What’s fair about fair trade?

This weekend I will be celebrating World Fair Trade Day on May 13 and Mother’s Day on May 14. The combination seems very appropriate, as it was my mother who introduced me to the world of fair trade over 40 years ago.

In fact, the woman who started the fair trade movement in North America was also a mother.

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler was an MCC volunteer and mother of two who, while accompanying her husband Joe Byler on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, visited a Mennonite Central Committee project that taught women living in poverty to sew.

Recognizing the need for a new market for their beautiful lace products, Edna Ruth agreed to purchase some of their work to sell back in the United States, using the money from those sales to buy more products. Eventually, her work grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which is now the oldest and largest fair trade retailer in North America.

In some ways, it feels like fair trade has always been a part of my life, as for many years my mother sold fairly traded products out of our home. This was a time when SELFHELP Crafts of the World, now known as Ten Thousand Villages, was just becoming established in Canada, and there were few stores and festival sales, so the organization depended in large part on volunteers who sold product out of their homes. People would invite neighours, friends, family, and acquaintances to their house to learn about fair trade and to buy a gift.

My mother explained to me that selling the jewellery, cards, baskets, wooden boxes, ornaments, candle holders, tablecloths, napkins and other items handcrafted by people from countries around the world—and stored in our guest room—would help children in those countries go to school.

As someone who loved school, I couldn’t imagine a life without that opportunity. When the boxes were opened for people to shop, the guest room was transformed into a magical place where beautiful items were passed around and interesting stories were shared.

Ten Thousand Villages logoThanks to the creativity, initiative, and hard work of Edna Ruth Byler, the option to buy fair trade handicrafts has been available to North Americans for over 70 years. And today there are far more fair trade products, including food and clothing, available than ever before across North America and Europe.

I sometimes wonder, though, how most of us understand the concept of fair trade. What makes it fair and why isn’t all trade fair?

Fair trade is a both movement and a business model. It is defined as trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries—fair prices that adequately reimburse producers for the cost of materials and time spent making or growing the product.

The ten principles of fair trade focus on dialogue and building long-term relationships. They talk about transparency, accountability, capacity building, respect for the rights of women and children, safe working conditions, and environmental sustainability. In comparison, other trade and business models seem to be mainly about the rights of corporations and are concerned more with profits than people.

Rabeya Akter, Shuktara Handmade Paper Project, Bangladesh

Rabeya Akter at Shuktara Handmade Paper Project in Feni, Bangladesh.

However, people are at the heart of fair trade, and most of the producers or makers that Ten Thousand Villages works with are women, many of them mothers.

For those mothers, employment with a fair trade organization means income for regular meals, sturdier homes, school fees for some or all of their children, and access to medicines if someone falls ill. Flexible hours also mean mothers can be home with their children rather than spending twelve or more hours a day working outside the home. Women are provided with training opportunities, encouraged to participate in savings programs, and be financially independent.

This weekend, as we celebrate our mothers and the ways they have shaped us, we can also help to shape a better world through our consumer choices. Indeed, economic practices that place people first are a powerful way to change the world.

by Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office. 

The regularly destroyed village of Alhadedya

This piece was prepared by MCC Palestine staff and was originally published on the MCC Palestine Update.

After the rains of the winter months, the typically dry and yellow Jordan Valley turns a beautiful green. Tucked in between the rolling rocky hills lies the Palestinian village of Alhadedya. We visited Alhadedya with Stop the Wall, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization that does grassroots community organizing in villages, refugee camps and cities across the West Bank. At the start of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the village boasted 300 families. In 1997, however, only 150 families lived in the village. Finally, in 2017, Alhadedya only has 15 families remaining.

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On a tour with MCC partner organization Stop the Wall, Abdulrahim Sharat talks about how the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank has negatively impacted Alhadedya, his village in Area C, January 24, 2017. Photo courtesy Stop the Wall.

The dramatic drop in the village’s inhabitants is no mistake, explains Abdulrahim Sharat, the village elder. We met Abdulrahim in the community tent and we were offered coffee and tea immediately, as is customary in Palestinian culture. He greeted us warmly and began explaining the difficulties his community has faced with the Israeli authorities.

“They started in so many ways, in experimental ways, to chase us away. They first started to chase the shepherds and the farmers, taking them to military courts.” At the beginning, the Israeli authorities began to give out fines as a way to cripple the village economically and force the people to leave. “When this did not work,” Abdulrahim recounts, “they started chasing the animals with the military and began killing them from the helicopters.” Neither the fines nor the deaths of their animals were enough for the villagers of Alhadedya to leave.

This type of pressure by the Israeli military continued until 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada, or Palestinian popular uprising. “The three years during the First Intifada was the best time for us. The Israelis were too busy with people in the city and left us alone.” However, this tranquility came to a halt after the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 to begin realizing the dream of a two-state solution. For the villagers of Alhadedya, the agreement was a nightmare.

Under the Oslo Accords, Alhadedya was designated as Area C, which means that Israel has full civil and military control over their land. Under the agreement, these lands were supposed to be turned over to an independent Palestinian state after a tentative 5-year period. Nearly 25 years after Oslo, Israel is still in full control over Area C, which covers over 60 per cent of the West Bank. During this time, Israel has only intensified its efforts to force the inhabitants of Alhadedya off of their land.

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Abdulrahim Sharat shows his village to visitors from MCC partner organization Stop the Wall, January 24, 2017. Photo courtesy Stop the Wall.

“After Oslo, they began their destruction policies,” explains Abdulrahim. “They came to destroy the village – we call this a military campaign. They came with soldiers…and destroyed the tents, animal shelters, and water tanks.”

Abdulrahim told us that the Israeli authorities have destroyed the village many times afterwards. Enclosed by Israeli military zones and a nearby Israeli settlement (illegal under international law), the people of Alhadedya are slowly being squeezed out of their land. To fight this, the villagers went to the Israeli High Court to defend their case and prove their right to the land. Unfortunately, they have had little success in stemming the destruction of their village. Demolitions of Palestinian homes and buildings in Area C and illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank are at all-time highs. The village of Alhadedya is feeling the pressure of these two dynamic forces and Abdulrahim questions why he is being forced off his land.

“What does it mean [to say] legally or illegally?” questions Abdulrahim. “We were born here and our ancestors have lived here.” He wonders aloud why the nearby settlement, full of settlers originally from the United States and Russia, is not considered illegal under Israeli law but his village is. “Why? What is their right to kick us from our land?”

 

We’ve got to be bold: Lessons from globally-renowned peacebuilders

What is Canada’s legacy?

Across the country in 2017, especially in Ottawa, this question seems unavoidable – everyone is talking about legacy. As we near the celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday, people are asking, what is our current legacy? What will future generations of Canadians say in 50, 100, or 150 years? We can’t escape it – on the barriers around construction sites, in city parks and at government events we see the signs: “Canada 150.”

By the time it’s over, 2017 will no doubt be a year of unending festivals, cheesy punch lines, and romanticized political speeches, glossing over complex and often disturbing elements of our history.

But beyond the fluff of “Canada 150” celebrations there is a real opportunity to build a legacy of leadership and peace in Canada and around the world. A legacy built on actions, not just words.

This was the challenge for Canada a few weeks ago from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. She was joined by fellow global renowned peacebuilder and human rights activist Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and President of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

On April 12 I had the privilege of attending an event where Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Matt DeCourcey and NDP Critic for Foreign Affairs Héne Laverdière joined Leymah and Yanar to discuss innovation in Canada’s development programming. The two global peacebuilders challenged Canada to be a leader when it comes to international assistance – funding and partnering with innovative grassroots organizations and individuals to promote peace and justice from the ground up.

Earlier that same day Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai had addressed Canadian Parliament upon receiving honourary Canadian citizenship. She praised some of Canada’s humanitarian commitments of recent years, all while challenging Canada to be a leader in supporting education for girls and young women as a means to promote development, peace, and a better world for all: “If Canada leads, the world will follow,” Malala said.

Leymah grabbed onto Malala’s message, challenging the Canadian government to put its money and resources where its mouth is. For Leymah and Yanar, this means funding grassroots women’s and human rights organizations. “There are 10,000 Malalas out there…we just need to find them!” Leymah said. The point that both women emphasized is that these grassroots peace, community development, and human rights organizations are showcasing innovation and action, getting things done.

It’s a common misconception that local organizations are sitting around, waiting for funding from Western governments and civil society organizations. But this is definitely not the case. People are always looking for ways to better their local communities and are doing so every day, in difficult circumstances and with few resources. What outside funding of these local initiatives does enable is for local champions and actors to expand their impact. At MCC we seek to partner with local organizations for the same reasons, and together support great work being done within communities around the world.

But where does the Government of Canada stand on funding local partners? That’s a good question!

Last spring and summer, MCC, along with dozens of other organizations and individuals, participated in the International Assistance Review, spearheaded by Global Affairs Canada and the Hon Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development. While the government has published some of the major feedback from the review, after almost a year there has yet to be any official policy tabled.

And what does Budget 2017 say about Canada’s commitment to international assistance? Not much! No new spending money has been allocated for Canada’s international assistance. The programming priorities can still shift, but by not increasing the overall spending Canada is taking zero steps in 2017 to move toward the internationally-recognized goal of 0.7% spending on Official Development Assistance. Yet in pre-budget consultations, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development identified this as a goal to be reached by 2030. Instead, Canada is staying at about 0.26% spending for international assistance, which is not much higher than our all-time low.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bill Morneau hopes that organizations and groups will “do more with less,” as the government is focusing on increasing Foreign Direct Investment private sector initiatives, rather than investing more in grassroots peace and development organizations.

So, what does that mean? What should the direction of Canadian assistance funding be?

In the spirit of Canada 150, Leymah directed her comments to Parliamentary Secretary DeCourcey, sighting a joint Match International/Nobel Women’s Initiative campaign that challenges Canada to mark this historic year by making 150 new contributions to 150 small grassroots peace, development or human rights women’s organization around the world.

While genuine consultation and working with the grassroots communities takes time and flexibility, and it can be messy, the results speak for themselves: change and action from the ground up!

They urged the government to make Canada 150 count for something tangible.

Leymah and Yanar both see this year as the moment to speak out and act for the future. “A new legacy is waiting…It can be grabbed now, or by a future government!” Yanar challenged.

Now is the time: turn words into something tangible. Let’s make a new legacy of action!

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa. 

“Our land, our rights, our peace”

Nenita Conduz is small in stature and pregnant with her third child. She is also courageous and defiant.

This tiny mother is leading her Subanen people in the struggle to defend their ancestral land in the southern Philippines, where a Canadian owned mining company is harming their land, their community and their way of life.

Because of her commitment to speak truth, Nenita lives under constant threat.

Nenita Conduz

Nenita Conduz. Photo courtesy Antonio Nercua Ablon

Nenita recently visited Canada, as one member of a delegation of 5 leaders from the Philippines, bringing a message of how Canadian mining companies are harming their land and their communities. The delegation met with government officials on Parliament Hill and did a speaking tour of major cities, calling for respect of “our land, our rights, our peace.” I heard Nenita speak in Winnipeg.

The delegation’s visit was sponsored by KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice coalition, of which MCC is a member. KAIROS has been advocating for years for accountability mechanisms for Canadian extractive companies overseas as part of a wider Open for Justice campaign. Canada is a global leader in international extractive industry; but has very weak mechanisms to hold mining companies to human rights and environmental standards.

The Subanen people – one of numerous Indigenous groups in the Philippines – lives on the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao Island in the southern part of the country. Zamboanga is rich in natural resources; it is also one of the most militarized regions in the country.

The Subanen have received certification of their ancestral domain, with the attending right of free, prior and informed consent to any extractive activities on their land. But this has not stopped foreign corporations from accessing the mineral resources or for using armed force to put down the resistance of the Subanen people.

Nenita focused her critique on Calgary-based TVI Pacific and its Philippine subsidiary TVIRD, which is extracting copper from Subanen land. According to her testimony, as well as the findings of a KAIROS delegation to the Philippines in 2014, the company began its operations without the due process of free, prior and informed consent.  Moreover, its arrival in the community coincided with the cancellation of business permits for small scale mining operations, the deployment of armed “security” personnel, and the escalation of widespread human rights violations.

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Philippine delegation with KAIROS hosts. Photo/KAIROS

The reported human rights violations include: extrajudicial killings, illegal detention, kidnappings, destruction of property, homes and livelihoods, forcible eviction, as well as threats, harassment and intimidation. Thousands of people have been affected.

Nenita herself is continually being watched and harassed and is currently not able to return to her home because of fears she could be assassinated.

But this courageous woman refuses to be silenced. “Defending our ancestral land is of prime importance to us,” she says. “We cannot live without our land.”

She notes that land is not just a place for the Subanen people to live. The land defines their life, their health, the social fabric of their community, and their very identity.

Nenita is aware that the struggle of the Subanen people is part of a global struggle by Indigenous peoples seeking to protect lands that are coveted by governments and corporations for their forests, waters and minerals.

“We are calling for respect for Indigenous peoples rights,” she insists. “We hope our efforts to expose what is happening in the Philippines will touch people’s hearts and minds and lead to support for the global struggle.”

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDThe Open for Justice campaign, which MCC supports, urges the Canadian federal government to take action in two specific ways:

  • to appoint an independent ombudsperson mandated to monitor Canadian extractive operations overseas, to investigate complaints and to take action where needed to uphold human rights (current mechanisms are voluntary and ineffectual); and
  • to allow access to Canadian courts for non-Canadians who have been harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.

The recently released federal budget failed to allocate funds for the creation of a human rights ombudsperson.

We owe it to people like courageous Nenita – and Indigenous peoples everywhere – to support their call for “our land, our rights, our peace.”

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office

Swords into ploughshares

When Ernie Regehr and Murray Thomson started Project Ploughshares in 1976, their initiative was only supposed to last six months.

Just over forty years and many awards and accomplishments later, Ploughshares stands as one of the leading peace research organizations in Canada.

How did it all begin?

The seeds of Ploughshares were first sown four decades ago when two groups of people, each working separately on a common concern, came together.

Ernie Regehr—witnessing the links between militarism and under-development while working in southern Africa—teamed up with Murray Thomson (then-Director of CUSO) in 1976 to create a Working Group called “Ploughshares.” With the help of a bit of seed money and support (from CUSO, Canadian Friends Service Committee, Conrad Grebel University College, and Mennonite Central Committee), they studied the role of the international arms trade in impeding social and economic progress in developing countries.

Meanwhile, that same year, John Foster of the United Church had also convened a Working Group called “Canadian Defence Alternatives,” which aimed to educate the public on the increasing militarization of national security policy in Canada.

When these two groups merged together, Project Ploughshares was born.

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“Let us beat our swords into ploughshares,” by Evgeny Vuchetich (for the UN, 1959).

Emerging as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament, Ploughshares—formally established as a division of the Canadian Council of Churches—provided a critical assessment of the expansion of the Canadian arms industry, the nuclear arms race, and the impact of the world’s massive and growing stock of “swords” on security and development.

Not surprisingly, calling for the transformation of “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) was not an easy sell with political decision-makers.

As staff wrote in the very first issue of the The Ploughshares Monitor (which hit the shelves in April of 1977),

It is a common assertion of federal politicians and government officials that there is “no constituency” for peace issues. Public interest in the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and related issues is said to be minimal, making it difficult to place these items on the national political agenda. However, people with an active concern about these issues know otherwise. There is a “peace constituency” out there….

Over the decades, Ploughshares has proven that the peace constituency is alive and well!

Our office copy of the very first Ploughshares Monitor (Vol. 1, No.1)!

Serving as the focal point for broader church and civil society participation, they have shaped public policy conversations on some of the most complex international security challenges—from nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to conventional arms control, weaponization of space, reduction of armed violence, and more.

Some of this work has focused on mobilizing Canadians to act for peace.

In the 1980s, for instance, during a time of deep public anxiety about the Cold War, Ploughshares not only led a high-level church leaders’ delegation to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on nuclear disarmament, but they organized Canadians to send two million postcards to MPs, urging them to oppose the modernization of nuclear arsenals.

Later, in the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, Ploughshares co-wrote Prepare for Peace in Iraq, a statement endorsed by 40,000 Canadians, which helped influence the government’s decision not to participate in the “coalition of the willing.”

Other elements of Ploughshares’ work may have been less visible to the broader public, but have played a significant role in furthering various agendas of the global disarmament community.

indexIn 1986, for example, they created the only database on Canadian military production and exports, still used by international organizations researching the global arms industry.

Since 1987, they’ve published the annual (and popular!) Armed Conflicts Report, which monitors the number and nature of conflicts worldwide.

And in 2003, they initiated the annual Space Security Index project, the first and only comprehensive and integrated assessment of space security.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Ploughshares has co-founded some important coalitions (the International Action Network on Small Arms, Mines Action Canada, etc.) and provided thoughtful leadership on others (like Control Arms Coalition). This civil society collaboration has been particularly important in the development of a convention like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Since the 1990s, Ploughshares, in partnership with other NGOs, actively and persistently promoted a treaty to regulate the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. In 2013, this decades-long endeavor finally paid off when, after rigorous negotiations, the UN adopted the ATT—a monumental achievement for the disarmament community.

Over the last number of years, they’ve weighed-in on many important public debates: in 2010, they critiqued the planned Joint Strike Fighter Jet program, long before it became top political news; this last year they’ve questioned the government’s $15 billion Saudi arms deal through innumerable op-eds and interviews; and, most recently, they’ve called out Canada—once a disarmament champion—for its absence at UN negotiations to create a worldwide nuclear ban.

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Ploughshares staff, past and present (photograph by Emilia Zibaei–at the 40th anniversary celebration; from the Ploughshares website)

As new staff have come on board, Ploughshares has been able to delve more deeply into research on fully autonomous weapons systems, and to expand into new areas such as refugees and forced migration.

Known for its credible research, precise analysis, and long-term commitment to advancing policies for peace, Project Ploughshares as consistently punched well above its weight.

Where will the next 40 years lead?

Jenn Wiebe is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office and serves on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares 

Advocacy is not all it seems

This week’s writer is Janessa Mann, Advocacy Research Intern in the Ottawa Office. 

In the global north, advocacy is often held up as a way to fight for justice in the global south, and a way for students to be active in the political sphere. As I found out reading Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (Zed Books. 2015), advocacy is not all it seems.

Advocacy in Conflict

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism. Edited by Alex de Waal. Zed Books, 2015.

The book, edited by Alex de Waal, is a compilation of essays on specific advocacy campaigns and their unintended consequences—consequences that we do not often question or even notice. The book focuses primarily on Western advocates and how they have impacted communities in the global south with their efforts. The essays challenge the dominant discourse by creating dialogue about the “misrepresentations and inadequacies of advocacies” (p. viii).

I found this book very interesting, because it exposed new truths that I had not previously known about specific advocacy movements. I recommend it for MCC programmers, students, and activists — to renew your desire to fight for justice.

The central argument of the book is that advocacy should be responsible, with the people most affected by the conflict leading the advocacy movements. For advocacy campaigns to be effective and promote sustainable development, they must be “more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (p. 1). As one example, the writers of the book explored the negative impacts of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, which highlighted the violent actions of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.  The organization encouraged students to get activist kits to pressure the US Congress to stop Kony, but did not encourage students to think about agency for Africans or any negative impacts that might result from their efforts.

Within the introduction, the writers ask some very interesting questions about advocacy campaigns. Do advocates in the global north have the right to propose solutions to global south problems, based on their perspectives? How can advocacy groups be involved in development work? How can we reconcile academic knowledge with practical activism? Is it ethical to use celebrities as “bridge characters” for activist issues (p. 5)? These questions are all then answered in the following chapters with varied examples.

This book gives an in-depth analysis of specific transnational campaigns, their achievements, and ethical challenges. It incorporates global south perspectives on the dominant discourse of advocacy, illustrating that programming often does not address local knowledge effectively. One of the chapters discusses Global Witness’ shaming of companies using products made from conflict minerals in DR Congo.

The international campaign focused on policy-based evidence, making use of a specific narrative that did nothing to reduce violence in the DRC. Advocates didn’t know that their boycotting and protests would cause many Congolese to lose their jobs, as well as increase smuggling. The Congolese population, as well as academics, were able to predict this outcome, which shows that transnational advocates were not effectively investigating the consequences of their actions.

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Students at Kiroba Primary  School, near Kamuli, Uganda.  MCC supports students affected by HIV/AIDS.  MCC photo/Lynn Longenecker

Advocacy in Conflict provides a fresh perspective on transnational advocacy, urging activists to educate themselves on situations before becoming involved. I feel encouraged in MCC’s work that there are so many people involved (especially the Ottawa Office) in ensuring we know as much of the story as we can, to provide constructive, sustainable, and ethical advocacy work in our programming. The work is rooted in program work, our relationship with partners, and their experience.

The biggest takeaway from the book was that advocacy is not effective if it does not integrate diverse perspectives, consider stakeholders’ priorities, and make appropriate “asks” of policy-makers.

 

No secure future

This week’s guest writer is Myriam Ullah, Community Engagement Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.  She participated in an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel in February 2017.

We pulled up to a modest, concrete house in a rural-feeling suburb just outside of the city. Honey bees, the smell of rosemary, and hot tea greeted us as we were welcomed by the home owners. At first glance, the property looked beautiful and lush, with ten or so beehives scattered among the fruit trees.

The family who lives in this home is one of 500 living near Jerusalem that MCC has supported by helping to install water treatment systems and connect them to community agriculture projects. Through a translator and through MCC’s partner Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem (ARIJ), the family told  how they had been helped by such subsidies in a time of real need and were grateful for the access to a secure water source.

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ARIJ agricultural support project. Photo/Myriam Ullah

Our group, a collection of MCC constituents and staff from Canada, was on a two-week learning tour to gain understanding of MCC’s long-term work in Palestine and Israel and to understand how we, as Canadians, could continue to support projects like this when we returned home.

We questioned the family about how the water treatment system worked, and we learned more about how they had cultivated a more resilient and diversified crop. It was an inspiring visit and  a success story for ARIJ, a well-established NGO that was started with MCC seed-funding 25 years ago.

As we thanked the family and shuffled back onto the mini-bus, I thought to myself, “This situation could be anywhere in the world.” It is, after all, a fairly common story from MCC’s partners—supporting sustainable livelihoods for those found in unstable conditions because of conflict, war, or natural disaster.

The difference here was that we were just outside of a major tourist city. There had been no recent natural disaster, and access to food and water was actually abundant! Lush fields and crops grew just a few kilometers away.

The unique edge to this story is that ARIJ provides water treatment systems to Palestinian families living near Jerusalem because they are living under occupation. This means that their access to water is controlled by the Israeli government, which favours Israeli settlers in the West Bank by providing them with more than 3x the amount of daily water than their Palestinian neighbours receive. To conserve water, Palestinian families regularly endure weeks without running water, having to rely on rain collection barrels and systems like the ones ARIJ provides.

Although the West Bank and Gaza are considered Palestinian land by the international community, ARIJ spent the morning outlining for us the systematic increase in Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank on Palestinian-owned land.

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Water treatment system.  Photo/Myriam Ullah

There are over 760,000 settlers living within approximately 200 illegal settlements and just over 260 outposts (which are planned-for settlements). These settlements, and the people living in them, are most often enjoying a high standard of living with maintained roadways, 24/7 security, strong education systems, and abundant food/water sources. Palestinians, on the other hand, are crowded into smaller strips of land with separated roadways, frequent military detentions, limited access to water, risk of home demolitions, and the inability to travel within their land without permits.

After 50 years of living under the longest occupation in history, organizations like ARIJ offer Palestinian families much-needed, immediate support. However, they can’t instill long-term hope for a people who have little assurance they will not be issued a home demolition order at some point in the near future.

When we first arrived at the airport in Tel-Aviv, our learning tour guide welcomed us with a challenge: to fully listen as we hear the stories of loss and pain, and to do so without trying to offer simple solutions or explanations of a situation we don’t fully understand.

Throughout our two weeks, we saw time and again evidence of Palestinian homes and villages destroyed. We even heard stories of some families choosing to demolish their own homes, as this was less expensive than being made to pay the bill for having their homes demolished by military order — and for the cost of the security personnel needed to force them out.

We heard stories of children as young as 12 being imprisoned and elementary school students being tear gassed. We felt the presence of the security wall, as it shadowed over a single, remaining home we visited—a home surrounded by settlements and fences where a Palestinian family (with their own checkpoint) was restricted from leaving their own driveway.

I don’t believe anyone from our group came home with a full understanding of the situation in Israel and Palestine. And we definitely didn’t return home with a sense of a solution. However, for me, I did leave with a sense of the incredible disparities between those who are afforded a livelihood and hope for a secure future, and those who calculate their days by permits, checkpoints, and rubble.

I returned home haunted by the notion that power does not want to hear truth and that the conflict over these lands has a lifetime yet to live.