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What future for Civil Society in Lebanon? Interview with Mehdi Yehya, the Founder of 'Peace of Art'

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

This month, the Editor of ‘The Middle East Research Hub’ Hajar Zaki met Mehdi Yehya, the Founder of the organisation ‘Peace of Art’ which organises creative art and music activities for young people from across the North Bekaa region in Lebanon. Mehdi tells us about the importance of art and music when creating opportunities for social interactions. He comments on the challenges that local civil society organisations have been facing to secure funding over the last two years and the need to constantly re-

adjust to new priorities on the ground.

What motivated you to establish the platform for young people in North Bekaa?

It is the region I come from and the biggest governorate in Lebanon, but we didn’t have any art academy or local NGO working in the field of art. When I was a kid, I couldn’t learn music. I couldn’t go to a public space where art was taught and appreciated, so I created this place for the youth and children of our region. It’s more about using art as a tool to bring people together and promote peace, especially in a region where there is a high rate of violence, and we have suffered from long periods of civil war. The Syrian crisis has also affected us and there was bombing in our region. The idea was to bring art to this part of the country for the first time and use art to promote peace in general and acceptance between people.

Has the project created more opportunity for social interaction?

We brought together Lebanese participants with Syrian and Palestinian refugees through art and music; organising theatre productions, short films and photography workshops. [Young participants] started to believe that they could create something together, and realised that they would not have been able to produce [collaborative art] without the contribution of others. That’s what we are doing: focusing on team work to show that we need each other to produce art and that these skills can be applied in real life. Our civil training programme is focusing on leadership skills, peace-building, conflict-resolution and mediation. Participants can build relationships through the scope of the art programme and the civil programme.

Have you seen parents or families encouraging their children to join the activities of the organisation?

Yes, a lot of parents. At first, they were a little bit shy because in general art wasn’t seen as something positive in our region. This is partly due to cultural ideas. Most people encourage their kids to do majors other than art, because they think they could not make a living out of it. Participation was shy at the beginning. But later, people saw a lot of changes in their kids’ behaviour, especially because those kids didn’t have any other option other than going to the street where they are exposed to drugs, weapons, a lot of violence and crime. There is also a lot of discrimination and different forms of extremism; so it was really creating a new environment in this region. Parents saw that this would make a difference for their kids. Most of them were afraid to lose their children to organised crime in this region. As I mentioned, we live in an area that is referred to as a red zone and most of the embassies consider that there is a high risk for people visiting this region. So, I think parents were increasingly happy and excited to participate in our programmes. Not at the beginning, but later after acknowledging our success.

Would you be able to give me an example of one or two of your success stories?

We have experienced success stories on different levels. One of them is about a participant from a religious family, who visited our centre and met a Syrian refugee. At the beginning he said it was his first meeting with a Syrian refugee because his family would not accept to interact with Syrians out of fear or prejudice. After a long training project involving art and music, the two young men became best friends and were visiting each other at home, which eventually changed his family’s perspective. […] Another success story is also about one of our participants who learnt photography and video-making. He started to earn money by organising his own photo sessions, which generated hopes for improved livelihood in the region. Other people in theatre production and different forms of art have materialised their own ideas. We give seed-funding to active and talented people. We also now have a big project called “Art against violence”, which allows talented art students from the region to launch their own creative ideas, workshops, theatre companies or musical bands.

Do you think the platform has given young people hope for the future in light of the recent crisis?

We are trying very hard to give more hope and support to youth, especially after this blast in Beirut. We have modified some of our projects to work psychosocially through art. We have also now started a project through UNESCO, for youth and children affected by the Beirut blast because we know that the Lebanese people are suffering in general. Youth, children, women, old people, everyone has suffered from the economic crisis, the 2019 wildfires in our forests, the explosion in Beirut, corruption and much more…. So we have now developed new programmes and updated [our approach] to respond to the current situation. I hope we can react quickly and in the best possible way. We started to run a fundraising campaign to create an emergency relief team, for youth to volunteer in case of a disaster. This wasn’t in the [initial] strategy of ‘Peace of Art’, but it is much needed, because we don’t have a really powerful government that has good institutions [in place], especially in the field of relief. We try to adjust our goals and ideas.

Have you been able to spread awareness throughout Lebanon about your organisation?

We have implemented many projects outside North Bekaa, West Bekaa, Central Bekaa Beirut, and South Lebanon. In general, we try all the time to move outside our region and to try to make this experience from a local experience in North Bekaa to a national experience and vision. We try to collaborate with a lot of organisations all over Lebanon.

Would you say there is an opportunity to create more organisations like ‘Peace of Art’ in other areas of Lebanon or in other countries with a history of conflict?

Yes. I think the idea of ‘Peace of Art’ must be spread all over Lebanon. I think this is one of the goals that we need to achieve eventually. But for now, the main challenge is funding as we would need to develop new centres in different places across Lebanon. Unfortunately, the Lebanese pound is decreasing very quickly comparing to dollars every day. This has made our dreams harder to achieve. Now it’s more about sustaining what we have and what we did in the past four years.

Have you been able to continue running activities for these young people through the pandemic?

We tried to make art classes online, we filmed some art classes for students. We did it in a professional way and we tried to bring some volunteers and some instructors to continue teaching our students. Later, we also tried to host awareness sessions about Covid and communicate online with our beneficiaries.

How did the post-Covid economic crisis affect civil society in Lebanon?

Covid has affected the government, civil society and local institutions. Our own organisation has also suffered from it. […] We had to modify our activities in the first stage of the pandemic. We started to host sessions with different health organisations to raise awareness about the issue. The main challenge was that we [still] had to cover expenses on a monthly basis to ensure sustainability for the organisation. Our government does not have the budget to support local civil society organisations (CSOs) or private businesses that have been affected by the pandemic. We were already suffering from the poor economic situation and the bank crisis. Covid has only made things worse.

How do you secure funding during these difficult times?

We try our best to get funding, and we see that most of the funding opportunities do not focus on art. This is something that is somehow putting our project at risk because most of the donors don’t see art as a priority to fund, especially in the countries that are suffering from other socioeconomic issues. They prefer to fund health-related projects or food kits for people who are starving as a result of the economic crisis in Lebanon. We struggle to get funding, especially in this context. We tried to promote psychosocial support through art. This was partly funded, but most of it was done on a volunteering basis within our team to ensure sustainability despite the crisis.

What can we do to help people during these times, from outside Lebanon?

We tried to develop different programmes. One of those projects is [the consolidation of] an emergency team of volunteers who is working with ‘Peace of Art’ to provide assistance in case of disasters. Another programme offers psychosocial support for children and young people affected by the Beirut blast, the pandemic or the economic crisis. Simultaneously, we need to continue our projects in trying to help and support talented people and to be messengers of peace especially in a region where there is a long history of discrimination. I think we need different kinds of support, some of them are more about funding, some of them are more about access to musical instruments, even some hygiene kits [are needed], especially with the pandemic. As an organisation, funding our project is something that makes a big difference.

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