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.


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.)
jingle dancer

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.





A healing place for kids

This week’s guest writer is  Doreen Martens, a freelance writer. Her piece originally appeared in the MCC Lebanon/Syria blog under the title, “Psychosocial program helps Syrian refugee kids in Lebanon.”

Tyre, Lebanon––A boy of about 10 cups in his hands in front of his face, imagining in them a little bird waiting to hear what he most misses about his home back in Syria. “All my toys,” he whispers in Arabic. Then, with a shy smile, he flings his arms wide, releasing the imaginary bird into the sky with a wish that the bird will fly over his old home and say hello to his toys.

The next boy in the circle does the same, whispering to the bird that he misses his two older brothers, who have gone elsewhere to find work. The bird flies off to visit his brothers.

The game is a healing exercise for about 30 Syrian refugee children gathered today in a sunny walled courtyard, all coping with the pain and loss of fleeing the life they once knew.

Here in southern Lebanon, their families have found some measure of peace, but struggle daily, against growing tensions with the host community, to find any kind of work and to feed and shelter their children.

This psychosocial program, operated in three locations, is funded by Mennonite Central Committee and run by its local partner, Popular Aid for Relief and Development. It brings kids aged 7 to 12 together weekly for a kind of mental-health day, a break from their troubles: to have fun, play games, get to know one another and build trust and social cohesion.

It helps break the isolation many children feel, as well as detect and fend off negative responses to trauma, such as violence in families.


Layal Al Ali and Fadia Dahshe.  MCC photo

At the beginning, says Fadia Dahshe, coordinator of the program, most of the kids “didn’t know each other before. Now they’re starting to talk to each other.”

She recalls that they all refused to play with a boy who, as some hungry refugees are forced to do, earned a little money by collecting people’s household garbage, for about 65 cents U.S. per home. “Now,” she says, “they’re starting to accept him.”

Activities they do together are fun, but also teach things like trust and problem-solving.

A leader places some plastic markers on the pavement to create a little maze. One of the girls is blindfolded and told to follow instructions from the other kids to help her find her way through. Hesitantly, she steps forward as the others jump up, point and enthusiastically shout directions in Syrian-accented Arabic ––  “Left!  Right! Forward!” ––  eager to see her succeed. When she makes it through, everyone laughs and cheers. Suddenly, these shy kids are a team.

PARD project manager Rashid El Mansi says the program, now in its second year, concentrates on kids with highest needs for this kind of support –– some 200 kids from eight gatherings. The program also includes components of health awareness –– supported by puppet shows –– first aid training, and computer and English programs for older kids. PARD representatives went to all the gatherings in the area to put together a list of kids facing particular struggles, such as the two daughters whose father, out of exaggerated fears, refuses to let them out of the home except to go to the mosque.

“We’re also trying to aid inclusion and integration of children from different groups and reduce bullying and conflict, to make friends with each other and spend time together outside of the program.”

The boys and girls come from what’s known locally as “gatherings,” unofficial refugee communities that have swelled with the Syrian influx near long-established Palestinian refugee camps. Some live crammed into tiny, sparsely furnished rented rooms, others in informal tented communities scattered around the rural areas where they have found landholders willing to rent them a patch of earth.

Unlike Jordan and Turkey, the government here has not allowed the establishment of formal UN-run camps, so well over 1 million Syrians are scattered around the country among a host population of just 4.5 million, with few services available to help them and few opportunities to find work.

Under the economic and social pressures of hosting so many, prejudices and tensions –– and a sort of social pecking order among Lebanese, long-time Palestinian residents, Syrians and Syrian Palestinian newcomers –– are extra barriers to a peaceful co-existence. Bringing children together from these groups is one way to build peace.

For Dahshe, helping the kids extends to empowering their mothers, who carry a huge burden of trying to keep life and limb together, and often fail to take care of their own mental-health needs.  She gathers moms to talk about their troubles and to help them take an active role in their communities –– sometimes taking a group session to the home of a woman reluctant to go out on her own.

Many struggle with questions about how to discipline their children; some with depression; and many with the trauma of war, like the woman who, fearful about scraping up rent, had nightmares about a man destroying her house and raping her daughters.

“We encourage them to forget their children for a minute and think about yourself. Because they never think about self-care,” Dahshe says. Amid the endless round of work to care for their families, she encourages them to take at least 10 or 15 minutes a day to do something that relaxes them. Happier mothers will make for happier children, she believes.

For the kids, she says, “it doesn’t have to be so complicated.” Give them a healthy environment and they will flourish.

Back in the courtyard, the children are all getting blindfolds and being told the name of an animal they will pretend to be in the next game. Then they have to circulate in a crowd, making animal noises to find the rest of their herd.

Soon they’re finding each other, laughing and hugging in big happy groups of goats and elephants –– blinded, literally, to what makes them different.


“We are in trouble”

This week’s guest writer is Brian Dyck, Refugee Program Coordinator for MCC Manitoba and chairperson of the Sponsorship Holder Agreement Association in Canada.

“We are in trouble.” These were the words of António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as he launched into a summary of the current situation of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) around the world. He was making his closing address to the Annual Tripartite Consultation on Resettlement June 24-26 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Just the week before on World Refugee day (June 20) a sobering report was issued by the UNHCR saying that there are 50.2 million refugees and IDPs in the world; that’s the highest number since the end of World War II. For more on that you can get the Global Trends for 2013 report at the UNHCR website or see a five minute video about the current state of refugees and IDPs around the world.

While the 50.2 million displaced includes Palestinians refugees under UNWRA, the tables do not take Palestinians who are not under the UNHCR mandate into consideration.  So Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan are not included in the charts.

Major Source Countries of Refugee -- End of 2013

Major Source Countries of Refugees — End of 2013

The number is not the only disturbing aspect of conflict displacement today. Another important aspect of the displacement is that fewer are finding a durable solution to their displacement. Those who have been able to safely return to their home has been declining as more conflicts become protracted and seemingly intractable. Last year, only 414,600 refugees returned to their homes which is the fourth lowest number in 25 years. What makes this number even more of a concern is that about two-thirds of those who returned went to Syria (140,800), the Democratic Republic of Congo (68,400), and Iraq (60,900) — countries that continue to have conflict and displacement.

There seems to be a lot of people entering the “nation of the displaced,” and not just from places that are well known like Syria. Many flee as a result of lower level conflicts that are only a blip on the international page of our newspapers. Few have a chance to immigrate out of this sad and desolate “nation.”  Protracted refugees (those that have been refugees for more than five years) now account for 54% of all refugees, and the average time of displacement for a refugee is closer to 20 years. In refugee camps today there is often a generation of children who know no other life. This is illustrated most clearly in the Daddab refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where there are 10,000 third-generation refugees.

Major refugee-hosting countries -- End of 2013

Major refugee-hosting countries — End of 2013

While these protracted situations are a serious concern, the situation in Syria overshadowed many other discussions as we discussed refugee resettlement in Geneva. The displacement of Syrians is a relatively new situation, but it is a large and growing population in an extremely volatile region. The UNHCR set a resettlement target of 30,000 Syrians for 2014, and they had pledges to meet that goal from various states around the world. Looking ahead, the target for resettling Syrian refugees is 100,000 over the next two years over and above the commitment to refugee resettlement from other situations. While there was a lot of discussion about how to meet this, there was little commitment to solid numbers from the major resettlement states like the United States, Australia and Canada. That may come, but there is fear that the commitment will be disappointing.

There have been some hopeful signs. European states, who in the past have not done a lot of refugee resettlement, are pledging to resettle a lot of Syrian refugees. Germany alone has committed to 20,000 Syrians in a short term asylum program. European states and NGOs are also showing some interest in Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program (PSRP) that MCC in Canada has been a part of since 1979 to increase their capacity to resettle refugees and have the diaspora in their countries involved supporting resettled refugees.

In terms of Canada’s commitment, there has been a lot of discussion in the last few months of the pledge of 1,300 Syrians to be resettled. While much could be said to unpack that number, I think it is more important for us to focus on what Canada’s commitment is for 2015-16. What share of the 100,000 that the UNHCR wants to resettle will Canada commit to?

Generally when the UNHCR puts out an appeal, Canada looks at the number and commits to about ten percent. To date, the Canadian government has said they will take part but has not set a number. For Canada to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the next two years could be a huge undertaking, however with proper planning and support, it can be done.

REfugees in Altona

The Abukhousa family is among 93 Palestinian refugees from the temporary Al Hol refugee camp in Syria near the Iraq border to find safe resettlement in Canada through MCC Canada’s refugee assistance program. (MCC Photo/Joanie Peters).

As chair of the Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association, I have been asked a number of times what Sponsoring Agreement Holders in Canada can be expected to do to resettle Syrian refugees. This is difficult to answer. Sponsoring groups, including many Mennonite churches, have focused on resettlement of other refugees around the world and we would not want to take away from that. However the Syrian situation really needs our attention. We need groups to add Syria to their list of places that we sponsor from. That is beginning to happen, but the take up is slow.

As MCC, we have already been involved in relief efforts in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria where we have had program for many years. It is important for us to continue this. That immediate help to those we can reach in those countries are the most cost effective way that we can help.

It is also time for us to help resettle refugees out of Lebanon and Jordan to show that we are in support of those countries that are hosting so many Syrian refugees, as well as Iraqis and other refugees who were already refugee in large numbers before the Syrian conflict exploded. To do that, we need churches in our constituency in Canada to step forward and commit to financial and time commitment of resettling refugees.

The Canadian government certainly needs to step forward and commit to taking a share of the UNHCR’s goal for the next two years. However, MCC has often been a leader in large resettlement efforts going back to the origins of the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program in 1979. The resettlement program has always been something that relies on our constituent churches to really make things happen. It is my prayer that Mennonite Churches will once again say they will welcome the stranger.