2023 HONOURABLE MENTION
Lea Baroudi | Lebanon
In 2015, Lebanese youth from two sides of a decades-old conflict came together to stage a play. Love and War on the Rooftops – A Tripolitan Tale is a comedy inspired by their lives in the northern city of Tripoli. At first, the youth came to rehearsals armed. They had to leave their knives and guns in a garbage bag at the door. After months of rehearsals, they went from enemies to friends and performed to sold-out audiences across Lebanon. At the final performance, one of the actors takes a selfie with the cast. Behind them, a diverse audience gives a standing ovation. In the centre is Lea Baroudi.
Lea Baroudi is a peace mediator and the co-founder and director of MARCH, a non-profit organization that uses art, culture and social enterprise to foster reconciliation and dialogue between opposing groups in Lebanon.
In Tripoli, the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood are separated by a single street. Once a symbol of the city’s prosperity, Syria Street became a demarcation line in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and has served as the front line in a generations-old conflict between these two communities. Between 2008 and 2014, violence erupted repeatedly, leaving hundreds dead, thousands displaced, and the city’s infrastructure destroyed. When war broke out in neighbouring Syria in 2011, hostilities intensified and Tripoli’s neighbourhoods became the site of proxy battles. The gun battles abated in 2014, but an economic crisis and deep-seated sectarian divides remain.
While working with youth in the play, Baroudi saw that the sectarian conflict was primarily caused by extreme poverty and marginalization. Youth had no community spaces or means to earn an income apart from fighting. In response, she opened a cultural café on the former frontlines of the conflict. More than a café, Kahwetna is the first space for members of both neighbourhoods to collaborate on creative projects and access economic opportunities. MARCH also created two social enterprises: Kanyamakan Designs, which teaches furniture-making, embroidery and wood painting; and the BEDCO Construction Initiative, which involves youth in restoring homes and businesses damaged by conflict.
For her courage and commitment to building trust between warring communities, Lea Baroudi has received numerous awards, including being recognized by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire. For Baroudi, however, the most powerful reward comes from witnessing the personal transformations: seeing gun-wielders become actors, artists and carpenters, or high-school dropouts become leaders of reconciliation.