Children at the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s Borderfree Street Kid’s School learn tactics for peaceful conflict resolution from Ellis Brooks. Photo by Dr. Hakim.
Here in Kabul, over breakfast with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, we talked about conflict resolution.
We had been learning about how to address conflict through peer mediation with Ellis Brooks, with Voices for Creative Nonviolence-UK.
Peer mediators make “promises” before beginning a session, we remembered: We won’t tell you what to do, we won’t take sides, and we won’t talk about this session with anyone outside of our room. While pouring tea and breaking bread, we went over the hand signals Ellis gave us to help remember each promise.
Children at the Borderfree Street Kids School where the peace volunteers work, were also taught peer mediation skills. I’m guessing that the street kids who work to supplement their family income can easily recall what Ellis taught them. They played games to show the importance of listening, and they learned to avoid blaming, exaggerating and “mind-reading” when mediating a dispute.
I had watched the little children work in small groups to assemble cartoon images of two donkeys tied together, and pulling against each other while heading for two heaps of food located in opposite directions. Each group succeeded, working together, in arranging the images to retell the classic story with the two donkeys figuring out how they could both be satisfied by feeding first at one pile and then the other. To reinforce the story, Ellis called on Ali and Abdulhai, two of the Afghan Peace Volunteer teachers, to role play being the donkeys, using Ellis’s scarf as the tie to bind them. Hilarity filled the room as the children advised their beloved “donkeys” about how to achieve a win-win solution.
We laughed this morning, recalling the scene. But I also worried that most of our younger friends were not likely to be chatting about the workshop while enjoying fresh, warm bread and a second round of tea in a relatively secure setting. Many of them live in refugee camps. Their families don’t have money to buy wood for fuel, and when they eat it's often stale bread and tea without sugar. I felt a bit of relief in knowing that the 100 children participating in The Borderfree Street Kids School receive monthly donations of beans, flour, cooking oil, and rice to compensate for what they would have earned working on the streets of Kabul while they attend school. It’s also good to know that each child has been given warm clothing to help them through the coming winter. Yet there are an estimated 60,000 children working in the streets of Kabul. What about the others? What about their experiences of hunger, cold and insecurity?
I was also troubled at seeing how easily the children identified with one scenario the Peace Volunteers helped Ellis develop. Every morning, Nargis, a little girl, begs for bread at a certain set of homes, and when she is done she usually has acquired about 10 pieces of bread. She accuses Abdullah of going to those houses to get bread before her, saying that he stole her bread, and is a thief not to be trusted. Abdullah says that he had no idea that he couldn’t approach the same houses, and that he only got one piece of bread for his family. He says that Nargis is greedy and selfish, and that he would even have shared the bread if she didn’t shame him in front of others by calling him a thief.
Ellis guided the children through the tasks of telling the story in a way that avoided exaggeration, blaming or “mind-reading.” Using the image of peeling layers of an onion, he helped everyone identify what happened, what the disputants thought, how they felt, and, importantly, what they needed. The stark reality emerged that both Nargis and Abdullah fear hunger and need bread. They both want to bring some measure of security to their families, and the thought of returning empty-handed is enough to inspire anxiety, rage, and even panic.
Ironically, while Ellis was in Kabul, the U.S. Embassy had issued high level alerts warning westerners in Kabul to stay home because of an anticipated attack. Ellis, tall and fair and an obvious target, acknowledged that some of his family and friends were highly fearful about his visit to Kabul. "Some of them asked me if I've gone mad," he said. But during the workshops, concerns about security were set aside as everyone became caught up in the activities.
Later in the week, as I began to learn about the rising fear and insecurity following the attack in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people, I wondered how Ellis’s guidelines could be useful to people in the United States. Suppose that the media, educators, and faith-based and civil society leaders cooperated to educate people about the harm caused by language that labels all Muslims as suspect, avoided exaggerating threats to people’s daily lives in the United States, and avoided "mind-reading" Muslims claiming that they all harbor hatred toward the United States. Suppose that it was commonplace for people in the United States to ask what fears and needs inspire antagonism toward their country. Suppose the media gave daily coverage to the sobering reports of U.S. attacks against civilians in other countries, especially in war zones where civilians have been routinely bombed, losing their homes and forcing millions to flee the consequent breakdown of civil society.
Before leaving, Ellis thanked the Afghan Peace Volunteers for welcoming him, even though interventions by his own country have made theirs less safe. He said he had learned, while here, about their strenght in not giving up on basic rights, especially the right not to kill, the right to care about the planet, and the right to seek equality between people. “Thank you,” he told them all, “for being my teachers.”
Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (vcnv.org). While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjourneytosmile.com). This essay previously appeared on wagingnonviolence.com.