Peace for the long run in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office

Reclaiming walls and fences: finding art and resistance in Palestine and Israel

By Elizabeth Kessler, Donor Life Cycle Coordinator, MCC Canada

This past May I travelled with an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel to learn about the ongoing conflict and about MCC’s work with Palestinians and Israelis who are working for peace. I travelled with several other MCC staff members and supporters of our work.

Each day we visited a different place, learning about a different aspect of the context. We learned about the realities of occupation, illegal settlements, uprooted people, destroyed homes, checkpoints, and divide-and-conquer tactics that are used by the Israeli government to assert control. We met Palestinians and Israelis, researchers, activists, businesspeople, tour guides, religious leaders, farmers and even a journalist and a politician–all with different stories and insights to share with us.

But what really stood out to me everywhere were the visual reminders of Palestinian resistance that had been posted or painted on walls.

Palestinian Political Prisoners hunger strike poster

One of the first places we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which sits on top of a cave believed to be the place where Jesus was born. While visiting the church was ostensibly more of a tourist stop, it quickly became clear that tourist stops are not immune to politics. Even before we entered the church, we got caught up in reading these banners that had been posted nearby.

The banners were drawing attention to 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike at the time of our visit. The prisoners were demanding an end to the practice of detaining Palestinians without a trial and also calling for other basic rights like the right of a prisoner to have occasional family visits.

It turned out to be only the first of several demonstrations of support for the hunger strike that we would see during our tour.  At the time, the strike had been going on for a month. While the courtyard around the church was mostly calm, the presence of the signs was powerful, as if the people who put them up wanted to remind the tourists that amid the holy sites there are current, serious justice issues here not to be ignored.

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This key is painted on the door of Lajee Centre, an MCC partner in Aida refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Aida camp is home to refugees from a number of different villages that were destroyed by Israel in 1948.

The camp has art painted all over its walls. The key is an important symbol for the refugees, many of whom fled their homes in 1948 believing that they would be able to return shortly. Most of them did not pack much, but locked their doors and took their keys. Almost 70 years later, the refugees have not been able to return, but the keys to their homes have been passed down through the generations.

Palestinians continue to advocate for the right of return. The people we met are realistic that they will likely not be able to return to their villages, but they do believe they have the right to at least be compensated for the loss of their homes and valuable agricultural land. It struck me that the symbolism of the key – which is painted and sculpted in a several places around the camp – is important for helping the children in the camp understand their history.

wall graffiti

I’ve always been fascinated by political graffiti and street art, and I have taken photos of it in many of the places that I’ve travelled. What was unique about Palestine was how much of it there was. It makes sense: graffiti is a small way for Palestinians to assert power over their own fate and their land— a non-violent way of reclaiming the space as their own. It proves that they are not defeated.

This image is from a section of the wall that we visited in Qalandyia, a Palestinian village in the West Bank near Jerusalem. The section of the wall cuts off a road that used to be a main artery. There is graffiti all over the wall, in English and Arabic and a few other languages, much of it calling for a just peace. On the right, the faded words say “This wall will fall”.

“No more fear!” was one of the most powerful messages I saw on the trip. Fear is a major underlying cause of much suffering in the world but particularly in Palestine and Israel. Fear drives Israel’s obsession with security and it justifies everything from tight control of Palestinian movements, to the building of the wall, to violations of the Geneva Conventions. To build peace in Palestine and Israel, we have to deal with fear.

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This is a scene a few blocks up the street from the wall in Qalandiya (also written as Kalandia). We were told that the street used to be a busy main artery, but the separation wall has stopped traffic and the local economy. The place is virtually abandoned and extremely quiet considering how close it is to a main highway and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian flag in graffiti, like the one in this photo, were everywhere in the West Bank. Several of the Palestinians (and some Israelis) we met with throughout the tour spoke about the importance of pushing against the narrative that the Palestinians aren’t really there or have no history here–a narrative that is used to justify illegal Israeli settlements. The flag is a reminder that there is a people here with their own culture and history.

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A sign on a balcony in Hebron reads “Caution, this was taken by Israel.” Jewish Israeli settlers have increasingly been taking over parts of this Palestinian city. Military rule has cut off Palestinian access to the market and, like in Qalandiya, had a severe effect on the local economy. Many of the buildings are abandoned.

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A mural in Nazareth commemorates the anniversary of the Nakba. “Nakba” means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and it refers to the time when more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Nazareth is a city in Israel that is primarily inhabited by Palestinians, many of whom are Christian. While these Palestinians have Israeli citizenship (as opposed to Palestinians in the occupied areas who do not), they are denied access to agricultural land and to municipal services provided to Jewish Israelis. They are also cut off from their fellow Palestinians – including family members – who reside in the West Bank and Gaza.

We were told that secular Jewish Israelis often come to Nazareth on holidays, and some had repeatedly complained to the municipal government about this mural, which was painted illegally. The mural had been painted over four times, and re-painted four times.

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A wall in a refugee camp in Jerusalem that we visited on the last day of the tour. The refugee camp is messy. There is litter everywhere, and we found tear gas canisters and rubber bullets by the curbside – a sign that the military had made their presence known. But it was busy with people going about their business, and we met friendly people and curious boys on the street.  I think the artist who painted these images must have wanted to beautify the neighborhood and these stencils seem like a solid and lasting way to do that under the circumstances.

Being part of this tour renewed my belief in the importance of MCC’s peacebuilding work and my commitment to pushing the Canadian government to end its complicity in the occupation. MCC has a number of resources about Palestine and Israel which you can access here. You can also support our local partners working for peace and justice by making a donation.

The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

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. 

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 

Trauma knows no gender

Today’s guest writer is Karen Thind, a student at University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. She participated in the recent student seminar of the Ottawa Office on Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

As we gathered together for the second day of our seminar, Thomas Coldwell, an MCC staff member from Alberta, began a discussion of masculinity, and the stereotypes attached to it. As we began calling out things like, “aggressive,” “man-spreading,” “protector…,” we started to narrow down the burden that society has placed upon the male gender. There was a specific lens, and specific qualities that made up a man, much like there are for women.

Seminar Thomas

Thomas Coldwell of MCC Alberta talking about masculinity. Photo Janessa Mann.

As our discussion progressed, it became apparent that our presentation would be about men and their experiences with violent conflict and PTSD.  I recoiled. Given that governments and NGOs are finally acknowledging the importance of women in addressing peace and security issues, do we really need to be addressing the needs of men? Surely we could make it three days without bringing the opposite sex into the conversation!

However, as I analyzed this train of thought, I became aware of how flippant and short-sighted I was being. Trauma and violence don’t just happen to women; they happen to communities, and those communities include men and boys.

Fighting violence against women should naturally include fighting the forces that feed that violence, and that means not only including a discussion about men and boys, but also recognizing the trauma and violence that they have experienced as well.

While Thomas queued up a video to watch, I had a moment to think, and my thoughts ran towards my nephews who have each, at ages 7 and 10, already heard the expression “man up.” I softened.  And I acknowledged that at one point male perpetrators of violence had been children, but the poison of social construct, and the cycle of violence had forced the abdication of their childhoods and demanded they forsake their humanity in exchange for a life filled with the void of masculinity.

Seminar women are human

The sign says, “Women are human.” Photo Janessa Mann

The film we watched underscored that ideal masculinity is hard to achieve and to maintain. Moreover, when that same masculinity is ripped away, the effects are just as explosive and dangerous, as those in the “making of the man.”

I had gone into the seminar with specific learning goals regarding the intersection of politics, policy, and advocacy in making gains against gender-based violence and sexual abuse. What I came away with was that and more! I came away with a clear understanding that not only do we need to “complexify” the narrative around gender, peace, and conflict, we also need to broaden our scope when it comes to the nuance of the victim/perpetrator dynamic in situations of mass violence.

The hunger for peace is  universal. The desire to live and thrive in an environment that is safe, whole, and accepting is felt by almost every person on the planet. Ideologies of masculinity have not diminished the urge for peace; rather, they have buried it under layers of expectation and —in the cases of some—forced them to become weapons of war. In the end, the hunger for peace remains.

A senator’s plea for friendship

We had gathered in Ottawa—eight MCC staff, along with 30 students and young adults from across the country—for our annual MCC Canada student seminar. The topic of the seminar was Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

One of our guest speakers was Senator Mobina Jaffer.  Jaffer has been active in promoting the Women, Peace and Security agenda for many years and she spoke about that work for several minutes. Then she asked permission to go “off topic.” She wanted to discuss what was really on her heart.

And what was on her heart was the reality of being a Muslim in Canada today.  Jaffer is herself Muslim—the first Muslim senator in Canada.  She spoke about the growing reality of Islamophobia in Canada and about her fears for the future.

jaffer-and-seminar

Senator Mobina Jaffer (centre) with seminar participants. Photo Thomas Coldwell.

Her words were influenced by the recent massacre of Muslims at prayer at a mosque in Quebec City, the increase of messages of hatred directed towards Muslims and others online, and the reaction to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s motion against Islamophobia in the House of Commons.  As a result of the motion, Khalid has received thousands of harassing and hateful emails, even including death threats.

Political developments in the U.S. and the impact on Muslims is also affecting Canada. Muslim asylum seekers from the U.S. are increasingly crossing the border into Canada at points other than official border crossings so as to avoid being returned to the U.S. through the Safe Third Country Agreement. Some Canadians are sounding the alarm about the potential threat these individuals pose.

“We are having a real crisis here in Canada,” Senator Jaffer said. “The conflict is at our door.”

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Small group discussion. Photo Janessa Mann

Nevertheless, she urged the students to be ambassadors of peace and goodwill and to resist the stereotypes which paint all Muslims as terrorists and a threat to society.  “Take time to get to know your Muslim neighbours,” she urged.  “Be curious about them. Ask them questions.”

Above all, she said, “Reach out.  Ask your Muslim neighbours, ‘How can I stand with you?’”

Jaffer’s plea for friendship and solidarity was a poignant interruption in the well-laid plans of our seminar.  At the conclusion of her speech, we paused to take a group photo and a few individuals spoke with her one on one. Then we continued with our agenda.

But the “interruption” returned at the conclusion of the seminar when two of the seminar participants shared their personal stories. Both are Muslims who arrived in Canada as refugees. Both felt emboldened to speak because of Jaffer’s words.

One young woman from Syria told how, as a result of the war in her country, she had lost her dream of becoming an engineer. After one year in Canada, she is beginning to believe the dream might become a reality. She reminded us of the saying, “I am because you are.” In other words, our lives as humans are intimately intertwined.

The other young woman, a Palestinian from Iraq, dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. She urged her fellow students not to accept life as it is, but to commit to changing it for the good. “You can make a difference in the world!” she insisted. She expressed her deep gratitude for the Mennonite congregation that sponsored her and her family’s resettlement in Canada and for the friendship experienced at the seminar.

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In front of the Peace Tower.  Photo Thomas Coldwell

MCC has long been committed to building bridges of friendship with Muslims here in Canada and around the world.  Interfaith dialogue and bridge-building is, in fact, a key way that MCC, together with the partners we support around the world, seeks to build peace where there is hostility, friendship where there is fear.

We hadn’t identified interfaith friendship and peacebuilding  as one of the intended outcomes of our student seminar. But, thanks to a senator’s heartfelt plea, that’s precisely what happened.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.