Out of conflict

9th October 2009 at 01:00
How one student's Moroccan holiday led to a crash course in resolving differences

It's an experience that could provide great lesson material for anything from history to citizenship. Two years ago, 19-year-old Andrea Gustavsson had planned a relaxing two-week holiday in Morocco but, realising that someone she knew lived close by in the conflict-stricken region of Western Sahara, she didn't feel she could go there and ignore what was going on just next door.

"The police and military presence in the city of Laayoune was overwhelming - it was such a closed environment," she says. "The house we were staying in was raided around once a month. In our final days there, we went out on to the street just after another house in the neighbourhood had been raided, and we were detained by the police. In the station, I went to the bathroom and just cried."

This summer, Andrea used her experience while participating in Talk Together, a conflict-resolution course for 16 to 24-year-olds. Its aim was to bring young people together from both sides of the conflict, plus a handful of students from international school chain United World Colleges (UWC), to find some common ground. Their experience has since been made into a film which the group hopes to distribute to schools so that others can share the skills it helped develop. The students in Oxford recorded a blog about the course and were given video cameras to take footage that will be edited and used in parts of the film.

But the project was not without its problems. On their way to the UK, six students from Western Sahara were detained at the airport by the Moroccan authorities and were allegedly assaulted. Seven more Moroccan students and their group leader also pulled out at the last minute in dubious circumstances.

The students detained in Morocco posted a video on YouTube from the airport and the story made the front page of El Pais, the Spanish newspaper, as well as the BBC. And it was certainly a learning opportunity. Fiona Foulkes, an 18-year-old student from Watford, used her negotiation skills to call the Moroccan embassy and arrange a meeting between Talk Together's founder Andrew Brown and Moroccan diplomats, to see if anything could be done to help.

Another group of Moroccan students didn't arrive until the second week, but the workshop still proved to have plenty of educational value. "Many participants left the course with a deeper understanding of the principles of conflict resolution and of non-violent communication as the means of achieving human relations in which everyone's needs can be met," says Robert Krzisnik, a conflict resolution expert who was leading the workshops.

An estimated 150,000 to 170,000 Sahawari people live in refugee camps in Algeria, many of them separated from their families in Western Sahara. Since the Spanish pulled out of the mainly desert territory in 1975, control has been disputed by the Moroccan government and an indigenous resistance movement, the Polisario. By exploring the conflict, students learn about non-violent communication, unmet needs and the importance of empathising with both sides. They've also had talks from a range of speakers about aspects of conflict, including a Moroccan journalist who initiated a heated political debate.

Nobody involved is under the impression that this course will offer all the solutions. But what Mr Krzisnik wants to do is give students the intellectual tools to unpack these kinds of situations. "I really want to empower them, rather than say, `this is what I think you should do'," he says. "I think they can make valuable input. Through modern technology, they can start groups and begin connecting people from different places. I was touched by . their empathy and readiness to do something about it."

The students already have an interest in international relations. Ten of them attend one of the UWC schools across the globe and already study with pupils from diverse backgrounds. But conflict resolution, specifically the empathetic approach of the course, isn't usually taught in other disciplines. Former UWC student Erik Tortensson is now studying political science and communications at Florida University. He wants to learn more about the Middle East and was interested in debating the facts. But even in week one, he has changed his approach. "It's about asking `how do I connect with that person?' and not `how can I win the debate?'" he says. "It's about listening to the human being; not just the facts."

It is these transferable skills that Andrew Brown, the course founder and director, thinks will be communicated in the film being made specifically for schools. "The film has been made partly to look at this specific conflict and spread awareness of it," he says, "but partly to look at conflict resolution in general: consensus building, lateral thinking, listening constructively, engaging with people and learning how to see other people's perspectives."

Mr Brown came up with the idea four years ago during a conversation with his father about how he would like to contribute to IsraeliPalestinian conflict resolution.

"I thought then, politicians won't listen to me, but what they might do is listen to 20 young Palestinians and 20 young Israelis. And what we can do is organise short courses," he says. With the infrastructure for setting up courses already in place, he approached UWC, which was interested, but suggested tackling the Western Sahara conflict instead.

But there was still a potential drawback: "Even if you produce 40 people who have interesting ideas, why would politicians listen to them?" The solution was to produce a reality TV film, in addition to the educational resource. "It's not a Big Brother-style `who's having sex with who' thing, but a positive reality film trying to engage people with interesting ideas as they engage with interesting characters," he says. Both the teaching and reality films are integral to the project, providing a platform to communicate with a wider audience and validating it in the students' minds.

Despite its wider intentions, there has been criticism of the course, which received funding from the British Council and the European Commission. A reader of a local newspaper called it "a shocking waste of money to fly young people who have no influence on politics at any level to the UK for a `debate' that will do nothing but provide material for some God-awful, chin-stroking BBC documentary".

The press coverage even provoked one student to question the purpose of the course. "It's been very difficult for me to justify why we're here," says 17-year-old Nathan Thomki. "I think I'll get a lot from it and I thought I could contribute some ideas. But I don't think I can solve the conflict that people spend their whole lives trying to resolve."

This won't stop them trying, however, and the students are aware they can have the most impact by spreading awareness of the conflict itself. As well as the blog, which is accessible to the public, a closed online forum has been created for when they go their separate ways, so they can stay in touch and organise further action. The course has had a profound impact on all involved, but this bunch of media-savvy, culturally aware teenagers are also learning the diplomacy skills to make waves in the future.


Talk together

Courses are held in summer and tackle a different area of conflict each year. A key aspect is continuing discussion after the course, and an online forum allows students to reflect and to develop their ideas in a closed space.

Fiona Foulkes, from Watford, gave a presentation at her former school with the online help of her classmates.

"I firmly believe in the power of negotiation and discussion to resolve a conflict," says Fiona. "Between students, problems often arise when they have a misunderstanding, (so) this could also be (used) in a school environment."

Video footage will be available in the new year for use in PSHE, history, citizenship or politics from the website.


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