Hussein Itani came to Alberta as a solidarity visitor for Development and Peace.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Hussein Itani came to Alberta as a solidarity visitor for Development and Peace.

March 21, 2016
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

After his entire family was killed in Syria, a young man ended up as a refugee in Lebanon. His middle class family used to have resources back home. Now he was alone in a new country with no money, no food and no clothes.

His first thought was to avenge his family so he decided to join the so-called Islamic State. He thought ISIS would be the ideal group to join because they are "very religious" and were already fighting the Syrian regime.

So he went to a local imam for advice. The imam didn't know what to say and the young man returned to Syria and joined ISIS. He was killed shortly after.

This is one of four stories told at Concordia University March 8 by Hussein Itani, a consultant with Adyan, a Lebanese foundation for interreligious studies and spiritual solidarity founded by Christians and Muslims.

More than a million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, a quarter of the population. The UN says more than 70 per cent are now in extreme poverty. Adyan volunteers provide all types of help, including counselling, to the refugees as well as to their Lebanese hosts.

Itani is the 2016 solidarity visitor of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P). The mission of D&P is to support communities suffering from poverty and conflict due to unfair social, political and economic structures.

Its primary mandate is to educate Canadians about the causes of poverty in the developing world. D&P has been working with partners in Lebanon since 1975.

After the teenager was killed while fighting for ISIS, the imam felt responsible and went to Adyan for help. There, he received training on how to handle similar cases, and more. Now the imam is an animator for Adyan.

When another young man went to the imam for similar advice, "he was able to process his pain, and he actually saved his life."

With psychosocial support from Adyan, now this young man understands that revenge only feeds more violence and destroys lives. "What Syria is expecting from us is a change towards peace," Itani related the man as saying.

To deal with refugees, Adyan trains animators who lead classes and workshops for different age groups, from small children to adults.

"We believe in this cycle-of-change philosophy so first what we try to do is help the animator help their students become self-aware," Itani said. "We are talking about refugees who lost everything and who now find themselves in a new context and new country."

SELF-ESTEEM

Being a refugee has a huge impact on one's identity and self-esteem, and some feel unworthy of living in society.

"So it is very important to remind them that they are able to go back to society and contribute positively to it."

Once refugees find inner peace and recover their self-esteem they are able to build relationships between themselves and their host communities. "We can't expect (refugees) to have positive relations between themselves and their host communities if they are unable to process the traumas that they have."

One goal of Adyan is to stop the cycle of violence that has plagued the country and the entire region for years. That's possible only if people are able to deal with their trauma properly, Itani said.

RELIGIOUS SPLIT

Lebanese society is divided along sectarian lines and its government reflects that. The president is Christian, the speaker of the House is Shia Muslim and the prime minister is Sunni Muslim. Parliament is divided 50/50 between Christians and Muslims, which makes it difficult to pass any policy or decree. Mistrust and fear are evident.

Even NGOs tend to be divided along the same lines, with Muslim people supporting Muslim NGOs and Christian people supporting Christian NGOs.

Since the arrival of the refugees, "Lebanon is divided in terms of how you perceive the Syrian conflict." Some people support the Syrian government; others support the rebels.

The Lebanese themselves are still recovering from the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which ended in 2005.

"It's very recent. The wounds are still there," commented Itani. "So people are still trying to manage these strong feeling against the Syrian army."

The Adyan Foundation has been trying to bring change through education and other ways. Since its creation in 1976, it has been promoting religious diversity and inclusive citizenship.

"We believe in the positive role of religion," Itani said. "Some people believe that religion might be a force that pulls people away from each other. But we believe religion can actually be a cohesive force, pulling people together."

SHARING VALUES

One activity Adyan promotes involves inviting members of one religious community to share the values of another.

"For instance, we ask some Muslims to celebrate Christmas to see how it is lived, to fast during Lent, to see what are the values of Christianity and try to live this experience," Itani explained.

"We do the same thing with the Christian community; we to try to engage Christians with Ramadan and other Muslim holidays so they can see how Muslims look at their own spiritual journey."

Among its other programs, Adyan runs spiritual solidarity days where Muslims and Christians together celebrate around a common theme, which this year was the environment.