Seeds of peace in the desert

This week’s blog is written by Mark Tymm, currently serving with MCC as Peace and Justice Assistant for the Department of Ethics, Peace & Justice in Chad. Mark is a former MCC Ottawa Office intern.

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With Dogos Victor, my supervisor and the Coordinator of EPJ (April 2015)

I recently boarded a plane in N’Djamena, Chad, and returned to North America after completing my second term with MCC. During the past year I have been serving with the SALT program, working as Peace & Justice Assistant to MCC’s long-term Chadian partner, the Department of Ethics, Peace & Justice (EPJ).

It’s been an interesting year to serve overseas and to monitor issues of peace and justice both in N’Djamena and around the world. My year has been filled with learning about the Chadian context, building connections between MCC and its partners, learning Arabic, and improving my French. Additionally, I had the amazing opportunities to manage a water project in a displaced-persons camp, and work closely with some remarkable people.

In the mid-1990s MCC encouraged its local partner, the Coalition of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Chad (EEMET), to address issues of injustice and conflict. As a result, the Department of Ethics, Peace & Justice (EPJ) was created.

Since then, EPJ has become a recognized leader among Chadian organizations in the field of interfaith conflict transformation.

EPJ’s peacebuilding work brings together religious leaders from Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim backgrounds. In our week-long seminars, we sit together, eat together, schedule time for both Muslim and Christian participants to engage in prayer and worship services, and, of course, provide Arabic and French translation of all our speakers. We discuss the importance of peace in the central African country. We invite guest lecturers to speak on Islamic peace traditions. We plan sessions on mediation and nonviolent conflict management, and always leave lots of time to address questions, discuss in small-groups and review practical case studies.

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Women in central Chad gather in Mongo to discuss peacebuilding (April 2015)

Our programs are well-known and respected among Chadians, and we have been welcomed and endorsed by the local government in each province we have worked in.

The act of the religious leaders actively engaging together in peace dialogue is recognized by the public as an important step in the right direction, especially given the challenging experiences Chad is undergoing.

As a pacifist I am often challenged to know where to stand on various issues. Not least of these are the security threats that face Chad: to the north, a civil war rages in Libya; on the eastern border, conflict shrouds Sudan; the southern region of the country has suddenly become home to over 100,000 who have fled violence in Central African Republic; now, Nigeria’s challenges with Islamic extremist group Boko Haram are spilling in from the west. In the past several weeks, the group has been responsible for four bombs in N’Djamena that have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. Thankfully, I have been told that these events have not been particular sources of division or discontentment between Christians and Muslims in the capital.

What is a peace-loving boy from Chilliwack, BC to say? That the Chadian military should disband when the general population trusts them for their protection? That local law enforcement should not be apprehending insurgent cell groups in the Chadian capital?

How do we find a balance between witnessing to the powers who seem to be trying desperately to protect their own people, and rejecting the use of force to contain violence?

What can be said is that although the Chadian military is regarded as a force to be reckoned with in conventional warfare, like many other militaries around the world, it seems ill-prepared to deal with the unique challenges it is now facing.

Dealing with complex security issues—like extremist violence—certainly isn’t a simple task. Programs that promote anti-radicalization, initiatives that help narrow economic disparity between peoples, and projects that build community across religious or social divisions take years of work, stable civil society organizations, and a very engaged and involved public. Without the time to establish these civic structures, I am at a reluctant and unfortunate loss of words for how to contain violence in the present.

And yet the AK-47s posted on street corners don’t seem to be doing much better to promote peace either…

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Local pastors in N’Djamena meet to discuss conflict transformation (March 2015)

I used to think most of these challenges had easy answers: “Violence, even defensive in nature, is never acceptable.” “People should look past their differences and accept others.” That has changed. Certainly, I haven’t abandoned any of my nuanced Anabaptist perspectives on the importance of peacebuilding, reconciliation, or justice-seeking. If anything, my convictions and passion to contribute to these efforts alongside respected local partners have only deepened and grown. But I recognize the complexity of dealing effectively with the challenges violence brings.

And so our work continues. Progress is made one small step at a time. Muslim and Christian leaders come away from our workshops as friends, and begin new relationships built on mutual understanding and respect. They call each other in times of conflict to make sure that the others family is safe. Slowly, walls of division are broken down and bridges of relationships are built.

To be sure, there are days of uncertainty, but we see small glimmers of hope in our pursuit of peace and justice.

It’s just coffee and flowers…

This week’s blog is written by Thomas Coldwell, who is currently volunteering with MCC Ottawa, and interning as Associate Pastor with the Village International Mennonite Church. In fall, he will join MCC Alberta as Peace and Community Engagement Coordinator.

This past May, I co-led the MCC Alberta/Saskatchewan Uprooted 2015 delegmonumento-a-la-revolucionation to Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. We learned about migration.

Many in Mexico and Guatemala (and Canada, too) migrate for economic reasons. They are unable to sustain a decent standard of living due to poverty or a lack of job opportunities.

Some migrants, especially from the rural areas, are small-scale landless subsistence farmers (or campesinos) who are unable to earn a sustainable income from the crops they produce. A lot of these crops—like coffee and flowers—are major exports, destined for countries like Canada.

Other migrating peoples are forced from their homes due to violence or instability. Across the region, people are leaving the familiar in search of both safety and economic opportunity. We met MCC partners helping peoples on the move and supporting initiatives for alternatives to migration.

Since arriving back in Ottawa, I find myself more often reading the “Product of…” labels on the foods I buy. My favourite yellow mangoes sold by street vendors in Mexico City are also available at my local grocery store. Our world is very interconnected—especially when it comes to food and drink.

An employee of Cafe Justo demonstating how  coffee is roasted in Agua PrietaAh, coffee. The smell. The taste. I wouldn’t say I’m a committed coffee-drinker (coffee and tea are equally enjoyable), but I do like a cup o’ joe. And so do many others: over 14 billion cups of coffee are consumed in Canada ever year (according to Statistics Canada). That’s about 398 cups of coffee per person per year (more than a cup-a-day for everyone in Canada). Coffee’s a big deal! And in 2009, most of Canada’s raw coffee was imported from Colombia, Brazil, and Guatemala.

During the learning tour, we visited Cafe Justo (“Just Coffee”)—a coffee co-operative of over 100 families in Mexico. The coffee beans are grown and harvested in the Chiapas region and sent to roast in Agua Prieta on the Northern border. Small-scale farmers often get the shorter end of the stick when competing with agri-businesses in places like Mexico and Guatemala. Traditionally, the “middle-man” buys coffee from the farmers to sell to the manufacturers for a profit. This often leaves the farmers with insufficient funds for their basic needs. The Cafe Justo co-operative sells directly to the consumer (businesses, churches, and individuals) after deciding what their coffee is worth. This business model has allowed 100 families to reach a decent standard of living without having to migrate.

Supporting fair trade helps small-scale farmers live with dignity in their communities. It provides choice: to leave or not to leave.My patio garden in Ottawa

This summer, Jen (my wife) and I decided to grow a garden on our patio. It’s been a fun journey as we’ve witnessed seeds sprouting and transforming into vibrant, green plants. Watching our flowers bloom has also been a joy for us!

While in the Guatemalan highlands, the Uprooted team visited MCC partners in Tonina who grew organic vegetables and flowers with no chemicals. Their gardens were beautiful. They sell their flowers across the border in Mexico. Many of the flowers imported to Canada from Latin America are grown under harsh labour conditions with high chemical usage, putting both workers and the environment at risk. But working in the flower industry is the primary source of income for some.

The question I ask myself is: How then shall I live? I find myself more concerned about the type of chocolate I purchase (and I love to purchase it). Or the coffee I drink. Or the flowers I enjoy. Purchasing fair trade is one way to support my global neighbours. Being mindful of systems and processes that do not always promote the well-being and dignity of people is part of my journey. Considering fair trade first (both globally and locally) can lead to decisions that will positively influence the lives of others.

But is it really worth it to support fair trade cooperatives? After all, it’s just coffee and flowers. And yet coffee and flowers allow people to feed their families, support their children’s education, and remain in their regions without needing to migrate for economic purposes. These projects serve as alternatives to migration.

When justice is partnered with human-centered business, the outcome is “just coffee” or “just flowers”—which means more than I can fully comprehend.

What’s in a word?

This week’s blog post was written by Sue Eagle, who is MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighours Program Co-coordinator alongside Miriam Sainnawap

When I attend Indigenous events or meetings, I listen for themes or for wisdom that might give my work direction. I try to pay special attention to those voices that are not often listened to.

In spring, I was at one of the most highly-attended meetings at the United Naunpfii_logotions in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is 14 years old. It has become an event where Indigenous Peoples world-wide gather to build solidarity, inform other Indigenous nations and organizations about what is happening in their homelands and find ways to bring their issues to the attention of the United Nations.

One of the common threads that I found weaving in and out of the sessions and events was that words hold power.

The word “Indigenous” was claimed back in 1974 by the people who gathered to work on their rights at the United Nations level. They spent some time deciding what they should collectively call themselves. They chose “Indigenous.” The word was claimed in an act of solidarity and resistance.

Kairos Canada's Gathering at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.   The opening plenary session was moderated by Gabrielle Fayant (co-director of the ReachUp! North Program), and featured Mike Cachagee, former president of the National Residential Schools Survivor Society, Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Jah'Kota, hiphop artist, musician, founder of Un1ty Entertainment.

From Kairos Canada’s Gathering at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Alison Ralph, MCC Canada).

“Peoples” with an “s,” turns a generic group of individuals into distinct nations, according to Oren Lyons, faith-keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy and long-time leader in Indigenous rights work at the United Nations level. With the “s,” they become Arapahos, Dakotas, Haudenosaune, Dene, Anishinabee, Cheyenne, Sami, Metis, and Mayans. The use of that word is part of the movement to get member status for each of these Indigenous nations within the United Nations.

An “s” can change reality for vast numbers of Peoples/people.

In a session on “Indigeneity and Spirituality,” LeMoine LaPointe, Sicangu Lakota, clarified that Indigenous culture was not “lost,” but it has been interrupted. A change in words turns a passive action into an intentional act. The concept that culture has been interrupted highlights the strength and resiliency of Peoples, overwhelmingly evident at the Permanent Forum.

In speaking about her plans to introduce an intervention on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the UNPFII, Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, Ph.D., president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, adamantly stated that “car keys go missing.” Indigenous women are “being stolen” from their families and communities. To say that they are missing does not do justice to the reality that they and their loved ones are facing. Again, the verb “missing” is passive, while “stolen” refers to a deliberate action.

Words can turn human beings into concerns….

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Sue Eagle, walking with the over 7,000 people who joined in the walk for reconciliation in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Alison Ralph).

“We are Peoples, not issues,” I heard one person say. The reference was to the title for the meetings – The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. There has been talk around changing the name of the gathering. In fact it was one of the recommendations put forward in a previous UNPFII. Some Indigenous people present have decided to start using the words “United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples,” rather than wait for the powers that be to approve it.

Words hold power and they need to be chosen carefully. Choosing words is not simply about semantics or being politically correct. It is about visibility, strength and identity. It is about resistance.

Remembering Srebrenica — 11 July 2015

This week’s guest writer and photographer is Jennifer Epp, Human Resources administrative assistant (international) at MCC Canada in Winnipeg. Jennifer visited the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre and Cemetery in October 2013.

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, a town situated in northeastern Bosnia. During the Bosnian War (1992-1995), Srebrenica was designated by the United Nations’ as its first-ever “safe area” in April 1993. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim (“Bosniak”) refugees found temporary safety there.

However, the United Nations’ promise to provide protection for refugees collapsed. And on 11 July1995, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić led Serbian troops into Srebrenica.

Serb forces separated women and children from the men and put them on buses destined for Tuzla, a city located over 100 kilometers away. Approximately 15,000 men and boys attempted to escape the Serbian military by fleeing on foot through mountains and forests in order to seek protection in Tuzla. However, over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed in what was later identified as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

This week I remember Srebrenica.

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The Srebrenica Memorial Stone indicates the number of dead: “8372 … the total number of victims which is not final.”  The munipalities from which missing victims of the massacre originated are listed on the left-hand side.

IMG_4317Large slabs of stone are engraved with the names of massacre victims. This tragic event has been called the worst massacre on European soil since the Second World War.

IMG_4341The Dutch UN Peacekeepers’ headquarters was located in a former battery factory outside Potočari, six kilometers from Srebrenica.

IMG_4312No camera can possibly capture the overwhelming immensity of the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre and Cemetery. Many people will mark the twentieth anniversary on 11 July 2015 by returning to the cemetery for a collective burial of newly-identified remains.

IMG_4344Since the Dayton Peace Agreement was struck in Autumn 1995, Srebrenica is located in the predominantly-Serbian entity known as Republika Srpska, which is within the present country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some Bosniaks returned to Srebrenica after the war but post-war rebuilding of the town has been slow.

IMG_0907BH Crafts, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only certified member of the World Fair Trade Organization, is also commemorating its twentieth anniversary in 2015. The company began as a project at a refugee centre built near Tuzla in 1995 by The Norwegian People’s Aid. BH Crafts provides hope-filled employment for women of all ethnicities in a country where the unemployment rate remains above 40 percent. The women continue to heal from war trauma as they learn traditional skills such as knitting, crocheting, embroidery and weaving and create high-quality clothing, toys and souvenirs from local fibers. A tag is attached to each finished product with the name of the woman who created it.

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This week I remember and I pray…