Another Canadian gold mine: Barrick Gold and the Indigenous communities of Huasco, Chile

This week’s guest writer is Adrienne Wiebe, staff person for MCC Alberta. A trained anthropologist, Adrienne summarizes the findings of a longer report she undertook for MiningWatch Canada and the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales or OLCA).

Huasco River valley

The Huasco Valley in the arid Andes Mountains of Chile and the glacier fed river that enables cultivation. Photo by Adrienne Wiebe.

In March of this year, I visited the beautiful Huasco River valley in the Andes Mountains in northern Chile to learn about the impact of a gold mine on the local people and their valley. The mine is operated by Toronto-based Barrick Gold, the largest gold mining company in the world. Straddling the height of the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina, the Pascua-Lama site boasts one of the largest reserves of gold and silver ever discovered – an estimated 15.4 million ounces of gold and 675 million ounces of silver.

The mine has been plagued with challenges and controversy since construction began in the late 1990s. Of primary concern has been the negative environmental impact of the project, particularly given the location of mineral reserves underneath and near glaciers that are part of a watershed that serves this fragile but fertile valley. The small glacier-fed river in the valley enables small-scale irrigation and cultivation of food crops and vineyards. Threats to the supply and quality of the water have been the primary concern. Several times over the last 15 years, operations have been halted because of environmental violations. A denunciation by local community groups was accepted by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in 2009.

Indigenous peoples and social license

A meeting with Diaguita community leaders in the Huasco Valley, Chile to talk about the impact of the Pascua-Lama mine. Photo by Adrienne Wiebe.

A meeting with Diaguita community leaders in the Huasco Valley, Chile to talk about the impact of the Pascua-Lama mine. Photo by Adrienne Wiebe.

Given the generally negative local perception of the mine, Barrick has been focusing in the past ten years on gaining the support of the local Indigenous population. These are people who identify as Diaguita, the traditional Indigenous people in the area, and who represent about half of the current area population. However, until 2006, the Diaguita were not an official “ancestral people” recognized by the Chilean government.

Barrick was involved from the beginning in the process of what the company called “rescuing” Diaguita culture. The company funded cultural classes and documentation and application for Indigenous status for residents. It was also involved in the formation of Indigenous state-recognized community groups.

In May 2014, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with 15 Diaguita  communities that it helped to form. According to Barrick Gold officials, the agreements met the requirements of international guidelines of the rights of Indigenous peoples to consultation, participation, and to set their own development priorities as laid out by the international Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, (International Labour Organization ILO – No. 169). Barrick felt that this MOU set a new standard for mining companies around the world in their relationships with local Indigenous communities.

A problematic process


Palinay, a Diaguita community member, impacted by Barrick’s Pascua Lama gold mine in the Andes Mountains of Chile. Photo by Adrienne Wiebe.

However, local community members presented a different story. Palinay, a Diaguita artisan, objects to the commodification and exploitation of her Indigenous identity:

“We dress up for ceremonies and photos when we sign agreements. We are learning the Quechua language, the language of the Inca Empire, not the local language, because [Barrick brought] someone from the Quechua area who came to teach ceramics and taught people some Quechua words. Those people signing the MOU are a caricature of our culture. Barrick is using Indigenous status to legitimize its presence. We need to make an effort to guard our authentic culture, preserve it, and transmit it to our children.”

Jhon Meléndez, a Diaguita and a spokesperson for the Coalition for Water of Huasco Alto (Asamblea del Agua del Huasco Alto), is a member of a small Diaguita community which was one of the groups that did not sign the MOU with Barrick:

“Although we have lost a lot of our culture, we maintain our traditions. We are not ‘rescuing’ our Indigenous identity, like Barrick says; rather we are ‘preserving’ our identity.”

For many of the local people, Barrick Gold was in a conflict of interest when it utilized its immense resources to finance the registration of Indigenous identity, form government-recognized Indigenous communities, and then sign agreements with these groups.

The result: social conflict

According to the community members I spoke with, the development and approval of the MOU was a confusing process, which lacked transparency, and created social conflict and division. Barrick Gold provided handouts of money to community groups that resulted in accusations of mismanagement, bribery, and cronyism. Because of the conflicts, today there are two or three Indigenous organizations in communities where  previously only one existed.

Since 2013, mining operations at Pascua-Lama have been suspended because of environmental and regulatory compliance issues. In early September 2015, an indefinite halt of operations was announced because of escalating costs (the project has cost more than $5 billion to date), the declining price of gold on the international markets (a price of $1,500 per ounce is needed to make the project feasible), and share-holder dis-satisfaction with performance.

However, while mining operations may have halted for now, the Pascua-Lama mining project has done enduring damage to the social fabric of the valley.

Read the full report published by MiningWatch Canada and OLCA (Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales).

Seeking alternatives: Are nonviolent responses to terrorism possible?

We live in a context of growing fear—fear about terrorism.

Few terms have so furtively made their way into our daily discourse. Yet while the specter of terrorism has gained a sense of urgency in our homes, churches, and communities, most of us have only a vague impression of what it is.


Courtesy of Conflict & Security: Thoughts on conflict, security, and international relations

The word “terrorism” has been used in distinct ways throughout the centuries to describe a wide range of actions and actors. First popularized during the French Revolution (1793-94) when it was used (rather positively, I might add!) to describe the methods wielded by the revolutionary state, the term “terrorism” has since shifted to describe actions against the government (such as the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s), and, more recently, nebulous movements that have political causes and networks beyond national borders (such as al Qaeda and ISIS).

Despite decades of formal attempts through the United Nations and other bodies, the international community has failed to come to a consensus on a universal definition for the word “terrorism.” Indeed, shifting terminology—such as “insurgency,” “terrorism,” and “violent extremism”—identifies the complex challenge of violence today.[1]

While there is no consensus definition, however, virtually all experts point to two identifying components of “terrorism:” the targeting of civilians and the cultivation of fear. One basic definition suggests that terrorism is violence motivated by political, social or religious ideology and used to invoke fear and bring about change.[2]

What can people of peace do to respond?

MCC has once again produced a resource intended to assist Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations across Canada as they plan for Peace Sunday on November 8, 2015. Entitled “Crossing to the other side: Living as people of peace in a time of fear and terror,” this year’s Peace Sunday Packet does not provide easy answers to the co0adb8e09d02a0ad9cff4cc16d79f3916mplex questions of our time. But it does invite congregations and other groups engage in worship, reflection, and conversation about what a hopeful peace church response in a time of fear and terror might look like.

But are nonviolent responses to terrorism possible?

Beyond the worship resources and stories provided in the Peace Sunday Packet itself, we are also offering some suggestions for alternatives to violence. While not constituting an exhaustive list, these suggestions may provide a starting place for individuals, organizations, and churches to start thinking about nonviolent responses to the fear that terrorism creates:

  • Understand the root causes of terrorism: Seriously examining what terrorist groups are saying and doing—their histories, motivations, how they interpret and apply their ideas, what tools they use for recruitment, etc.—is vitally important work. Understanding the causes of violent extremism is the first step towards effective intervention, and critical to ensuring we do not respond in ways that make matters worse in the long-term. Read more (see p. 2)…
  • Support initiatives that restrict the flow of weapons: Given the ways in which widespread availability of arms serves to multiply the force of terrorist organizations, it is crucial that the international community stop flooding conflict zones with cheap weapons that only serve to fuel violence and prolong human suffering. Read more (see p. 3)…
  • Encourage inclusive political dialogue: Understandably, governments often are hesitant to engage in dialogue with terrorist groups for fear that doing so will serve to condone extremist positions and legitimize their tactics. As many experts are recognizing, however, talking to insurgent groups or terrorist organizations is not the same thing as agreeing with their aims. More to the point, dialogue is often necessary for achieving long-term peace. Read more (see p. 4)…
  • Invest in local peacebuilding initiatives: At a grassroots level, preventing violent extremism and building local peace requires addressing the push-pull factors that drive individuals to participate. In addition, community-based initiatives that mitigate and resolve inter-religious conflict, increase social cohesion, and enhance ethnic and religious tolerance are also vital for countering extremist ideology and fostering long-term peace. Read more (see. p. 5)…
  • Build relationships with the “Other” here at home: People concerned with peacebuilding can reach out in friendship to Muslim neighbours and other newcomers, contact local associations to learn more about their work; create forums for inter-religious dialogue our own communities; visit local mosques to learn about their faith practices; and work in partnership for common goals. Read more (see p. 6)…

For the full Peace Sunday Packet, related stories, and this full supplementary analysis, check out MCC Canada’s Peace Sunday 2015 page.

Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office director. 

Lisa Schirch—Research Professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and Director of Human Security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding—describes these terms as follows: “insurgency” is an armed rebellion against a state or international authority such as the UN; “terrorism” is a tactic used by non-state insurgent groups or by states themselves; and “violent extremism” is a contagious, global movement that may have insurgent and terrorist characteristics. Schirch, Lisa, “Peacebuilding Approaches to Violent Extremism,” (2015 Draft). Forthcoming publication.

[2] Hoffman, Bruce, “Chapter 1: Defining Terrorism,” Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, New York: 1998).

Empathy: Seeing beyond the bars

This week’s guest blog is by Stephen Siemens.  Stephen recently completed four years as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada. These reflections are adapted from a presentation he made last spring in Ottawa at an event sponsored by the Christian Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC) during National Victims of Crime Awareness Week.

The parable of the Good Samaritan has become one of Jesus’ most famous parables. It teaches us about empathy – empathy coming from an unlikely situation and an unlikely person.

We all know the story. A man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beat up and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest came by – a likely helper – but he saw the injured man and passed by. A Levite, another religious leader, also came and also passed by. Then a Samaritan came along. He bound the injured man’s wounds, took him to a nearby inn and provided money to the innkeeper to tend to the man’s needs. He promised to pay more when he returned.

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach his Jewish listeners about being neighbourly.  Importantly, the story did not portray their religious leaders – the priest or the Levite – as those who were neighbourly. Quite the opposite. The neighbourly person was a Samaritan — their enemy, the one they considered devoid of basic humanity, the “absolute other.” It was the Samaritan who felt empathy for the injured man and acted to help him.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see clearly that empathy can come from an unlikely situation and an unlikely person. One of the important lessons that we have learned in the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is that offenders – unlikely people – can in fact demonstrate profound empathy for victims. Indeed, as they recognize their own victimization, offenders can offer deep and sincere empathy to victims of crime.

Planting Peace 1

Photo credit MCC Alberta

But the scandal in the parable is not only that empathy can be found in an unlikely place and in an unlikely person, but that the category of neighbour is boundless, permeable, and it extends to the ultimate “other.” Our calling is to love our neighbours—anyone and everyone—without any wiggle room, without any loopholes. Jesus made it clear that “neighbour” means anyone and everyone. There are no exceptions, including those we want to write off or consider as “other.”

This biblical imperative calls CCJC to pay attention to empathy because the Christian story itself hinges on empathy. God coming in Christ was itself victim empathy work with offenders, indeed with humanity.

Ann Jervis says it well, in “Empathy and the New Testament”:

The New Testament believes that God is an empathetic God; that God’s
empathy extends beyond the capacity to understand human experience to
actively entering into human experience. The New Testament presents Jesus
as the supreme example of empathy, as one who fully understands both the
experience of God and the experience of humanity.  And Paul challenges
followers of Jesus to empathize fully with Jesus’ faith and Jesus’ death, and to hope for his resurrection.

So ultimately CCJC is interested in nurturing empathy because God, in sending Jesus, has offered empathy to all humanity. Our motivation compels us to provide opportunities for empathy with victims, and to nurture empathy in places and among people who society would rather not entertain, such as federal offenders. When we help offenders to recognize their own victimization, we enable them to develop empathy for victims and take responsibility for their actions.

Elections and matters of the heart

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office. For the Ottawa Office’ s Federal Election Resource, click here.

As I was drafting this post, the global refugee/forced migration crisis – an issue very close to my heart – FINALLY captured the full attention of media outlets around the world. It also finally made its way into the Canadian federal election campaign. It’s incredible how one heart-breaking story can capture the attention of so many people, even though a full year ago the UNHCR reported that the scale of people forcefully displaced around the world had reached numbers not seen since the Second World War – 60 million people.

Amidst the sadness and overwhelming nature of this crisis, my hope is that this global crisis and other issues like it remain at the forefront of the Canadian federal election campaign: creating energy, enthusiasm and excitement – driving substantial policy debates, discussions and plans, leading right up to Election Day.

Hannah and her eight children arrived in Jordan as refugees from Syria in 2914. One of the children has multiple disabilities. MCC photo by Gordon Epp-Fransen.

Hannah and her eight children arrived in Jordan as refugees from Syria in 2914. One of the children has multiple disabilities. MCC photo by Gordon Epp-Fransen.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I remember the 1995 Quebec Referendum all so clearly. My brother and I were sitting in the family room, eyes glued to the TV, watching the Yes/ No votes swing between 51/49 and 49/51, respectively. My parents were watching with us, my Dad pacing back and forth across the room, saying to himself over and over again: “This is a social studies teacher’s dream… It’s a social studies teacher’s dream!”

It was getting late; way past my bedtime! I remember begging to stay up just a little longer, but to no avail. I would just have to wait until morning to learn the outcome. Besides, it was not until the wee hours of the morning when the official results were finally declared: 51% No, 49% Yes. The federalist vote had won!

Many of us remember the moments when our various interests and passions were first ignited. The Quebec Referendum was such an occasion for me. It ignited a passion for politics (in case you didn’t catch that already!): the process, the debates, the policies and definitely the elections.

My adolescent and teen years were full of election moments: explaining the First-Past-the-Post system to my classmates; accompanying my parents to the polling stations; my Dad quizzing us constantly on local candidates and party platforms in the car or around the dinner table; attending any and all local candidate debates; watching leadership debates on TV; meeting various MPs on a school trip to Ottawa; and finally casting a ballot for the first time!

GNMThere’s no doubt my own love for politics has strong roots in the excitement around elections and the political process in general. But for me, beyond the exhilaration of watching the election results roll in, are the ideas, issues and policies behind each candidate and party. These various key ideas and prospective policies are the building blocks (at least in theory!) that will define the mandates of the new Parliament. Election campaigns provide an opportunity to get directly involved in the shaping of the policies that will govern us!

For Christians, elections are also a time to consider the political implications for our faith. They are times to discern, with humility, how Jesus’ call to love our neighbours may be reflected in the public good.

My love for politics developed alongside my faith from a young age. For me, the intersection of faith and politics took the form of a passion and desire for justice, peace and human dignity, firmly rooted in the teachings of Christ and Scripture as a whole. I believe that it is the responsibility of both government and our society in general tobe champions of peace, justice and human dignity for all.

These principles can be reflected in any number of global and national issues. In the MCC Ottawa Office’s Canadian election resource, we speak to concerns raised by MCC program and partners in Canada and around the world and the potential role of government. Some of these include: responding to the global forced migration and refugee crisis, promoting peacebuilding in areas of conflict, supporting small scale farmers around the world, walking alongside Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and many more.

Each of us is impacted in our way by these and other key issues. For me, the global refugee/forced migration crisis is one of those themes always weighing heavily on my heart, striking to the very core. For me it symbolizes one of the fundamental places where my own faith and love for politics meet – in the deep yearning to protect human dignity, to reach out in love to our neighbours, and to build a sustainable peace for all.

What are the issues that speak to you? What ignites your political and/or faith passion?

At election time, as parties and candidates reveal their plans and promises on many key issues, we invite you to scrutinize, ask questions, join movements, get involved in your communities, speak to your neighbours and candidates, and ultimately show up at the ballot box. You won’t want to miss it!

Watching the sky for rain clouds: Farmers and climate change

This week’s guest writer is Stephanie McDonald, senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Stephanie also provided the photographs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those who make their livelihoods from the earth these last few years and what climate change means to them. Two places in particular have shaped my thinking.

Heavy rains, Blantrye, Malawi

Rain inundates the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission office, Blantyre, Malawi.

In 2010 I moved to Blantyre, Malawi in southeastern Africa. Approximately eight out of 10 Malawians work in the agriculture sector, dependent on the weather, and reliant on age old knowledge about when to plant and harvest their crops. The farmers I met spoke of seasons that had become unpredictable, stronger storms, and more frequent droughts and floods. While the phrase “climate change” wasn’t necessarily used, it was obvious to farmers that the climate was indeed changing.

A confirmation of this new reality occurred this past January when the worst flood in living memory hit the south of the country. The fallout was devastating: 106 people died, 172 people were reported missing, 230,000 people were displaced, crops were destroyed and livestock wiped out. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world which already had concerns about food shortages before the flood hit.

Three years later I was working full time on my family farm in southwestern Ontario, alongside my dad and uncle. We represented the sixth and seventh generation of farmers in our family working on the same land. For the first time in my life I too was intimately connected to the land and the area’s climate. I listened intently to weather reports and watched with either dread or thanksgiving as dark clouds moved overhead, depending on if rain was needed (or how much hay was lying out on the field…). For the first time I understood what it meant to be dependent on rain and heat and wind. In short, I knew what it meant to be a farmer.

Robert and Don McDonald, Glencoe, ON

Robert McDonald (Stephanie’s dad) and Don McDonald (her uncle) make plans for the day on their farm at Glencoe, Ontario.

While southwestern Ontario has largely been shielded from the impacts of climate change to date, I got a sense of what an unpredictable climate could mean for a farmer dependent on a one acre plot of land. As extreme weather events increase, generations of accumulated and passed down farming knowledge all of a sudden no longer applies.

The differences of course between the circumstances of our family farm in Ontario and that of a farm in southern Malawi are stark. In Ontario, we have up-to-the-minute weather reports from nearby weather stations, crop insurance insulates us in the event of a bad year, and social services mean we never have to choose between purchasing food and paying a hospital bill when a family member requires treatment.

Climate change is something that can be difficult to discuss. It can seem unwieldy and frightening, to the point where we feel powerless to enact change. But stories of the human impact of climate change from around the world and here at home–stories which are set to become more common–are a constant reminder that we must act, personally and collectively.

A farmer in a southern region of Malawi shows off her maize, grown using Conservation Agriculture techniques. Photo courtesy of Stephanie McDonald.

A farmer in a southern region of Malawi shows off her maize, grown using Conservation Agriculture techniques.

On September 16th we’ll celebrate the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, commemorating the day in 1987 that the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed. When it was discovered that certain commonly used chemicals were playing a part in ozone layer depletion, the international community rallied behind the creation of the Montreal Protocol. The treaty included a timeline to phase out the production and use of the harmful substances, and it has largely been adhered to. The results are clear: the ozone hole is recovering and it’s estimated that millions of cases of skin cancer have been avoided. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called the Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

A similarly historical moment presents itself at the end of this year, when nations gather in Paris for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. The goal of the conference is to reach a universal, legally binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will keep global warming below 2°C. As nations gather in one of the world’s most affluent cities, we must call on our governments to remember the farmers around the world whose ability to grow food and earn a livelihood are already being impacted by climate change. For the Malawian farmer dependent on a stable climate to feed her family, and for the thousands of farm families across Canada who bring food to our tables–we must work together.

Susiya: Symbol of a larger struggle

The tiny village of Susiya in the occupied West Bank has become a symbol of a much greater struggle –Palestinians’ ongoing resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Located in the South Hebron Hills, Susiya is home to about 340 Palestinian residents.  Some of the residents are descendants of those whose villages were destroyed in 1948 when the new state of Israel forced thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes. Others have lived in the Susiya agricultural community since at least the Ottoman era.

Palestinian flags fly over some of the temporary homes in the village of Susiya. Photo credit: P. Moore, EAPPI

Palestinian flags fly over some of the temporary homes in the village of Susiya. Photo credit: P. Moore, EAPPI

In 1986, Susiya residents were forced to relocate, when the Government of Israel (which, after 1967, gained control of the West Bank) wished to establish a heritage site on the remains of an ancient synagogue located there. Without any compensation for the loss of land, Palestinians rebuilt Susiya nearby. The village has been partially demolished several times since then, ostensibly to create a continuous swath of land between an Israeli settlement and the archeological site.

During the intervening years the living conditions in Susiya have deteriorated, while a new Israeli settlement named Susiya prospers. Palestinians are denied connections to the local water and electricity systems. Their access to their grazing and agricultural land has been reduced due to harassment and intimidation by Israeli settlers. Many live in shacks, tents and other temporary shelters.

This summer, residents have once again faced the prospect that Israel will demolish their homes and buildings, and they will be forced to relocate.  Why? Because they do not have building permits for their homes.  And they don’t have permits, because it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian living in what is known as Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank under both civil and security control of the Israeli military — to receive a building permit. According to Bimkom, an Israeli nonprofit focused on planning rights, more than 98 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits in Area C from 2010 to 2014 were rejected.

In May of this year, COGAT (Israel’s governing body in the West Bank) issued Susiya residents with eviction notices and demolition orders that were to take effect by August 3.  And so the people awaited the bulldozers that would come and destroy their homes.

But they also appealed to the world to help them stop the demolition of their community. Before long, Palestinians, Israelis, the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. State Department and international solidarity groups joined the cry. Their appeal was grounded in the argument that the forcible transfer of people under occupation and in a coercive environment is a breach of international humanitarian law under the Geneva Conventions.

People pick through rubble at the site of a demolition in Wadi Sneysel, in the West Bank near East Jerusalem. Photo credit: Lutheran World Relief.

Palestinians pick through rubble at the site of a demolition in Wadi Sneysel, in the West Bank near East Jerusalem. Photo credit: Lutheran World Relief.

Though there is an active case in the Israeli courts regarding a Master Plan for the structures in the village, an Israeli judge rejected a motion to halt demolitions while the court case was in progress. Shortly thereafter, bulldozers arrived in the village. Thankfully, after intense international pressure, the bulldozers were withdrawn. This is good news—good news that speaks to the power of a people’s struggle, and the power advocacy, both local and international.

But the story is far from over. MCC workers in the region report that Israeli officials have pulled back from a wholesale demolition, but are continuing to pressure villagers to “agree” to the demolition of numerous specific structures and a relocation of the community to a new site one kilometre away.

Moreover, they say that Susiya is only one of many villages threatened by Israel’s plan to strengthen its hold on the West Bank, expand Israeli settlements, and make life even more difficult for Palestinians. According to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, Israel has destroyed over 120,000 Palestinian homes since 1948. On August 17, 2015 alone, Israel demolished 21 homes in Area C, rendering 78 people – including 49 children – homeless. The threat continues.

Please consider contacting your Member of Parliament to urge him or her to join the call for solidarity with Susiya and other vulnerable Palestinian communities. And during this election campaign, ask your candidates how their party will help to advance a just peace, with adherence to international law, for Palestinians and Israelis.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office of MCC Canada.

Reuniting Refugee Families: Ellaha’s Story

This week’s guest writer is Marlene Epp, a board member of Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support in Kitchener, Ontario. She teaches history and peace & conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College.

My friend Ellaha has not seen three of her eight children for almost seven years. As a former refugee claimant in Canada, now a permanent resident, she longs to reunite her family and is sad, worried, and frustrated with the obstacles that confront her in seeing that happen.

Ellaha was a women’s rights activist and journalist in Afghanistan who, urged to do so by her family, fled to Canada in 2008 after she was threatened and lived in danger. She assumed her children would soon be able to follow her. Two daughters studying outside of Afghanistan at the time have now joined her in Canada; she gave birth to a son in the spring of 2009.  Two children adopted during the war in the early 2000s were removed from her sponsorship application because their adoptions were not adequately documented, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This was heart-breaking for Ellaha.

Afghanistan countryside. MCC photo Chris Ewert.

Afghanistan countryside. MCC photo Chris Ewert.

In the meantime, three other children (now young adults) have lived in three different countries outside of Afghanistan. They have had to move because of economic insecurity, harassment by Taliban recruiters, and more recently, attempted luring by traffickers. They desperately want to join their mother and siblings in Canada and are eager to work and study. But the often impenetrable and inexplicable bureaucracy of the Canadian immigration system has extended the projected 31 months – already too long – for family reunification to nearly seven years.  Ellaha and her children have complied with repeated requests for police and medical checks, filled out endless forms and declarations, even undergone DNA tests, and waited patiently during long gaps in communication from the office processing their file. Needless to say, family bonds suffer during such long separations.

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) has condemned these long waiting times as “intolerable.” The organization has called for an Express Entry program for family reunification, in line with the government’s Express Entry program for economic immigrants. In the case of the latter, the government commits to processing the application of a potential immigrant with a valid job offer in six months or less. Surely, says the CCR, reuniting children with their parents should be as much a priority as facilitating the arrival of self-sufficient economic immigrants.

Unfortunately, many aspects of the immigration system, especially with regard to refugees, is predicated on assumptions of guilt before innocence is proven. One Member of Parliament I spoke to could not understand why a mother would leave her children behind in the first place. In reply, I told him about similar situations that many Mennonite families had faced when fleeing their homes during the Second World War. Sometimes, there were better hopes for safety for everyone if family members separated temporarily. Such difficult choices have been made throughout history by people running for their lives.

Ellaha Saroosh with her 5-year-old son Arwin Bahman. Photo courtesy The Record.

Ellaha Saroosh with her 5-year-old son Arwin Bahman. Photo courtesy The Record.

When she first arrived in Canada, Ellaha was assisted with her refugee claim by the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support, a small independent charity that works with refugee claimants, as opposed to resettled refugees. After that she became a regular volunteer, taking leadership in a women’s sewing collective. MCRS now runs a support group for families that are awaiting reunification, who can empathize with each other and the roller coast of emotions that they all experience.

It would seem to be a straightforward issue – to reunite parents with their children after war, persecution and other human rights violations have put national borders between them. But why is it so difficult? New immigration regulations implemented in 2012 reduced the timelines in the refugee determination process – which has created other problems – but did not address the serious problem of families living apart for years.

Ellaha’s eldest daughter in Canada recently opened a small restaurant in downtown Kitchener, Ontario, specializing in shawarmas, kabobs, and delicious Afghan rice. Her mother and sister help out. It is a lot of work and they are anxious about the business venture. Yet, the restaurant has helped to distract them from the constant waiting and worrying about their loved ones overseas, and is also a symbol of their resilience and hope for the future.

The Canadian government would do well to support families like Ellaha’s by expediting their reunification and by recognizing that stronger families make for a stronger nation.