Migration, food and friendship

I’ve been thinking a lot about migration these days, especially forced migration: people having to leave home, mainly due to threats of violence and continuing conflict, but also due to environmental destruction caused by drought, floods, and mining and dam projects.

The sheer numbers of people who have been forced from their homes speaks to this global crisis. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2013 over 51.2 million people (and another 5.5 million by mid-2014) have been forcefully displaced, including 16.7 million refugees and 33.3 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs).


House of Hope and Light is a education and social activities center for 120 refugee girls affected by the Syrian crisis. The center is located in Nabaa, a very poor neighborhood in the Beirut suburbs, where many Syrian and Iraqi refugees have settled. MCC supports this ministry of the Greek Orthodox Church, including its education programs for girls.

As a policy office, we constantly follow government announcements and debates around Canada’s response: commitments to open our doors to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq; access to health care for refugees and refugee claimants; and Canada’s long history of private sponsorship.

As we attempt to address global migration trends, it is easy to get bogged down by statistics and constant policy debates. How can we keep from getting discouraged and overwhelmed or giving up?

For me, it comes down to the personal. In my own life I’ve been able to develop friendships with people from all over the world, many who have experienced terrible circumstances firsthand. We’ve shared struggles, stories and, yes, we’ve even shared our favourite recipes — all with a side of advocacy.

It sounds cliché to reduce cultural experiences and personal connections to food, as if trying new food is sufficient to understand others. However, food does have real power over our emotions and relationships. When we’re feeling homesick, we eat certain foods to feel more at home, or — just the opposite — we like to try new foods to get a taste (pun intended) of new places.

But it’s not the food itself that helps us make personal connections. Instead, it’s the moments of time spent with friends or meeting new people, where they have told me their stories, while teaching me how to make favourite dishes from home. Through cooking and eating together, friendships grow, and so has my own dedication to advocacy.

While in Colombia with MCC I developed friendships with several families that had been displaced by violent conflict in their home regions, some remaining under threat even in the capital city. In one particular friend’s story, a group of paramilitaries killed her brother in their home village on Colombia’s Atlantic Coast and, after reporting this crime, the group turned on her family, pursuing them all over the country. My friend and her family found refuge within the Mennonite Church in Bogota and were well supported there before eventually being resettled to Canada.

I became close to them through my church and we shared many moments, sometimes talking about politics and their story, other times about her home region and life in general. One afternoon, before leaving for Canada, my friend, her husband and three girls came over to my house to teach me how to make typical Coastal dishes: coconut rice, fried plantains, and lemonade made with raw sugar cane. This experience is one of my fondest memories of my sojourn in Colombia: hearing my friend talk about her life on the Coast and her proud Costeña identity. We grew closer in the process.

Maqlubah, the national dish of Palestine

Maqlubah, the national dish of Palestine

Another memory comes from Ottawa. While at a recent event on Israel/Palestine, I won a door prize: a free cooking lesson from a Palestinian Canadian. Sitting in her living room looking at maps and pictures, and later chopping onions and smelling the spices in what some have dubbed the national dish of Palestine — Maqlubah — we learned the story of her long journey from Palestine to Canada.

Adeba (not her real name) was only five at the time, but she still vividly remembers the sound of helicopters flying low to the ground as her family was forced from their home in Jaffa in 1948. The family moved from Jaffa to Gaza, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait and eventually Canada in 1997. Adeba clearly will never stop talking about and advocating on behalf of her homeland of Palestine. It was an honour for me and my companions to hear her story and get a small taste of her beloved homeland.

These stories, among others, offer messages of hope, but also challenge us to continue our work; whether that is addressing root causes of migration, supporting initiatives that allow people to remain in their homelands; or welcoming newcomers into our communities, and learning about their lives through sharing time, stories and, yes, food.

We encourage you to get involved with these and other issues within your own communities or through taking advantage of any MCC opportunities. For example, every May, MCC in Alberta and Saskatchewan offer a three-week learning tour opportunity for Canadian university students called Uprooted which examines the issue of migration while visiting partners and projects in Mexico (both the northern and southern borders). This learning tour allows young adult Canadians to meet with and discover first-hand the issue of migration within the Americas and how it impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people every year.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Advocacy and Ash Wednesday

A reflection based on Lectionary readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, and 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10.

Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of preparation leading to Easter. Growing up in the Mennonite church I didn’t hear a lot about Ash Wednesday or Lent. Most of my limited understanding came from a close friend who was an Anglican and who often talked about what she would give up for Lent. So my very basic understanding was that Lent was a time to give up something for a while. You could always go back to it later, but for those few weeks before Easter, you had to sacrifice something you liked or wanted.

crossAs a child I really had no interest in learning more and was just thankful Lent was an “Anglican thing” and not practiced by Mennonites. It wasn’t until high school or university that I started learning about the spiritual discipline of fasting and how that related to Lent which I came to understand as a time of preparation for the confusion of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, the silence of the Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday. During this time we are called to recognize our weaknesses, repent and draw closer to God. Part of this preparation process can include giving up what keeps us from that close relationship with God or it can be a time of embracing a spiritual discipline that helps us better focus on nurturing that relationship.

Two of the lectionary readings for this year’s Ash Wednesday speak very clearly about the spiritual discipline of fasting. Isaiah 58 tells us it isn’t just about giving up food, or “bowing one’s head like a reed.” Fasting is meant to bring us closer to God, and not eating may remind us of our weakness and our dependence on God, But in this passage Isaiah also calls us to take action. We are to “loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free.” Lenten disciplines such as fasting and prayer can be about changing ourselves, but they can also be about changing the world.

CandleDuring Lent and this time of preparation as we seek a changed relationship and ultimately a changed world, what is the place for advocacy? Most advocacy tool kits will include practical advice on how to write a letter to someone in government, or prepare a petition, or how to organize a meeting to inform people about a particular issue, or lead a demonstration to get public attention. Rarely, however, do they suggest taking time to pray or fast. What if before major political or public engagement campaigns we took the time to prepare ourselves with prayer and fasting? Would it make our campaigns more “successful”? Perhaps not, but we might be reminded of why we undertake these endeavours. And we might be changed in the process.

Fasting as a tool for advocacy is not a new idea. Over the years people have fasted for an end to hunger, to raise awareness about climate change, for an end to various conflicts, or to show solidarity with those who suffer. While times of fasting and prayer can bring us closer together and help us focus on what we are seeking to change, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that when we pray or fast we are not to draw attention to our actions. This time of preparation is not meant to be a public display, but an opportunity for strengthening our understanding and our relationship with God and each other.

Through the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, God changed the relationship with us and as a result we are called to be agents of change for the world. 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 warns us it will be difficult when it says, “…as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.” Change does not come easily or quickly. Lent is not necessarily meant to be an easy time and it leads to the dark day of Good Friday. But we know Easter Sunday is coming. In Isaiah’s words, “and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.” (Isaiah 58:10-11a)

As we enter Lent and this time of preparation, may we give up the temptation to stop working for change in ourselves and the world, and prepare our hearts and our minds to advocate for a better world for all.

By Monica Scheifele, MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant.

Defining “liveable” — a glimpse at Gaza

This week’s guest writer is Anna Johnson, Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC Palestine. Originally from Iowa City, Iowa, she studied International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington DC.

During my visit to Gaza in January, the words of a 2012 UN report questioning whether Gaza will be ‘a liveable place’ by 2020 echoed in my mind. The report, which looked at current and projected economic circumstances, population levels, and access to water, education, and health, concluded that “there will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory.” Looking out the car window and seeing so many children and families, I wondered, “What does a place need in order to be ‘liveable’?”

Amna Abu Halima and her daughters, along with MCC Palestine worker Jessy Hampton. (Photo credit Anna Johnson)

Anam Abu Halima and her daughters, along with MCC Palestine worker Jessy Hampton. (Photo by Jesse Bergen)

One morning, we visited families who had received assistance from MCC’s partnership with the Al Najd Development Forum. These families had been displaced during the summer bombing and had not been able to return to their homes due to severe structural damage. The home of Anam and Mahmud Abu Halima lost an entire wall and their family lived in a UN school and then a small tent for seven months before being able to move back into their home after Al Najd’s volunteers replaced the wall, windows, and ceiling. Anam and Mahmud’s eight children crowded into the small room with a new wall and window to express their gratitude for being able to return home, when so many in Gaza continue to be displaced. “Now we feel we are human beings,” Anam told me.

Again I returned to my questions: What is ‘liveable’? Is Gaza ‘liveable’ now, for people like Anam and her family? Was it ‘liveable’ during the 50 days of bombardment last summer?

Based solely on statistics, one might be quick to declare an emphatic “NO” to these questions. We see on the news that hundreds of thousands of children continue to experience the side effects of trauma. We know that international donors have failed to come through on their pledged $5.4 billion for rebuilding Gaza and that thousands of people remain displaced. If anything, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is exponentially worse than it was when the UN report was published three years ago.

Gaza 1

Al Najd Development Forum director, Khaled Abu Sharekh, joins Ali, Mohammed, and Fadi (last name unavailable) under a blanket received in an MCC material resource shipment. The boys and their six other brothers were displaced during the 2014 summer bombardment of Gaza. Though they had not had electricity for three days when this picture was taken, they were grateful to be back in their home, thanks to Al Najd volunteers who rehabilitated it. (MCC photo by Anna Johnson)

Yet, during my two days visiting MCC’s partners in Gaza City and Khan Younis, I was struck again and again by the vivacity and tenacity of life in Gaza. Turns out, some of the funniest and most compassionate people I’ve met live in Gaza. They stubbornly refuse to give in to despair. They do with their three to six hours of electricity each day what many of us fail to do with our limitless supplies of power, water, and other resources. Through their resilience, they embody sumud – Arabic for “steadfastness.”

The question to ask ourselves is not whether Gaza will be ‘liveable’ in 2020; 1.8 million people live in Gaza today, and by 2020 it is expected that 2.13 million people will reside in Gaza’s tiny strip. We owe it to these people, then, to ask ourselves how we can make Gaza ‘liveable’ by 2020. International funds are needed to rebuild Gaza, but even more so, international pressure is needed to end the 7-year blockade on Gaza (which restricts the flow of people and trade, and prevents the delivery of needed medicines, fuel, and building materials, among other things). The UN report states that “herculean” efforts are needed to ensure that Gaza’s residents are able to “exercise and enjoy the full range of human rights to which they are entitled.”

Just as MCC’s partners in Gaza continue to serve their communities with grace and compassion, we must be steadfast in our resolve to see the people of Gaza freed from the devastating constrictions under which they are forced to live.

The Mennonites that say “Meh”

This week’s blog is written by Cory Funk, advocacy research intern for January to April, 2015 in the Ottawa Office. Cory is a graduate in history and religion from the University of Winnipeg and an outdoor enthusiast.

When we read about issues in Canada and around the world it’s easy to just say “Meh” (a common expression of indifference or apathy). As a matter of fact, with the sheer volume of issues bombarding us, we have to exercise at least some degree of “disinterest” just to get through our days. Every once in a while, however, we hear about an issue that we find to be particularly disturbing or personally relevant that sparks something inside of us. “I should do something about this,” we think to ourselves. But it often stops there. We then return to our lives and the issue that made us feel so passionate for that one short moment quickly fades into the foggy mess of our daily thoughts.

MEHPersonally, I would much rather spend my free time Google-mapping how to bike from Winnipeg to Havana or thinking of clever Monty Python references for my blog posts than finding ways in which to advocate for social change. This is because advocacy is hard, it requires a lot of time and energy, and is often intimidating. Nevertheless, there are always issues that seem to strike a chord with us, that make us want to spend the time and energy to pursue a more equal and just world. It is these issues that we must pursue.

Everything has a context, and “Meh” is rooted in a 21st century western middle class context. In other words, if there was a recipe for “Meh” soup it would be a large handful of mass media, a few cups of high western living standards and a generous dose of individualism. These also happen to be the same ingredients that go into the making of 21st century Canadian soup, but in larger proportions of course. In light of this context, it is important to remember that much of Mennonite, Protestant, and Christian history in general can be written as a series of impassioned responses to social and political injustice. If we look at our own religious history through this lens, we see that it is one of people who, because of their desire to follow Jesus, look beyond themselves and make the often difficult leap from thought to action, apathy to empathy.

Martin Luther, for example, despite his flaws and idiosyncrasies, made such a leap, and it is this leap that has contributed to us being where we are today theologically and socially. This leap came with Luther’s disillusionment with the practice of indulgences in the Catholic Church. During Luther’s time, the Pope allowed for the practice of absolving people’s sins in exchange for material goods, which were known as indulgences. In Luther’s eyes this was exploitation on a massive level, not to mention a perversion of theological principles. It is also important to keep in mind that as a Catholic priest, Luther very well could have benefited from this (now obviously) unjust policy and just said “Meh.”

Instead, Luther’s theological understanding of repentance led him to affirm the concept of “faith alone,” denouncing works and material goods as a means of attaining salvation, and instead declaring that one’s salvation is between them and God and no one else. As you can imagine, this not only had major theological implications, but socio-political implications as well. Luther not only undermined the power of the church hierarchy, but discouraged a practice that was a major source of funding for the Vatican. Often our faith leads us to challenge the status quo or step out of our comfort zone, or even spend an “inconvenient” amount of time to pursue what is right. Luther’s actions are a good example of this.

Dirk Willems smallDirk Willems was a 16th century Dutch Anabaptist who also bridged that gap, and serves as an excellent example of why “Meh” is not a Mennonite (or even Christian) thing to say. Imprisoned for being Anabaptist, Willems escaped on a winter’s day and began to run across a frozen river. His pursuer, however, being much heavier than him, fell through the ice. Although Willems could have said “Meh” and kept running to freedom, he turned around to save his captor. That action led to his own capture and later execution.

Although Willems’ story goes from inspiring to sad incredibly quickly, there is much to be learned about the nature of Anabaptism from his selfless act. Anabaptism is more than simply the choice to be baptized as an adult, it is inherently a political and counter-cultural stance that acknowledges human agency as a means of sharing God’s love in Christ.

As Anabaptists and pacifists, whether we are directly affected by an issue or not, our history, our faith and our philosophy behoove us to challenge the culture of “Meh” that seems to be so common, by engaging with those who embrace it, and advocating with those who are oppressed by it.

As individuals we cannot do everything, but we can do something. Think about that issue that matters to you most, and get involved. There are many channels by which to enact meaningful change. Here at the MCC Ottawa Office part of our job is to make sure that you know of those channels. We will soon be partnering with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to advocate for food security, economic growth, proper nutrition, and women’s empowerment around the world through a project called the “Good Soil Campaign.” Join us in advocating for change to strengthen smallholder farmers.

We all say “Meh.” It’s natural. But every once in a while, when a disheartening issue inspires you to take action, don’t run away. Turn around, extend your hand, get your hands cold. It’s what we’re called to do.