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Journey of a Refugee Actor
When the Syrian conflict broke out, Mahmoud’s life was turned upside down. He was once again a refugee. At four, he had fled Palestine and started a new life with his family in Syria. Now, he was forced to enter yet another entirely different world, a refugee camp in Lebanon. He quickly realized that in this new society, respect was the most valuable currency. To earn it, he had to be feared.
A chance encounter with Search set him on a different course. Mahmoud was introduced to our Better Together program, which addressed tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities through art camps for youth. Though Mahmoud was reluctant at first, he soon found a love for acting. Through theater, he learned how art can be used as a medium for positive communication and defusing stereotypes. “For the first time in my life, I felt safe to discuss my ideas and views of the world,” he explained.
After six months of training, Mahmoud and his troupe went on four tours, performing for Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian audiences. The following summer, when Search launched a second Better Together summer camp, Mahmoud volunteered to participate. He attended the whole program, even though every day he had to pass through six army checkpoints — a huge risk for a refugee without papers.
Today, Mahmoud and his family live in Germany. For the third time in his young life, he is a refugee. But now, it is a little less scary. He is equipped with the tools to cope with these changes. Inspired by our program, he has launched his own project to help other refugees integrate into German society.
When Chickens (…?) Bring People Together
For one group of young adults living through a time of great hardship, a better future was made possible by unusual peacebuilders: chickens.
In the Central African Republic, unemployment and lack of political opportunities contribute to pushing many young people toward violence. Joining armed groups gives them an income and a sense of belonging. This dynamic led to the ongoing crisis that affects the country, causing unspeakable loss of life and displacement.
Michelange, Jephie, Junior, Eliane, and Blanche were struggling with the impacts of the crisis. Michelange had fled abroad with his family for 3 years. The girls, Eliane and Blanche, had also fled and come back, only to find their houses looted and burned. Junior lost everything he had invested in. Jephie was orphaned and forced to leave school in 6th grade. The crisis put everything in their lives on pause. Most of them stayed home, unemployed, and scraping by. They felt hopeless and stuck — until they joined our training.
Under the leadership of our local team, they learned conflict transformation, business development, and leadership skills. Together, they took an opportunity to make a change in their community and started a chicken farm. They started the venture, found clients, engaged with local partners, and managed a small grant. The chicken business earned them an income to continue their education, rebuilt their lives, and provided an example to other young people of an alternative solution to their problems.
The farm also brought the community together. Before, Michelange and the others couldn’t see their friends from neighboring, segregated Muslim communities. Now, they are able to circulate freely between districts and build relationships between isolated groups, creating a more tolerant and secure environment for everybody.
Former Nepali Combatant Picks a New Fight… Against Inequality
“I vividly remember the armed conflict. We walked for days on an empty stomach to fight battles. I used flower nectar to feed myself,” recalls Dambara Joshi, 22, a former Maoist combatant who took up arms in the Nepalese Civil War.
Desperation and the constant investigations into her family led her to seek refuge in the armed wing of the Communist Party of Nepal, leading her to years of life as a fighter.
When Dambara believed her fate was sealed, the war ended. However, she had another battle to face: the one against social stigma towards the Maoists. Back in her native village, Dambara and her family were shunned by the rest of the community. The stigma, in addition to endless financial struggles and an injury that left her husband unable to walk, pushed her to the brink of desperation.
Then, she was approached by a facilitator from a local group that fights caste discrimination and encouraged to join a women’s rights training session. The training, led by our local team and UN Women, aimed at creating a space for women’s voices in civil society and eliminating gender inequality.
Not only did Dambara find the training transformative; it also gave her the courage to fight the social stigma she had long experienced. Through our training, she soon discovered she could become an influential leader in her community.
She joined a local environmental group, and despite initial resistance from male co-workers, she earned everybody’s respect.
Using her newfound confidence, Dambara took the lead in designing eco-friendly programs for the village, which were met with praise and support by the entire community. She strengthened her leadership skills and became the focal point of social campaigns to end child marriage and sexual violence.
“The seed of women’s leadership has been planted,” she said. “I will make sure our voices are heard at all levels, and that former combatants like me are treated with respect and dignity.”
In Kenya, a Student’s Software Saves Lives
Mohammed Salim was wary of the security forces in his Kenyan community. He avoided interacting with them as much as he could.
He did not realize, however, that he would soon be working with them through our local office.
Mohammed first became familiar with us while studying at university, thanks to a youth forum for Muslims on human rights. Soon after, he became an integral part of our Kenya team, working as an intern in the Information Technology department.
He quickly got involved in our work on the Lamu Coast. In that region, violent extremist groups have been a growing problem for authorities, as well as the local fishermen. The situation has rapidly deteriorated since 2011, when the authorities imposed a ban on nighttime fishing after a string of abductions in the region. The ban instilled hostility between the fishermen and security forces, since it restricted the fishermen’s ability and freedom to do their jobs.
During his internship, Mohammed created and helped roll out a detailed biometric identification system for the fishermen, with the aim of making the waters safer and easing tensions between them and security forces. The system established an interactive registry that tracks the fishermen by assigning them card numbers with barcodes, using fingerprints as an identification method. It provides an effective way for security forces to keep track of vessels at sea and assure the fishermen’s safety from potential attacks.
By May 2017, the nighttime fishing ban was lifted.
Designing the identification software is Mohammed’s proudest moment at Search. It exposed him to many new challenges and enabled him to see positive change in his country firsthand. Since then, his attitude toward the security forces had completely shifted — he knows they are there to help.
Survivor of the Sri Lanka War Reclaims Her Heritage
To escape the horrors of war, Thanuja shed her identity.
Born to a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother, she directly experienced the suffering caused by the conflict in Sri Lanka. When she was only four, her father moved the family from their native village, a Sinhalese-majority community, to a nearby city, where her mixed heritage would likely go unnoticed. She dropped her paternal Tamil surname and begun to associate with the Sinhalese — until her previous identity became an unspoken memory.
The disconnect between the two sides of her ancestry opened up Thanuja’s eyes. She questioned the idea that the two groups couldn’t mix.
Now, at 31, Thanuja is a mother, married to a Tamil man. She is starting to re-identify as Tamil, but not without concern. “Although the war is over, I sometimes fear for [my husband], about his future as a Tamil in this country,” she confessed.
Recently, the family moved to a town in central Sri Lanka. When she arrived, Thanuja found that the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim children didn’t interact with each other. Many had never even met a peer from another ethnic background.
Frustrated with this situation, she became a participant in our TOUR Project, a large-scale initiative to improve relationships between ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. She submitted an idea for her own independent project and received our support. She used art to bridge the divide between 70 students from various ethnic backgrounds. Together, they painted murals on each other’s places of worship.
Long after the end of Thanuja’s project, those same children and their families have built lasting friendships that span across ethnic boundaries. Neighboring schools, inspired by the event, are hosting similar initiatives.
Today, Thanuja doesn’t have to hide who she is anymore.
A Stranger Helped Emmanuel Get Clean. Now He’s Paying It Forward
After years of drug abuse, Emmanuel knew his addiction was wreaking havoc on his life. But the 22-year-old Burundian couldn’t seem to shake it.
He saw no way out, until one day a young man named Rémégie approached him. Rémégie had participated in our project Impore Iwacu, which provides conflict resolution training and opportunities for dialogue to young people in Burundi.
Through the training, Rémégie resolved to tackle poor living conditions in his community and realized that countering widespread drug abuse was an integral step to take in that process.
Rémégie knew of Emmanuel and knew that he was still struggling to overcome his addiction. He wanted to convince him to quit and join forces with him, so that, together, they could persuade even more people to lay off drugs.
Emmanuel’s road to recovery was an uphill battle, but Rémégie tenaciously stuck with him. He stayed by his side through everything, taking his mind off of drugs when he had withdrawals and helping him through the hardest times.
They soon began mentoring others also struggling with substance abuse. Eventually, the combination of Rémégie’s support, the visibly positive effect that they were having on other youth, and his will and bravery gave Emmanuel the strength to quit altogether.
Rémégie and his friends from Impore Iwacu organized a public event to raise awareness about the consumption of drugs in the community and help more people quit. There, Emmanuel and three other former drug users took the stage and shared their stories of recovery.
The message resonated with the youth gathered there, inspiring the conviction that the time had come to make a change in their lives. Many young people who attended the event embarked on their own journey to defeat addiction. Some of them even joined Emmanuel and Rémégie in their mission to fight drug abuse in Burundi.
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David Hutchins, Natalie Rowthorn, and Blake Kraus contributed to these stories.