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Security and Justice

International Women’s Day: Sarah, maker of hope in a country at war

In the heart of Tripoli – the Libyan capital ruled and divided by warring militias – a group of young women and men courageously carry the flag of hope. They inspire their peers who have mainly known  war and instability, to dream and to shape their own future. To strive for gender equality. To create pockets of peace in the violent chaos of their country. They call themselves Makers of Hope. Sarah Mizran is one them. On International Women’s Day we interviewed this inspiring young woman – architect by profession, activist by necessity.

In 2011, when Libya’s revolution turned into a brutal war, Mizran, 16 at the time, left the country. After 5 years, during which she continued her education and started studying architecture in Malaysia, she returned.

Gone was the freedom

It was then that the activist was born. “Going back to Libya was a turning point”, Sarah says. “Reality hit me. Chaos hit me. Gone was the freedom of movement, of choice. The freedom of walking alone in the streets, so natural and essential, was taken away from me. Insecurity forced me to be always on my guard, wherever I went. Social norms started weighing on me. I felt misplaced and restricted.”

We didn’t want to wait until the country was back on track. We had to secure our own future.

Sarah Mizran, architect and activist

Sarah’s personal frustration and her activism build up together. She becomes more aware of the plight of young Libyans around her. “Before the war I grew up in the bubble of the well to do. I went to international schools and had little interaction with local communities. But now it dawned on me how the lack of opportunities hit all of us. Nobody listened to young Libyans, rich or poor. We had no voice, no decision-making influence. Powerful people were trying to shape the country, and we were left out. But we didn’t want to wait until the country was back on track before getting down to action ourselves. We had to secure our own future. I had to act.”

Normalization of war

I a sense, Sarah’s activism consists in stirring the dreams and aspirations of her peers. In rekindling the flame of hope. “What I fight”, she says, “is the normalization of war. For Libyan teenagers, gunmen in the streets, tanks, insecurity have become normal things, part of life. They have grown used to the daily electricity cuts. They have never seen anything else. I want them to know that this isn’t the average, normal and unavoidable landscape of their lives. This is not okay. Stop thinking it’s okay.”

We never know when or why armed attacks occur. The violence is completely unpredictable. That makes the insecurity even bigger.

Sarah Mizran

Briefly after her return to Tripoli, Sarah joins Makers of Hope, a civil society organisation that was launched in 2013 by young Libyans who, just like Sarah, wanted to act and to shape their own future. While pursuing her career as an architect, she is at the same time a full-fledged activist. And the internet and cell phones are strategic allies in everything she does with the other Makers of Hope. “Thanks to the internet young people are exposed to realities outside Libya. It informs them of the opportunities they haven’t got themselves, but could have. And of course we all use cell phones to organise ourselves. To meet, convene, promote and organise events. These events could be about art, about music, about jobs, education or politics. Whatever the topic, they have one goal: to help young Libyans become their own decision makers, despite the emergency situation and the conflict. ”

Tripoli, 2019. Makers of Hope in action (© Makers of Hope)

Inspiring hope comes with a price

The enthusiasm thy raise and the buzz they create comes with a price. There’s the pressure of the more conservative groups. “When we get together and express ourselves in the street, people get angry sometimes and become aggressive. It’s something you have to be very careful about. Tensions should be avoided at all times.”

We let teenagers think freely. Why should girls not have the right to become whatever they like? What wishes, fears or demands would you want to share with top decision makers?

Sarah Mizran

And then there’s the armed conflict.  Sarah: “Different parts of Tripoli are under control of different militias. Attacks, armed clashes and kidnappings can always occur. We never know when and we never know why. The violence is completely unpredictable. That makes the insecurity even bigger. At Makers of Hope we take a lot of precautionary measures. We talk to militia leaders to inform them of planned events, like a Ted Ex Talk for young people. If you don’t do that the risk that militia men come and disrupt your workshops is bigger. Like in 2017, when armed groups shut down a big comic book convention in Tripoli, allegedly for ‘moral’ reasons.”

Platforms to chat, dream and create

Giving hope is an act of change. That sums up the philosophy of Makers of Hope. “What we do in our workshops, especially for 14 to 18 year olds”, Sarah explains, “is to create a safe and comfortable environment. A platform to chat, share dreams and to create. The kind of environment where we can instil the idea that they can stand up against harmful social norms. Like gender inequality. We don’t use this overused NGO language. Showing that the girls present at workshops are equal to boys and that both have the right to participate, works better. Boys and girls work side by side. We let them think freely. Why should girls not have the right to become whatever they like? What wishes, fears or demands would you want to share with top decision makers?”

“This is completely new to them. We help them overcome shyness, by gradually showing the courage to speak in front of others. This is how we approach the big topics of gender equality, leadership, political participation. No big words, but small, human acts that give youngsters, all hurt by war, ownership of their identities.”

Participants become partners

After a while, young participants start their own initiatives and inspire other, in their own circles. “That’s what I like most”, says Sarah. “They are no longer participants, they become our partners. It can be something small – but important – like saying ‘no’ when you see abuse or discrimination at school or in the street. Or something bigger. Like some of them making their own videos and launching their own online campaigns. Like one of the boys who joined Makers of Hope. He was a computer whizz kid at age 12. Today he has his own robotics team of boys and girls. He is mentoring others and they participate in international competitions.”

Tripoli, 2019. The Makers of Hope team, with Sarah Mizran first from the right (© Makers of Hope)

Big or small, the acts of change Sarah inspires counter the culture of fear, division and distrust that have pushed Libya over the edge of war and sectarian violence. In a way, her two passions, activism and architecture, do not really differ that much. By bringing out the best in young people, she’s building a new Libya.

Cordaid and Makers of Hope

Cordaid and Makers of Hope have been working together since 2014. Members of Makers of Hope are young community leaders, women and men from various backgrounds, active in the fields of human rights, environmental issues, minority rights and women’s rights. Makers of Hope advocates for youth participation in peace-building and promotes long-term training, partnerships, and publications that strengthen the capacity of young peace builders. By doing this they are shaping and implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 2250.

Makers of Hope is a partner of the program Women and youth as bridge builders – strengthening resilience in Libya. This program is supported under the Dutch National Action Plan 1325 and implemented by Cordaid and Human Security Collective and eight Libyan partners.

Read more

Inspired by Sarah Mizran’s story? On Friday  March 8, Sarah is one of the speakers of AfricaTalks, an event organized by HagueTalks in the Humanity House (The Hague). Try and attend! Or read the stories of two other inspiring Libyan human rights activists, Asma Khalifa and Rida Al Tubuly.

You can also visit Cordaid’s Security and Justice web page.