Training at a Syria refugee camp for a better future

Hungry for Learning
Hungry for Learning

OLIVER QuintinTraining at a Syria refugee camp for a better future
by Quintin Oliver for Forum for Cities in Transition
21 January 2014

Even in the bright wintry sunshine of northern Iraq in January, a well-organised and newly laid out refugee camp looks and feels bleak.

8,000 refugees from the Kurdish region of eastern Syria have been billeted here in Darashakran camp by the UNHCR. Many recently arrived across the border as they flee conflict and deprivation at home; some have been moved from Domiz camp in Duhok, overflowing with the continuing trek of families finally leaving their homes, fearing for their safety.

This camp is less than four months old, so the tents are new, the pathways still compacting, bulldozers everywhere, electric wires hanging morosely, children excitedly exploring. The barbed wire fences hemming us all in appear redundant, since we are seemingly in the middle of the stark empty desert countryside, some 50 kilometres, an hour’s long drive west of Erbil, Kurdistan’s bustling main city. Blue and white tents as far as the eye can see, then breeze block ovals marked out in readiness for as many refugees again, then bleak stony, dusty infertile plains. No way out; nowhere to go; but safe … for the moment.

I had left my western comforts on New Year’s Eve to volunteer with an inspirational project run by the fantastic Emanuela del Re — an Italian dynamo of an activist, professor, mediator and humanitarian leader. She had designed an educational programme ‘My Future’ for refugees and, funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had pioneered a partnership with local Kurdish universities to deliver classes, workshops and intellectual stimulation for 18-30 year-olds in the Kurdish camps. It was online too — — no matter that broadband remained an aspiration.

The routine was simple; unable to take up any sleeping space at the camp, we stayed at a modest Erbil guesthouse, travelling each morning to pick up our rota of volunteer professors and drive across the desert, past various checkpoints and through the entrance barrier to camp; we had been allocated three huge tents, housing 75 plastic chairs, three hanging light bulbs and a whiteboard; nothing else. Within minutes, the students flocked towards us, took off their muddy shoes and sat expectantly. We had interviewed and hired ‘tutors’ from among the refugees, as our interpreters and aides; we worked in English (as an educational tool itself and ‘window to the world’), Arabic, Kurdish and local dialect Kurmanji. The sessions buzzed with an air of curiosity, mutual aid and solidarity with each other.

It quickly became clear that our target age group range was hopelessly narrow; there is a primary school on camp, but nothing beyond that; teenagers came to tell us they had not been to any classes for six months; parents begged us to take their children; unemployed teacher refugees offered to help us. We asked for a fourth tent, more chairs; our daily finish time was extended by popular demand to 18.00, and then often to complete their tasks, they pleaded to stay on later. When the electricity failed, I thought we would have to wrap up, but no, mobile phones clicked on and little beams of light enabled us to continue for another hour, as we shivered in chill night air.

Gender balance was 60:40 in favour of women, about one third of whom wore headscarves; at the beginning, the sexes sat apart at opposite sides of the tent, but soon they mixed, when they realised that our workshop style of learning accommodated group work, world cafe tables (without the coffee!), open space approaches and role-play. The tutors translated consecutively, the local professors adjusted their lecture styles accordingly; some students huddled by the white board to copy down the English and Arabic words; eager hands rose politely whenever we posed an open question.

Topics were broad — citizenship, human rights, public opinion, politics, social media, the internet, public speaking, the risks of human trafficking, and social change by social movements. We set up working groups, undertook role play, allocated challenges and tasks, sought compromise through negotiation workshops, and told stories from our experiences. The atmosphere was electric, the hunger for learning was palpable, the sense of freedom liberating.

At the end of the 12-day course, 475 certificates of attendance were issued, prized possessions for diligent students. Some confessed they only came at first for something to relieve boredom, but left inspired; others reported they learned more than ever before in the top-down didactic Syrian educational system; new friendships were established, relationships begun. One refugee explained he had already undertaken the ‘My Future’ course with Emanuela in Domiz camp from where he transferred, but asked to be allowed in again — he brought his pals along too. A woman shopkeeper apologised each day for being late, but explained she had to sell her few vegetables before her learning. another mother breast-fed in class. Others took notes and returned the next day with translations into three languages, in perfect handwriting on a jotter sheet or corner ripped from a flip-chart. One learned how to Tweet, others wrote passionate journalism about their situation — all uploaded to their own internal website

Outside our teaching tents, however, the atmosphere remained a mix between quiet dignity and sullen anger: why are we here, away from home? When will we go back? Why are we locked in and unable to leave without a pass? How can we find work? What is our future?

Our small group of outsiders was entertained royally in the most extraordinary of conditions; I have never eaten rice and beans, humous and salad, washed down by hot, sweet tea before, from the floor of a dimly lit tent with a family of five young children excitedly practising their English, swapping stories of their home village and sharing their aspirations for a better future. Humbling is overused in these situations, but humbled I was.

What does it mean? We reported back to UNHCR and UNICEF officials in Erbil, who were delighted with our positive reports, but for whom the refugee crisis seems overwhelming; for them, anything that gave hope was welcome; troubles and difficulties clearly dominated their agendas. If we weren’t reporting riots and demanding police action, then we could be dismissed. Our fear, nevertheless, is that in six months the camps will be seething with unrest. We had real difficulty controlling waves of younger children playing outside our classes; one child was trampled in the rush to liberate our juice cartons and biscuits generously provided by the excellent Barzani Foundation the local NGO on site. I had to separate teenage fist fights outside my tent one day, as frustrated youngsters scrapped and fought, in the absence of any other outlet — no sporting or cultural facilities, for example, only a small primary school and health centre. And we heard that those men (women are not permitted to leave camp apparently) entrepreneurial enough to find work in Erbil, had to pay $25 for transport, in return for a $20 pay packet.

What should be done? The UNCHR obviously do a tremendous accommodation job and provide basic education and health services; but more is needed. Where are the other complementary programmes, where are the efforts to engage, deploy and mobilise these intelligent and enthusiastic people? How can we stimulate internal action and external support?

Quintin Oliver, a political consultant with, volunteered with ; follow at

Nelson Mandela’s critical role in Northern Ireland’s extraordinary journey

Nelson Mandela, David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson
Nelson Mandela, David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson

OLIVER QuintinNelson Mandela’s critical role in Northern Ireland’s extraordinary journey
by Quintin Oliver for Forum for Cities in Transition
6 December 2013

As part of my responsibility in managing the “Yes” campaign for the referendum on the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, our team learned that Nelson Mandela would be interested in coming to Northern Ireland, as an endorsement for positive moves to an accommodation.

But Unionist politicians were not interested, because some saw him as an epitome of what was most objectionable about the accord — former prisoners leap-frogging into Government, former terrorists securing Ministerial roles and all without decommissioning of weapons.

So the Unionists vetoed the offer; ironically, so did Nationalists, but for entirely different reasons – they were concerned it might upstage the free concert they had arranged for Bono!

While Nelson Mandela was regarded as a terrorist by some, it is worth remembering that he did oversee the peaceful transfer of power, through constitutional negotiations and a robust conflict mitigation process. He was elected to office in 1994, and served as President of South Africa from 1994-99.

As that moral icon of the planet, it was extraordinary the power Mandela carried, his image, and the significance of his word. On our campaign team, we were surprised that that wasn’t even then shared across our community; some thought that it could be used against them politically.

Yet David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson were two Unionist politicians who were part of the seminal 1997 visit to South Africa, to meet Nelson Mandela and other post-apartheid leaders from all sides. Organised by Professor Padraig O’Malley, it was necessary to have separate planes for the Unionist and Nationalist delegates. Nor would they sit in the same room to be addressed by Mandela.

Mandela was relaxed about that, but made a serious point — you have to negotiate with your enemy, you have to talk with them; you can’t just talk with your allies.

In this way, our progress is remarkable, where today discussions take place face-to-face among political adversaries. Many deeply contested places haven’t commenced that process. My joy would have been unbounded had this been sealed by First Minister Robinson and deputy First Minister flying together in the same plane, this time as partners.

For Northern Ireland, Nelson Mandela played a critical role in our extraordinary journey of conflict transformation — and in only what I believe will be seen as the relatively short period of 15 years!

Conflict transition media an opportunity to reframe debates

OLIVER QuintinConflict transition media an opportunity to reframe debates
by Quintin Oliver
29 November 2013

Recently in Belfast there was a day conference on peace journalism, organised by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice (Queen’s University of Belfast). Professional and amateur journalists discussed the role of the media in periods of conflict transformation, especially in Northern Ireland.

Conference highlights were published in the blogosphere by the familiar Alan in Belfast (Alan Mebain) as well as the mainstream channel, BBC Radio Ulster, where presenter Seamus McKee invited veteran journalist Chris Ryder and me to discuss the topic for an evening drive commuting audience.

When asked whether the media has a role in promoting a positive vision of the society it operates in, I replied that it doesn’t. The media, however, always has the responsibility to find, develop and cover the newsworthy. Instead, much of what we get these days is shallow, short and soundbite driven, void of context, not allowing recipients to place meaning in what they hear, see or read.

Chris Ryder, among others who should know better, quickly fall into a trap of believing nothing really has changed since the peace agreement of 15 years ago. Far from it! The changes have been dramatic, and we are still transforming our values and how we live, work and generally get along with each other in this contested space of so many centuries.

Of course Northern Ireland is not so rosy at times. What place of transformation is? But what are we learning of other such places? What of Libya post-revolution? Increasing sectarianism in Iraq? Contested elections in Kosovo?

Back home, yes we have political gridlock and suspicions of corruption. And we need not personalised scandals, but investigations to unravel they whys and wheres. This is not helped by the hollowing out of Northern Ireland newsrooms that we are witnessing.

But there remains a vital role for robust and hard-biting journalism, to make sure that press statements by public bodies don’t go unchallenged.

Let’s have a debate whether or not there has been sufficient progress in our society. Let’s recognise what we have achieved, and how we’ve done so, while getting serious about where progress still needs to be made.

We need to move beyond headlines.

Fifteen laws of peace processes

20130409 Fifteen Laws of Peace Processes

OLIVER QuintinFifteen laws of peace processes
By Quintin Oliver for Belfast Telegraph
9 April 2013 

Quintin Oliver who helped run the non-party and cross-party ‘YES’ Campaign in the 1998 Referendum reflects…

Fifteen laws of peace processes may help us understand where we are in our incredibly successful process, unlike so many other cases around the globe:

  1. Your side hated our side much more and did many more worse things than we did’; selective memories must be expunged over time – fifteen years is but a blink; progress around the Maze Long Kesh site is a positive omen;
  2. ‘Citizenship should be clarified and open to all’; as many ‘unionists’ apply for Irish passports and vice versa, without any hassle, we should all feel free to make and exercise our own choices;
  3. ‘Security must be guaranteed for all, without fear or favour’; apart from some recent aberrations, we have achieved a much more stable situation, with confidence increasing;
  4. Policing must be seen to be fair and reliable’; one of our under-recognised successes, a world class, human-rights compliant unified police service, with over 30% ‘minority’ participation, lauded worldwide for its transformation;
  5. ‘Interpretation and implementation of the law is guaranteed through an independent judiciary’; apart from last month’s public debate, now hopefully put to bed after a public exchange, our institutions have survived and flourished;
  6. ‘Truth will always vie with justice as we try to understand what happened to us’; a robust process of managing the past is essential; what became of the bulk of Eames / Bradley, after the £12k payment was thrown out, baby and all?
  7. ‘Armed groups must be subject to full disarmament, disbandment and reintegration’. Have we achieved this yet, or have recent events exposed our partial failure, certainly in respect of reintegration? Can we better deal with ‘dissident republicans’?
  8. ‘The first government after the peace deal is often swept away as a transitional necessity’. For some time we thought that was the 1999-2002 UUP / SDLP government, but might it also be the DUP / SF version? Or are we fated to a Fianna Fail / Fine Gael endgame a century on?
  9. International and external forces must be eased out of the day-to-day decision-making’; have we learned properly to stand alone, or are we still over-dependent on the British and Irish, the EU and the US and other helpful supporters?
  10. ‘You must bind in all legal voices, so as to absorb their political views appropriately, or else you will remain dependent on a military solution’; are we headed down the Sri Lankan route (where the Tamil Tigers were all but exterminated) or can we still be inclusive, as we were in 1998, with the PUP, UDP, UKUP, Women’s Coalition and others? Are the voiceless being heard?
  11. ‘You must build societal infrastructure based on equality and sharing, or risk intensifying division’; education, transport, housing, teacher training, arts and sport – have we made enough progress towards one society, or are we still dividing back-to-back?
  12. ‘A vibrant civil society is enabled and dissent encouraged’; despite the unheralded demise of the Civic Forum, the voices of voluntary and community groups, business and trade unions are all heard loudly!
  13. ‘A free press is self-evident, holding the powerful to account without interference’; despite a little recent wobble, the challenge and scrutiny from the press is alive and well; can we use it more proactively for creative policy development?
  14.  ‘The institutions of the peace agreement are implemented equally and fulsomely by all sides’; Strand Two’s North / South institutions are another huge success, offering little controversy and seamless application; likewise Strand Three’s East – West processes; the Civic Forum’s stillbirth has hardly been contested; The Assembly and Executive are stable – to the point of gridlock;
  15. ‘Each party to the conflict can argue for its own different vision of the future with impunity’; there is no shortage of evidence for this, with the upcoming decade of centenaries an example of mutual respect for alternative versions of a democratically underpinned future, based on consent.

So, what does this all mean for us?

First, we have made remarkable progress that we often overlook in our impatience for faster forward movement; but that acceleration might itself topple some delicately negotiated houses of cards; look back at the seemingly glacial pace of power-sharing, decommissioning, ‘the war is over’, support for the police, devolution of justice powers, acceptance of Irish or British symbols – but all are being achieved and embedded.

Second, we ignore at our peril the extraordinary success of the equality agenda – workplace discrimination is all but history, Section 75 of the NI Act, while contested by some as too close to ‘positive discrimination’, has entered our bloodstream, and principles of equal treatment for women, gays, and lesbians, people with disabilities, of different races and so on are hard-wired into the consciousness of decision-makers.

Third, we are a changed society, looking south with ease, and not just for rugby, hockey or boxing. I can recall when the late Sir George Quigley proposed a ‘Dublin-Belfast economic corridor’ in the 90s – he was derided by many; now it seems obvious, with an accompanying single electricity market, a plethora of all-island bodies, not only those presaged by the Agreement, and more exports south than to all other EU countries combined; the hallmark of ‘ordinary’.

But now, lest anyone think me to be naïve or rose-tinted in outlook, there remain challenges that Quigley outlined as he oversaw loyalist decommissioning:

Now is the time for society to put high on its agenda a vigorous and sustained effort to address the social and economic needs of all disadvantaged communities across the board, thereby tackling the gross inequalities in our society and demonstrating that devolution really does make a difference. The aim should be nothing less than to bring the margins into the mainstream and the fact that we may be entering an age of austerity makes the task even more pressing. Only then can we ensure the enduring peace and stability which all the people of Northern Ireland deserve after so many troubled years.

If only we had listened?

Quintin Oliver makes international comparisons with Northern Ireland through