MONTREAL — They are three women from the Middle East who lived within a few hundred kilometres of each other, yet they would likely have never met had they not come to Montreal.
Nuha Shaer-Dweikat is a Palestinian architect and social worker trying to improve low-cost housing on the West Bank. Michal Gomel Blank, a Jewish Israeli, is a community activist on behalf of the poor, while Amal El-Sana Al-Hjooj is changing the lives of her fellow Bedouin women in the Negev Desert.
They are alumni and now “ambassadors” of the McGill Middle East Peace Program (MMEP), renamed ICAN, the International Community Action Network, last year.
Over the past two decades, its master’s degree program has brought together Israelis, Jordanians and, in more recent times, Palestinians to study social work and civil society building at McGill, all fully subsidized.
The following year, these “fellows” work in grassroots community service centres, set up by McGill and its regional partners, in their respective homelands.
The idea is that improving the living standards of the disadvantaged, by organizing them to help themselves, will eventually result in more equitable societies less prone to conflict.
Shaer-Dweikat and Gomel Blank were at McGill in 2007-2008, while Al-Hjooj was at the university 10 years earlier. They are among the more than 50 students who have completed the two-year program.
The three were reunited this year in Montreal. Shaer-Dweikat and Al-Hjooj are pursuing PhDs in social work at McGill, and Gomel Blank is youth co-ordinator for ICAN’s Living Together program in St. Laurent, which engages Jewish and Muslim high school students in common projects aimed at fostering mutual understanding.
The trio spoke recently at McGill to supporters and other guests of ICAN about their work and the how the program changed their perspectives.
“You can live your entire life in Israel [as an Arab] and never meet a Jewish person,” at least, on equal footing, Al-Hjooj said.
The future of ICAN, founded and directed by social work professor Jim Torczyner, is precarious. The Canadian International Development Agency, its most important sponsor, ceased its funding in December after 15 years. That represents a loss of an average of $1.5 million per year, said David Leduc, ICAN’s director of global operations, or about half of the program’s total budget.
Some of that has been replaced by donations from the Open Society Foundations, founded by American billionaire businessman George Soros, and the Power Corporation of Canada, as well as individual contributions, Leduc said.
ICAN wants to sponsor another group of fellows by September 2014, the first in seven years. About half of the $800,000 needed has been raised so far, he said.
The charismatic Al-Hjooj described how she was the first person in her tribe to go to university – Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva – a staggering accomplishment for a woman from a poor family in a remote village and a rigidly patriarchal society.
When she was born – the fifth girl – it was considered a “tragedy” for her father (five sons were born after that.)
She started working as a shepherd at age five and didn’t start school until three years later.
As she grew up, Al-Hjooj realized she was not only second-class as a female in her immediate world, but also because she was an Arab in Israel, and particularly a Bedouin from an “unrecognized” village.
“I still don’t know which is easier,” she said. “In both cases, men dominate the discourse.”
Nevertheless, since leaving McGill, she has emerged as one of the most influential voices for peaceful resolution of the problems facing Bedouins.
She is the founding director of Arab-Jewish Centre for Equality, Empowerment and Co-operation (AJCEC).
“We represent hope. You see us, we are happy people, not because we are rich but because we are satisfied with what we are doing for our people,” Al-Hjooj said of the trio.
In her third year at McGill, Torczyner approached her about enrolling in MMEP. They first had to convince her father to allow her to travel abroad. Then Al-Hjooj had to decide for herself whether she really wanted to talk peace with the Israeli fellows.
During her year in Montreal, Al-Hjooj was hosted by retired McGill social work professor Sheila Goldbloom, an experience that changed her attitude.
“This was the first time a met a Jewish person on an equal basis,” she recalled.
It was also in Montreal that she first began thinking of herself as Israeli.
She was on a bus and unable to ask the driver in French for directions. Suddenly, she heard a child speaking to its mother – in Hebrew.
In this context, it was no longer “the enemy language,” the tongue spoken by soldiers who demolished houses in her village, but a welcome sound from home.
“For the first time in my life, I said [to the mother], ‘I’m from Israel’. I always said I’m from the Negev’… I had to travel 13 hours across the ocean to see myself as Israeli. Why could I not find Jews back home?… When I went back, I searched for Jewish people to partner with me, who understand that all people share the same rights.”
In the Negev, Bedouins are working with Russian and Ethiopian immigrants in organizing themselves to secure their rights, she said. Today, AJCEC has 1,000 volunteers and 38 staff travelling around the villages.
“This was built by the people themselves. It has given them the confidence that they can take responsibility for themselves,” she said.
Seventeen North American students, including from McGill, are currently volunteering as well with AJCEC.
Shaer-Dweikat is proud that she has been involved in renovating hundreds of rundown dwellings in Nablus. She understands the people who are being helped, because she grew up in a large, poor family in a place that was so cramped that she had to do her homework in the bathroom.
Like Al-Hjooj, she hesitated before enrolling in the McGill program. She had been a child during the first intifadah, and to her Israelis meant “soldiers and guns.”
To make it to her wedding in 2003, she said she had to travel by ambulance because of the conflict.
“I met Israelis for the first time here,” she said. “When I met Michal, it was a transformation. I could see an Israeli could be nice, could have feelings. That we could do something together.”
She admits that convincing her fellow Palestinians of this is still not easy. “But I tell them there are good people on the other side that we can work with. We have to be open to the opportunity… This is for the future of our children.
“If people have hope, they will not be extremists.”
Gomel Blank, who ran a Jerusalem food co-operative for three years and was among the organizers of the “tent” movement in 2011 that agitated for social reforms in Israel, agreed that the relationships she has formed with the other two women “could not have happened in Israel.
“We developed a great friendship far away from home… The reality is we cannot meet Palestinians and hear their stories, their very different narratives, at home. My year at McGill was a mind-opening experience,” she said.
The audience also heard from Kappy Flanders, a former McGill governor, who had just returned from a visit to some of the ICAN community centres, including in the Israeli town of Sderot, near the Gaza border that has been besieged by terrorist rocket fire, and Nablus on the West Bank.
“I was blown away,” said Flanders. “They are really making a difference.”
ICAN is co-chaired by Gretta Chambers, a former McGill chancellor, and Herbert Marx, a retired Quebec Superior Court judge and former provincial justice minister.