Canada and Martin Luther King Jr.

Fifty years ago today—April 4, 1968—Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I was less than 3 months old at the time, so I have no recollection of that day or the man when he lived. But at some point, I became aware of his work for civil rights and his untimely and tragic death.

Recently, I began to wonder what connections Martin Luther King Jr. may have had to Canada. Certainly, his name is recognized by most Canadians, and parts of his famous “I have a dream” speech would also be familiar to many. But what may not be well known is that in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual Massey Lectures.

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The Massey Lectures were started in 1961 as an annual series of lectures by leading thinkers, originally broadcast on the CBC radio program Ideas. CBC producers initially planned that for 1967 the prominent lecture series be delivered “by a group of leading Canadian lights reflecting on Canada at 100.”

However, in the summer of 1967, race riots erupted in black neighbourhoods in Detroit and Newark. The immediate cause was police brutality, but the real issues were segregated housing and schools and rising black unemployment. In five days, 43 people were killed (33 blacks and 10 whites) and nearly 1200 injured. In the midst of the “largest urban uprising of the 1960s,” Martin Luther King Jr. called for radical nonviolent social change through mass civil disobedience in Washington, D.C.

King’s powerful oratory, his passion for racial equality, and his commitment to nonviolent action caught the attention of CBC producers in Canada. In a letter dated August 11, 1967 Janet Somerville, the senior producer at Ideas responsible for the lectures, approached King with a request to author and deliver the lectures for that year.  

“This summer’s harsh new evidence (on several continents) has made the case for non-violence harder to hear. We need to hear it argued with all the new evidence considered. But this same summer has also begun to demonstrate to everyone the interconnectedness of the problem of violence – world-wide, history-long, bone-and-soul-deep… Anything implied by the question ‘is it human to hope to move forward without violence?’ is relevant to the series we would like to broadcast.” 

1967-massey-kingThe result was a 5-part lecture series entitled “Conscience for Change” which was broadcast in December 1967.  In the first four lectures, King explored the impasse of race relations, the effect of the Vietnam War on the social fabric of the US, youth and social action, and nonviolence and social change. The final lecture was a Christmas sermon on peace delivered in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia and broadcast by CBC on Christmas Eve 1967.

While King’s call for nonviolent social change stemmed from events and experiences in the US, it was relevant beyond those borders. Canadian cities weren’t suffering violent riots, but Canada too possessed economic and social inequity and racial and ethnic tension. The growing demand of Indigenous people for the dismantling of racist systems of oppression put Canadians on notice. Social change was certainly needed here as well.

King’s challenge to remember our human inter-connectedness, both nationally and globally, and to work for change through nonviolent means is worth hearing again as we celebrate his life on the 50th anniversary of his death.

As King boldly stated at the end of lecture three, “If the anger of the peoples of the world at the injustice of things is to be channeled into a revolution of love and creativity, we must begin now to work, urgently, with all the peoples, to shape a new world.[i]

– Monica Scheifele, MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant

[i] Bernie Lucht, ed. The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from five Great Thinkers (Toronto: House of Anasi Press, 2007), 198.

 

 

 

“How long, oh Lord…” The war in Syria enters its eighth year

Once again, we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Lent. Holy Week is upon us. It is a week that evokes deep emotions: grief and desolation followed by profound joy and hope. Amidst the darkness all around, hope persists and breaks through.

Every year we know this is coming. We know for certain that after 40 days, Lent ultimately culminates with Easter and resurrection. There is an empty tomb – He is Risen! – for which we say a resounding Thanks be to God!

But what about the seasons of Lent in our own lives here and now? The times of darkness and confusion? Times of injustice, violence and grief? Times when it seems like there will be no end to human suffering around the world? How can the light even begin to break through in the moments when all hope appears to be gone?

“How long, oh Lord?” cry the Psalmists and the prophets – speaking out of places of deep suffering and isolation, as those who would cry for an end to violence and injustice.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lebanon with two colleagues from MCC’s other advocacy offices, meeting with several of MCC’s partners in the region, including some of MCC’s Syrian partners. We were so privileged to meet with Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus and Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs, both from the Syrian Orthodox Church – a longstanding partner of MCC – who drove in from Syria just to meet with us at their monastery in the mountains.

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Archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church came to Lebanon to meet with representatives from MCC’s Advocacy Offices and speak to the current political and humanitarian context within Syria. (left to right, Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs for the Syrian Orthodox Church; ; Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus for the Syrian Orthodox Church; and Garry Mayhew, MCC Co-Representative for Lebanon and Syria: MCC photo, Doug Hostetter)

The Syrian war is about to enter its eighth year, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, forcibly displacing over 13 million people – often multiple times – in a protracted and seemingly unending conflict that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis beyond measure. Bishops Matta and Selwanos and their surrounding communities have lived this crisis from the beginning: offering food and comfort, shelter and little bits of hope where they can.

Eight years. I can’t even begin to imagine. A conflict shifting and moving throughout the country; sectarian violence and regional powers fighting a proxy war on Syrian territory on over a dozen fronts; countless bombings and the physical markings of destruction; trauma and re-traumatization, as no one is untouched; a generation of children knowing no context other than war, destruction and displacement. In this past month alone, devastating attacks overwhelm the people in rebel-controlled East Ghouta, while deadly shells and rockets wreak havoc in government-controlled Damascus.

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Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

As the Bishops outlined the crisis and some of the main challenges one phrase really hit home: “There is hope, but it’s very small among Syrian people. How long, oh Lord…?”

Yet the Bishops insisted that the sheer fact that people outside of Syria are noticing, are speaking up, are wanting to stand in solidarity, provides them just a little more hope. Our visit with them inspired us and stirred within us new energy to speak and to act.

As we as MCC advocacy workers come home and share these stories and messages with our friends, churches and communities, we want to lament and pray and stand in solidarity with our partners. In this Lenten time and period of waiting and uncertainty let us all cry out for justice and peace to come.

As advocates we invite our supporters to speak truth to power and raise these voices up in the halls of power. Our group asked the Bishops what message they wanted us to bring to our respective governments. They replied, simply “peace comes first.” Priority must be given to negotiating diplomatic peace as soon as possible, without the continuing support to military efforts, beginning the long process of sustainable peacebuilding, justice, healing and reconciliation.

In such a protracted conflict, the Bishops outlined, every party carries its own economic and political interests and objectives, but above all they must be urged to seek the welfare and human dignity of the people. Sectarian, political, religious and national divides have brought about acts of horror on all sides, and are often manipulated and have been exacerbated by armed actors and by intervening countries, such as Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Canada. The act of supporting a military solution, both in words and in actions – which Canada and the U.S. are intent on – will only fuel these divisions and carry them into the future.

Long-lasting peace, instead, comes with addressing the root causes of violence; promoting genuine immediate and long-lasting dialogue between religions, national, political and sectarian groups; supporting the urgent humanitarian and development needs. Inclusive and immediate diplomacy is paramount.

There is by no means an easy or quick-fix solution. MCC’s partners in Syria and the region have long been responding to humanitarian and development urgent needs. MCC’s response to the crisis Syria and the region is our biggest humanitarian response since World War II. Partners are also highly engaged in peacebuilding, bringing together people from different communities, sects and religions, seeking to build peace from the ground up.

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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, 2017

As this year’s Lenten season draws to a close, I pray we all can be renewed again with the hope of Easter. And may that hope somehow spread out into what often seems like never-ending darkness, and may this hope of resurrection give us all strength to continue to cry out for justice and peace. “How long, oh Lord…”

Bekah Sears is the policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

Could it happen again?

Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting, collaborating with and even perpetrating such evil?

This is the question that haunts me after attending a recent conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.

HolocaustThe conference, attended by over 200 people from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, U.S. and Canada, was the 3rd in a series of conferences on the same topic. The first two occurred in Germany (2015) and Paraguay (2017). These three conferences have highlighted an emerging body of scholarship on Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust.

Over the course of the two days, we heard 20 different speakers present their research into a profoundly disturbing story.  These are a few of the things we heard…

…German Mennonite churches (both conservative and liberal) bought into National Socialism’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology that valued blood purity and Aryanism. Many Mennonites considered Adolf Hitler as God’s instrument to restore the fatherland of Germany.  Their theology gave them few tools to resist Nazi propaganda because they had abandoned earlier Anabaptist commitments to nonviolence and had also lost a sense of the centrality of the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by Jesus.

…Many Mennonites in the Ukraine knew about—and a few even participated in—massacres of Jews around their communities during the period of German occupation, 1941-43.  In one three-day massacre near Zaporizhia (and the Mennonite community of Chortitza) over 3,000 Jews were murdered and thrown into a mass grave. A Mennonite named Heinrich Wiens became an SS commander and was responsible for killing thousands of Jews. Many of the Mennonites hired by the Germans to act as interpreters translated lists of Jews who were subsequently murdered. Mennonites benefited from the German occupation while their Jewish neighbours suffered unmeasurably.

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Dr. Doris Bergen of the University of Toronto gave the keynote address.

…Some Mennonites in Poland accepted homes and businesses confiscated from Jews. Refugees accepted the clothing and effects of Jews who had been killed. One prominent local Mennonite, Erich Ratzlaff, assisted in rounding up Jews for a new ghetto. Later in Canada, he edited the Mennonitische Rundschau for many years.

…In the Netherlands, many Mennonites actively supported the occupying forces. One such individual, Jacob Luitjens, played a role in the Nazi propaganda service and also helped to track down Jews. In 1991 he was extradicted from Canada to the Netherlands to serve the prison sentence handed down in absentia decades earlier.

…During the German occupation, some Mennonites in the Netherlands participated in the resistance movement and some also hid Jews. One of the latter, Gerrtje Pel-Groot, took a Jewish baby into her home while the baby’s parents hid elsewhere. The little girl survived the war, but Geertje died in a German concentration camp after someone informed on her.  She is one of 40 Dutch Mennonites who have been honoured by Israel as “righteous among the nations.”  But, as the Dutch scholar put it,  why only 40?

…Mennonite Central Committee actively worked after the war to identify Mennonite refugees in Europe as Dutch rather than as German, and to minimize Mennonite connections to the Nazis. It did so in order to better enable the refugees’ escape from Europe to destinations in South America or Canada. MCC worked closely with avowed Mennonite Nazi supporters and party members like Benjamin H. Unruh.

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A 1935 film produced by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry and featuring Mennonite themes was shown at the conference.

At the end of two days of hearing these stories and much more, my heart ached and I struggled to hold back the tears.  Questions swirled around in my mind.

  • Why the silence? Why are we only hearing these stories now? This question was actually put to me by the one person attending the conference who publicly identified herself as Jewish.  “Why has it taken Mennonites so long to acknowledge this?” she asked.
  • How does memory shape a people and a narrative? The conference highlighted that memory is constructed—shaped and re-shaped to “make sense” of people’s experience.  Memory can, for example, reinforce identities of victimhood, while denying identities of victimizer. How can memory serve to honestly bear witness to truth in all its complexity?
  • Does a community’s own experience of trauma absolve it of complicity in the harming of others? Soviet Mennonites were, when German occupying forces arrived in 1941, deeply traumatized. Under Stalin, they had lived through forced collectivization, starvation, repression, and the murder or disappearance of thousands. Does that reality lift the burden of responsibility? Or does it simply explain why Mennonites did not come to the aid of the Jewish community?
  • How do Mennonites recognize, acknowledge and atone for this dark side of our collective story? How do we lay aside the sense of “Mennonite exceptionalism” that we are somehow better than others?
  • And this one: Could it happen again? Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting power structures that commit such horrible atrocities?  How does the church in our day nurture the robust theological and spiritual resources, and the foundational commitments to justice, peacebuilding and Christian discipleship so necessary to resist systemic evil?

I am thankful to the historians and theologians, the preachers, poets and artists—as well as the organizers of this conference—for guiding our community in this painful but necessary journey.

More information on the conference is available here.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Africa through new lenses

This week’s guest writer is Patrick Handrigan. Patrick is a grade 12 student at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland where he is active in a wide range of social justice initiatives.

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to become a better global citizen.

I joined three other  Atlantic Canadian youth, plus five Alberta students, in a three-week youth learning tour to Uganda with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in cooperation with the Alberta and Atlantic Councils for International Cooperation. The tour was called ACT 4 Global Change. While in Uganda, we visited MCC partners who are working to bring about positive change through peaceful initiatives.

During one of our final group debrief activities, we were asked to relate something we saw, felt, or heard on the trip to a symbol on a die. The pair of glasses that I rolled became a symbol that represented my new vision of Africa.

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The group of Canadian students who visited Uganda. Photo credit Leah Attarh

Many Canadians believe that the African continent is the nucleus of poverty, famine, political unrest and conflict. My own closed-minded views of Uganda and its people concerned me and added an element of unease to my travels. The continuous media images of a violent region had me believing that I was going to land in a -plagued zone. But I was wrong. On landing in Uganda, I was greeted with smiles, open arms, and a genuine happiness for my visit. I didn’t expect such a warm reception 10,000 km away from my home in Newfoundland.

After arriving at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, we traveled five hours by bus to Kamuli, a small town in the eastern part of the country. AIDS Education Group for Youth (AEGY) is an organization working within the community to promote the education and the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. They offer support groups, school courses, radio talk shows, and health services to people needing them, with support from MCC.

In our first day in Kamuli, we worked with AEGY to build eco-stoves from clay which allowed for proper kitchen ventilation to reduce the risk of lung-related illnesses of people living with HIV. This unique architectural consideration in a simple family dwelling not only made their homes safe, but gave the community a sense of ownership, pride and self-reliance. Our visit concluded with dancing, singing and lunch with the Namasambya 1 Village Savings and Loans Association, a visit to the Peer Support Clubs at Kasambira High School, and a community game of soccer and netball with teens.

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Students assist in building AEGY eco-stoves. Photo credit Leah Attarh.

The next day, we made a visit to Nakulyako Primary School to observe the RUMPS (Reusable Menstrual Products) club in action. Prior to this program, female students were unable to attend school while on their menstrual cycle, but with support from MCC, this new program evolved. Male classmates fully supported and actively participated in this venture, and understood its importance to a better future for Ugandan women. This is a huge step forward for women’s rights and educational equality in Uganda.

In Kampala, African Leadership and Reconciliation Missions (ALARM) works for  peace between boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers and the local police. At our visit to the police barracks, we learned about peace club initiatives that promote respectful dialogue.

At Mengo Hospital, we met Dr. Edith Namulema, who is responsible for the Counselling and Home Care Clinic and coordinates the peer support group. This group provides medical and counselling services for teens living with HIV. Our team joined the group for a session and connected through eating, dancing, and sharing stories. From the support of MCC, the hospital is expecting the completion of a new clinical wing.

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Patrick Handrigan with Sister Sophia of the Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School. Photo credit Louise Hanavan.

We were welcomed with open arms at Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School in Kiryandongo. This school was founded in 2001 during the reign of the Lord’s Resistance Army and provided a safe-haven and an education to girls affected by the war. Under Sister Sophia’s leadership, students performed a comedic spin-off of Cinderella and a somber, more informative play about malaria and its effects on the community. We enjoyed a meal together and spent the afternoon playing volleyball, soccer, racing Sister Sophia in a 100m dash, and teaching the Macarena to the girls–a truly wonderful way to spend my last few days in Uganda.

Our visit to Soroti gave us the opportunity to see a different geographical landscape and the challenges that persist with living within this region. Action for Peace and Development (APED) supports conservation agricultural community initiatives that create jobs and peace within Soroti District. They follow a method of “Farming God’s Way” which teaches them to respect the earth and not destroy its natural beauty. Church of Uganda in the Teso Region (COU-TEDDO) taught us the importance of agriculture in peacekeeping and the impact climate change is having on this region. We celebrated the first rain in many months together.

Youth, as global citizens, are the catalysts for change in today’s world. We have a responsibility to ignite a paradigm shift in how Africa is portrayed in our society. Learning not to judge an entire country or continent by a news headline is a critical way to increase global understanding. Building positive relationships with that country, in turn, will  assist in the country’s educational, economic, political and social development.

Because of my learning experience, I see Uganda – and Africa — through new lenses.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” — Kenyan proverb

 

Ahed Tamimi and all the other Palestinian children in detention

In just a few short weeks, Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi has become a global celebrity of sorts. In mid-December, then 16-year-old Ahed confronted Israeli soldiers outside her home in the village of Nabi Saleh in Israeli-occupied West Bank. A video showing Ahed slapping and kicking the soldiers quickly went viral.

According to witnesses, Ahed was angered by the soldiers’ presence because they had just shot (with a rubber-coated bullet at close range) and seriously harmed her cousin. The larger context is that other Tamimi members have been killed and many others detained over the years, as the community of Nabi Saleh—through persistent and unarmed resistance—has said “No” to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and more specifically to the confiscation of the village spring by a nearby Israeli settlement.

Days after the confrontation, Ahed was arrested in a night-time raid. Her mother Nariman—who had also appeared in the video—was also detained when she went to a police station, inquiring where her daughter was being held.

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Ahed Tamimi enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli authorities at Ofer Prison, January 1, 2018.  Photo Ammar Awad, Reuters

Ahed now faces a total of 12 charges, including assault, incitement and throwing stones. She could potentially be imprisoned for ten years.  The first hearing of her trial took place on February 13; the next one is scheduled for March 11.

Since December, Ahed’s story has been picked up by news media around the world. Amnesty International and Avaaz have taken up her cause, demanding her release. Canada’s own CBC broadcasted a feature story about Ahed, describing her as the “new symbol of Palestinian resistance.” And parliamentarians like Hélène Laverdière, NDP critic for International Development, have spoken out on her behalf.

And yet Ahed’s story is not only about one young person’s resistance to a military occupation that has humiliated her people for decades. It is about the daily reality of Palestinian children who are arrested, interrogated, convicted and detained in a military court process that denies them basic rights. Most of them are accused of throwing stones.

Ahed’s detention provides a glimpse into what hundreds of Palestinian children experience each year.

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Jarrah Mesalmeh was arrested at 15 and spent 9 months in military detention. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

As we have previously written about in our blog, each year hundreds of children aged 12 to 18 face military detention in a process that deprives them of basic rights. In three quarters of all cases, children experience some form of violence after arrest. In most cases, arrest happens at night by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. And in most cases, children are interrogated without legal counsel and without access to a parent or guardian. After sentencing, more than half of detainees are transferred from the occupied West Bank to prisons inside Israel, in violation of international law.

Expert organizations like Defence for Children International, Military Court Watch and UNICEF demonstrate that the ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees by Israeli forces is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the Israeli military detention system.”

Moreover, they point out that the process is not primarily about seeking justice—in fact, a staggering 99 percent of Palestinians (adults and children) are convicted. The practices of the military detention system work to protect Israeli settlers who live in illegal settlements in the West Bank and to intimidate and suppress a population that resists a 50-year occupation.

In a recent study, Military Court Watch determined that 98 percent of child detention cases occur near Israeli settlements. As Gerard Horton, the organization’s co-founder, puts it, “If the politicians in Israel decide to put 400,000 Israeli civilians into the West Bank and you give the job to the military guaranteeing their protection, then the tactics employed by the military generally include suppressing and intimidating the villagers living next to those settlements.”

The story of Ahed Tamimi provides a window into a much wider reality of oppression. As Brad Parker of Defence for Children International states, “Ahed’s detention and prosecution in Israel’s military court system is not exceptional, but provides a clear example of how Israeli military law and military courts are used to control an occupied Palestinian population.”

Please take action for the hundreds of children like Ahed who are paying the price of this sustained occupation. Join the growing movement of people and organizations who say that military detention is No Way to Treat a Child.

Learn more about Palestinian children in military detention through a story, video and factsheet MCC has produced.

Then sign the petition urging the Canadian federal government to address the situation of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.

From hand to hand to hand: The journey to North Korea

This piece by Julie Bell, a senior writer and editor for MCC, was originally published by MCC Canada on December 2, 2017.  We share this piece again in our Ottawa Notebook in light of the international summit Canada is hosting this week on North Korea.

PYONGYANG, DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea) – It’s been a long trek for these eight small bags of medical supplies. They have been packed and re-packed, crossed an ocean, passed through three countries and numerous airport security checks.

On this day the bags have reached their destination – a small medical clinic on a farm near Pyongyang.

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Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, with medical staff at clinic near Pyongyang. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

As I watch my MCC colleague, Chris Rice, hand one of the bags to the medical staff, I am humbled by the significance of this small gesture. Rice and I, and two of our MCC colleagues, are in DPRK at a time when tensions between this country and other parts of the world are running high. On this day, U.S. president Donald Trump is in the region and most people, including the people of DPRK, are aware of that.

And yet, the story of how the medical kits came to be is what matters most in this moment. Through translation, we tell the medical staff we have come to DPRK to visit some of the projects supported by MCC; including providing canned meat and soybean products to orphanages and schools and agricultural support on their farm. But their faces light up when we tell them that it was a conversation during a previous visit to the farm that prompted a collaboration of people around the world.

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A farm near Pyongyang, DPRK, where MCC has provided agricultural support. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

During that visit, medical staff told MCC about accidents on the farm – everything from cuts and scrapes to sprains and broken bones. Word of the need for medical supplies travelled through MCC’s regional office in South Korea and on to MCC offices in Canada and the U.S. We decided to put together medical kits and consulted with medical experts, both in and outside MCC, on what the kits should contain. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to buy the supplies and they were delivered to our material resources warehouse in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That’s where Natalie Gulenchyn, a long-time volunteer at the resource centre got involved.  She cut the fabric and sewed the bags, complete with MCC’s iconic dove logo.

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Natalie Gulenchyn, who is in her eighties and volunteers at MCC’s material resources warehouse in Winnipeg sewed the medical kit bags that were transported to DPRK. MCC photo/Rachel Bergen

Everything was packed into a piece of luggage, which travelled with me from Winnipeg to Beijing, China.

In Beijing, we checked to make sure everything was okay and re-packed the luggage.

The luggage crossed its last border when we travelled to Pyongyang in DPRK. In yet another hotel room, we moved the supplies – from bandages to surgical tape and disposable gloves – into the eight bags lovingly sewn by Natalie.

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Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, along with medical staff at a farm clinic near Pyongyang, DPRK. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

Now, as the nurses and a doctor at the clinic thank us for the supplies, I am so grateful for all the hands and hearts involved in bringing these simple gifts here. Donors, volunteers, MCC workers and their families – these people made it happen.

On this day, the hostilities and harsh rhetoric of current times are irrelevant. I think about the many references in the Bible to “do the work of God’s hands.” The call to carry gifts of comfort and words of peace is the only truth that matters.

Voices of the Peacebuilders Part 2: Hope amidst the rubble

This is the second of a two-part series called Voices of the Peacebuilders, focusing on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working for peace at the grassroots. 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 blog series outlines points from each lecture and provide a video link. The second lecture, held on October 17 and hosted by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, was entitled: The Role of the Peacebuilders: Iraq, Syria and Beyond.”

Years of protracted conflict in Iraq and Syria have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances, and millions of forcibly displaced peoples.

Just under the surface are deeply rooted grievances based on: ethnic, national and religious divisions; multiple and overlapping conflicts and quests for political power and control of rich natural resources, such as oil; alliances and interests of the global superpowers; and even climate change.

In these circumstances, how do we even begin to think about solutions or possibilities for peace?

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Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

Perspectives that are often missing in the reporting on Iraq and Syria are those from the grassroots. These include voices caught in the crossfire and even deliberate targets of violence. But they also include voices and movements of local leaders from the grassroots – individuals, communities and organizations – who are seeking to address the complex roots of conflict and build peace from the ground up.

These are people that have been dedicated to building peace long before the world took notice of escalating conflict. They are standing firm at the height of violence and they are committed to continue long after the world’s attention has faded. Their voices and their work bring a renewed sense of hope amidst the rubble.

MCC has been working alongside local partners in the Middle East for about 70 years, and in Syria and Iraq specifically for over 25 years. I want to introduce you to some of these peacebuilders and their projects, who at great personal risk to themselves and their families, exemplify the dedication, courage and commitment necessary for long-lasting peace.

Aleppo, Syria

At the end of 2016, the world watched as the Syrian government and its allies doubled down on its siege on Aleppo. The images flashing on the TV screens was one of destruction and civilians trapped in the crossfire. And, while these images ring true at a certain level, they do not tell the whole story – that of non-violent peacebuilders, like MCC’s partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). As much of the international community fled Aleppo, and Syria in general, FDCD remained.

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Participants from MCC partner’s FDCD interactive theatre production in Aleppo, Syria promoting reconciliation and peacebuilding. In December 2015, amidst airstrikes, suicide bombs and fighting making headlines – not to mention restrictions on public gatherings – some 1,200 people attended the three shows. (Photo courtesy of FDCD)

FDCD, working in multiple urban areas across Syria, focusses on peacebuilding through ethnic and inter-faith bridgebuilding, tackling deep-seated divisions. From 2015-2016, as fighting intensified in Aleppo, FDCD organized and ran a theatre and education program for the public, promoting inter-faith dialogue between Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and others.

The theatre production, funded in part by the Canadian government, attracted over 1200 people in Aleppo, much more than anticipated. As one representative of FDCD told the National Post in 2016: “Now [Aleppo is] the most dangerous city on earth. You can hide and cry, or you can fight, or you can try to make a positive change.”

Bashiqa, Northern Iraq

The Yezidi people, an ethnic and religious minority from Northern Iraq, have suffered unspeakable acts of violence and torture throughout the conflict in Iraq, especially at the hands of ISIS.  Bashiqa, in northern Iraq, has a significant Yezidi population and was under the brutal control of ISIS for three years. But despite great suffering, MCC partner Yezidi/Azidi Solidarity and Fraternity League (ASFL) is seeking not only to provide material and psycho-social relief to survivors, but empower local Yezidis to be agents of change and reconciliation.

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Pictured from left to right are Yazidi youth volunteers Sadolla, Jilan, Barakat, Khairie, Rivan, Omeid, Sardel, Saif, and Sarmed (last names withheld for security reasons), participants in ASFL’s “Forward Together”* campaign, in Bashiqa Iraq; restoring public spaces, including painting murals that include messages of peace, inclusivity and hope. (Photo courtesy of ASFL)

As part of a campaign, “Forward Together,” ASFL in sending out teams of volunteers to help in the reconstruction and beautification of Bashiqa. These reconstruction teams specifically reach out to neighbourhoods with people of different religions and ethnicities – Muslims, Christians, Arabs and Kurds – to promote reconciliation and a portrayal of Yezidis as not only victims of conflict but agents of change.

One participant reflected: “We felt very relieved to help people from other religions. Working in this campaign broke the boundaries that were created by the events on Sinjar Mountain [notorious massacre and torture site of Yezidis by ISIS] and in other areas. It felt amazing.”

Southern Lebanon

Finally, in southern Lebanon, MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is supporting both Palestinians in Lebanon and Syrian refugees (including Palestinians from Syria), with food baskets, vouchers and other provisions, while also bringing these groups of people together, to share and find healing together.

PARD

Faten Faour (Right), an animator for psychosocial activities run by MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in southern Lebanon for Syrian and Palestinian refugees (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky).

The influx of over 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon has no doubt had significant economic, social and political impacts. To meet physical needs while promoting reconciliation, PARD supports refugees and their host communities struggling with economic needs. Bringing together these groups in formal and informal settings, PARD hopes to foster positive relationships between communities, providing necessities, easing tensions and building peace from the ground up.

Looking Forward

As Syrian peace talks stumble and drag on in Geneva, as government forces clash with Kurdish forces in Iraq, and millions of people remain displaced throughout the region, the situation remains grim. But there is hope amidst the rubble in the persistence, courage and dedication of those who work for peace from the ground up.

See a full link to the lecture here.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst