Above: the town of Majdal Anjar, Lebanon
Nidal Khaled, Coordinator, Local Prevention Network. President of the Youth Initiatives Association.
Ghida Elassaad, Project Coordinator, Strong Cities Network
This article was written before the Lebanese government ordered the coronavirus lockdown.
Fear of the coronavirus pandemic is sweeping across Lebanon, and the border town of Majdal Anjar is no exception. Schools, mosques and markets have closed to prevent its spread, and the streets are quiet.
Yet while the threat of a pandemic hangs over the country and indeed the whole world, the three years of experience in community work and building local solidarity through the town’s Local Prevention Network (LPN) has demonstrated that there is no crisis or scourge that the community cannot address together.
The LPN, launched in 2017 with the help of the Strong Cities Network (SCN) to prevent violent extremism at the local level, is a leading example of how we can unify the efforts of different stakeholders in the interest of local communities. Over the past three years, a dedicated team of representatives from the municipality and civil society, religious leaders, teachers, youth groups and businesses has spearheaded countless activities to drive forward enhanced local-level collaboration to build community resilience, which are now supporting the town’s current efforts.
Locally-led responses to epidemics, emergencies, and the associated need for awareness-raising to allow the entire community to contribute in the solutions, may very well take inspiration from our collective work model in Majdal Anjar.
The Local Prevention Network Model
Since 2017, the LPN has held several activities in the town, incorporating the various sectors and community leaders and helping to establish firm structures of coordination.
One of the last activities to take place before the town went into lockdown was a training session for teachers on a manual for preventing violent extremism (PVE), which was jointly designed with the Local Prevention Networks in Saida and Tripoli. The LPN in Majdal Anjar brought together 22 teachers and headteachers from private and public schools at the city’s town hall to develop their knowledge and skills to monitor early warning signs and prevent cases of violent extremism among pupils. Similar trainings will be carried out by LPNs in Saida and Tripoli as part of the SCN’s efforts to involve teachers in the process of violence prevention.
Not far from the town hall, a group of more than 30 youths were taking part in a series of activities organised by the SCN’s youth-focused programme, Young Cities.
Following a 10-day photography training course titled ‘Photos Speak’ designed to unlock new creative skills, the youth took photos of their hometown and its positive aspects that are often ignored by the media or the Lebanese public at large. The photos published on social media have documented daily life in the town, and contributed to deconstructing negative stereotypes that have affected Majdal Anjar. Two murals painted on the wall of the Swiss school added an artistic touch to the town’s streets, changing the scenery for passersby, visitors and residents.
At the same time, the youth are leading a new initiative called ‘A Point of View’ to build communication skills and dialogue mechanisms among youth and local stakeholders, including civil society associations, community leaders and municipal council members. The overall aim of this is to develop a road map and a plan of action toward improving youth engagement in the affairs of the town.
The bonds established among the youths serve as strong evidence of the importance of engaging young people in constructive activities to build feelings of social responsibility and foster belonging. Many youths from these groups are now tending to the community’s needs through voluntary service, supporting underprivileged families in times of crisis during COVID-19.
The pandemic adds another layer of responsibility that youths will have to live up to by supporting local stakeholders in facing the virus, but also by proposing innovative ways to engage the community.
Majdal Anjar has not only managed to mobilise youth volunteers to support its current efforts, but the town’s experience with the LPN has also allowed it to use its online channels to adapt to the pandemic, by using online outreach and coordination among teachers to raise awareness of the dangers of contamination.
The role of social media has recently been identified as one of the LPN’s priorities for future activities, with a special focus on using social media to raise awareness and reject extremist and violent rhetoric that is spreading online. In light of the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure that the LPN can monitor and respond to any hateful narratives piggybacking on the spread of the virus, activities will now also include a special focus on how Covid-19 is affecting issues of hate, extremism and violence online and offline.
In bringing groups together from across the local municipality and civil society, the Local Prevention Network has proved itself not just as a tool for preventing violent extremism, but as a way of tackling any problem, including Covid-19, as a united front instead of in isolation. The network has created structures of coordination, communication and leadership, divisions of roles and responsibilities, and above all enthusiasm for working together that will prove indispensable in the months to come.
Our message to all those affected by the Covid-19 crisis is this: you are not alone. Even in isolation we can be a part of a community by getting in touch with our neighbours, offering to help those most vulnerable, planning ahead for the future, but most of all by remaining positive and pragmatic through this.