer! Or like a candle in the middle of the darkness.
Iman continues, as she has throughout the war, to draw women and youth together, using dialogue and Creators of Peace Circles in Damascus, to build the relationships of trust across the religious and social divides, for the new Syria that will one day rise from the ashes of the old.