Story of a passionate Norwegian Diplomat in Syria

Christian Gahre (UWC Adriatic, 1996-1998) is the Deputy Head of Mission of the Norwegian Embassy in Damascus, Syria. In his role, he has three main tasks: to provide the Norwegian government with a grounded analysis of ongoing political, humanitarian and security developments in Syria; to promote humanitarian action for all Syrians affected by the conflict; and to promote dialogue among Syrians that may help shorten the conflict and prepare for the rebuilding of the country.

“As a diplomat I feel it’s a privilege to have this job as I believe an essential aspect of diplomacy is to keep channels of peaceful communication open even in the most dramatic situations of violence and war. And I think that without the UWC experience I might not have held this belief with such confidence” he says. “Because if there is one thing that attending a UWC really did for me, it was to nurture the conviction that peaceful communication is always a possibility, and that this holds tremendous potential for positively transforming any situation of conflict. Even when it obviously doesn't produce results - and perhaps especially then - it’s crucial to keep communicating, as it’s one of the very few ways of discovering those fleeting and fragile opportunities for peace.”

Many countries in the West and the Middle East broke diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus following its violent crackdown on the social and political protests which erupted in 2011.  While suspending the operation of the embassy in Damascus and evacuating staff in 2012, Norway didn’t sever ties, and since 2013, Norwegian diplomats have conducted missions to Damascus to have meetings with government officials, civil society representatives, the UN and the wider humanitarian community, as well as other diplomats. Increasingly, Norwegian diplomats, unlike colleagues from most other countries, have also gone on field visits with humanitarian actors, such as the UN, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as the Norwegian Refugee Council.  

“The two Norwegian diplomats working at the embassy in Damascus - the Head of Mission and I - are currently based in Beirut, but visit Damascus and other locations in Syria almost on a weekly basis. Together with our colleagues based at other embassies in the region, we speak to representatives of different sides and affected parties of the conflict in Syria. We try to build our understanding of the situation on as broad a spectrum of first-hand engagements as possible.  And through these engagements, we work to promote the causes of humanitarian action and dialogue.”   

Such a role is often played by Norway in other conflicts as well, and it is facilitated by being a relatively small and resourceful country which doesn’t tend to be perceived as a threat to anyone. “In a conflict as massive and complex as the one in Syria, however, the terrain is particularly treacherous for any actor who wants to engage” Christian explains. “The narratives about the conflict tend to be quite polarised, and especially loudly so in international political foras, but also in the media. This contributes to an atmosphere where broad-based dialogue may be viewed with suspicion, or is deemed futile. This is perhaps understandable when you consider the parties’ willingness to use violence and the magnitude of the consequences of the conflict - first and foremost in humanitarian terms for millions of Syrians. And then there are the waves of refugees that have made their impact on politics in Europe and elsewhere, the destabilising implications of the war for Syria, the region and the world, as well as the regional and geopolitical rivalries that are played out through proxy forces in Syria.”  

In this context, Christian says that it makes a huge difference seeing with one’s own eyes the situation on the ground, meeting some individuals among the millions whose lives are being turned upside down, and talking to persons who are part of the decision-making processes which keep the war going on, or who are contributing to the relief efforts, or attempts to broker local deals which may reduce the violence in some areas. “The story that emerges from these encounters on the inside frequently contradict, and always add nuance to, the often polarised narratives that one hears on the outside.”

“There is also a positive feedback loop involved in having these direct engagements, as you can build on your insights, networks and the trust earned to reach further and deeper, and hopefully end up in interactions which may have some positive consequences.  The hope is that on the basis of one’s advice, aid money may be put to better use than it would otherwise have been. And that some Syrians, as a result of political or financial support, might be better placed to take the risk of pursuing the avenue of dialogue rather than continued conflict.”

When asked what makes him choose this professional path he does, Christian said: For as long as I can remember, I have had a strong curiosity about the world outside Norway, and in particular the Middle East. Quite possibly this was because I grew up in a home where the news was always on and being discussed. As a child in the 1980s, the vivid journalism covering the civil war in Lebanon or the Palestinian intifada somehow captured my attention long before I could understand what any of it meant. But, several years later, during my early teens, as my ideas about what I might want to do in life began to form, they centred around becoming a foreign correspondent, an international aid worker, or a diplomat.  

At the age of eleven, a teacher showed me an advertisement in the local newspaper for a one-month summer camp with the organisation Children’s International Summer Villages. I immediately told my parents I wanted to go, attended a trial camp organised by the local CISV chapter, and ended up as the lucky member of a delegation of two girls, two boys and an adult leader representing Norway at a camp in Fukushima, Japan, during the summer of 1990. It was in a CISV members’ magazine that I first read about UWC, where a CISVer told her story of attending Pearson College. To me it almost sounded too good to be true; a CISV-like experience on a much larger scale that doubled as a fantastic education opportunity.  I was overjoyed when I received the news that I had been admitted to UWC Adriatic, which I then attended during 1996-1998.

Christian has very fond memories about his experience at UWC, which had a “wonderfully horizon-expanding effect” on him. Living in such an incredible diverse community of students and teachers - in terms of talent, life stories, perspectives, language, religion, politics, knowledge, personalities, memories and dreams - represented an opportunity to intimately experience what it means to be part of ‘a common humanity’. The community service where we were documenting the personal history of a WWII concentration camp survivor, as well as the conflict resolution classes I took in the evenings, added significantly to this experience, strengthening my wish to dedicate my professional life to some form of public service. A formative lesson that I drew from this was that peaceful communication always remained a possibility, and had transformational potential.

The history classes were, for me, a particularly inspiring part of the academic curriculum. The fact that we read a selection of different texts produced by professional historians, rather than, as would be the case in many countries including my own, sticking to one history book, meant that we were exposed to the crucial importance of the validity of different perspectives on the same historical events. The effect of this was further enhanced by the richness and diversity of knowledge and views found among the students. I don’t think I would have had as much patience and curiosity to sit and listen to the conflicting world views of people I have met in my jobs as a humanitarian worker or diplomat had it not been for the history classes at UWC."

For Christian, UWC was also an arena for community engagement, and at times a conflictual space where positions on local as well as global politics clashed. The student body diversity, combined with the high levels of capacity for making one’s arguments heard, contributed to charged and challenging debates in school newspapers, student council meetings or seminars on contentious political issues.  This provided opportunities to sharpen one’s debating and organisational skills, but also to form more nuanced and robust opinions about what it would take to contribute to the kind of change in the world one would like to see.

The teachers were generally quite amazing, very stimulating and incredibly knowledgeable, but the Headmaster and founder of the school, Mr Sutcliffe, or DBS, was a particularly important figure in my experience. An effect of that relationship that stands out is what I can only express as ‘becoming an adult’. That is of course a very big statement, and such a result (if it were indeed the case!) would have been the consequence of a number of factors. And, on the other hand, one might of course simply expect such a process to happen at around the age of 17 to 19.  However, I do believe it was hugely important for me that he treated me as an adult right from the start. I was not treated as an adult in the sense of his expecting of me whatever one might expect from a more fully-formed grown-up, but by sternly and affectionately affirming the importance of integrity and independent judgment, and the mutual respect that those character traits entail.

Developing strong friendships, and sharing intense and life-changing experiences, with people from all corners of the world, meant a tremendous boost to one’s social life there and then, and probably for a lifetime. It also stimulated a capacity to nurturing relationships across diversities and divides which would be very helpful in the international careers I ended up pursuing.

The sum of all of the gains of the UWC experience, I believe, was a belief in the positive power of humanity, and a heightened sense of belonging to the world which meant seeing opportunities for engagement and commitment which otherwise would not have been imaginable.”