I first met Bilal on my second day interning at Peace Labs (third day in Lebanon) when I went with the director (JP) and another intern to meet him at a café in a nearby mall. He was fasting at the time (only a few days after the start of the holy month of Ramadan), and I was only a bit jetlagged, but he was, without a doubt, much more focused and coherent than I was as he passionately and articulately described possible projects and potential partnerships for Peace Labs in Tripoli.
Bilal received a baptism by fire in conflict prevention/mitigation and development in 2007, following the July 2006 war on Lebanon, and he’s been working in the field ever since. He started at the UN where he worked at the office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator Office (UNRCO) which coordinated the work of UN agencies involved in the reconstruction and recovery of the southern suburbs of Beirut, and, following the clashes in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian camp, he then moved to the North Lebanon office of the UNRCO, which is responsible for coordinating activities within an organization that is infamously bad at coordinating. While there, he worked on the reconstruction project for the Nahr el-Bared camp which was destroyed during the fighting between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a militant group in the camp, Fatah al-Islam (not to be confused with Fatah, the political party that governs the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank).
Before 2007, Nahr El-Bared was considered a trading hub in the region given its proximity both to the border with Syria and to the major road in that direction. In 2007, a clash between LAF and Fatah al-Islam members in the city of Tripoli led to reprisals against LAF positions near Nahr el-Bared camp, where militants had entrenched themselves. Clashes continued for several months, with civilian residents fleeing to the nearby Beddawi Palestinian camp (approximately doubling the population of the already strained one square kilometer camp) or other nearby cities or camps. During the course of the clashes, which eventually succeeded in eliminating Fatah al-Islam from the Nahr el-Bared camp, much of that camp was destroyed.
After his work on the Nahr el-Bared Camp (NBC) project, in 2009, Bilal went to the USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), where he started to engage more deeply with youth and local NGOs in northern Lebanon, Tripoli in particular. Although he now lives in Beirut with his wife and young daughter, Bilal was born and raised in Tripoli, and his work there gave him the opportunity to know the city in a different way and become involved in areas that were conflict-prone and/or impoverished. Around this time, Bilal began working with JP and supporting the establishment of the entity later known as Peace Labs, about which Bilal says he is “always proud to say that [he] was one of the first believers in the work that Jean-Paul was doing, and also in the potential that an NGO like Peace Labs can actually have, not only in Lebanon, but in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region in general.” With their combined experiences post-2007, and then with the outbreak of the violent conflict in Tripoli between 2008 and 2014, they later decided to join forces on what they called the Roadmap to Reconciliation in Tripoli (RRT).
The RRT started as an initiative building on the work of many activists in the city (particularly during the period of the clashes) who were trying to stop the fighting. In 2012, on the invitation of the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT), Bilal organized and coordinated a delegation of local activists and civil servants working in Tripoli to attend the FCT conference in Kirkuk, Iraq. Out of this conference came the idea of working together and establishing a more formal linkage. This led to the creation of the Coalition of Campaigns Against Violence in Tripoli, which was active during the period of the clashes, 2013 – 14, and, subsequently, to the creation of the RRT, which involved Peace Labs, Permanent Peace Movement, Fighters for Peace, Youth for Growth and Development, SHIFT, and LRC.
According to JP, one of Bilal’s greatest assets is his ability to connect people and facilitate their interacting. It’s for this reason that JP has coined the title of ‘Peace Broker’ for him. By reaching through his network to link potential collaborators, he helps create a relationship of compatible parties that can start off with a certain degree of trust in the other given that they have received the Bilal ‘stamp of approval.’
Bilal acknowledges that this is a large part of what he does, even if he wouldn’t necessarily have seen it that way before some reflection with JP and others. Because of the trust he’s been able to build in the communities as a result of honestly and tirelessly working without regard to personal interests or sectarian bias, he’s gained a level of credibility which allows him to play that role.
In this sense, the fact that Bilal comes from Tripoli also plays a role. Although those who don’t know him may have reservations about the potential for bias on the part of a local (and for this reason, non-locals such as JP at PL, Asaad Chaftari from Fighters for Peace, Fadi Abi Allam with Permanent Peace Movement, and others, were brought in for the research phase of the RRT), when it comes to the point of mobilization, the people need to work with someone they trust and who they believe is closer to understanding their problems than NGO workers from Beirut.
JP notes that Bilal played a significant role during the RRT as a connector, coordinating both between the different components of the work and among the people; that he was able to translate the different needs, interests, and mindsets of the people involved from varying backgrounds and countries. Particularly, the trust that he has been able to build with each individual helped bring people together, even those who had not, or maybe even would not have, worked together otherwise.
According to Bilal, the most rewarding part of his work is seeing people regain confidence and change the way they express anger, more specifically, watching the transformation in mentality (possible in only a short time) from initial reluctance and despair over the helplessness of their situation to empowered and coming up with their own ideas for possible solutions to their problems. His satisfaction is derived, in other words, from changing people from victims into initiators and action-takers who assume responsibility.
In his work, Bilal doesn’t see getting people together to be a challenge; rather, the greatest obstacles are the time and the resources necessary to be able to dedicate to establishing groups, committees, advocacy campaigns, and the like. He says:
“I don’t see politicians in the city as a challenge; I don’t see security in the city as a challenge. In fact, all these are targets. If anything, they should see us as a challenge, not the other way around. What we’re trying to do is to change mindsets, to change behaviors, to change relationships, status quo now between people, but all this needs time to facilitate. The more time we have and are able to dedicate, the better impact and results we can get.”
This doesn’t detract from the difficulty of the work, however. Many people in the area, regardless of age, feel a great deal of apathy and anger. Even children already have no trust in institutions, are dropping out of school, and don’t see any way that they can change their lives for the better. For any group, “the tools are different, but the approach is the same. It’s the shift in the mindset between being helpless and not being able to do anything, and getting a grip of your life and doing what you need to be doing in order to change it.” The challenge for this transformation/shift comes from how traumatized, or how deeply entrenched in the conflict and/or issues a person has become, although it’s not impossible, and Bilal meets examples of that on a daily basis.
Often, particularly in areas where there has been violent conflict, a common approach is to try to incentivize peacemaking through various kinds of incentives. Some will implement socio-economic projects, but with an ultimate goal of peacemaking and social cohesion, buried within socially-, culturally-, or economically-focused programming.
Bilal, on the other hand, argues that “the more direct you are, in some cases, the more trust people have in you.” He says that the people know funding will not come just to support them, and he therefore declares his peacebuilding, social cohesion, and/or reconciliation agenda outright, while at the same time recognizing that this may not be the first priority of the people given their primary needs for food, shelter, jobs, etc. He tells them that he will help them meet their other needs if they do it in a way that feeds into peace and development, and in his experience, he has found this method to be very effective.
What he sees lacking in Tripoli is long-term planning. According to Bilal, a lot of the people working in Tripoli work on the level of carrying out activities, implementing short-term projects. Longer projects, however, come with their own set of challenges. People tend to be skeptical about support and start to question the continued availability of resources. At the same time, according to Bilal, to get conflicting communities to come together and find a common cause to work on, “you don’t need money. You just need credibility with both sides.” Nevertheless, social change is not unidirectional, it must be bottom-up, as well as top-down. However, Bilal also notes that grassroots mobilization can be as hard as policy mobilization because of the lack of trust, especially towards policy-makers. In addition, therefore, he says, “you need ministries to step in and do their work” and take responsibility.
In the future, Bilal would like to continue working in Tripoli, including longer-term interventions, building the foundations for reconciliation. He maintains strong ties to Peace Labs, calling them “very close partners” in the RRT and the work that they’re doing in terms of understanding the real root causes of conflict in the city and trying to think of sustainable ways to get out of it.
From the perspective of Peace Labs, JP would like to continue working with Bilal because Peace Labs can benefit a lot by having an interlocutor, savvy both in the technical as well as the program/project management related aspects of the work. Peace Labs also benefits from the network and knowledge that he brings on board.
Bilal now works in freelance consulting, which means that as he does research, he often meets people, conducts interviews, etc., and when he meets someone who’s interested in doing some sort of intervention or work, he thinks about how to connect that person to a person or organization in the city to do something. In his own words, “going forward, I’m trying to build more on this role [of peace broker], in terms of connecting people who can actually come together for a meeting, and then good things happen.”
According to JP, Bilal is someone who’s “very active, friendly, and smart at the same time.” He’s very generous (something I’ve experienced as well) with his time and attention, and he’s fun to work with. He further contributes in his capacity for critical thinking and in his communication skills, being able to translate from the academic to the grassroots level, as well as being a good presenter, able to speak the language of donors and INGOS. JP also notes that working with Bilal has made him realize and appreciate the importance and need for people with the capacity and skills to network and connect people, what he calls ‘peace brokering.’ Bilal is also able to inspire others around him and lead with a ‘soft style,’ but being so well informed, people easily agree with him because he makes fair and solid arguments in favor of his ideas.
With his multiple talents, extensive personal and professional network, as well as his dedication to peace and development, Bilal’s professional journey is sure to take off. Whether he decides to go into politics, work for a larger organization, start his own consultancy, or continue as an independent consultant, he will surely continue to bring an important contribution to spreading the message of peaceful conflict transformation, and inspire others at the grassroots, academic, and policy level.
For More about Bilal, or to connect with him directly, visit his LinkedIn profile:
Posted By Alberto Gimenez (Lebanon)
Posted Jul 18th, 2017