How to prepare for international trips (like the “worst conflict in the world”)

March 2, 2017/ Article

I’ve trained in about two dozen different countries, most of them on multiple occasions.  Trainers at Training for Change are increasingly training internationally.  The last year other trainers have led major trainings in Turkey, the UK, and Thailand — with another trip soon to Colombia (where co-director Nico Amador will lead trainings with trans youth).

Because of my range of experiences, I wanted to offer some reflections on how to make the most of such training work — and do so by reflecting on my most recent trip to Israel/Palestine.

I received an e-mail from Paula Green from the Karuna Peacebuilding Center asking whether I would train with her in Israel/Palestine.  She explained that the group we would work with, Combatants for Peace, was organized by ex-combatants on both sides of the conflict: Israeli and Palestinian.  All were now committed to nonviolence and dialogue, but struggling to find their way (who wouldn’t be with a group of people who were, literally, shooting at each other not that long ago?).

She was upfront about some of the reasons she wanted me: she wanted someone who wouldn’t be unnerved if the exploded, would balance her demographically (i.e. young and male, likely most of the participants), and knew the content of the workshop — nonviolence — inside and out.
I now have to make a decision.  Yes, or no?

I’m not unnerved that there’s not a lot of detail about what we’ll do on the ground (“some kind of nonviolence workshop”).  On many occasions I have found that what we were told we were going to do had no correlation to what we would actually do anyway.  Rev. Dan Buttry and I were once asked to do “a few quiet trainings with student groups” only to find out that it was a backdrop for us to meet with high-level insurgent leaders for quiet diplomacy and pre-mediation.  Why would they risk any of that by putting it in e-mail to us?

Further, many cultures don’t share the high emphasis on planning that the US holds so dear.  I remember years ago showing up in Sierra Leone and asking our partner about the people coming to the workshop, which was happening the next day.  He was vague about numbers, general about workshop goals, and unclear who the participants were — and the more I pressed the more he retreated into vagueness.  Finally, he declared, “Why don’t we make some phone calls over at the office and find out.”  Inside my voice said: About time!

The office was about a mile away.  Naturally, we traveled by foot.  Along the way we kept getting stopped by strangers, friends, associates.  It seemed he would stop and talk every ten feet to somebody else, making sure to introduce me.  But my mind kept going to the office, where he could find out about the workshop.  I was beginning to get anxious, especially as he kept making diversions walking blocks out of our way to get to the office.

By the time we got to the office it was very late into the afternoon.  He didn’t end up making any phone calls, just looked in at his staff and made sure they got to meet me.

Not until the next day when the workshop started that I realized what all that was about: the walk was the organizing.  Many of the faces in the room were people we met along our journey.  The culture was vastly different: different relationships to time, informal versus formal, and flexibility versus rigid planning.

Okay, so if I don’t know much about the workshop, then what am I leaning on?  Relationship.

I am disoriented by having no relationship with the people from Combatants for Peace.  They know nothing about me and I know nothing about them.  I’d prefer to say yes based on having some relationship with this group.

But, I know Paula.  I know she has experience in the region and is eminently qualified, thoughtful, and deliberate.  I trust her.
I say yes.

Then wonder what I got myself into.

Paula sends me a list of about 10 books and 5 movies she suggests that I read.  I wrote back to her, “I won’t get to all of it, but I’ll definitely work my way through what I can.”  I can hear her laughing in her e-mail response, “If you could read all and see all of this in 2-3 weeks you would be in the wrong profession and should be a full time scholar. Nicer that you are not.”

Right.  I’m not trying to become an expert here.  I’m trying to get my bearings on the conflict: 1) so that I’m not a total idiot, especially on the names, big themes, and major historical moments; 2) I’m looking for cultural cues.  Especially in the documentaries (where it’s not scripted) I get to watch how people communicate with each other, the rhythm of speech and what it looks like when people are expressing emotion.

I’m especially on the lookout for things that may show up in the training room.  Are people quick to express emotion?  What does escalation of conflict look like?  What things look like escalation to me but aren’t to them (or vice versa)?  What feelings are people bringing in to the room?  What do people value that’s different from me?  What mainstreams and margins in their groups do I see?  How does gender look?  Age?  Is there a category called race?  How might people view my light-brown skin?  (The answer to the last one turns out to be everyone thinks I’m them, both Israeli or Palestinian.)

I start with the movies.  Good news: half of them are on Netflix.  Those get watched.

With the books I’m more choosey.  I always start with the Lonely Planet travel guide, because it’s such a dense overview in just a few pages.  Honestly, I read it twice to take as much as I can in.  They’re well-written, even if they aren’t detailed on politics.

So after finishing reading their parts on History, Culture, and Travel Tips, I look for a book that will cover the political situation.  I know that realistically I’ll only get one finished.  I choose one that is personal as it covers politics, religion, and history, and devour as much as I can.

Meanwhile, Paula and I meet our partners — Itamar from Israel and Mohammed from Palestine — for several Skype calls.  Surprise!  We soon learn we’re not doing a nonviolence training after all.  We’re going to help them with some internal strategic planning.  Or something like that.  It’s vague and, to be perfectly honest, confusing.  We’re not sure what we’re being asked to do anymore.

Since we don’t know what’s going on, we know we’re flying blind.  In a way, it’s a good reminder of a mantra I’ve picked up for these kinds of trips: I don’t understand what’s happening here.

It’s a useful mantra for people coming from arrogant countries like mine.  Even though I like to distance myself from my own countries’ policies, experience has taught me that I have picked up a lot of its arrogance nonetheless.  Like when a participant from Zimbabwe and I were talking politics.  With great ease we swapped observations, questions, and indictments on his countries’ political leadership.  But when I asked him his opinion on the upcoming US election, he responded, “It’s your country.  Your people should decide your own fate.”  What a contradiction to my imperial arrogance that my opinion, simply because I have it, matters.
Humility isn’t a value USers are generally taught.  So I try to teach myself Humility, Going with the Flow, and Relaxing (rather than insisting) in the Face of Uncertainty.

Okay, so I don’t really get what’s happening — either with the training or with the politics of the region.  In both cases, I’ll do my best to learn.

What I’m learning during this trip is actually not as frightening as I thought it would be.  All through my life I’ve been told that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the worst conflict in the world.  That it’s intractable.  And that it cannot be solved because of thousand-year old conflicts rooted in religion.

The sense of history certainly has been part of the reason I’ve never done work in this region, even in solidarity work here in the US.  A friend of mine has recently challenged me on this.  “You’ve supported movements all over the world, but why never this one?”  She’s not quite furious, but she’s certainly passionate as she waves her hands at me.

I’m now glad she asked me that question.  The answer I gave her was accurate and helpful to me to sort my own internal feelings, “I admit I’ve been scared off by the sense of history.  I feel like if I even take one step into having an opinion I have to defend myself — and that to defend my opinion I’d need at least 100-years of history.  I’d need to talk with knowledge about borders, past failed negotiations, and detailed political history.  If I say I think it’s wrong to take people’s land — which as a general moral principle I do — I’ve somehow sided with one people completely and now get pelted for that opinion.  It’s just easier to stay out of it.”

Both my friend and I think about this.  I realize also that activists in this country need to help well-meaning but ignorant people like me find easier ways into understanding the conflict.
Despite that reservation, I’m now entering into the fray .

It’s now a week before I’m leaving.  I meet with people who work on the issue and throw tons of questions at them.  I am like a scientist, consciously trying to make guesses or hypotheses about the group I’ll be working with.  Are they coy about the goals of the workshop with us because they don’t trust USers?  Or is it cultural?  Or maybe a bad previous experience?  Is the fact the Palestinian has stopped giving feedback on Skype a sign of Israeli domination or a sign of giving up or bad connection or something else?  I don’t have (and may never have) hard answers — just guesses.

Paula and I are finishing touches on a training agenda — an agenda which we assume might be thrown out the moment we touch down.

The trouble with my mantra – I don’t understand what’s happening here — and training work, is that training work requires judgment calls.  In the agenda, do we spend more time having people share their story of how they decided to stop being a combatant?  Or, do we spend that time debriefing a timeline of their work? 

Here it becomes tricky.  We always listen to our partners (“yes,” they say in unison, “telling our stories is fundamental to being Combatants for Peace”).  But that doesn’t mean we always agree or go along with it.
Like when they explained their ritual for story-telling.  Two Israeli and two Palestinians tell their story in front of the whole workshop (which we learn is seventy people!).  At 15-minutes a story, including time for translation, that takes about an hour.

We balk, and re-assert that we like our design more: where people in small groups — half Israeli and half-Palestinian — each tell their story.  It’s a classic US value of individualism and equality (“each person gets equal time, and each person learns their story is important and sees how it connects to others”).

They aren’t certain it’s a good idea.

The fact I keep insisting shows my goal isn’t to be a cultural chameleon.  But I want to pick as few places to disagree as possible, and to only disagree when I think something is at stake.  Again, it’s a guess, and if they’re inflexible on the point, I’ll have to reconsider: do we relent on this point, or do we fight for it, certain this is a good direction?
We keep pushing and they eventually agree to our design of each person sharing their story.  (Afterwards they report it was a huge success and plan to keep doing it!  People who previously were shy to tell their story do so, and experience greater self-confidence.)

But on many other points we quickly relent, either because they are the experts on their own situation (“okay, if you want more time spent on identifying core changes to make in how CFP operates, that’s what we’ll do”), or because they better understand the cultural and internal needs of the group (“yes, please lead the morning theatre of the oppressed session”).

I should point out, I don’t always get into negotiating the design with groups.  Like when I train in Nagaland, India, the folks know me and we have strong rapport.  So largely, they tell me themes and I repeat those themes back to them and if I got it right then we’re done.  They never look at the design, though I may ask them advice on tools if I’m uncertain about its effectiveness or relevance.  In all cases, we check-in frequently during the workshop.

In the end, we develop a design we all like.

Working with Combatants for Peace turns out to be fun.  I have no trouble getting in the country, despite my fears.  The group is large but lively, attentive, and amazingly patient as we translate through three languages (Arabic, Hebrew, and English).  It’s tiring, of course, as anyone who has led a group of seventy people in a hot conflict know.

Periodically Paula and I remind ourselves how this group is wholly unique: ex-fighters in the midst of a current violent and active conflict doing reconciliation and peace work together.  It’s a rarity — certainly a group that deserves high-quality training.  We focus on each moment, continuing to observe and learn.

From the first moment, I can see where my research pays off.  For the first task I invite them to create small groups to craft a timeline of the organization.  I tell people to create small groups based on people they know less well.

Someone immediately raises her hand: “This way of getting into small groups is wrong.  We should go to our local groups that we already know.”  Another raises their hand and adds, “This isn’t the right way.  First we should see who speaks both Hebrew and Arabic so we can create groups around them.”  Another and another suggest alternatives.

I’m not phased by what seems to me disagreeableness.  After watching the movies, this looks more like people’s giving opinions, not challenging my credibility or dismissing me through resistance.

I try to match culturally with a response equally direct and directive: “No, my method is better because it doesn’t make it easy, and makes you have to talk to lots of people to figure it out.”  To my pleasant surprise this works and they back off cheerily.

I do things I always do: try to build a strong relationship with the interpreter (in a way they have more influence than anyone in the room), give lots of examples while setting up exercises since my instructions may not be clear to them (or be translated clearly, or make sense culturally), and maintain through the training the position of intuition and guesses, and not assuming that I’ve figured them out.

I try to look engaged during the breaks.  Even though language prevents me from talking to almost half the room, I want people to see that I’m interested in making connections with both sides, including the Palestinians who tend to speak less English than the Israelis.  I spend free time talking with the only two Palestinian women who are quiet during the large sessions (they participate more after this).

Some moments are sheer break-through moments: like Paula opening up a fishbowl — a circle of chairs in the center of the room — where people report-back on what needs to change in their organization.  The group deepens and gets honest (“you Israelis always think you can plan for us Palestinians, but it doesn’t work”).  We see that after this the dynamic shifts: while Israelis still talk more, we see more Palestinians participating fully in the small group discussions.

True to a strategic planning workshop, the group makes huge strides in its internal planning.  Some of the goals we don’t fully understand — but they do.  And it’s not our group anyway.  The make plans.  Agreements.  Skits to cheer each other on.

It’s not until the end of the second day we are told this is the first time they have met without a major blow-up.

We also learn there’s a history of outside facilitators not being effective and, in fact, the entire Palestinian delegation walking out because it was so bad (“but the Israelis liked it”).  That may explain the reticence we experienced in the first couple of weeks as we tried to understand our role and the goals of the workshop.  It was caution borne from experience.

Surprising to Paula and I, we essentially stuck to the design, with only minor tweaks along the way.

“Best training seminar we’ve ever had.  Everyone loved it.  Thank you so much.”

Cross-cultural work is a giant world with tons of lessons.  TFC has some good handouts (see, which describe other lessons like: finding out if the culture has rituals during the day (e.g. welcoming rituals or prayer times), showing flexibility about time since few cultures are as rigid as US culture, or the importance of introducing yourself early-on as someone who has (if it’s true) actively done something to challenge US foreign policy.

But I hope some of the lessons are valuable: doing research ahead of time, interviewing people who know the situation, staying flexible and also sticking up for your field of expertise, even while holding out the tension that culture means you don’t really understand much of what’s happening, too.

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