Activist, entrepreneur and certified professional mediator, Lea Baroudi, was raised in what she refers to as a “very non-sectarian household.” In Lebanon, a country still recovering from the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, and ruled by a political system based on sectarian representation, this is not only rare, it may be precisely what gave Lea the foundation to start the NGO, March Lebanon in 2012. Facilitating peace-building and conflict resolution through art, design, and most recently construction and furniture making, March Lebanon’s deep relationships with local communities give the organization a first-hand look at the layers of extremism.
“I think the Civil War has contributed to increasingly segregating people across regions,” says Lea. “During the war and afterwards, people started clustering in confessional areas more than before. When you cluster yourself to protect yourself you think the other who is further from you is different and out to get you because you don’t know him.”
Reintegration, Rehabilitation & Rebuilding
Over the years, neighborhoods in different parts of Lebanon have frequently fought their own civil wars. In the early days of March Lebanon, Lea led a theater production designed to reconcile two Lebanese militia groups that had been fighting in Tripoli, a Lebanese city south of the Syrian border.
“After working with them on a comedy play inspired by their own lives I realized that the root cause of extremism, violence, and sectarian conflict in Lebanon is not really ideologically based,” says Lea. “It’s really extreme negligence, poverty, marginalization, and the lack of hope for a better future that makes young people extremely vulnerable and easily manipulated. So I thought to myself, ‘You know what, why don’t I start by trying to provide an alternative to all of that?’”
From there, she and her team at March Lebanon opened cultural cafes in Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut, and Tripoli, providing spaces for youth from opposite sides to unite. They began a reintegration and rehabilitation program bringing together former fighters and prisoners of sectarian wars, and teaching them construction skills, language and math. As Lea says, many of these young men and women didn’t have access to a proper education when they were growing up.