Could This Former Soldier Help to Stitch Together Peace After ISIS?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s trying to convince kids in war-torn regions to give peace a chance.
It was nearly sundown on a summer Thursday, and Mark Clark needed a run. Exiting the lobby of the U.N. Plaza Hotel, he started at a brisk pace amid swirling thoughts of U.N. agencies, plans for the international nongovernmental organization he oversees and his wife’s impending delivery of twins. He picked up speed and completed six miles before heading back — a brief respite before work demands and fatherhood would pin him down.
But Clark, 43, the seemingly unflappable former soldier and Edinburgh-trained lawyer who leads Generations for Peace (GFP), a global peace-building initiative founded by Jordan’s Prince Feisal Ibn Al-Hussein — King Abdullah II’s younger brother — didn’t show any signs of fatigue. In fact, he was still on message as we jogged along the East River. “We aim at an understanding that peace is a process, not a destination,” Clark said, drawing from speeches he’d made to the U.N. powers that be earlier that day.
Operating under a topsy-turvy world order when he was tapped to run GFP just before the Arab Spring in 2011, Clark already had a hefty mandate in convincing youth to give peace a chance. Jump to today’s global turmoil and it’s either Clark’s perfect storm, or a tempest that could knock him and GFP off their ballast. In May, amid suicide attacks from ISIS and other fundamentalist groups in London, Kabul and Iran, the Trump administration proposed scrapping U.S. grants to programs whose missions include “countering violent extremism” (CVE) — a key area of work for GFP — to redirect money to organizations that focus exclusively on Islamic extremism.
If Clark were to incorporate an “Islam” focus to amplify GFP’s CVE projects around the world, the organization stands to receive more American dollars. But if he stays true to his conviction that “Islam is not the common thread of terrorist attacks,” Clark and groups like GFP could see their U.S. donors move toward more radical, less effective organizations.
When you face GFP’s army of young, articulate, peace-pushing volunteers, then you understand that something big is going on here.
Jean-Christophe Nothias, editor-in-chief of Global Journal
Speaking by phone a month before Trump’s announcement, Clark stressed that violent extremism springs from “a core dynamic: the dream of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship.” An April study, focused on GFP’s backyard in Jordan and run by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, backs Clark’s theory. It found that economic deprivation, substandard education and the presence of radical Islamist discourse contribute to the problem, “but the fundamental concern is that Jordan’s booming youth population has no emotive attachment to Jordanian identity and thus little stake in political order.”
With satellite offices in Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Bosnia, GFP is headquartered in Amman, Jordan, a country hosting 1.4 million Syrian refugees that is also the third-largest contributor of foreign fighters to the conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq. To support its volunteers, GFP maintains a network of mentors providing advice and encouragement in the peace-building process. “Many other NGOs and organizations offer trainings, but do so little in follow-up that they come to be viewed as CV-building exercises to get a job or scholarship overseas,” Clark said. GFP, by contrast, builds long-term relationships with its volunteers and invests in their ongoing development.
Founded in 2007, Generations for Peace relies on a mentoring model to draw youth away from groups like ISIS, al-Qaida, Ansar al-Sharia and Hezbollah that appeal to their idealism while offering to pay them for “glamorous” jobs. GFP helps young people resist the lure of extremist indoctrination by giving them reasons to stay and make their communities more resilient and harmonious. It recruits volunteers from conflict areas and trains them in peace-building, fund-raising and community mobilization, then sends those volunteers into towns to teach teenagers about unity and collaboration through team sports or art projects. GFP then relies on those students to grow into teachers for future generations.
Clark, who was working in Iraq as an advisor to the National Olympic Committee, came to the nonprofit through a happenstance meeting with Prince Feisal, then president of the Jordan Olympic Committee. But it’s Clark’s background as a captain in the British Army that makes him a near-perfect fit for the job, according to Jean-Christophe Nothias, editor-in-chief of the Geneva-based Global Journal. Once Clark consolidated his key resources at GFP, Nothias says he conducted a “forced march” over a three-year period to scale up operations in the Middle East.
Still, there are major challenges — like Syria’s border camps, where some 80,000 refugees rely on dribs and drabs of international aid, or pay off guards so they can leave and stake a new claim with nothing but their sand-blasted U.N. tarps. Into this setting, on a Saturday in late October, three college-age GFP volunteers arrived at a community center in Mafraq, a storefront strip near Zaatari, to coach a group of Syrian and Jordanian teenage girls in the art of acceptance.
“When I first got here, I was hiding my nationality to gain friends,” said Haneen, a 16-year-old refugee from Homs, Syria. “My sister left the school because she hated it — she didn’t feel she fit in.” At this, Haneen turned to her Jordanian friend Fati, who said she came to the GFP sessions “just to see Haneen.”
Skeptics might question whether such an unlikely friendship will endure, but Clark is sold on exchanges such as these. Nothias agrees: “Asking youths rather than governments to bring about peace may sound a bit naive,” he says. “But when you face GFP’s army of young, articulate, peace-pushing volunteers, then you understand that something big is going on here.”