On refugee resettlement, children and youth: A personal story

This piece by  Saulo Padilla, Immigration Education Coordinator for MCC U.S., was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections: MCC theory & practice quarterly.

As governments consider the current refugee crisis, one area of special concern must be the well-being of children and youth. Research in this area is scarce and data is limited. Nevertheless, organizations working at resettlement must continue to search for better practices and support systems for resettling children and youth.

In my work with MCC U.S., I encounter many children and youth in various stages of migration. My thoughts on the topic of resettling children and youth start with my own experience of the resettlement of our family in 1986 from Guatemala to Canada. On the evening of February 18, 1986, many people from our church community and neighbors in Guatemala City came to our home to say farewell. We were departing the next morning to reunite with my father who had fled Guatemala for Mexico in May 1980. He was ultimately accepted as a political refugee in Canada in January 1981. I was 15 years old when I left Guatemala. I remember being happy to jump on an airplane for the first time and travel to Calgary, Alberta, and reunite with my father. This reunification had been our family dream for years. In retrospect, I wish our family had been better informed regarding what was about to happen.

As I reflect on our migration and resettlement process, I have often described it as a new birth, with all the pain, pushes and pulls of labor. We knew a few things about Canada. My mother had cousins in Toronto who had fled there a few years earlier, so we had seen photos of Canada, including of the majestic Rocky Mountains where we would be living. However, no photos or stories could prepare us for what we were going to encounter. Upon our arrival, the government provided some support to help us settle. We received winter clothes at the airport, along with some money to help us start life in Canada. We were enrolled in the health care system and a social worker was appointed to us, although we rarely saw him and he did not speak Spanish.

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Reunited with dad, after almost 6 years of separation. From left, Mauricio, Saulo and Herman Padilla stand with their father Adolfo Padilla in Calgary, Alberta in May 1986. (Photo provided by Saulo Padilla)

The first challenges that many newcomers to Canada speak of is the weather. It was -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) when we landed in Calgary. We had never experienced that kind of weather in Guatemala. Like newborns out of the comfort of the mother land, we were cold all the time and had to be clothed differently. While the first few months of snow were part of our honeymoon, the extended winter, followed by a blizzard in early May, which left us stuck without electricity for three days, challenged us. We started to miss home. Within a few months of arriving, we started asking our father over and over if we could go back to Guatemala. Nevertheless, the weather was not an insurmountable challenge.

The system makes you believe that the one major hurdle is learning the language. However, I believe that too much emphasis is put on language learning.  Language will come with time and does not deserve the amount of importance that it is given. A bigger challenge for us was to become family again. My parents had their own communication issues, even though they spoke a common language. They had lived apart for a long time and developed their own survival modes of functioning. We children would side with our mother in their arguments and this would upset our father. Even when our family was reunited, we were more fragmented and fractured than when we were separated from our father. Supporting families with counseling and emotional support as they reunite and resettle must be a priority in the resettlement process.

Saulo Padilla

Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator, visits his mother, Amparo Marroquín de Padilla, in Guatemala City, Guatemala in December 2011. (MCC Photo/Melissa Engle)

In conversations with resettled refugees, I notice that a common tendency is to measure the success of the migration by what the family has accomplished in the new homeland. As I reflect on where we as a family are now, I am not so sure that is the best measure of successful integration. In many ways I am a success, because I learned English, got a series of good jobs and an education. However, thirty years after my family resettled from Guatemala to Canada, I am still trying to unpack the effects of our migration by different measures. It took only a couple of years to adapt to a Calgary winter and within four years of arrival my brothers and I were speaking English well. However, our family separated again. My mother has suffered from depression which lingers into the present. While my two brothers still live in Calgary, my mother and my sister returned to Guatemala. My father has a new family and lives in British Columbia. I live in Goshen, Indiana.

Looking back on our resettlement experience, I believe that supporting family reunification was an important piece of the resettlement process that was not adequately addressed. Because of this experience, I continue to seek ways to better understand how resettlement affects families and children. My hope is that resettlement agencies can adjust policies and practices to lessen the adverse impacts of resettlement on refugee families and to empower refugee families with children to make informed decisions about movement.

A New Year’s plea for children

The Christmas leftovers are eaten, the decorations are packed away, and the season’s concerts are receding into memory.  But it is just a short time ago that many of us gathered with family – including little children – to celebrate the birth of another child, the Christ-child Jesus.

As I witnessed the wonder and delight of my little grandchildren at Christmas, I once again whispered a prayer of gratitude that they are growing up in safety and security, their basic needs met, and love surrounding them. But I was also reminded that the well-being of these two little ones results, not only from their amazing parents, but from white middle-class privilege and the good fortune to be born far from a war zone.

For millions of children around the world, and in Canada, life does not include a safe home, enough food and water, or the presence of loving caregivers. It does not include communities in which children can grow and thrive.

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Kolo Adamu holds a photo of her 18-year-old daughter Naomi who was abducted by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, in 2014 along with more than 200 other girls who were taken from Chibok secondary school in Nigeria. In May 2017, Naomi was among 80 girls who were released. MCC photo/Fred Yocum

Consider these realities:

  • According to UNICEF, 2017 was a “nightmare year” for children living in conflict zones. Children in conflict zones came under attack in places that should be safe: homes, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. They were used as human shields. They were raped and enslaved, abducted and recruited to fight, maimed and killed.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children were displaced from their homes. Indeed, it is estimated that, currently and worldwide, 50 million children are uprooted by brutal conflict and extreme poverty.
  • Displaced children become refugees when they cross an international border. In the last weeks of 2017, we heard much about Rohingya children fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, but child refugees also fled and continue to flee countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Many of them were alone. In Europe, refugees who are “unaccompanied minors” number 100,000 annually.
  • Millions of children live with hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity. In East Africa alone – notably South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – at the end of 2017, 6.9 million children suffered from malnutrition, with 1 million severely malnourished or at risk of dying by the end of the year.
  • Palestinian children in the occupied territories, convicted of throwing stones or some other misdemeanor deemed a security threat to Israel, are placed in Israeli military detention, where abuse, harassment and violation of basic rights are systemic and widespread.  (Learn more and take action on this issue.)
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Tricia Monague, an Ojibway jingle dancer, dances in Ottawa in memory of Indigenous children who died at Indian Residential Schools. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

And the horrors many children experience are not just “over there.”  Many children here in Canada live with poverty, discrimination, violence and insecurity as well.

Children deserve a life free of fear and free of want. They deserve to be loved and cared for by people they can trust and love in return. They deserve to be surrounded by communities of care.

As Christmas 2017 recedes and 2018 opens before us, let us commit to building a world of justice, peace and security for children.  Especially those of us who welcome and worship the Christ-child Jesus.

“When God is a child, there is joy in our song, the last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.” — Excerpt from song by Brian Wren, “When God is a child,”  © 1989 Hope Publishing Company.

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

 

 

 

Let the little children come . . .

But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” – Mark 10:14

I read this familiar scripture text while travelling in Palestine a few weeks ago, specifically, the day we visited a Bethlehem refugee camp and learned about the life of children there. I read the text again a week later; it was posted on the wall of a Christian organization that provides rehabilitation services to children and youth who have been injured, detained or traumatized by political violence.

I have travelled to Palestine four times in the last dozen years.  This visit, more than others, I was touched with the devastating impact of military occupation on children.  Over and over I heard and witnessed how Palestinian children and youth are assaulted physically, emotionally and psychologically as they endure occupation. Israeli children suffer too.

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Boys play soccer next to the separation wall.  Photo Ryan Dueck

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Over the past 50 years, that occupation has become entrenched by a high separation wall, hundreds of checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement, and the growth of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian territory. An end to the occupation is nowhere in sight, and another generation of Palestinian children is growing up without the hope of freedom.

At the Bethlehem refugee camp, in existence since 1948 when the creation of the state of Israel created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a father tells us how his 5-year-old daughter expresses the wish her mother give birth to another girl rather than a boy – because a boy is so much more likely to be detained, injured or even killed. When a baby boy arrives, the daughter tells her parents her new brother should sleep in an inside room, away from the window, where he will be protected from the teargas and the bullets that are common occurrences.

As we walk through the refugee camp, our guide points to a wall listing some of the names of the 551 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in July 2014.  It doesn’t list the 3,346 injured and the 10 percent permanently disabled. Life is very cheap for Gazan children, it seems. During my two-week stay in Palestine and Israel, two more Gaza children are killed by an Israeli missile attack, a brother and sister, 10 and 6 years of age.

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Schoolgirls in East Jerusalem walk along the separation wall. Esther Epp-Tiessen

A group of human rights lawyers tells us about children and youth in military detention. Defense for Children International, an NGO monitoring children’s rights around the world, has documented the arrest of 8,000 children since 2000.  Most of them have been detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They are usually arrested by heavily-armed men during night-time raids, blindfolded and bound, taken to an unknown location without accompaniment and then interrogated at length.  While most youth detained are between 10 and 20, some are as young as eight years of age.

The lawyers tell us that the night raids are so terrifying, many mothers stay awake most of the night so that if soldiers arrive to conduct a raid, the mothers can waken their children quietly rather than have them woken by the door being smashed open by soldiers. (Not surprisingly, many mothers in Palestine suffer high levels of anxiety, headaches and hypertension.)

Children who are released from detention are severely traumatized. They sleep poorly, have recurring nightmares and often wet themselves. They typically withdraw from others, refuse to return to school or play with friends. Children who have been detained are 13 times more likely to drop out of school than others. Without rehabilitative help, young people who have been traumatized are much more likely to engage in violence and destructive behaviour themselves.

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Palestinian boys play with a kite while soldiers observe. Photo Ryan Dueck

As the occupation drags on, the hopes and dreams of young people fade and disappear.  Many youth cannot even imagine living freely in the land that is their home.  Another father, a longtime advocate for a free and independent Palestine, observes his daughter’s despair.  “Give up, Dad,” she says. “The Israelis have won; there will be no free Palestine.”  I wonder if despair is what drives Palestinian youth to attack Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Their actions are not defensible but they are understandable.

The occupation not only victimizes Palestinian children; it also harms Jewish Israeli children and youth.  At a new Jewish settlement In East Jerusalem (by international consensus, Palestinian land), I witness children playing behind a massive iron bar fence with separates them from soccer-playing Palestinian kids nearby. The Jewish children are guarded by a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers.  In a few years they will be soldiers themselves, as mandatory military service demands that they become part of the machinery that upholds the occupation.  I mourn that Jewish children and youth grow up with the sense that they are surrounded by danger, and that the only response is military might.

It is deeply and profoundly wrong that generations of Palestinian children have grown up essentially imprisoned in their own land.  It is deeply and profoundly wrong that Jewish Israeli children grow up learning that the security of their people requires the oppression of another.  It is unconscionable that much of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

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

Daring to dream of an AIDS-free world

December 1 is World AIDS Day.  This week’s guest blog is written by Beth Good, Health Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation

This is the theme for World AIDS Day put out by UNAIDS — but what does that really mean?  “Shared responsibility” sounds great!  My understanding of this phrase means we are all sharing the load, so that no one has to carry the responsibility alone.  Yet, when we look at the statistics, the burden of HIV & AIDS continues to be borne within communities that are already carrying the burden of poverty as well.  While those of us from wealthier countries may be growing weary of hearing about the AIDS pandemic, over 35 million people are growing weary of living with the disease.

World AIDS Day logoThe good news is that there is a 33 percent decrease of new infections since 2001.  More good news is that access to antiretroviral therapy (a drug regime that reduces symptoms and rates of infection) has increased dramatically.  On a more sobering note, globally,  less than half of those needing treatment are able to access this therapy.  Moreover, the one in three women who experience intimate partner violence are 50 percent more likely to acquire HIV.

As I reflect on where we are globally in addressing HIV & AIDS, I relate it to the position of a person who has been able to swim nearly half the distance of a large lake (or more like an ocean in this case). This individual is so very tired and there is still such a great distance to travel…should she turn around and head back?  Most of us would say that it would be crazy to return once you have come so far!  There has been a 52 percent drop in new infections in children, a 40 percent increase in the number of people accessing antiretroviral therapy, a 29 percent decrease in AIDS related deaths of adults and children.

Dinah John and Angel Mathew (left to right) are part of an intergenerational team of women learning and sharing information about HIV and AIDS in Arusha, Tanzania. MCC photo by Nina Linton

Dinah John and Angel Mathew (left to right) are part of an intergenerational team of women learning and sharing information about HIV and AIDS in Arusha, Tanzania. MCC photo by Nina Linton

MCC partners with organizations in 27 countries who are continuing to share the responsibility of ending HIV & AIDS. They work in areas of prevention of new infections, treatment for those living with HIV, and supporting orphaned and vulnerable children.  On a recent trip to Nigeria, I was able to meet an amazing young woman who was assisted through our partner Faith Alive Clinic, in the city of Jos. Beatrice Odekhia attended a sewing course at Faith Alive to assist with the family’s income. Despite the lack of encouragement from her friends and family, she successfully completed the training and I met her at her shop where she sews custom-made clothing.  Beatrice now has a successful business and is teaching others to sew and manage a tailoring business as a way to express her gratitude to God.

So, let’s do this!  It is still difficult and we are weary — especially those who are living with HIV. But, like Beatrice, we need to continue to press on. This can be the legacy of this generation: that we were able to see the end of a disease that has ravaged millions around the world.

A poem and a plea for future victims of cluster munitions

By Ron Janzen, Executive Director of MCC Manitoba

In February 2013, I joined a learning tour to Laos and Cambodia sponsored by MCC’s  Global Family program. In the rural village of Xiengthan, Laos (a heavily bombed area during the 1964-73 US bombing of Laos) our learning tour group visited an MCC sponsored sustainable agriculture fruit growing project. We visited the home of a subsistence farmer supporting a family of 8 children on a few hectares of land. The fruit growing project provides vital supplemental income to Mr. Bousey’s rice paddy crops.

Mr. Bousey and metal sculpture (by artist Ken Loewen) During the visit with Mr. Bousey (pictured at right), I asked if his land was cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO) such as cluster munitions and was stunned to discover that it was not. When I further inquired of him whether any of his family or community members had been injured by UXO he looked intently at me and said “not yet”.

Those two words stuck with me for the days and weeks following the learning tour and inspired this poem.

not yet

“not yet” he quips
looking me in the eye

not yet
he stakes his cow
every morning

not yet
he plants his rice
every afternoon

not yet
he weeds his gardens
every evening

not yet
his children play and roam
every day

the daily reality
of “not yet”?

fear
anxiety
resignation
waiting
anticipating

can hope and
“not yet”
coexist?

9 years
580,000 bombing “missions”
2 million tons of ordnance
270 million “bombies”

they sound cute
like babies
but they are not

80 million unexploded legacies
“not yet” realized
unfathomable scope
continued devastation

Jesus grieving
MCC working
not yet
peace in Laos
not yet

Also pictured above is a metal sculpture by Altona, Manitoba, artist Ken Loewen. Ken was also on the learning tour and created this sculpture in response to touring the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) in Vientiane, Laos. This centre provides rehabilitation and employment to victims of cluster munitions through research, design, and production of orthotic and prosthetic devices.

Please help build a safer world by joining MCC Canada in saying No to cluster munitions! Sign the petition asking for stronger Canadian legislation to support the international Convention on Cluster Munitions.