Building peace through 'art for everyone'
In a remote and volatile corner of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, close to the Syrian border, one NGO is working to break down barriers and heal community divisions through music and arts.
“Peacebuilding starts with a smile!” says Mehdi Yehya, Founder and Director of Peace of Art (PoA), with a grin as he welcomes us to the organisation’s immaculate premises in the small town of El Ain.
Some 125 kms from Beirut, El Ain in northern Bekaa is rural and poor. While picturesque and pastoral, the region is one of the most deprived areas in the country. It is also at a symbolic crossroads reflecting the delicate confessional balance of the country between Fakiha village with a Muslim Sunni majority, Ras Baalbak with a Christian majority and Labwe with a Muslim Shia majority.
“The mission of Peace of Art is to spread peace,” says Yehya. “Our slogan is ‘Art for Everyone’ and we try to keep that as our guiding principle in everything we do.”
The pristine Peace of Art academy is a haven of tranquillity from the unkempt, stifling surroundings outside. Proximity to the Syrian border has brought an additional strain to the region’s already-fragile infrastructure and social makeup.
All around thousands of plastic tents dot the landscape, housing refugees in makeshift camps. In total, the tiny country of Lebanon is home to over a million Syrian refugees, with most settling in the poorest parts of the country. Estimates put the number of registered Syrian refugees in the Bekaa at about 370,000 people.
It is this region however, that humanitarian activist and fine arts teacher Mehdi Yehya calls home and to where he decided to return after time studying and working abroad in France, interspersed with some years in Beirut.
A man of many talents, Yehya could have chosen another path. A qualified fine arts teacher, with degrees in graphic design and advertising, he has also worked with various civil society organisations on environmental and humanitarian campaigns. But he felt a calling to return.
“I saw that my region is suffering. I decided that I could use my skills and experience to give something back, to try to make a difference.
“With my background in arts and graphic design, I realised that there was a real lack of artistic training or opportunities to enjoy culture. That’s why I decided to set up the Peace of Art Academy.”
Peace of Art is a humanitarian organisation and fine arts academy in operation since 2016. The first of its kind in the region, the organisation has received support from EED to provide professional artistic and educational training for young people in the area.
“Our goal is to empower and engage both local Lebanese youth and Syrians to live in dignity, to eliminate exclusion and foster a culture of peace based on values of mutual respect and acceptance of others,” says Yehya.
“We do this by offering a common space to bring people from different backgrounds together to learn, play and enjoy music and the arts.”
Thanks to Yehya’s infectious enthusiasm and drive, PoA is now an ever-expanding academy offering tuition in guitar, piano, violin, and traditional instruments such as the oud, as well as photography, video editing, drawing, civic education and language courses.
With most of the classes provided free-of-charge, the academy relies on a network of dedicated volunteers.
One of those is 21 year old IT student and talented pianist, Vera Mawla.
“Working with Peace of Art has been a very great step for me. I see it as a way of being able to help and give a chance to other children, most of whom would never have any opportunities to learn or enjoy music. And I love it!”
Another young volunteer Salah Masry (15) (pictured above) brings his own expertise from private classes and several years at a local music conservatoire. He teaches and plays saxophone and piano in the PoA orchestra and offers his services at the academy every day.
“Since I started playing, I want to teach everyone. For me, music is the important thing in the world. It also makes people more ethical, more disciplined, more organised – and this is what we need!”
Since starting in 2016, more than 100 students have benefited from the organisation. For Yehya, EED’s support has come at the right time.
“We are very well organised and we have a list of goals. We invest a lot of time into making sure that what we are providing corresponds to the needs of our constituents. EED’s support will be invaluable in enabling us to make our vision more concrete and bring it to the next level.”
In such a volatile region, these efforts however are not without their challenges.
“In this region, we have a bad reputation – stereotyped as criminals, drug dealers, selling guns. And indeed, many young people don’t have anything else to do so they can easily get caught up in criminal activities,” says Yehya.
“This is why we wanted to create a place where young people could express themselves and provide a safe environment and keep them away from drug and weapons.”
It is a small step but hugely important. For Yehya, it is also the start of democracy building.
“In this area, we are building democracy from scratch. Here we start with a shared space, shared music and arts. The aim is to instil empathy and inspire young people towards a peaceful coexistence and democratic future.”
Photo compilation of project visits in Lebanon: EED Flickr page
All photos © Makram Halabi