Building the peace, step by step

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McGill Reporter
March 22, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 22, 2001 > Building the peace, step by step

Building the peace, step by step

Social work professor Jim Torczyner spent part of last week fretting about flights.

Photo Middle East Fellows Sarit Zik, Najwa Safadi, and Ra'd Abdel-Aziz Al Hadid
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Students in a unique graduate program headquartered at the School of Social Work were scheduled to meet with representatives of community centres from the Middle East where they will soon begin year-long placements. But with tensions running high in that part of the world, booking flights isn't a straightforward thing.

"Conditions in the Middle East are such that it makes meetings like this very difficult," says Torczyner. "Palestinians are often unable to leave their cities, never mind the country."

A conference held months before to discuss the program among its various Middle East partners had to be moved to Cyprus because of security concerns. "We couldn't meet anywhere in the region," Torczyner says.

Given that the program in question is called the McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building, the complicated travel arrangements are symptomatic of the sorts of tensions Torczyner and his partners are hoping to play a role in easing.

"Even in the middle of all that turmoil," Torczyner says of the Cyprus conference, "we were able to introduce the president of the Jordanian Red Crescent Society to the Israeli ambassador in Jordan." The result? The society and the Israeli Foreign Ministry are collaborating on a new program to train paramedics.

That's exactly the sort of partnership Torczyner wants the McGill program to foster.

At the heart of the program are its fellows: Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians who travel to McGill to study together for a year. After learning about the Canadian social work system and getting a hands-on opportunity to contribute to community advocacy projects in Montreal, they head back to the Middle East. There, they will take part in projects aimed at easing the lives of the impoverished, the disabled, the sick, the homeless -- the sorts of people who often get lost in the long shadow cast by the political turmoil that has long plagued the region.

There are currently 10 fellows studying at McGill -- three Jordanians, three Palestinians and four Israelis. Decades of bitter conflict offer them plenty of excuses to be wary of each other, but three of the fellows assembled for an interview, one representing each participating culture, are relaxed in one another's company. It's the guy writing this story they're not so sure about at first.

Ra'd Abdel-Aziz Al Hadid, a Jordanian, has recently endured some teasing about his new moustache from his family back home, thanks to Sarit Zik, an Israeli, who arranged to have some fresh photos of Hadid sent back to Jordan via the Internet.

"I didn't really know what would happen," says Torcyzner of the program. "My thinking was, if you put people [from different parts of the Middle East] together, have them taking courses together, talking together, and do it in a climate of good will, some good things will happen."

About 25 years ago, Torczyner set up Project Genesis, a storefront operation in Côte des Neiges that made a name for itself by helping the poor help themselves, letting them know about the services they're entitled to and informing them of the best way to get them.

In 1992, he exported the idea to Israel, establishing a Genesis centre in Jerusalem. Thanks to letters of introduction from Principal Bernard Shapiro and the president of Ben-Gurion University, Torczyner secured a meeting with Dr. Fawzi Gharaibeh, then the president of the University of Jordan.

"He said, 'You did something for Israel, now do something for Jordan,'" Torczyner recalls. The implication was that once programs were firmly rooted in both countries, some interesting collaborations might develop. Torczyner set about helping the Jordanians create their first school of social work.

Having forged links with influential people and like-minded organizations in both countries, Torczyner's Middle East Fellows initiative soon followed suit. Thanks to a $3 million grant from the Canadian International Development Agency, the program was expanded to include Palestinians.

The fellows attend pretty much the same courses as other master's students in social work. They also take a couple of classes especially designed for the program that focus on the role that improving social justice plays in fostering peace. The fellows go to a variety of guest lectures that deal with different themes related to the program. McGill experts such as emeritus professor of religious studies Gregory Baum and the Faculty of Law's El Obaid El Obaid, an authority on international human rights, have been among the featured speakers. Diplomats, community workers, activists and others drop by to offer their perspectives.

Religious scholars and spiritual leaders visit the fellows to discuss the similarities between the major religions in the region. "People often have no experience or understanding of other religions," says Torczyner. "For many Palestinians, rabbis are settlers with fundamentalist ideas." Islam is, similarly, seen as something foreign and threatening by many Israelis. "The truth is there is much more in common than people might realize."

Zik concurs. "We're used to seeing each other as people who don't share anything."

Recruiting fellows isn't an easy task; Torczyner and his allies are very picky. They look for seasoned community organizers with strong academic track records and a demonstrable commitment to the program's goals of nurturing peace and a civil society. English is also a prerequisite.

Hadid is a veteran of the Red Crescent Society in Jordan. An agricultural engineer by training, he headed the nutrition department of the society's hospital, was the project coordinator for the society's refugee centre, and served as its administrator and public relations officer.

Zik was a social worker who dealt with Arab citizens in Tel Aviv. Najwa Safadi, a Palestinian, has been a counsellor for the disabled, a social work case manager for the YMCA's rehabilitation program in Jerusalem, and an instructor at Bethlehem University.

Safadi says coming to McGill was difficult at first. "Sometimes I couldn't sleep."

With her family located in the older portions of Jerusalem, the site of much of the most recent violence in the region, Safadi worried constantly about them. Newscasts frequently sparked anxiety.

Merav Moshe was one of the program's first fellows. The onetime director of field work at Ben-Gurion University, the New York-born Israeli is still at McGill, working on a joint PhD in social work and law that focuses on peacebuilding.

"There were plenty of people who had harsh words" for her decision to participate in the McGill program, she remembers. Some accused her of becoming, in effect, a leftwing nut.

Zik says friends and family are generally supportive of her involvement in the program. "Sometimes, though, when something happens, people say, 'Go to your Palestinian friends.' It's teasing, joking," but Zik recognizes the tension evidenced by the playful taunts.

"This also symbolizes hope for many of my friends," she adds. "They're very interested in what's taking place here."

"To a great extent, you face yourself," says Moshe, by interacting with students from other places who hold very different views about what has gone on in the Middle East. "You examine the part your country has played in what's going on. It's not always easy to look at yourself in that way. There is a natural tendency to stand up for your country and to defend it. It's difficult to realize that [your country] has played a part in inflicting pain on others."

She says that the fellows in the program "have to be able to sometimes not agree, but to be able to agree that we have to coexist. We don't always find solutions, but the important thing is to never stop talking."

"We're not naïve. We know what's going on [back home]," says Hadid. "All of us love our countries.

"If we're going to survive, we need a new way of thinking," he stresses. "The conflict hasn't led us anywhere."

"I think the conflict provides [leaders] with a good excuse to ignore many of the social problems in our communities," argues Zik. "The problems with our neighbours get a lot of publicity, but there are a lot of problems inside the country."

That's a big part of the thinking behind the program. Promoting a civil society in each of the participating countries results in dividends for the peace process as a whole.

"When people feel marginalized, it can cause them to become more extreme, more radical," says Zik. Poverty rates in Israel are high, she notes.

"In my country, there is a real problem with a lack of access to services," adds Hadid. "There isn't enough access to education, for instance. But these people are not visible" because the conflict is never far from anyone's thoughts and, as a result, "there are always bigger fish to fry."

Which isn't to say that the conflict itself hasn't made a direct contribution to the hardships faced by many in the region. It's a point that Safadi makes emphatically.

"Many of our problems are directly related to the political conflict. If the borders are closed, people can't go to work. They can't earn a living. Children can't go to school. If someone loses a home, there is no address to send a welfare cheque to. All aspects of your life are affected."

Moshe says the program has helped her realize that the peace process can't just rely on governments signing accords. Citizens have to be active in the different communities, doing what they can to make the countries in the Middle East better places to live.

When the fellows do go back, they quickly realize it's a tough goal to achieve. One of the practice centres where they can opt to do their year-long placements is the Al-Quds Community Action Centre, run by Al-Quds University in the heart of the Moslem quarter of Jerusalem, an area with high poverty and disability rates. According to the program's newsletter, the centre "opens its doors whenever it is safe to respond to people in need."

"There is ongoing violence as the centre is located 500 yards from the Temple Mount and another 500 yards from the home that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon owns in the old city," explains Torczyner. "Violence is sporadic and unpredictable; there are problems with closures which prevent the staff from coming to work."

"Sometimes I think the problems are so complex, they can never be solved," says Zik. "And sometimes I think the really important things are so simple, if we could bring all the Israelis, all the Palestinians here, we could solve it."

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