Monday, February 22, 2016

Better for everyone to talk about peace

Have mercy upon us, O Lord! Have mercy upon us! For we have had more than enough of contempt. (Ps. 123:3)

Over two years ago, their house in Aleppo, Syria was completely destroyed. The family of six lived in another village for four months, and then they walked six days to the Jordan border, sometimes needing to dodge sniper bullets. They finally made it across the border into Jordan to a refugee camp with not a single possession but the clothes they wore. They feel alone in their new country and they want to go home to Syria.

A second family fled Qaraqosh, Iraq about the same time. They lived in Erbil for two months, and while they weren’t able to get any help with food or shelter, they were able to arrange to
get a visa to go to Jordan. They live in a small makeshift apartment on the fourth floor of another family’s house, but they have no family of their own here. The wife has a sister in the United States but she isn’t able to provide any assistance. The husband told me they’d go anywhere that would have them but they’ve recently been denied entry into Australia.

These two families from Syria and Iraq, and thousands more like them, are part of the reason the population of Jordan has doubled to more than nine million people in the last 15 years. More than one-third of the population of the entire country is refugees, including 1.5 million Palestinians, almost as many Syrians, a much smaller number of Iraqis and refugees and guest workers from a number of other countries as well.

The high number of refugees entering the country has put tremendous stress on the infrastructure of Jordan, including its schools and hospitals. With the economy suffering because of the number of new people, some Jordanians also need financial assistance.  

MCC partner Caritas Jordan is one organization that is trying to help. Last year, it registered more than 90,000 refugee families with almost 500,000 family members for health, humanitarian, housing and education assistance.  MCC projects with Caritas include winterization projects, HIV/AIDS education and material resources.

The Syrian family from Aleppo received a voucher from MCC which they used to buy a gas heater for their apartment. The grandmother told us they had no heat at all before and it had been so cold. She also told us that the carpet we were sitting on in their very comfortable living space had been pulled out of the garbage and scrubbed clean.

The family from Iraq received a kerosene heater and blankets from MCC. Before moving to their upper floor apartment, they lived in a church compound. In Iraq, they had been part of the Syrian Orthodox community.

Caritas Jordan director Wael Suleman told me that they are doing their best to serve people in need, but it would be much cheaper for everyone if all of us, especially our governments, talked about peace instead. He said that we should start where Jesus started by serving the poor.

In the United States, MCC’s efforts in response to the war in Syria have included advocating for increased humanitarian assistance and for stopping the shipment of weapons to all parties in the region.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi and Syrian families are waiting. We pray for mercy, Lord, for these refugee families and for so many more like them who have endured so much because of war in this region of the world. 

Ron Byler is executive director for MCC U.S. He is in the Middle East and Eastern Europe visiting MCC partners and projects for two months.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Choosing a different future

Let your compassion come to me that I may live. (Ps. 119:77)

Just outside Jerusalem in an area designated as “Area C,” a place in Israel and Palestine where it is sometimes possible for Jews and Palestinians to meet and talk with one another, Ali Abu Awaad has offered his family’s land in Beit Umar for exactly this purpose.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger from Alon Shvut walked to our meeting on Ali’s property and Shaul Judelman, from the nearby Tekoa settlement, got here easily enough as well. Together, the three help lead Roots, an Israeli and Palestinian organization located on Ali’s land, to foster a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Palestinian Muslims and Christians and Israeli Jews.

Ali says that when he, as a Palestinian Muslim, meets with Jewish settler groups, he tries to help them break through a barrier to see him as a human being, someone who shares their love for the land. “Even though we live so close to each other, we live in almost complete separation,” he said.

He says that when he met with a settler group the evening before, there was plenty of disagreement in the room, but everyone showed him respect. Ali believes that effective dialogue can only happen when there is a safe place for arguing with each other.

Ali recounted his life as a Palestinian refugee. His mother spent five years in prison and he was also in prison for four years. Ali’s brother was killed by the Israeli army. He says that when he decided not to take up revenge, he wasn’t making a decision to give up on justice. In fact, Ali feels his best revenge is to reconcile with his enemies.

Rabbi Schlesinger nods in agreement with Ali’s commitment to nonviolence. He points to the recent death of a young Jewish woman who was killed by a Palestinian. The Jewish family said they wanted to be able to forgive. Notably, this was the family of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman of the nearby Tekoa settlement.

Rabbi Schlesinger told me the Jews who were first involved in Roots were devotees of Rabbi Froman who challenged the narrative of the exclusive ownership of the land with a religion-based understanding for Jews co-existing on the land with Palestinians.

“The people of Israel belong to the land of Israel, but that is not the same as ownership,” Shaul Judelman told us. He believes that Israelis and Palestinians both experience some of the same fear and pain.

 “But we are not equal,” Ali says. He believes their shared commitment to nonviolence is not about normalizing or accepting the injustice in Palestine. “I am fighting for my people and for justice for them,” Ali says, “But I also want justice for Jews as well.”

All three are hoping the conversations at Roots can become the beginning of a national movement within Israel and Palestine. They say that when they began it was just with a handful of friends, but now, hundreds of people are joining this conversation.

And all three believe that before peace can be a reality in this land, more trust needs to be built between the people. “Even if there was a peace agreement, neither side now believes the other side would honor it; our hopes have been shattered too often by each other,” Ali said.

These three Jewish and Palestinian leaders believe they can help to choose a different future. “We don’t have to build our identity on fighting each other, but on working together to find a common solution,” Shaul said.

“People are fearful and that is partly the result of the lack of engagement with each other. We can choose to change that,” said Ali.

And Hanan concluded, “For many of us, this has to be a religious conversation and many in our communities don’t even understand what the Judaism or Islam of the other community is all about.” 

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Regaining what has been lost

Would you still want to kill me?

After the war in Sarajevo, Amra Pandzo started working with MCC. After some peace training, she decided she wanted to devote her life to help build peace in her country.

By day, Amra is a librarian, but she also started a small organization called Small Steps to work in the public school system. Children receive religious public education at school, but because children are separated for this education according to their background – Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim – the religious education contributes to deepening religious and ethnic divides.

Amra has since created a Handbook for Religious Muslim Teachers. She told me that her goal for the handbook was to do for the Koran what Mennonites have done with the Bible – to look at the Holy Book from a peacemaking perspective. She has helped to train 1,500 Muslim teachers who are teaching religion in the schools.

More recently, she organized interfaith meetings for religious teachers. The workshops encourage teachers of all faiths to teach religion in a way that helps to build peace in the community and strengthens a commitment to non-violence. She says that after sufficient trust is built between the teachers, she can encourage them to ask each other the questions they’ve always been afraid to ask. One time, a teacher asked another: “If we had another war, would you still want to kill me?” Another teacher wanted conversation among the three faith traditions about who would be saved in the next world.

Amra says she’s attracted to MCC and to Mennonites because she observes that for Mennonites, religion doesn’t seem to just be a label, but a way we live our lives. She told me she sometimes tells others that she sees herself as a Mennonite Muslim. I told her I wouldn’t necessarily share that part of the story with everyone I knew! 

We observed together that Christians across the spectrum are so different from one another, and so are Muslims. So many of us expect Christians to just help Christians and Muslims to just help Muslims, but that’s not what either of our faith traditions are about at their core.

Amra’s latest work is with children. She is planning to work with children in 10 different communities, to teach them about peace and to bring them together from different communities and different ethnic groups to learn about each other.

Amra says MCC has been a pillar of her work. She says, so often, other organizations come for two days and think they can tell you what to do, but MCC doesn’t work like that. MCC is a bridge between cultures.

“Sometimes we feel like people from the West are like children; they’ve never had the experience of waking up each day as we did during the war and reading in the paper that so many of our friends have died,” Amra shares with us. She believes so strongly that her work is helping to rebuild a community where so much has been lost.   

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. He met Amra during a two-month sojourn in Sarajevo to visit MCC's programs there.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

This is Bosnia and this is what should happen

Naš put je mir (our way is peace)

Traveling north from Sarajevo through Zenica, we traveled three more hours through beautiful country to the town of Sanski Most. Here, MCC partners with the Center for Peacebuilding, a group begun by two Muslim imams, Mevludin Rahmanovic and Vahidin Omanovic, co-founders and co-directors, who are working for inter-religious peace in their community.

The goal of the center is to rebuild trust and to nurture reconciliation among the people of Bosnia – Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and others – and to support peace wherever people have suffered from violent conflicts.

Both men have horrific stories to tell of many family members who were killed in the war. Mevludin told me how he had to go through a personal jihad (fight) with himself to decide not to hate, but to work for peace.

A memorial in the downtown area of Sanski Most commemorates more than 700 people in the community who died during the war.

Mevludin remembers one man who ordered the killing of Mevludin’s entire family on his grandfather’s side. All Mevludin wanted, he said, was revenge. But years later, he told me, it took only one Serb to say he was sorry for Mevludin to realize the Serbs weren’t all the same.

Vahidin said he and Mevludin first started working with Bosnians to help them forget how to hate, but soon, they also wanted to work with Serbs. Small successes came when they could help people start to talk about their experiences out loud.

In a peace camp, one Serbian soldier talked about trying to save a young Muslim girl. Vahidin said he came to realize that in each one of us there is a piece of good. 

When an attack on a mosque happened a year ago, these two leaders worked with their Syrian Orthodox and Croat Catholic counterparts to promote a statement against violence and support forgiveness and reconciliation.

The religious leaders in the town have agreed to continue a long-standing tradition that when the Muslim call to prayer begins at noon, the churches will also ring their church bells. The sound of the bells and the call to prayer intermingling is simply awe-inspiring.  What a beautiful, simple way to commit to inter-faith peace building!

With MCC’s support, Mevludin and Vahidin work to break the cycle of a victim mentality with Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all claiming they suffered the most during the war. In the new culture that has developed since the war, there is no reason for youth of the different cultures to meet. Peace camps help youth come face to face to talk about their stories and to share them with each other.

In addition to the inter-religious council and peace camps, the Center for Peacebuilding sponsors language courses for young children and youth choirs where the Center can help foster a broader world view and teach peace.

“When one of the interfaith choirs first performed in a Catholic church,” Vahidin said, “We were afraid of what Muslims in the community would say, but, thank God, they said this is Bosnia and this is what should happen.”

Their new dream is build a peace embassy just outside of town. “A piece of land for peace,” they say, where peacebuilding events can bring together people of all ages and from all of the ethnic groups.

For their work in the last 10 years, Mevludin and Vahidin and the Center for Peacebuilding have been awarded three international awards, as well as an award from the local community for building peace among neighbors. 

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. He is in Sarajevo for two months, visiting MCC's programs there and traveling to Ukraine, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Opening the lines of communication again

Only 75 kilometers north of Sarajevo just off the one toll road in the region, the city of Zenica has a story to tell. All of its 17 schools were filled with refugees during the war here 20 years ago. The huge steel mill which employed up to 30,000 workers during the time of the former Yugoslavia now employs less than 1,500.

"We had a safe country and it was functioning well before the war and suddenly, overnight, nothing seemed to work anymore," Venira Alihođić, director of MCC partner organization SEZAM told me.

After the war Venira formed SEZAM to work with children traumatized by what they had experienced during the war. A flood of refugees, more than 50,000, fled here during the war. When it was over, the refugee camps were dismantled, but some of the refugees remained. Venira and longtime worker Emir Džiđić show me a book of children's drawings of the world of fear and grenades, of shelling and tanks, that these children still imagine surrounds them. . 

For many years prior to the ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, Bosniacs (mostly Muslim), Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Bosnian Croats (Catholics) lived side by side in these neighborhoods, at least tolerating each other. Heightened nationalism bubbled to the surface with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the intervention of the U.S. and European Union, the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in 1996 and Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two entities: the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Venira and Emir work with the teachers from all three ethnic groups. The schools are located along the entity lines that are invisible with no physical border, but very real nonetheless. These invisible lines prevent teachers from meeting and talking with each other. Venira and Emir's work helps bring these teachers together to communicate with each other.    

"We have a problem accepting differences," Venira said. "Everything looks fine on the outside, and we don't have a war, but it’s all an allusion," she said.

SEZAM's work has evolved from working with traumatized children to training teachers to work with these children still bearing the signs of trauma, and to learn interpersonal communication and reconciliation skills. Venira and Emir believe their work with teachers has to happen person to person. “We want to stress our common humanity,” they tell me.

But the challenges in the community remain. "Today," said Venira, "Political parties determine everything including where you live, where you have a job and where you go to school." Venira said two-thirds of all the children say they want to be politicians when they grow up because they perceive that politicians control everything.

In the rural areas, Venira believes that nationalism, a reality defined by peoples' first and last names, is really about people wanting an identity. And about people being afraid of war and believing that any state that is not war is better than going back to what they experienced then.

"We had an opportunity for a better society before the war and we lost it," says Venira, "but today we still have an opportunity to rethink who we are, to help teachers regain a sense of responsibility and to empower them., to help them believe in their common humanity again."

It is this humanness that Venira and Emir say they also appreciate about partnering with MCC. "You are different than other partners," they tell us. "We have open lines of communication and sharing with you and we all can learn from that."

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. and worked from the MCC office in Sarajevo for several months in early 2016. From Sarajevo, he also visited MCC's programs in Ukraine, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.