Education as a tool for reconciliation — Armenian-Azerbaijani School for Peace
At a time when missiles are being launched and the fighting ensues between Armenian and Azerbaijani defence forces, I draw on the lessons from a Jewish-Arab school for peace to envision what co-existence might look like once both communities come together and start to live in peace, if and when that happens. Integrated schools with Armenian-Azerbaijani students should be at the heart of future peace and reconciliation efforts.
Since I first heard about Neve Shalom or Wahat al-Salam (‘Oasis of Peace’ in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively), a Jewish-Arab peace-building community established in 1970 (NSWAS, 1994), I have been childishly dreaming of an Armenian-Azerbaijani educational community that will lead the way in establishing sustainable peace in the South Caucasus. While there does not seem to be hope for peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the foreseeable future, both need to start planning for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the region where everyone can live peacefully.
Located at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the buffer zone between Israel proper and the West Bank (Nathan, 2007), Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is a small village where Jewish and Arab students participate in a peace education program (Feuerverger, 1998). In addition to being the first binational/bilingual primary school (pre-K to 6th grade) of its kind, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam also operates the School for Peace for adult learners, a spiritual community center, a museum, and a humanitarian aid program, among many other activities (AFNSWAS, n.d.). The main philosophy of this community is rather simple:
“[..] to be the setting for a school for peace … people would come here from all over the country to meet those from whom they were estranged, wanting to break down the barriers of fear, mistrust, ignorance, misunderstanding, preconceived ideas — all things that separate us — and to build bridges of trust, respect, mutual understanding, and, if possible, friendship.” (Hussar, 1989, 103)
The School for Peace “facilitates a process of socialization, familiarization, and acceptance, making them [students] aware of the inadequacies of their perception of the other in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict” (Shalom, 2006, 10). In other words, classrooms become a conduit for a dialogue and reckoning with ethnic/national self-identification. To borrow from this idea, how might lessons from Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam inform peaceful co-existence of Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh?
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that resulted in a war between Armenian armed forces and Azerbaijan between 1991–1994, escalated because of intensified ethnic violence and clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan (De Waal, 2013). While the recent escalations have come as a surprise to many, they are a result of exhausted dialogue between the warring parties.
The twenty six years of fruitless peace negotiations that followed the 1994 ceasefire have shown that the region is in dire need of genuine grassroots-level peace building similar to the Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam peace framework. This essay does neither address the past, nor attempt to point out blame on either side. Instead, I envision a future in which education serves as an instrument to restore sustainable peace among Armenians and Azerbaijanis, to reconcile their differences, and to find common ground.
As one of my favorite sociology professors likes to say, our job as researchers is to determine the social mechanism that gets us from A → B (see Fig 1 below). While one could use this thinking to understand how we ended up with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the first place, I’m going to focus on the future — the role of schooling as a social mechanism that can enable both societies to get from conflict (A) to peace (B). Needless to say, peace building is not an overnight process, yet an integrated school within the Armenian-Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh is the first step in that direction.
Educational initiatives that bring together Armenian-Azerbaijani communities are not unheard of. Most prominently, in the Georgian village of Tsopi ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis study in the same classrooms (RFE/RL, 2013). Since 2007, the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation has held regional dialogues that bring together youth from the South Caucasus to envision peaceful future of the region (Regional Dialogues, n.d.). Another example of an integrated school where Armenian-Azerbaijani youngsters study together is the Mirzoyevka village school in Marneuli region of Georgia (CIVILNET, 2013). Such examples of co-existence abound.
Nonetheless, integrated schooling with both ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani students is essentially non-existent in Nagorno-Karabakh. During the Soviet times, when Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived peacefully in Nagorno-Karabakh, the only space where students from both communities could study together was a minority of Russian-language schools. Due to the Soviet emphasis on ethnic identity formation and multilingualism (Grenoble, 2003), mother tongue education was the primary focus of schooling. This meant that the majority of Armenian and Azerbaijani students went to segregated schools based on their mother tongue.
What could a future integrated Խաղաղության դպրոց/Sülh məktəbi (‘School for Peace’ in Armenian and Azerbaijani, respectively) look like?
The foremost value of an integrated school, where Armenian and Azerbaijani students, teachers, and administrators come together, is in the constant dialogue, a public forum where nationalistic and ethnocentric narratives are replaced with mutual understanding. Classrooms where students are not focused on debating their side of the truth but are expanding their knowledge of the other. There are a number of essential components that make up the school infrastructure and academic administration to achieve this purpose.
- Access: enrollment to the Խաղաղության դպրոց/Sülh məktəbi should be open to Armenian and Azerbaijani families with school-aged children that express an interest in relocating to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Families will apply to live in a city/town/village in the region where students will be enrolled to go to the integrated school. The application process will consider the motivation and profile of the family based on their willingness to contribute to the reconciliation process in Nagorno-Karabakh. No merit-based and/or financial criteria will be used to make admission decisions. Priority will be given to the IDP and refugee families displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh as a result of the war.
- Budget & financing: governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan along with an international partner or a coalition of organizations will finance the Խաղաղության դպրոց/Sülh məktəbi. Students and their families will not be asked to make any money contributions toward the upkeep and maintenance of the integrated school. To ensure financial sustainability of the school, fundraising and charitable donations will be pursued.
- Curriculum: one of the central issues regarding the integrated School for Peace should involve academic planning and class materials for students. A task force comprised of Armenian and Azerbaijani education experts assigned to develop peace education curriculum must be the first step in this direction. There are two principles that should guide the curriculum design process. First, curriculum should provide a balanced mix of both Armenian and Azerbaijani narratives. All disagreements related to the content should be resolved by the experts before they make it into the curriculum. Rather than attempting to provide students with a sanitized ‘objective’ view, the curriculum should allow space for students to grapple with issues that are challenging, murky, and sometimes problematic on both sides. The second important principle should be the flipped classroom approach to curriculum design. Flipped classroom assumes that the students are in charge of curriculum design as much as the experts are. In other words, teachers and administrators have to work with students to understand what kind of knowledge and skills are important for students to master and make space for them in the curriculum.
- Medium of instruction: both Armenian and Azerbaijani languages will be taught in dual-language immersive classes where students will arrive with some proficiency of one of the languages (Armenian or Azerbaijani) and will start developing their proficiency of the other language. At first, using other familiar languages such as English, Georgian, Russian, Turkish, etc. students will slowly improve their understanding of both languages. Here is an example of what dual-language immersive classes look like in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.
- School leadership & teachers: the integrated school will be led by three co-directors appointed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani ministries of education on the basis of merit as well as third co-director who will be appointed by an international partner involved in financing/managing the initiative. All decisions affecting schoolwide policies should be made by the three co-directors. Beyond day-to-day operations, the school will have an advisory board similar to parent-teacher associations made up of community members representing both communities of Nagorno-Karabakh. The rest of the school administrators should be hired through a transparent application process open to all. Teaching staff should be hired based on their teaching qualifications and proficiency in the subject matter. Each class will be taught by one Armenian and one Azerbaijani teacher with similar subject matter expertise.
It is impossible to think of the Խաղաղության դպրոց/Sülh məktəbi in a vacuum. Just like Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, the School for Peace will exist within the social context and legacy of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies also need to enact educational interventions that will prepare their citizens living away from Nagorno-Karabakh for the reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. One of such policies might be the introduction of a peace education program at the elementary and primary levels of schooling. Inspired by the curriculum of the Խաղաղության դպրոց/Sülh məktəbi, such programs should include content that allow students to engage with the other side of the conflict and gain perspectives that might contradict their own view of the war rather than pushing for a singular discourse.
Seeking peace building through education amidst war and high nationalistic fervor might be naively optimistic, if not impossible. However, who would have thought a little peace-loving village community representing Jewish-Arab reconciliation in the 1970s could have been possible?! Peace building is a lengthy and costly process that entails sacrifices. After a recent arson attack on Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam that left the library and the school buildings severely damaged, one of the senior officials of the community noted in a press release:
“Buildings may have been burned, but our longing for peace and brotherhood is alive and well and we will continue our journey.” (Salaime, 2020)
Nothing can replace the loss of life during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But the fighting will have to stop one day and the reconciliation process will resume. As long as there are supporters of peaceful co-existence on both sides, the journey towards Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation is possible. The sooner we start, the earlier we will get there. And classrooms are one of the fewest spaces, if not the only ones, where consistent and peaceful exchange of ideas, knowledge, and genuine reconciliation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis can take place. We are here because education has been overlooked and ignored for far too long as a force for reconciliation. Now, the gargantuan task of advocating for integrated schooling lies on the shoulders of peace-promoting parties in Armenia and Azerbaijan.