This Sunday, on the back of the Lebanese football team’s unifying victory over South Korea last week, comes another sporting event capable of bringing together Lebanese of all backgrounds: the Beirut Marathon. Now in its ninth year, the marathon was originally conceived by Lebanese businesswoman May al-Khalil, who set up the Beirut Marathon Association in 1993 for that very purpose: to unite people from Lebanon’s various religious, political and social groups in a very public way, thus promoting her vision of a harmonious, prosperous society untainted by violence.
Sharing this vision are several Lebanon-based NGOs, which have organized teams of runners for this year’s race in an effort to promote their cause. At the heart of the BMA’s message of unity is a commitment to healing the scars of conflict forged during the 1975-95 Civil War and to promoting a culture of peace and positive interaction between previously warring factions. In light of this, the efforts and vision of the Permanent Peace Movement, an NGO founded by a group of Lebanese students at the height of the Civil War in 1986, make it a fitting participant in this year’s race.
As its name suggests, the PPM aims to build a lasting peace through nonviolent means. Under the leadership of Christine Foerch, who came to Lebanon as a filmmaker and journalist 15 years ago, the PPM has focused its efforts on educating the Lebanese youth about the Civil War, aiming to plant the seeds of nonviolent activism through various projects dedicated to upholding the memory of the war, and the destruction that was wreaked during that fateful period.
“We have a number of specific projects, promoting memory of the Civil War, forgiveness and reconciliation,” Foerch told The Daily Star’s Sports Weekly. “We have been working with high school students from all over the country We’ve set up lots of activities focused on memory and reconciliation.”
The PPM’s focus on the Civil War is born of the belief that young Lebanese need to be made aware of the devastating effect of war on the lives of ordinary people, and that only by confronting the reality of the past can the wounds and animosities forged by war be healed. In reflection of this, the PPM’s slogan reads: “Remember – Forgive – Change.”
The movements’ many projects, which have included documentary films, plays, concerts and rallies, are by no means solely dedicated to memory, however. For this Sunday’s marathon, the PPM will bring together 400 students of many faiths and social backgrounds from high schools across Lebanon to run in support of its cause.
“The marathon is one of the activities that we do to bring young people together,” explained Foerch. “The aim is to do one fun activity together, to strengthen dialogue between young people from different schools.”
In keeping with the movement’s broader philosophy, the message that the students will be promoting is one of peace and nonviolent interaction between different groups:
“The goal is to run against war. By running the marathon we hope to strengthen cooperation and promote dialogue,” said Foerch. The PPM’s message will be printed loud and clear on the t-shirts of the students, which will carry the slogan: “Run for peace – take war out of the competition.”
The Permanent Peace Movement is by no means the only group promoting the BMA’s vision of a peaceful, tolerant society in Lebanon and the wider region. Search hard among the myriad T-shirts on display Sunday and you’ll doubtless find those of UNESCO, which is supporting a number of participants, including 90 schoolchildren from the Spring of Life foundation, a charitable organization based in Burj Hammoud that provides free schooling for children whose parents could not afford to register them into the public school system. UNESCO will also be funding the youngest competitor in this year’s 40 km race, 17-year-old Christian Medlej, who is running in support of youth empowerment and the right to education.
Like the PPM, UNESCO is focusing its attention on the younger generation, through which it aims to foster a culture of peace and work for a better society: “UNESCO supports the running in general, with particular focus on the youth,” UNESCO spokesman Faris al-Khatib explained.
“People running for our cause are running for peace and for the betterment of the youth in society. The values that we are promoting are cultural diversity, accepting others, building peace, helping young people through education, and helping to create a better community. When people run for our cause, they are supporting this positive message.”
This message is reflected in the logo that UNESCO has specially designed for the event: a human figure made up of five different colors, symbolizing the spirit of social, cultural and religious diversity that the organization promotes.
The marathon, drawing together people from all of the country’s many diverse groups, as well as others from the wider Middle East region, would appear to be the perfect platform for UNESCO’s vision.
Moreover, UNESCO’s involvement in the marathon is no mere publicity exercise, as its support for the economically disadvantaged children at the Spring of Life shows. By covering the cost of the marathon fee for these children, UNESCO is enabling them to participate in a social activity as full Lebanese citizens, of no less worth than the politicians and other VIPs taking part. UNESCO’s support for the deprived children of Burj Hammoud shows the very real difference that the organization can make to people’s lives, and highlights the pettiness of the United States’ decision to cut its funding to the U.N. body in the wake of its recognition of the state of Palestine last month.
All charitable organizations are preoccupied to a large degree with the issue of funding, and those participating in this year’s Beirut Marathon are no different. Local charities like the PPM and the Spring of Life rely on the generous contributions of private donors to finance their worthy projects.
“Without our donors we couldn’t do anything,” said Christina Foerch, noting that the PPM has relied on financial support from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in her home country of Germany over the past six years. UNESCO’s support for the marathon, meanwhile, stems from its leaders’ appreciation of the vital role that the event plays as a way for Lebanese charities to get publicity. “We support the marathon because it is one of the biggest platforms for charities in Lebanon, with over 50 charities taking part,” Khatib explained.
With so many good causes being represented, and so many Lebanese dedicated to realizing an educated, harmonious and peaceful society gathering to share in the experience, the Beirut Marathon deserves recognition not only as one of Lebanon’s main sporting events, but also as a significant force for good for society as a whole.