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Lebanon club channels the ‘power of peace’


Like many young professionals in Lebanon, Anhal Kozhaya was ready to take his place among the latest generation to flee the country’s troubles — not war this time but an economic crisis that has driven widespread poverty, social unrest, and a collapse of public services. Then, he had second thoughts.

“Rotary is, honestly speaking, what kept me here in Lebanon,” says the 22-year-old, who works as an administrative officer at the British Embassy in Beirut. “Rotary is what kept me motivated and inspired and always wanting more for my country. If that wasn’t the case, I would have left this country a long time ago and wouldn’t have thought twice about coming back.”

Kozhaya is president of the Rotary Club of Beirut Pax Potentia, or “the power of peace” in Latin. The year-old club, which focuses on peacebuilding, has its origins in a project funded by a Rotary Foundation global grant. Another notable attribute: Its 17 members have an average age of 23, a young demographic that’s leaving Lebanon in high numbers.

Lebanon, once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East for its status as a regional banking center, has experienced waves of emigration over the past half-century. Those migrations started with the 1975-90 civil war and have accelerated during an economic crisis beginning in 2019 that has fueled triple-digit inflation, shut down the banking sector, and pushed millions into poverty.

Members of the Rotary Club of Beirut Pax Potentia, including (from left) Elissa Tabet, Jeanne d’Arc Davoulbeuyukian, Noor Akoum, and Anhal Kozhaya, are steeped in the principles of Positive Peace.

Image credit: Florient Zwein

Rotary clubs in Lebanon have stepped in to provide critical services, and the new club is furthering those efforts through a peacebuilding framework. Its young members are steeped in the principles of Positive Peace, an approach that seeks to foster the institutions, attitudes, and conditions that can allow peace to flourish.

The club’s first public event was an international conference on youths as agents of peace that helped generate ideas for projects. The club, chartered in June 2023, typically meets weekly either online or in a coworking space in Beirut. Its members are so committed that even those who’ve had to move overseas to Italy, Malta, and Belgium to study continue to log on when they can.

In the background of the economic crisis, Lebanon also remains deeply divided along sectarian lines more than three decades after its devastating civil war. Today, 18 recognized religious sects compete for power in a fractious political system, with near-constant interference by neighboring countries.

Lebanon’s challenges need to be examined in relation to Positive Peace, Kozhaya says. “You cannot talk about the environment without addressing peace,” he explains. “You cannot talk about women’s rights, tolerance, human rights, and community economic development without bringing in a peacebuilding perspective.”

For one project, club members have visited the Maryam and Martha Community, an organization helping women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence. They raised funds for the organization and collected donations, including food, basic hygiene products, and clothing.

In February, they hosted a workshop on the relationship between peacebuilding and theater. Among its other aims, the club is planning another peace conference, a fashion show with an emphasis on inclusion and diversity, and a scholarship fund focused on peacebuilding. Members also want to mentor high school students.

Make your club a peacebuilding powerhouse

Want to explore ways your club can get involved in peacebuilding? The Rotary Action Group for Peace offers Rotary members ideas, resources, and support to advance peace. Here is a sample:

  • Plant a peace pole and hold a dedication ceremony to engage your members and community on peacebuilding and Positive Peace.
  • Take the Rotary Positive Peace Academy free online course.
  • Search the action group’s curated list of peace programs that Rotary members can use in their communities for everyone from pre-K students to adults.
  • Join the Peacebuilder Club program by committing to engage in dialogues and projects that promote Positive Peace.
  • Support the work of Rotary Peace Fellowship alumni in your area.
  • Volunteer with Rotary Youth Exchange and inspire young leaders to serve as catalysts for peace and social justice.

Mentorship from older Rotarians is what brought the club into being. Mona Jarudi, a member of Rotary Club of Beirut Cosmopolitan, and fellow Rotarian George Beyrouti applied for a global grant that delivered peacebuilding training to young people within their Rotary district in 2021. They worked with NewGen Peacebuilders, an education and training skills program led by Rotary Peace Fellow Patricia Shafer.

“Lebanon is a multisectorial, highly politicized country, and the youth need a way to express their opinions that are different than those of their parents or different than their surroundings,” Jarudi says. “The students themselves chose the topics they wanted to work on. And despite everything, including internet problems, electricity problems, fuel shortages, you name it, those students never missed a beat.”

Jarudi encouraged some of those NewGen alumni, including Kozhaya, to create a Rotary club. As interest grew, the students and young professionals would spend time on the weekends at Jarudi’s apartment overlooking Beirut to prepare their club for its charter.

Bayan Fakih, 21, another of those founding members, is studying for her master’s in international politics in Belgium but makes sure to join the club’s online events. She is surprised by how much the club has opened up her perspectives related to peace and what can be achieved at the community level. “We’re not policy-makers. We’re trying to promote the idea of peace from a tangible perspective to people around us, to our communities, and even to the world,” she says.

For member Elise Korban, 31, the club is a place where she can mix her artistic interests with her peacebuilding passions. She works at a human rights nonprofit organization and has a background in visual arts, architecture, and social science.

Korban, who has had difficult discussions with her father about his experiences in the civil war, believes it’s important for artists to help foster a collective memory about Lebanon’s history. “Our history books stop after World War II,” she says. “The civil war is not in the books because there are different points of view. So as artists we are responsible to give a collective memory to these events.”

A shared vision of the future is important too. “I believe Rotarians are the torchbearers and they bring light to communities where they are present,” Kozhaya says. “Beirut has been the subject of much violence and yet it is a phoenix that has risen from the ashes so many times. Our work with Rotary offers a message to everyone in Lebanon that we have a duty to work within a framework of peace.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

The Rotary Action Group for Peace gives Rotary members resources and support to advance peace efforts and turn ambitious ideas into life-changing realities.