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.

A prayer for refugees and displaced persons

This week’s reflection is written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba. 

Context: 

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees says that there are over 50 million refugees around the world currently. That is considerably more than the entire population of Canada. In Lebanon 1 out of every 5 people in the country is a Syrian refugee. There are huge needs within the refugee community there, but there is also significant tension and resentment among the host people too. Their services are overmatched, their jobs are threatened, their patience and compassion are being stretched beyond capacity at times.  Boatloads of people cross the Mediterranean everyday, full of people fleeing violence in a number of Northern African countries.There is considerable political pressure to not do too much to help these people. There are many other contexts, all equally complex and potentially devastating.

Iraq IDP

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, we remember that in your infancy you were a refugee. The political leaders of your country sought to end your life as an infant. Your parents took you to another country in secret. We don’t know, dear Lord, how long you had to stay there.

Help us, O Lord, to grow in compassion for those who are displaced from their homes in our day. Help us not to see them only as problems, statistics or threats. Help us to see refugees as fellow humans who have been forced to flee their homes.

O God, we know refugees and displaced persons must make excruciating decisions, and we ask for your mercy upon them. We ask for mercy for parents who take children from their homes. Mercy for children who leave parents too weak to travel. Mercy for those who choose to stay for whatever reasons and who live with severe consequences for those choices. We ask for mercy for those whose housing is inadequate – cold in winter, hot in summer, insufficient for privacy or hygiene or satisfaction. Have mercy on your children who have left their homes, O Lord.

O God, we know – sometimes too well – the causes of displacement and migration. We pray for the situations that have led to the refugee crises in our world. We pray for those who promote extremist ideologies, that they would change their ways and not choose violence. We pray for repressive regimes, that they would seek to engage people in building freedom. We pray for human smugglers and traffickers who prey upon those who have fled their homes, that they may stop victimizing the fearful and vulnerable.

Help us O Lord, to be compassionate and to know how we can help those who have been displaced. Help us to know when it is time for humanitarian relief, when it is time for resettlement, and when advocacy for peace and change is what is needed most. Give us courage and strength to be people of compassion and justice in the face of complex and overwhelming demands.

We know that you love all people, dear Lord.  Help us to be the instruments of your love and peace in the world.  Amen.

Peace is not achieved by saying, “We want peace,” but by working for it

This blog was written by Amy Eanes, who lives and works in Istmina, Choco (Colombia) as part of the MCC Seed program. This blog was first posted on the Seed Blog

Peace building in the context of the armed conflict, government neglect, and poverty is an enormous and multifaceted challenge, but in my role as a Seeder with the Mennonite Brethren Churches of Chocó, Colombia, I interact with many who are diligently laboring to that end, often far from the spotlight. I sat down with Arosa Palacio, a member of the Jerusalem Mennonite Brethren Church in Istmina, Chocó, to talk about her life and experiences as a person who has been displaced by the armed conflict and has worked for justice in her community.

Originally from Chocó, Arosa and her family were living in another part of img_2332-web-editColombia when intense violence forced them to flee their home and return to the department in the mid-1990s. “Chocó was our refuge of peace,” she says, adding that illegal armed groups had not yet arrived.

Protecting their children and removing them from a violent context was their top priority. Upon arriving in Istmina, Arosa and her family sustained themselves through mining and agriculture, traveling down the San Juan River to work in various communities.

Three years after their displacement, she joined a group of displaced persons that had begun organizing, led by a local teacher. Under Law 387 of 1997, displaced persons were recognized and guaranteed assistance and protection in their process of resettlement. But, as Arosa explains, when the people went to claim their status at the level of local government, “they didn’t want to respond or accept the responsibility because they saw us as beggars. They rejected any formal declarations if the people arrived dirty or without shoes, but if you arrived well-groomed, they asked how you could really be displaced if you were clean.” As a result, the group organized trainings on human rights and a trip to Bogotá to meet with government entities to advocate for their situation as victims who had not received legal recognition.

The group’s advocacy efforts enabled them to gain official status as displaced persons but did not achieve the financial reparations that were their right. “They didn’t collaborate with us, economically,” she says, “but with recognition of our status.”

img_9278-editWith backing by the Catholic diocese, the association of displaced persons started an agricultural initiative of raising fish, pigs, and chickens. Though it did provide employment for many people during its time, the initiative ultimately proved to be unsustainable.

Arosa continued to work with the organization’s leadership and was later selected as its vice president. “They liked my way of working in respect and solidarity with the people,” she says.

Despite decades of work with the association, roadblocks remain: “I don’t have answers to respond to the needs of the communities…. I’m watching how things are going, but I also see that the government isn’t responding and isn’t fulfilling its responsibilities. The same people who wrote the law are violating it. We have been victims of violence, and now we are victims of the government.”

img_1559-editAcknowledging the power of prayer and the hope that she has for God to intervene in their situation, she states, “Peace is not achieved by saying ‘We want peace,’ but by working for it.” Just as Jesus preached and fed the multitudes, so too the work of the church should preoccupy itself with both spiritual and physical needs. “Jesus, with the little that he had, fed the five thousand and had baskets of leftovers. The disciples who were with Jesus, when they saw the hunger of the people, told Jesus to send them away, but Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit, was able to meet their physical needs. This is the Christian life,” she says, “to see reality through the eyes of Jesus.”

In addition to accompanying displaced persons in her community, participating actively in the Mennonite Brethren Church, and her role as a mother and grandmother, over the past twenty years Arosa has served as foster mother to approximately fifty children who have arrived at her door in a state of malnutrition and neglect. Just as Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to feed the multitude, her passion to meet the needs of the people in her community and work towards justice is real and breathing despite the years of struggle and injustice.

Please pray for the Mennonite Brethren Churches in Chocó, their regional projects, and the women and men who work for peace in the midst of such difficult circumstances.