Voices of the Peacebuilders, Part 1: Women as Peacebuilders

This is the first of a two-part series called the Voices of the Peacebuilders, on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working at the grassroots, within communities. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part series will outline points from each lecture and provide a video link. The first, held on October 16 and hosted by the Faculty of Education, was entitled: “From the Grassroots to the Negotiating Tables: The Case for Women as Peacebuilders.”

Women are so often excluded from the high-level peace negotiating tables and their efforts for peace are largely ignored in the mainstream news, despite making up half of the population, and often bearing the brunt of conflict. Yet this has not stopped women from being innovators and champions for peace within their communities, including within MCC’s partners.

We must bring these voices to the table and make the case for women as innovators and leaders, working for peace, from the grassroots to the negotiating table.

Join me on a brief world tour to see snapshots of some of this work, and let me introduce you to some of these women peacebuilders, from Colombia to Nigeria and from South Sudan to Palestine and Israel.

Mampujan Colombia: Weaving history and speaking peace

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A quilt depicting the forced displacement of 2000. MCC Colombia’s office in Bogota.

On Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, meet the Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavors, a group of women from the small Afro-Colombian community of Mampujan. In 2000 this entire community was forcibly displaced, as part of Colombia’s 50+ years armed conflict, leaving the community traumatized.  In response, MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz, together with the community, developed a healing project in which women, working together, sewed quilts, depicting the story of their displacement. As the women stitched, they shared their hurts, and, in doing so, they not only found healing, but a passion to work for justice.

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Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavours of Peace of Mampuján win a national peace prize in Colombia, 2015. Photo, Anna Vogt, thellamadiaries.com

The women then decided to create a series of quilts, depicting the entire history of their community, including ancestors arriving on slave ships, independence, forced displacement, and dreams for the future. They have shared these quilts with other Colombian communities who have also undergone trauma in the armed conflict, and the women of Mampujan have received national and international recognition for these efforts. Much work remains, but the women of Mampujan have led the way in a movement for healing, peace and justice. Read more about Mampujan’s story here.

Jos, Nigeria: Inter-faith bridgebuilding for a common goal of peace

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Amina Ahmed (second from the right) with MCC staff (left to right) Charles Kwuelum (MCC Washington, D.C.), Kati Garrison (MCC UN) and Bekah Sears (MCC Ottawa) on a 2016 visit to Jos, Nigeria. Photo, Ben Weisbrod.

In Jos, Nigeria we meet Amina Ahmed, a local leader in interfaith peacebuilding, and an avid supporter of MCC partner Emergency Preparedness Response Team (EPRT), a joint Christian and Muslim organization responding to crises by addressing conflict at its roots. Because Jos is on the dividing line, of sorts, between the Christian South and Muslim North in Nigeria, it has often been at the epicenter of multiple acute outbursts of violence between Christians and Muslims, creating deep animosity. Yet Amina, along with others, are seeking to change these dynamics and bring people together in peace.

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Amina Ahmed, director of a women’s peace organization, leads a nonviolence training supported by MCC in Jos, Nigeria, 2015. MCC photo, Dave Klassen.

But Amina was not always a leader in these efforts. As a Muslim, Amina was traumatized by violence carried out by Christians against Muslims, including her brother’s murder in 2001. For months she felt deep rage and fear, wanting revenge, seeking out groups planning violent attacks against Christians. But, at her father’s urging, Amina attended an interfaith peace workshop. Seeing both Muslims and Christians working together for peace, Amina’s heart was transformed. Since then she has become a champion for peace across religious or ethnic divides in Nigeria. Read more about Amina’s story here.

Rumbek, South Sudan: “The weak become strong”

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Loreto Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman.

On to Rumbek, South Sudan, where leadership in peacebuilding comes from a group perceived as the “weakest” in society, i.e. girls and young women. South Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since 2013, displacing millions and civilians are often the deliberate targets of violence. But there are also deep cycles of violence and oppression within communities, particularly targeting girls. This includes early forced marriage, deeply tied to the importance of cattle ownership. Male relatives force girls into marriage to reclaim the cattle debt the girls’ fathers would have accumulated for their own marriage dowries.

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Loreto Peace Club members, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek, MCC supports peace clubs aimed at fostering inter-personal conflict resolution skills, in the recognition that lasting peace begins at the community level. Peace club members then initiated community-based trauma healing and reconciliation groups, within the wider community called Listening Circles: safe spaces to share trauma and grievances, while fostering reconciliation. An MCC worker describes these young women as “a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.” Read more about Loreto peace clubs here.

Nazareth, Palestine and Israel: Stitching reconciliation and standing up for human rights

The final stop takes us to a church basement in Nazareth with Violette Khoury, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the director of MCC partner Sabeel’s Nazareth office. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population of the country. Although Palestinians are citizens, Violette describes state laws which discriminate against them with respect to land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights and more. But most of all, Violette laments both deteriorating relations in between Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Nazareth, as well as a dominant narrative that denies the history and roots of the Palestinian people in the region.

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

In response, Violette started a project for local women, both Christians and Muslims and even Jewish Israelis, to learn ancient stitching techniques that were once commonplace in Nazareth. In this project Violette hopes to bring unity and reconciliation, all while reclaiming the history of the Palestinian people in the region. She says, “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage. But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” In addition, by inviting Jewish Israelis she hopes to extend reconciliation efforts and cross barriers that seem insurmountable. Read more of the context in which Violette works here.

Conclusion: Will we follow their lead?

On November 1, 2017, after many consultations and civil society and parliamentary input, the Canadian government launched its second Canadian National Action Plan (C-NAP) on implementing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This is hopeful news.

The first objective of the CNAP – one which our Ottawa Office staff will be watching closely– calls for the “increase of meaningful participation of women, women’s organizations and networks in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict state-building.”

In the meantime, in addition to monitoring governmental action on women and peacebuilding, our task is clear. We continue learning, telling the stories, spreading the word, and standing in solidarity with these and other peacebuilders around the world, making the case for women peacebuilders, from the grassroots all the way to the negotiating tables.

Watch the full lecture here 

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Dr. Ottilia Chareka (Photo St FX University) This lecture, the 6th Annual Dr. Ottilia Chareka Memorial Lecture in Education and Social Justice was given in her honour. Tragically, Ottilia was killed in 2011. Ottilia was a long-time friend of mine (Rebekah) and I was both humbled and honoured to help carry on her legacy.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office

10 + 1 reasons to oppose war

Remembrance Day—and, for Anabaptist-Mennonites, Peace Sunday—is once again upon us. It is the season to mourn the loss of human life in war. And the season to commit, once again, to building a culture of peace.

Resistance to war is part of the very heart of MCC.  As an agency of Anabaptist-Mennonite churches, MCC holds to the confession that war and participation in war are counter to the way of Jesus.  For us, resistance to war is at the core of our identify as pacifist Christians.

But there are many other reasons to oppose war.  And we suspect that many Canadians—who may not share our theological commitments—can nevertheless affirm these reasons.

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War’s destruction in Homs, Syria. MCC photo/Doug Enns

  1. War kills and harms soldiers. War kills, injures and disables the very people who must carry it out. It causes high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can lead to moral injury as well – namely, the deep shame, guilt, anger or anxiety experienced by soldiers as a result of killing or harming others. Some soldiers may commit suicide. Since 2010, 130 Canadian soldiers have taken their own lives.
  2. War kills and harms civilians. In the 20th century, some 200 million people were killed in war, and many millions have already been killed in this century. War not only kills, it also mains people, separates family members, causes disease, hunger and other forms of deprivation. Toxic substances released by some weapons result in severe birth defects, long after wars are officially over. Another frequent weapon of war is rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls. The human cost of war is staggering and the impacts extend over generations.
  3. War creates refugees. War causes people to flee their homes for safety, sometimes crossing an international border. The UN currently reports that around the world 65 million people are forcibly displaced. The personal upheaval for these individuals is profound, the social and political consequences breath-taking.
  4. War harms the natural environment. War contaminates earth, air and water. It destroys natural habitats, killing their flora and fauna. The use of Agent Orange by the U.S. to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside continues to wreak havoc on Vietnam decades later, while use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq will mean radioactive contamination for thousands of years to come. Even in peacetime, standing armies harm the environment because of their enormous carbon footprint.
  5. War’s financial cost is enormous. Consider these statistics: Canada’s 12-year military engagement in Afghanistan cost $8.4 billion, while U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (and related violence in Pakistan and Syria) from 2001 to 2016 cost about $4.8 trillion. The Institute for Economics & Peace determined that in 2016, the impact of violence (including war) to the global economy was $14.3 trillion per day – the equivalent of more than $5 per day for every person alive. What might be possible if those funds were invested in peacebuilding rather than war-making?
  6. War sets back development. The destruction of homes, schools and hospitals, as well as transportation, electrical, water treatment and sanitation systems in wartime can set back economic, social and community development for decades. Wars prevent farmers from farming, children and youth from going to school and ordinary people from going to work. A typical civil war in a medium-sized country costs more than 30 years of GDP growth. No wonder the United Nations in 2015 identified the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies as one of its key Sustainable Development Goals.
  7. War empowers the weapons dealers. War is good business for those who manufacture and trade in weapons and weapons system. In 2015 just 100 companies sold $370 billion worth of arms, and just one company —U.S.-based based Lockheed Martin—had $36 billion in sales. Weapons dealers often have undue influence on politics and foreign policy. In 1961 outgoing U.S. President Eisenhower warned against the power of the “military-industrial complex” to perpetuate war; in many ways, his predictions have come to pass.
  8. War distorts truth. In 1918, U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson’s 1919 stated, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” How very true! War promotes prejudices and stereotypes about people considered “enemy” and often portrays the enemy as less than human, thereby legitimizing the use of violence against them. War reduces moral categories to the simple binary of “we are good, they are evil.” Nuanced public discussion becomes increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible.
  9. War does not address root causes. While war may end in some measure of “peace” if accompanied by comprehensive peace negotiations, it rarely addresses the grievances that give rise to it, whether hunger, class division, religious or ethnic conflict, access to land and resources, political exclusion, etc. Because of this, many wars lead to new wars. The war against ISIS, for example, is rooted in the Iraq War, which is rooted in the Gulf War.
  10. peace buttonsThere are many nonviolent alternatives to war. Diplomacy, dialogue, disarmament, development, conflict resolution, peace education and strategic peacebuilding are only a few of the nonviolent approaches available to prevent war and thereby avoid war’s horrific consequences. A growing body of expertise also points to nonviolent alternatives to addressing terrorist and extremist violence. States and societies truly interested in peace have many nonviolent tools and approaches at their disposal!

Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”  Many reasons confirm his words.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office.

Download MCC’s 2017 Peace Sunday Packet: Praying for Peace.

The Legacy of Balfour: 100 years since the Declaration

This piece was originally published by MCC Palestine, November 2, 2017.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”[1]

Today, November 2, 2017, marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. For many observers of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, this declaration by the British government is ground zero. Issued towards the end of the First World War, the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised to support the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine. The Zionists, who sought such a homeland for the Jews, hailed this as a major victory. On the other hand, the declaration would spell catastrophe for the native inhabitants of Palestine.

At the time of the Balfour Declaration, “more than 600,000 Arabs and a good 55,000 Jews were living in Palestine, so more than 90% were Arabs.”[2] Increased Jewish immigration, facilitated by the British, led these demographics to shift towards the time of the infamous United Nations partition plan in 1947, which gave over 50% of the land to Jews who comprised only a third of the population of Historic Palestine.[3] Following the adoption of the resolution, armed conflict in Palestine erupted. As the State of Israel was established in 1948, Jewish militias carried out expulsion campaigns that displaced between 700,000 and 900,000 native Palestinians from their homes and lands. Palestinians call this time in their history “the Nakba,” which translates into English as “the Catastrophe.”

Violette Khoury, a Palestinian Christian woman who helps run the Nazareth chapter of Sabeel, an MCC partner organization, talks about what it is like to be a dispossessed people. She explains that the common Zionist expression of Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land,” is simply not true. “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage,” she exclaims, “But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” The Balfour Declaration was a denial of the Palestinians and their existence on the land. The declaration was “one nation solemnly promising to a second nation the country of the third.”[4]

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

We must never forget that Zionism is a response to rampant European-Christian anti-Semitism, the greatest expression of which was the Holocaust where about 6 million European Jews perished. To deny the ugly history of anti-Jewish sentiment is a moral wrong deserving of profound repentance. However, to deny the suffering and dispossession of the Palestinian people, starting with the Balfour Declaration a hundred years ago, is also morally reprehensible. We must acknowledge both, holding them together at the same time. At this very moment, Palestinians are being forced off of their lands, their houses are being demolished, and their children are being sent to prisons. The displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people continues a hundred years on from the Balfour Declaration. What will we do about it?

As Violette so powerful puts it: “When you discover the truth you cannot remain indifferent.”

So what will we do with the truth?

[1] Zochrot, The Nakba: Flight and Expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Salman H. Abu Sitta, Atlas of Palestine 1948, Palestine Land Society, London, 2004, p. 1 (quoting Arthur Koestler, Promise and Fulfilment: Palestine 1917-1949) as seen in Zochrot, The Nakba: Flight and Expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948

Out of step on nuclear disarmament

The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum was abuzz with a celebratory spirit. It’s not hard to imagine why.

After all, the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN for short) had just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. And the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the result of years of hard work by millions of global campaigners—had opened for signature at the UN merely a few weeks earlier.

In the world of humanitarian disarmament, history had been made yet again.

On October 14-15, I had the privilege of joining coalition colleagues from Mines Action Canada (MAC) and Project Ploughshares at the annual Humanitarian Disarmament Forum in New York. For two, chock-full days, representatives from global coalitions working to protect civilians from the catastrophic effects of small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, fully autonomous weapons systems (aka “killer robots”), and nukes came together to share insights from their advocacy efforts.

Coming on the heels of the ground-breaking nuclear ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, the joy at the forum was palpable.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads are still in the world’s arsenals, many of them launch ready and on high-alert status. This means that the possibilities for nuclear catastrophe due to global tensions, human error, system malfunction, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by non-state actors are far too close for comfort.

The international community has already stepped up to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008). Finally, more than 70 years after the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons—have also been banned.

Front row: Setsuko Thurlow and Ray Acheson. Back row: Allison Pytlak, Cesar Jaramillo (Ploughshares), and Erin Hunt (MAC). Photo courtesy of Erin Hunt

Adopted in the heat of July, the 10-page treaty (backed by 122 nations) outlines a categorical prohibition on the development, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, or stockpiling of nukes or any other nuclear explosive devices.

Global campaigners like ICAN as well as Project Ploughshares and Mines Action Canada worked tirelessly, attending ban treaty negotiations as civil society delegates. Atomic bomb survivors (the Hibakusha) and victims of nuclear test explosions around the world were also critical players, providing, in the words of ICAN, “searing testimony and unstinting advocacy” on the humanitarian imperative for a ban.

As the shadow of nuclear conflict looms ever-larger in our current political reality, the new treaty fills a huge gap in international law.

Yes, there was strong opposition from nuclear-armed states (i.e. the P5 on the UN Security Council) and their allies. And, no, these states are not expected to sign-on to the treaty any time soon.

But other UN treaties have been effective even when key nations failed to sign up to them.

When the Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1997 in Ottawa, civil society successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the Treaty to ban cluster bombs roughly a decade later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. Implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Now, the prohibition on nuclear weapons marks a shift in the nuclear abolition debate.

Whither Canada in this global conversation?

According to his speech last year during Disarmament Week, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a utopian dream. It was impractical, impossible, and divisive.

October 13th at First Committee, 72nd Session, Thematic Discussion on Nuclear Weapons

Since then, Canada’s actions have continued to be out-of-step with this global movement. Despite claiming its support for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the Canadian government not only boycotted the treaty negotiations but (rather than simply abstain) voted against the historic UN resolution that launched the process—a position influenced, in part, by U.S. pressure on its NATO allies.

Instead, Canada backs a “step-by-step,” incrementalist (and completely broken) approach to reducing nuclear arsenals, including, among other things, the proposal for a fissile material cut-off treaty, a “step” that has faced deadlock for years. I heard this support reiterated by the Canadian delegate’s remarks as I sat in on a First Committee meeting at the UN a few weeks back.

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a motion calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. What happened?

Far from “being back,” Canada seems to be inching backwards on disarmament.

Encourage your Member of Parliament to sign ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge and send a message to Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, urging support for the treaty!


By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

Persons Day

October 18 is Persons Day in Canada. It is a time to remember and celebrate the historic 1929 decision of what was then Canada’s highest court of appeal – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain – to include women in the legal definition of “persons”.

The idea that women would not be considered persons seems absurd today and even more ridiculous to think that this was the case less than 100 years ago. Aren’t all human beings persons? Apparently not in Canadian law before 1929 when the definition was still based on a section of the British North America Act of 1867 which stated only “qualified persons” could be given rights such as owning property, voting, and sitting in the House of Commons and the Senate.  Of course, the Canadian government chose to interpret this phrase as meaning men only.

The notion was only challenged when five (now famous) women sought change and on October 18, 1929, the Privy Council of Great Britain announced “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

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Why not indeed. Women have proven themselves very capable in public office.

Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed a police magistrate in 1916. However, a lawyer repeatedly challenged her rulings, claiming that she was not legally a “person.” In 1927 she led the legal challenge now known as the Persons Case.

She was joined by four other courageous determined women: Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Together they implemented an obscure provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that said any five persons acting as a unit could petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution or at that time the British North America Act.

When Louise McKinney was sworn in to the Alberta Legislature in 1917, she became the first woman to sit in any legislature in the British Empire.

Appointed as Minister without a Portfolio in Alberta in 1921 Irene Parlby became only the second woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the British Empire and represented Canada at the League of Nations in 1930.

Nellie McClung was the first woman on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s Board of Governors, and a delegate to the League of Nations in 1939.

Henrietta Muir Edwards was active in prison reform and published and financed the first Canadian magazine for working women.

Today each of these amazing “persons” has a statue on Parliament Hill.

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MCC Ottawa Office staff Rebekah Sears, Esther Epp-Tiessen, Monica Scheifele, and Jennifer Wiebe with Famous Five statues on Parliament Hill. Photo by Alison Ralph, MCC

As four women who have benefitted from their trail blazing, MCC Ottawa Office staff often visit these statues to remember their commitment to change. If not for their efforts there couldn’t be 41 (out of 105) female Senators and 89 of the current Members of Parliament might not be women. There wouldn’t be a gender balanced cabinet or a Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Unfortunately, there are still times and places even in Canada when women aren’t truly seen as “persons”.  When their voices aren’t heard or their contributions and accomplishments properly recognized.

On this Person’s Day may we remember that we are all created in God’s image. Every human being is a person with rights. We all have a role to play in bringing about positive change for a more a just world. Let us learn from the impressive examples of the many women before us who refused to give up and kept advocating for change until they were heard.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office

The settler within me

What does it mean to ally oneself with people victimized by colonization when one is a settler? This is a question that has confronted me repeatedly in recent months.

MCC in Canada has just launched a major multi-year education and advocacy campaign on Palestine and Israel called A Cry for Home. The campaign highlights the cry of MCC’s Palestinian and Israeli partners for a just peace – a peace characterized by justice, equality, dignity and respect for international law. It is a project that I and MCC colleagues have helped to shape..

One of the issues that the campaign highlights is the colonization of Palestinian land for illegal Jewish-only settlements. As of June 2017, there were 196 settlements and 232 outposts (smaller clusters of Jewish settlers) in occupied Palestine. Nearly 800,000 Jewish Israelis – 10 percent of the Israeli population – live in these colonies. According to international law, these colonies are illegal.

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An Israeli settlement under construction near Bethlehem. Photo/Esther Epp-Tiessen

As I learn about these settlements and their impact on Palestinian people and Palestinian land, I grow angry.  And then I remember that I am a settler too. I am a settler on the Indigenous land of Turtle Island (North America).

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came to Canada in the 1920s as Mennonite refugees fleeing violence, famine and social upheaval in the wake of the Russian Revolution. My father’s parents settled in southwestern Manitoba (Treaty 2) and my mother’s on Pelee Island, Ontario, the traditional home of Caldwell First Nation.

My grandparents all arrived in Canada with very few resources, and the first decades in the new land were very difficult. Both my parents grew up in poverty. But as a 2nd generation Canadian, I have been blessed with privilege:  a good education, meaningful work, a comfortable home, clean and abundant water, many opportunities — and so much more. Only recently have I begun to recognize how my privilege is rooted in the losses of the Indigenous peoples of this land.

What do I do with the recognition that I live – very well – because I live on stolen land?  And how do I reconcile my own story with my critique of Israeli settlements in Palestine?

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Lia Tarachansky near the settlement in which she grew up. Photo/Palestinedocs

Not long ago I met Lia Tarachansky, a Russian-born Israeli Jew who grew up in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank.  Lia is my teacher in uncovering what it means to be a settler who has benefitted from the losses of others. She is a brilliant thinker and a compassionate human being.

As a journalist, filmmaker and activist, Lia has committed herself to telling the story of Israel’s past, and to shattering the myths around the founding of the State of Israel. She fearlessly documents the story of the Nakba and how the founding of Israel meant the displacement and dispossession of 750,000 to 900,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. She unveils the ongoing process of colonization at work through settlements, home demolitions, barriers to movement and military occupation.

Paulette Regan is another hero of mine. In her profound book about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Unsettling the Settler Within¸ Regan invites settler Canadians to do the same. True reconciliation in Canada, Regan insists, can only happen when non-Indigenous Canadians decolonize themselves. That includes shattering the myth about Canada’s own “peaceful” relationship with Indigenous peoples. And it means acknowledging and coming to terms with our privilege.

Of course, reconciliation means much more than that for Regan.  But for settler people, she insists, our efforts to be allies must begin with dealing with our own “stuff.” She writes,

“… what is our particular role and responsibility? Is it to ‘help’ Indigenous people recover from the devastating impacts of prescriptive policies and programs that we claimed were supposed to help them? Given our dismal track record, this seems a dubious goal. Or is it to determine what we who carry the identity of the colonizer and have reaped the benefits and privileges of colonialism must do to help ourselves recover from its detrimental legacy?”

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Mennonites walking for reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, June 2015. Photo/Alison Ralph

It is clear where Regan stands.  And it is clear where Tarachansky stands as well.

Settlers seeking to be allies of the colonized must do the hard and painful work of examining and coming to terms with the ways in which we have benefited from the colonial project and how we replicate and maintain colonial relationships today.  We must be prepared to be “deeply unsettled” in that process. Regan assures us that the unsettling will be a good thing.

Jesus once said, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).  Before I am too critical of Israeli settlers, I need to come to terms with the settler within me.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office

Peace for the long run in Syria

“We’re all fed up with these muscle-flexing exercises… [We need to try] to solve our problems with the mind or the heart, not the muscles”- Rev. Nadim Nassar, Syrian priest of the Church of England

For the past six years the Syrian people have been at the epicentre of multiple complex conflicts, which have drawn in powerful regional and international players.

While the western media focuses on the conflict between the Assad government and groups such as ISIS, the situation is far more complex, with intra-rebel fighting, battles between ISIS and the many other armed groups, regional Sunni-Shia divisions, the Kurdish struggle for a homeland, and so on.

The result: hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed since 2011, and millions of people – 65 percent of Syria’s population – have been forcefully displaced from their homes. This includes over 6 million internally displaced peoples and 5.5 million refugees.

In light of these tragic circumstances, how does one even start to think about the possibilities for long-term peace?

A dominant narrative among political decision makers, including in Canada, is that military intervention (or the threat of it) is essential to ending the Syrian crisis. This narrative is echoed by much of the Western media and the general public.

Canada, as part of the Global Coalition against [ISIS], has at certain points called for the removal of President Assad and promoted Canada’s commitment to the defeat of ISIS through the military component of its approach in Syria and Iraq. Like MCC partners,  Rev. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest in the Church of England, claims that when it comes to Western-led military interventions in the Middle East, there is often little understanding of the complex context, the ripple effects of such actions on the ground, and what approaches might truly be needed to create long-term peace. Yet, as he laments in a radio interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition in April 2017, the dominant narrative often takes precedence, drowning out the voices that promote other approaches to building peace.

MCC has been supporting and walking alongside local partners in Syria for over 25 years. These local partners include churches and other organizations with strong roots in their communities and a deep understanding of the complexities of the ever-changing context. Despite the exodus of international NGOs and diplomats, these partners have chosen to remain in Syrai in the midst of conflict, deeply dedicated to long-term peace in their country.

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In Damascus, Syria, former MCC representatives Doug and Naomi Enns stand on Straight Street (the street we read about in Acts where the Apostle Paul was staying after being blinded on the road to Damascus). Photo courtesy of Syrian Orthodox Church

In April 2017, former MCC representatives for Lebanon and Syria, Doug and Naomi Enns, entered Syria for the first time in five years, spending five days with partners in their home communities. They saw loss and destruction, but they also saw the work for peace and the rebuilding of hope.

They witnessed that life persists: “We saw acts of solidarity between people of various faiths and backgrounds. We saw hope, we saw resilience. We saw hardship and terrible loss. And we saw people really wanting to live.”

MCC and its partners in Syria and the surrounding region believe that the key to long-lasting peace lies in addressing the deep rooted political and socio-economic grievances.

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During their visit, Doug and Naomi Enns were thanked by many partners, including this group at the Damascus office of Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). Photo courtesy of FDCD

Such work involves things like building bridges between different faiths and ethnic groups; supporting those struggling with both physical and mental trauma so they aren’t drawn into cycles of violence; trying to create a sense of belonging for children and promote hope for the future generations; and providing emergency support while investing in long-term development.

MCC’s partners engage in these acts of peacebuilding and resistance even amidst the violence.

As part of their trip, Doug and Naomi visited the city of old Homs – a shell of the old city all but reduced to rubble in a brutal siege in 2012. Despite the destruction all around, they saw hope at a Syrian Orthodox Church – a church that can trace its roots back to 59 AD. Though sustaining significant damage in the conflict, somehow the church continues to thrive. Weekly services continue and the community programs persist, allowing the congregation to reach out and walk alongside the most vulnerable within the community.

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Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns

MCC welcomes and supports some of the Government of Canada’s work in the region, including its long-term development and humanitarian relief, and its stated commitment to diplomacy. But the military mission against ISIS, which was recently renewed until spring 2019, is a great concern to MCC. Our faith commitments and our experience around the world over decades have taught us that war does not bring true and lasting peace.

Additionally, along with many Canadians, we note that there is little-to-no transparent direction or specific goals for Canada’s extended military mission. More importantly, MCC’s partners and staff in and around Syria see the military response as counterproductive, failing to address the roots of the conflict and leaving destruction in its wake.

MCC’s partners in the region know that working for long-term peace in Syria is neither easy, nor quick. Syrian peacebuilders do not pretend to know all of the answers. Yet they long to stay and to see the day when their children can live in peace.

Like the slow but steady rebuilding of the ancient church in Homs, peace comes slowly, one brick at a time.

 

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office