Promoting tolerance and understanding amongst youth in Lebanon

Fiona Dwinger

When the pandemic hit in Lebanon, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change adapted its Wahda programme curriculum to the digital environment. This USAID-funded intervention built on existing learning from a decade of delivering Generation Global, the Institute’s flagship global citizenship programme. While the programme sought to increase tolerance and understanding amongst young men and women (aged 13 - 24) across ethnic and religious divides in Lebanon, it was young women that demonstrated greater participation, engagement, and therefore benefit within the programme.

Adapting to digital activities whilst ensuring inclusion

Covid-19 exacerbated the complex political and social context in Lebanon. The deteriorating economic situation meant that girls were at increased risk of dropping out of school and early marriage. Operating from Saida, which is home to some of the most marginalised Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese communities in the country, the programme team adapted resources and delivery mechanisms for remote delivery since in-person delivery was extremely challenging. This was done to ensure young women and men could safely and confidently continue to engage in activities.

We invited the young women and men engaged in Wahda to decide for themselves the most appropriate and inclusive way for us to connect and deliver the programme remotely, given the context. A clear preference for WhatsApp and Zoom was expressed, both by Wahda’s youth facilitators and participants. Discussions with parents also indicated that had the activities not been adapted for online delivery, they might not have allowed their children to continue participating as they would not have felt comfortable sending their girls to activities at local centres. Wahda’s youth facilitators felt that they managed to offer participants safe spaces to learn, discuss and build trust with each other online. Participants felt comfortable discussing sensitive personal stories, such as early marriage or the challenges they faced in continuing their education. One young girl shared how her parents were planning to take her out of school because they could not afford the fees. Her fellow group members offered supportive messages via one of these WhatsApp groups, encouraged her to talk to her parents and even connected with her outside of the dialogue skill sessions. Participants from different backgrounds empathized with the girl’s situation, even though they perceived this issue to be a problem specifically affecting Syrian refugees.

Using dialogue skills to engage with decision-makers

A total of 209 young women and girls from different ethnic and religious backgrounds took part in Wahda over the course of two years. They learnt skills of dialogue such as critical thinking, questioning and reflection, which built their confidence to engage with peers across sectarian divides and advocate for change on concerns that faced them in their communities. During a community-based participatory rapid assessment, beneficiaries engaged more than 200 stakeholders, the results of which were then used to inform the design of youth-led advocacy initiatives.

By the end of the programme, three local municipalities in Southern Lebanon committed themselves to involving young women and men in local decision-making, thereby creating a space for young people to have their voices heard. One young Syrian woman shared how because of Wahda, she managed to get the courage to proceed with a meeting with the Mayor of Dalhoun without any problems. Prior to the programme, she explained that she would have been afraid of being judged by others because of her wearing a Niqab. She said that the programme helped her strengthen her beliefs and readied her to accept others as they are, similarly to how she wanted others to accept her.

An independent end-line evaluation conducted by Aleph Strategies found that the shift to WhatsApp facilitated the inclusion of girls in the programme. The evaluation also revealed that there were reduced perceptions of bias among participating youth toward other religious or ethnic minorities and increased tolerant and open-minded attitudes towards those who are different.

The adapted curriculum mentioned in this piece has been published in the Youth Dialogue Handbook, which is available for free in English and Arabic. To find out more and access the youth dialogue resources used in our programme, please visit the page dedicated to the Wahda project.

Young people participating in a participatory rapid assessment session
Young people participating in a participatory rapid assessment session

“I did not use to accept others; especially those with a different opinion. After Wahda I have developed more trust towards others. If we are different, it does not mean that we cannot be friends.”

Syrian Sunni Female Participant

This article originally appeared on the YouthPower blog on 28 April 2022.