Hints of Hope in the Middle East

Illustration of hands reaching out


In a recent speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations, Pope Francis urged the assembled countries to support those “who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.”

Alumni from the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies are working for this cause around the world, and several have focused their efforts on the Middle East, where conflict has devastated once-flourishing countries, prevented economic development and burdened already poor countries with the costs of providing basic needs such as housing, food and water, health care and education for hundreds of thousands of refugees in addition to their own citizens.

Illustration of heart

Afarin Dadkhah Tehrani, who earned her master’s degree in peace and justice studies at the Kroc School in 2013, was born in Tehran, Iran, and received a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from Islamic Azad University of Tehran. She showed her penchant for peacemaking as a teenager when she joined the Dialogue Among Civilizations movement, which promoted understanding between cultures. 

In the master’s program, Dadkhah’s research and work focused on women’s and youth empowerment as a means of peacebuilding. In the summer of 2013, as an intern with the Middle East Program at Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., she did extensive research on the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa, which informed her masters’ thesis on sexual violence against women in post-revolutionary Egypt.

With language skills that include Farsi and English fluency, an understanding of Dari and some Arabic, Dadkhah is now working as a human rights advocacy coordinator for MADRE, a nonprofit organization based in New York that supports women’s and LGBT rights in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. MADRE, in partnership with local grassroots women’s organizations, provides emergency support such as shelters, relocation assistance and health care. The group also advocates to protect these groups that are often targeted with discriminatory policies and violence.

As Dadkhah explains, conflict can actually present opportunities for social change. “For example, NGO-run shelters are illegal in central and southern Iraq,” she says. “But in light of the mass displacement created by conflict and insufficient government resources, we are encouraging the government to allow NGOs to fill the gap. We are also documenting human rights abuses and violations, so that when transitionaljustice mechanisms start up after the conflict, we will have already built a record of human rights abuses which would then help ensure gender justice and equality.”

In addition to direct services, MADRE brings together civil society organizations twice per year, providing an information flow that goes both from the local activists to the international community and from the international community to the activists. MADRE then collects recommendations from its local partners and creates reports, policy briefs and petitions, which are used to advocate for the implementation of the recommendations before U.N. member states, relevant U.N. bodies and international human rights mechanisms

“These are really important steps, because it can mean that we get support for necessary changes, such as pushing the Iraqi government to give women access to ID cards without requiring a male relative verifying their identity,” says Dadkhah. “Women may not have their own documentation because they were always under the ‘protection’ of their male family members, or may have lost their documents when fleeing violence, so when the men in their families have been killed or disappeared, women can’t access services or put their children in school without identification documents.”

Being from the region, Dadkhah understands the culture and has experienced discrimination firsthand. “That drives my pursuit of justice in a nonviolent manner,” she explains. “If one region is at war, we have to put our hands together to obtain peace and establish justice.”

Illustration of birds in nest

Kevin Turner ’03 (MA) works for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). His initial focus on monitoring, analysis and advocacy around the human rights situation in Palestine and Israel changed dramatically when the Arab Spring arrived. His scope of work expanded to include Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Syria.

“It was a completely chaotic time — how does the OHCHR respond to these situations?” Turner asked. “We’d like to be present onthe ground, but frequently can’t be because the U.N. can only enter a country at the government’s invitation unless it is a Chapter 7 situation” [Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter allows the Security Council to vote on intervening in a conflict without a country’s approval].

Another challenge Turner and his colleagues faced was getting credible information out of Syria. “In the beginning, we were counting casualties to provide statistics to the secretary general and the U.N. Security Council, but it was very difficult to be certain of the number of killed and injured,” Turner said. The solution was presented by a California tech company that was able to use various databases to track reliable figures for people killed, injured or disappeared.

Turner recently relocated to Colombia to run the OHCHR field office in Medellin as the country implements a newly signed peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. Even working in these difficult situations, he says he is attracted to human rights work because it represents some of the most important aspirations of humanity.

“There is a very strong philosophical underpinning that comes out of the ideas of the enlightenment and the empowerment of the individual,” Turner believes. “To take that grounding, put it into laws that are agreed to by governments all over the world, and implement those laws to improve people’s lives is intellectually engaging, but it’s also about harnessing and restricting power for the betterment of humanity as a whole.”

Illustration of butterfly

For Skylar Lawrence ’08 (MA), her connection to the Middle East began when she was in eighth grade and her father served as a Fulbright scholar in Cyprus. She travelled extensively and fell in love with the region. She returned to do her master’s capstone research in the West Bank and then served as project manager for Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, an academic who facilitates track-two dialogues in the Middle East, and coordinated Dr. Ben-Meir’s campaign to promote the Arab Peace Initiative.

After moving into fundraising with the Jewish Community Center in San Diego, Lawrence is now the director of donor development for American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), which works with refugees and poor families, including Palestinian and Syrian refugees and their host communities through health, education and economic development, and provides emergency response assistance.

Lawrence says that one of the most rewarding parts of her work has been the opportunity to visit ANERA’s programs in Lebanon and Palestine to see their impact in person. A touching example is the ANERA’s Gaza Land Restoration Project, which helped farmers in Khan Younis restore fields that had been destroyed by Israeli artillery fire. Tilling the soil, fertilizing and getting proper seeds and irrigation, the farmers deeply appreciated the way that ANERA staff really listened to their needs and acknowledged that the farmers would know best what was needed. To build sustainability, ANERA provides a yearlong mentorship that trains farmers to build their capacity so that the project’s effects continue when ANERA finishes its work.

Lawrence remembers having tea with a farmer in his potato field, speaking through a translator, and seeing the pride that he and his family took in their successful new crop.

“After the first harvest of the restored farmlands, the farmers were so grateful for their bounty that they delivered boxes of extra produce to families who were still displaced after the 2014 war,” recounts Lawrence. “They called their deliveries ‘From Poor Farmer to Poor Family.’ I was deeply moved by their incredibly beautiful gesture of generosity and solidarity.”

As Pope Francis said during his U.N. talk, “In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die.” Kroc School alumni see in their work every day that there are also men, women and children who make great sacrifices to find a way out of conflict, to preserve their families, and to build new lives from the ashes of war.

“Our long-term goal is a society where everyone feels they are valued equally, lives and choices are respected, and people have equal access to resources to live their lives with the freedom to pursue their aspirations,” says Dadkhah. “That’s the ultimate goal.”  — Diana Kutlow ’03 (MA)

The author is the director of development and alumni relations at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *