From despair to hope on the shepherd’s field: listening to stories of child detention

In October I joined an MCC-led learning tour travelling through Palestine and Israel to learn about the conflict and to see the realities on the ground first hand. Our schedule was composed of an interesting mix of visiting MCC partners, travelling through the region to see the differences between occupation and relative freedom, and tourist spots including the holy sites.

During one of the mornings, we made our way from Bethlehem to visit the YMCA, an MCC partner, in neighbouring Beit Sahour. The YMCA is fortunate to have offices on one of the shepherd’s fields, a site where the shepherds may have heard the angels proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Photo of YMCA Beit Sahour

The front entrance of the YMCA in Beit Sahour. (Photo/Craig Neufeld)

We arrived at the YMCA office early and strolled over the shepherd’s field and briefly climbed into an old cave, which shepherds may have used for their sheep at night. While the shepherd’s field was charming, our visit to the YMCA had a very different tone: one of a hard and somber reality. The YMCA offers rehabilitation programs to former child detainees. Every year hundreds of Palestinian children are arrested by the Israeli army, detained, and often serve a prison sentence at an adult detention center or military prison.

Part of our visit to the YMCA was to meet some individuals who had gone through the rehabilitation program. As we finished our introductory session with one of the psychological counselors who works with children, youth and young adults in the program, we all looked at the doors as seven young men walked in.

In that moment I was struck by the reality of the concept of child detention. Before going on this trip, I had been working with MCC’s A Cry for Home campaign for about four months. I had read testimonies and reports, but meeting people who had experienced arrest and detention as a child humbled me. I wondered, how hard it was for them to come and talk to us about their experience and I felt myself cringing, as the first person started to share.

I listened to each heartbreaking story about arrest, mistreatment by military personnel, torture, and physical, emotional, and mental injuries. Detentions and prison sentences ranged from three to eighteen months. While each experience was different, many commonalities appeared.

Each person spoke of an emptiness, hopelessness, and the loss of seeing a future past the experience of the detention. One young man, who is now 17 years old, shared how he was in a vulnerable psychological state when he was released. When he was arrested by the Israeli military, his arm was already in a cast and during the ensuing interrogation the cast was taken off and under torture, his arm was broken for a second time. To this day, he has not regained full mobility. To make matters worse, after his three-month detention and release, military personnel continued to show up at his house, disrupting his reentry into normal life and retraumatizing him. He shared, “When I closed my eyes, I saw them coming to arrest me… I thought I would always see that.”

Another young man shared how he was arrested and detained for two days when he was thirteen years old. At fourteen he was shot in the leg right before he was arrested again. At the beginning of his eighteen-months prison sentence, he spent 6 weeks handcuffed to a hospital bed while recovering from that major injury. When he came to the YMCA, he remembered being completely disillusioned. He could not imagine a future after what he had been through.

While these young men briefly described their detention experience, some not going into much detail, they each made a point of telling us about how far they had come since then. Every-day-life seemed impossible after their release, but they now shared with pride that they were in university, employed, in a trade apprenticeship, or working toward having their own business venture.

Photo of the Young Men

A photo of the seven young men accompanied by a YMCA staff member. Identity of the persons in this picture is not shared publicly. (Photo/Craig Neufeld)

These young men underwent significant psychological counselling, and some received vocational training. The pride of accomplishment and hope for a good future was shining in their eyes. However, overcoming trauma in one way or another is not where the story ended for them. These young men are part of a leadership program, designed to allow them to give back to their communities, focusing on matters such as capacity building, communications tools, and teaching others about positive leadership.

After all of the young man had shared parts of their story, one of them raised his hand, signaling that he wished to add something. He looked around the room and said: “The children of the past are the leaders of the future!”


Later, when my group debriefed about the experience at the YMCA, we reflected on the hardship of what these young men had gone through, and marveled at their resilience, positive outlook, and motivation to help others. But we also wondered what their lives would have been like without occupation, without conflict, without the trauma of arrest, interrogation and detention.

We also remembered all of the children and youth who either have not had access to psychological care, or those who have not receive help in time. Since 2000, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and detained by the Israeli military, 500-700 each year.

Photo of Shepherd's field

The shepherd’s field behind the YMCA building. (MCC Photo/Leona Lortie)

In this advent season, as the YMCA possibly stands on the very ground where the angels appeared to the shepherds in Beit Sahour, let us remember their message of hope and comfort, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (KJV, Luke 2:10, 14).

At this moment in time, peace with justice has not yet come to Palestine and Israel as the conflict persists, but there is hope and the young men we met at the YMCA are determined to not only be part of a better, peaceful future, but they are actively working toward it.

Let us join them.

ACT Today: Sign this petition to urge the Canadian federal government to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and hold Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees.


For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work of MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.


Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office.


Why I advocate for human rights

by Leona Lortie

My name is Leona Lortie and I have recently joined the MCC Ottawa Office team as the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator. For my first contribution to this blog, my colleagues suggested that I share what I am passionate about, what brought me to this work. I thought I would share why I am an advocate for human rights.

In contemplating where our passions come from and why we do what we do, we often look to our childhoods. In my childhood, I was faced with several tensions, which formed me and led me to study history.

I grew up in Germany as a child of parents who arrived in Germany as Aussiedler (Germans who lived in Russia/Ukraine for about two centuries) only five years before my birth. One of these tensions was that I fully identified as being German, but I also found myself not completely fitting in.

Another tension I consistently struggled with as a child, was learning about German history and the contrast to the history of some of my own ancestors. During both world wars, German settlers in Russia were seen as a threat, thought to be aligned with German political views and likely to join German efforts when given the opportunity. My grandparents and great grandparents struggled to survive deportation, dispossession, starvation, imprisonment or labour camps.

Growing up in Germany in the 80s and 90s, I found it difficult to wrestle with a German identity. School curricula included in depth material about the rise of Nazism, the fallout of the war, and lessons learned from our history. I frequently asked myself what I would have done, if I had been alive during this time.

As a result, from a young age, I wondered about the role of the individual in the context of extreme political movements, like Fascism. How can and should individuals respond when our society or state turns to extremist ideologies?

At the heart of my curiosity was the desire to understand how it was possible for so many people to be complicit in acts of genocide. This played a significant role in my studies as well. My search for answers led me to research the formation of Germany and the rise of nationalism in Europe. I learned that Germany committed its first genocide in German South West Africa (GSWA), now Namibia, between 1904-08. While it has not received a lot of attention over the last century, at that time, the German public was widely aware of the genocide of the Herero and Nama.

DKZ Image April

April 1904 issue of Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, a german colonial newspapers, discussed the unrest in German South West Africa.

Average German nationals shared their opinions openly in colonial newspapers and encouraged harsher treatment of colonial subjects. National identity was wrapped up in competition with other powerful imperial nations and defined by exposing and extinguishing the other, the inferior. The public discourse relating to colonial subjects reflected overt racist, nationalist, and supremacist ideologies, which intensified over the following decades and created the environment that made the Third Reich possible.

The vast suffering, discrimination, and deaths of the world wars pushed the global leaders of the time to urgently work together for lasting peace. Seeing humanity at its worst created a desire to make drastic changes. This is the context in which the United Nations was formed – in the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1945 the UN Charter and in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlined the recognition of dignity and equality for all members of the human family in order to achieve freedom, justice, and peace.


UN Photo. The San Francisco Conference, 1945: UN Charter is superimposed on the photo.

I find the history of the 20th century astounding. The United Nations was formed as a reaction to war and violence, realizing that what mattered was the value of the individual. If the rights of the individual are not recognized, defended, and protected, then we – the human family – will not find peace. This was a massive shift, one that we are still trying to process.

I am a human rights advocate because I want to learn from our history and remind others that cultural and religious differences must not make us complicit in denying dignity and equality for all. I am a human rights activist because I believe it to be the responsibility of all of us to stand up against injustice, violence, and extremism.

Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Ottawa Office

We are still here

Miriam Sainnawap, author of this reflection, is Co-coordinator of MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program.  She is Oji-Cree from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

Miriam’s reflection is prompted by the story of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl who was murdered in Winnipeg in 2014. The white man charged with her death was acquitted in February 2018 because of insufficient evidence. Prior to her death, Tina was in the care of Children and Family Services. Tina’s death galvanized attention on the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls in Canada and led to the establishment in 2016 of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

When I heard the trial verdict “not guilty” in the death of Tina Fontaine, I burst out in tears of grief and anger. That anger inspired me to write.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I could imagine Tina and her aspirations, dreams and hopes.

Miriam's blog 4

From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Not to undermine Tina’s tragic death, I also saw myself in her. Like Tina, I grew up in a  remote community (in northwestern Ontario). Like Tina, I was 15 years old when forced to leave home and live in an unwelcoming urban centre, so that I could fulfill my education opportunities. I quickly had to learn to adjust to white-dominated society and speak in English.

I could be Tina.

As a young Indigenous woman in Canadian society, I quickly learned my worth is devalued and my voice is suppressed.

Tina’s case raises major issues related to the treatment of Indigenous youth in this society.  The systems in place that are meant to serve and protect do not have my best interests and do not reflect my tradition and values.

No justice exists unless truth is told. Reconciliation does not exist now.

Miriam's blog 1

From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Let’s get to the point. The current mess we find ourselves in is our reflection of our society. Canadian society has yet to begin and name the systematic injustice, racism and privilege. Let alone acknowledge whose land they reside and stand on.

Good intentions are not enough. Apologies cannot fix the long-standing broken promises. Paternalist attitudes cannot help save Indigenous youth. Imposed livelihood solutions cannot empower our communities. Colonial systems cannot serve us.

Indigenous people have known, for far too long, that injustice has been a way of life: violence, forced assimilation and abuse.  Those grievances felt over the many generations of the past, exist today and go on into the future.

The goal of colonization has been to get rid of my ancestors and wipe out my nation. Over the years, the attempted assimilative policies have threatened our very existence and survival as the people of the land. They have denied our humanity.

Colonization is costing the lives of Indigenous peoples, my community and my people. What price must we pay?  What price must young Indigenous women pay?

Tina’s life was cut short. She didn’t get the chance to live her dreams. She will continue to remind us we need to do better as a society. We need to stand up for justice and the time is Now.

Miriam's blog 2

From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Indigenous people matter. Indigenous young women matter. We deserve equitable and fair access to justice.

We have dreams and hopes for ourselves and our communities.  We love our families and friends.  We attend universities, drink our cappuccinos like you and go to ceremonies.   We work constantly to make our daily lives better.

We are resilient. We are the people our ancestors prayed for and hoped for the future. We are still here.

A call to end the violence in Syria

International support for some kind of military intervention in Syria has been building since last week’s chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus.

This support appears to be solidifying in Canada as well. For months, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been insisting that his government “believes the only way to halt the bloodshed in Syria is through a political solution,” a belief that MCC has affirmed.

2857_20130618_PG_05However, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke by phone with U.S. President Barack Obama, and agreed that recent events demand “a firm response from the international community in an effective and timely manner.” On Wednesday afternoon, following a meeting with the President of the Syrian National Council in Montreal, Minister Baird indicated that it was unlikely that Canadian Forces would have a role to play in that response. Nonetheless, he affirmed that Canada is “of one mind” with its allies.

In light of this growing willingness to intervene militarily, MCC released “A call to end the violence in Syria.” Compelled to speak by the fears of our Syrian partners, this statement condemned “in the strongest terms all forms of violence and war,” and called for an escalation of humanitarian assistance and diplomatic efforts to negotiate “an inclusive political solution to the crisis.”

To be clear then, we do not agree with those who assume that rejecting armed intervention means there is nothing that can be done about the crisis in Syria. At the same time, we have no illusions that aid and diplomacy will be quick and easy.

Indeed, any intervention is bound to be inadequate in the face of a tragedy that has, to date, resulted in over 100,000 lives lost, created almost 2 million refugees, and displaced almost 5 million more people within their own country.

One might think then that MCC would be glad for the eagerness of world leaders to condemn violence in Syria. For example, Minister Baird was “incredibly outraged” by the recent use of chemical weapons, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack a “moral obscenity.”

Upon closer examination, however, I think there is plenty of cause for concern with this rhetoric.

I am unsettled, for example, by the way that violence in Syria is often condemned in a conditional way. Why are statements by world leaders or media pundits so preoccupied with making distinctions between different types of violence?

I certainly don’t want to minimize the horrors of chemical or other “weapons of mass destruction.” As was pointed out by many earlier this year when Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster munitions by the Assad regime,176632072 the willingness to use technologies of war that the international community has sought to ban is clearly a troubling sign. However, I am troubled by the willingness of all sides in the Syrian conflict to employ violence to achieve their goals, regardless of their tactics. The moral obscenity of war in Syria has been going on for years now.

Perhaps there is some reluctance among the world’s leaders to condemn violence categorically because the whole point of their rhetoric is to create space for another kind of violence? Is the point to justify their own—presumably legitimate, necessary, or even honourable—military action?

I have also been struck by the slipperiness of the international community’s rationale for violent intervention. On the one hand, we have repeatedly been reminded that the Syrian regime is committing acts of violence “against its own people.” As a result, words such as “cowardly,” “crazy,” and “delusional” have been used to characterize Syrian President Bashar al Assad. How often have you heard that phrase or those words mentioned in news reports on Syria, just as they were with Libya and Iraq in years past?

In recent days, however, armed intervention is increasingly being framed as a necessary response to an offense that the Assad regime has committed against the international community. It is now a matter of international (and national) security rather than a transgression against the Syrian people.

The origins of this latest rationale can be traced to President Obama’s declaration one year ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line.” And it now seems that Assad’s greatest sin is that he had the nerve to cross that line.

President Obama has insisted that “when countries break international norms” they have to be “held accountable.” Prime Minister Harper has expressed worries about “the risks of the international community not acting,” as this would set “an extremely dangerous precedent.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague has argued that “we cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity.” And German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the “large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo.”

It seems then that the fundamental problem that the nations of the world are being mobilized to address is not violence per se, or even a particular kind of violence, but a regime that refuses to use violence in acceptable ways. The concern is not just punishing the Assad regime, but regimes everywhere that refuse to play by the rules.

Is this a compelling enough justification to put more lives at risk through more violence? Will this kind of intervention be able to meet the needs of Syrians in the near and long term?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director