Voices of the Peacebuilders, Part 1: Women as Peacebuilders

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

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

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

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

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

Mampujan Colombia: Weaving history and speaking peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumbek, South Sudan: “The weak become strong”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Will we follow their lead?

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

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

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

Watch the full lecture here 

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

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office

Peace for the long run in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office

Welcome as a prelude to peace in Colombia

Alix Lozano is a Colombian  Pastor and Theologian and the Co-founder of the Ecumenical
Women’s Group of Peace-Builders (GemPaz). This piece was originally published on the MCC LACA Advocacy blog on June 21, 2017. This reflection is taken from the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia worship packet.

All people at different stages and different moments of life seek spaces of welcome, healing spaces, spaces of acceptance, inclusion, and transformation. Political violence, delinquency, invisibility, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poverty are some of the sources of stress, isolation, and trauma present in the realities of the Colombian people.

At this time, Colombia is experiencing a peace process, where the reintegration of ex-combatants in civil society is fiat accompli. The role of spaces, circles, and groups as instruments of the welcoming and transforming love of God is very pertinent, both in times of peace and in times of peace-building. We remember the biblical text of 2 Corinthians 1:4 which says: He consoles us in our suffering that we may console those who suffer, giving them the same comfort that he has give us.

Hospitality is an essential practice and value in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as a lifestyle and as teaching. Hospitality, understood as unconditional welcome of the most needy, is an act of unconditional love.

In fact, throughout the New Testament, much emphasis is given to the Greek concept of philoxenia, defined as love of the stranger. Philoxenia is more than just tolerating the other, without loving her or him; it is desiring his or her good. Xenos, which means “strange” as well as “stranger,” refers to the foreigner, the immigrant, and the exiled. It can be attributed to any human being who is a stranger, who needs welcoming in a strange land. This word is also the root of the term Xenophobia, which means rejection of the stranger, the foreigner. In diverse parables and teachings of Jesus, one finds reference to the responsibility to welcome others and offer them a home.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is on the road and is received in a home, the home of his friends. He rests and is served and welcomed. He takes advantage of the friendly atmosphere to teach with love. The women, Martha and Mary, have a special moment with the Teacher which gives us much to reflect on. In that home, Mary and Martha experience conviction and special strength.

Martha and Mary each have a distinctive way of welcoming and showing hospitality to Jesus. Martha does this through her concrete responsibilities as lady of the house, from the starting point of what is “normal,” that is, the norms of hospitality and welcome; she is a symbol of those in society who believe that everything is solved by fulfilling one’s duty. Thus the criteria for judging the behavior of others is simply to determine whether or not they have done their duty.

Mary also fulfills the custom of welcome and hospitality, but she does it in a very different way, with a novel attitude born from her heart. She is attentive to the presence of the other, in this case Jesus, by sitting by his side, listening to him, and offering him a personal relationship; but she does this outside of the social norm, what is legal or cultural. In doing so, Mary chooses “the better way,” breaking with tradition. She acts from what is human, from what is closeness, from what is a posture of listening and seeing the needs of the other, which were also her own needs.

It is important to note that Jesus does not judge Martha, as sometimes is believed, but rather invites her to see, hear, and listen for new ways of relating – a welcome that humanizes, where BEING is more important than DOING.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

The call of the Spirit, the Ruah, is to be welcomed, to give welcome, and to offer peace to people who come from different spaces as a prelude to the path of reconciliation in Colombia, which has taken on this peace process, where government and guerrillas have decided to put an end to the armed conflict.

PRAYER FOR PEACE

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
God of peace,
Our voices today unite in one cry,
A cry born from the depths of the heart
Of a humanity and creation wounded by war
That asks you to accompany our history
And knock down barriers that separate us so
that
Dialogues may come about that take us to
peace.

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
Our hands, our emotions
And all that we are
Unites in one dream of love
To walk with all those
Who suffer in our world and who,
Through processes of
Resistance, create peace.
Come Lord, fill us with your strength and
Carry us in your arms when
Our feet can no longer walk.
Come Lord.

– Inter-faith Dialogue for Peace, Peacebuilders in Prayer Liturgy.

We invite you and your congregation to join in with MCC partner organization, Justapaz, in celebrating Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia this summer. A packet of resource and worship materials is available here.

This post is also available in Spanish