Celebrating Ten Years of Coexistence and Conflict

February 17, 2015

Story by Laurie Covens; Video by Max Pearlstein

In a world where millions suffer from devastating conflicts and chronic underdevelopment, and where climate change is expected to displace many more millions in the years ahead, the Heller School’s Graduate Program in Coexistence and Conflict (COEX) is training professionals to help forge a more peaceful future.

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary at Brandeis, COEX draws students from around the world. They come from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, bringing extraordinary insight on the crises unfolding in their countries. At COEX, they join a community of experienced peace professionals.

“Our professors are practitioners,” explains Professor Mari Fitzduff, the program’s founding director. “They have all worked in global hotspots, whether in Sri Lanka, or Palestine – and they’ve all been out at night when the bombs were going off and the fires were burning, dealing with difficult mediation or reconciliation issues.”

Fitzduff first mediated between warring enemies in her native Northern Ireland. During the conflict there in the 1990’s, the British government put her in charge of community development programs to move both sides beyond decades of violent struggle.

“It was tough,” she now says. “We were flying by the seat of our pants, consulting with whomever we could find who had this experience. There was no place to learn best practices.”

COEX has changed that. It’s now the only Master’s degree program in the country that provides the practice-based training necessary to become conflict resolution and peace-building professionals. After a one-year residence that combines theoretical analysis with case studies, skills, and strategies, students complete three-month field practicums, often in conflict areas, with a final return to share their findings in a capstone presentation to their Heller colleagues.

“Our students already understand the challenges of operating amid conflict,” says COEX Program Director and Alan B. Slifka Professor Alain Lempereur. “COEX is a career accelerator. A year here, plus their practicum, means they are much more muscled when they return to the field.”

They also have more perspective, adds Lempereur, who worked in Africa from 2003 to 2009, facilitating reconciliation in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The key question each of us faces is how do you build coexistence after a terrible history of conflict between two groups?”

It’s extremely challenging. But in sharing conflict narratives at COEX, students discover that such prolonged violence, no matter where, follows certain patterns.

“Every conflict results in terrible mistrust, trauma, and the destruction of basic services and infrastructure,” Lempereur explains. “And getting beyond that mistrust requires building trusted relationships and institutions. And it starts with constructive dialogue. That’s the peacebuilder’s primary role—facilitating a conversation with pragmatic attention to local realities.

In Burundi, where former enemies had to create an integrated security force, Lempereur engaged representatives of the army and rebel groups in dialogue. The Burundians devised a new army structure, figured out who should be de-mobilized, and re-integrated people into civilian life and made sure they had jobs. These were all practical objectives essential to building a professional army that included both Tutsi and Hutu soldiers and officers.

Such pragmatism resonates with former COEX student Isabella Jean, who grew up in Armenia during “the dark years” of the 1990’s, amid the post-Soviet economic collapse and struggles with Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. She began working to strengthen civil society initiatives in Armenia when she was 17. Later, seeking to train with people who had “been in the trenches,” she met Fitzduff and decided COEX was the perfect fit.

“It was clear that Mari really understood the difficult choices that conflict forces on you daily, when you find yourself in that gray zone after theories have been soiled by on-the-ground reality,” says Jean, now a senior global assistance consultant at CDA Collaborative Learning in Cambridge.

Today 200 COEX graduates from over 60 countries work with governments, NGOs, security forces, and other international organizations, including the U.N., the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

They include Christian Mani, a U.N. Mission member helping to monitor the peace agreement that ended Sudan’s civil war; Abdallah Ddumba, who co-founded the Uganda America Islamic Foundation and works to develop bridges between the Islamic faith and coexistence work; and Aejaz Karim, who is a youth development specialist with the Aga Khan Foundation in conflict-torn northern Pakistan.

Such work can be dangerous, Fitzduff admits. “Putting yourself between people who want to kill each other means you’re often in the line of fire.” 

But many COEX students are fiercely motivated to take on this difficult task precisely because of the unspeakable violence they have personally experienced, she adds.

“Some have witnessed their families being murdered in front of them,” she explains. “Yet they refuse to give up on their own countries. Instead, they come here, hoping to prevent similar atrocities against others. Our students are a great breed of courageous people.”

COEX founding donor Alan Slifka was also a fierce advocate for peace. A businessman who worked to promote coexistence in Israel and all over the world, Slifka (who died in 2011) saw beyond sheer idealism.

“Alan knew good intentions aren’t enough,” Lempereur says. “He had the vision that sustainable peace requires methods, structures and institutions, and that transformative peace-building produces tangible measurable results.” Slifka wanted COEX housed at Brandeis because of the University’s commitment to peace and social justice in the Middle East and the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

The evolving nature of world conflict has made the professionalization of peace-building more important than ever, Fitzduff says. “Most wars today are about identity, not international power. People are fleeing sectarian violence and, increasingly, climate change. Governments everywhere must learn to manage diversity and ensure equality now, because inclusive societies and coexistence are the only way to prevent violent conflict. Fortunately, our students have the training – and the courage – to take on this difficult work.”