A Change Is Coming

personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

My 2015 Human Rights Wish List to Santa

Dear Santa,

Let me get this out from the start so I can move on: you were 1 for 12 in making my 2011 wish list come true. Even then, the one wish that came true was a little snow, and I’m not even sure you can take credit for that one. But getting rid of all the human rights violations stuff – numbers 1 to 11 on the list – well that continued, and in some cases got a lot worse.

I was waiting, Santa.
But enough about unfulfilled wishes of past lists and the inevitable sorrow on Christmas morning! We all know things got worse in Syria (#3 on my 2011 list was to remove president al-Assad) and I never did get that Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (somewhere in the middle of my list, circa 1978). On with this year’s list. With today, December 10, being International Human Rights Day, I thought I’d write my list based on a few goals that are rights-related.

First, a little background to bring you up to speed: The UN chose its annual Human Rights Day theme in honour of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the adoption of two main covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I know what you’re thinking – laudable but astoundingly boring. They tried to spice things up with the slogan “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” I think Coca-Cola might have a gripe against them because they used “Always” in an ad campaign a while back. But enough about slogans and on to substance. The two covenants do set out a number of rights that people ought to have by simple virtue of being human (right to a nationality, education, a fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, health, freedom to practice religion, freedom of expression, and so on). Along with the enjoyment of those rights you’ve got obligations that states have to help realize them. Peachy. Problem is – and I know you know where I’m going here, because if you watch children sleeping I’m sure you have a rather sophisticated/creepy surveillance system – this doesn’t happen everywhere. Sure there are some countries where rights are respected; my country is pretty good though far from perfect, but there are plenty of other places where people struggle to achieve a modicum of human dignity, like pooping in a clean toilet, having enough food so as not to starve, and being able to walk around town without fear of being shot. If I were in any of those situations, I’d wish for a few basic things that would make me feel more…human, I guess. I wouldn’t even bother setting my expectations to “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” but probably aim for something like “A few rights. Some freedoms. At least sometimes.”

So let me get on with my list:

  • At the national level, make sure our new Prime Minister continues to govern properly and respects our rights (a site like TrudeauMetre can help guide you). So far, he’s off to a pretty good start: the government is moving ahead with a plan to welcome 25000 Syrian refugees, there will be a long-awaited national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, the government’s serious about climate change, scientists in Canada can speak up once again, and the long form census has been restored. If there’s one thing that bugs me about him, it’s that he keeps saying “Canada’s back.” Honestly, I never left, neither did my neighbours and pretty much the rest of Canada. We’re not back; we were just governed by someone for 10 years who, in opposition to most intelligent Canadians, did not value inclusiveness, acceptance, diversity, equality, openness, transparency, and international cooperation. 
  • At the provincial level, knock some sense into Premier Couillard with respect to demands from public sector workers, in particular the education sector. To be completely selfish about this – and let’s be honest, most kids writing to you want stuff for themselves so why should I be any different – I’m sick of the teachers’ strikes from the past few months. And for that I don’t blame the teachers, but the government. My wife’s a teacher – a damn good one – and has given her all to hundreds of children for over thirty years. Nearly a week of strikes has left us with a lot less money at the end of this year, and if we’re hurting financially, so are thousands of other families with parents who are teachers. Her profession has continuously been marginalized and undervalued by every government we’ve had since she’s been teaching. Like many teachers, she spends long days with young children – a number of them with special needs – and time during evenings and weekends correcting kids’ work and planning new lessons. Some kids have driven her bonkers over the years (I won’t name names, but you probably have a nice-naughty database you can cross-reference with class lists), but she still cared for all of them. The ill-informed, ignorant and dumb among the masses scoff at teachers’ demands for salary increases and reasonable class sizes, citing pensions and summers off as perks that outweigh any hardships, but such scorn makes no sense when you consider the work teachers do with the resources they have. And again speaking selfishly, my kids – now spending another strike day at home – are missing out on their education, like thousands of other kids across the province. By the end of this week, they will have lost six days of school. While I’m all for having my children improve their high scores on Super Smash Bros. on the Wii during those days off, I’d much rather they attend school. I know what you’re thinking at this point: Getting the Premier to agree to a deal is beyond the scope of your mandate! Well, technically, yes. However, it’s in your best interests to move things forward. The more kids stay at home, the more video games they’ll want for Christmas (this entails a greater expense for you, more work for your elves, and added weight on your sleigh). So send them back to school!
Let me get to a few other points:
  • On a global scale, make sure kids in certain places get a few more hugs than usual from their parents and loved ones. I know hugs aren’t included in international human rights law, and I also know not everyone around the world believes in you, but there’s no point in excluding anyone, so go ahead and make this an all-inclusive wish. Top of the list are children who are living through war, conflict, and situations of violence on a daily basis. Think of the children living in war zones like Syria or living in refugee camps, or who have lost family members to violence, or who are forced to become child soldiers, or who are kidnapped, exploited and sold. They’ve suffered as no one should. And I have to add more to the list as well: children living in poverty, who are gravely ill, living on the streets, forced into early marriage, unable to attend school, discriminated against because of their sex or race or sexual orientation – unfortunately the list goes on. Feel free to consult Benedict Cumberbatch’s letter to you for further guidance. 
  • Get rid of ISIS. Not part of your mandate, I get it. But you can’t blame me for asking. I fear another “Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center” letdown, so I’m bracing myself for the worst on Xmas morning. In the event of a letdown, could I at least ask you to whack some sense into convincing anyone who thinks it's a good idea to be part of a violent group intent on killing innocent people to instead consider a life directed towards peace, non-violence, and kindness towards others (as in, all others, everywhere, and let me say it, “Always.”).
  • Down south in the US, give Donald Trump a brain and a heart. Once again I realize this is likely beyond your mandate, but I am also betting you have a wide-ranging list of famous people in your Rolodex, so maybe you can drop a line to the Wizard of Oz and see if he can work his magic on the Donald the way he did with the Scarecrow and the Lion. I’m tempted to say the guy’s not worth it, but everyone is entitled to the full realization of all their rights and freedoms (remember the UN slogan, “Always.”) and Trump is jeopardizing that by fomenting distrust, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance on a massive scale. My friends to the south deserve better than him.
Crap this list has degenerated into a depressing set of unrealistic aspirations. I might as well wish for stricter gun laws in the US. I’m feeling the need to watch a TEDTalk to cheer me up and restore my faith in humanity.

OK we’re a few minutes later and I did watch a TED Talk and it did give me an idea. So let me wrap it up with something I know you can do:
  • Give children the ability to believe they’ll make this world a better place than the one plenty of adults are screwing up now. To take but one example on how to achieve this, Sweden plans to provide each 16-year old student a copy of the book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sweden is arguably not the weakest country in terms of achieving gender equality – there are worse places – and yet they want every 16 year-old to read that book. So pack a few extra copies in your sleigh and pass them around the planet (try to get your hands on different translations. Again, you have contacts, so I’m not worried.). The book probably weighs about the same as a video game (it’s under 70 pages) and would likely have a longer lasting effect on its readers than playing a video game. As we wrap up a global 16-daycampaign to end violence against women, it’s pretty clear that we still have a long way to go, so please help out.
Thanks Santa.
Peace (always),
Paul

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Ending Violence Against Women: Bringing Those Ridiculous Statistics Down to Zero

One day until Black Friday sales!
Less than four weeks until the new Star Wars movie!
One month until Christmas!
Sixteen days to raise awareness about violence against women! 

Go ahead and pick the one that’s most important to you. Before you do, think of these statistics:
  • One in three boys and men are victims of physical and sexual abuse, often at the hands of their partners. 
  • 4.5 million boys and men around the world are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
  • 700 million men were married as children, 250 million of whom before the age of 15.
  • 1 in 2 murdered men worldwide in 2012 were killed by their partners or family members.

Now waitaminute!

You’re probably thinking, these statistics simply cannot be true. Nonsense! And you’d be right. There’s no way there are that many boys and men who are victims of violence at the hands of their partners. No way so many boys and men can be victims of sexual exploitation or married as children. These numbers are ridiculous; they make no sense.

The statistics are indeed ridiculous, but they are not fabricated: switch “boys” and “men” with “girls” and “women” in each of those statistics and you get the world’s current reality. I switched the sexes from these true sobering facts.

Violence against women and girls – from physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial, and spiritual – extends far too profoundly into the fabric of every culture. The causes are numerous, but at the heart of much of the violence is a deep inequality between men and women. As stated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation: “In our society, gender inequality is visible in many areas, including politics, religion, media, cultural norms, and the workplace. Both men and women receive many messages—both blatant and covert—that men are more important than women. This fundamental inequality creates a rationale for humiliation, intimidation, control, abuse, and even murder.”  

In Canada, there are groups that are especially vulnerable: 2/3 of women who are victims of sexual assault are under the age of 24; Aboriginal women are eight times more likely to be killed by their partner than non-Aboriginal women; and 60% of women with disabilities are victims of violence. While these groups account for a disproportionate number for victims, it falls on everybody – men, women, boys, and girls – to understand the causes of violence against women, to empower girls and women to understand and fully enjoy their rights, to educate boys, men, women and girls on harmful behaviours, attitudes and practices that contribute to violence against women, and of course for everyone to talk about it. Violence against women cannot remain taboo or a private matter. It shouldn’t be talked about jokingly; it shouldn’t be perpetuated from one generation to the next.

I’ve been lucky; I was raised by my mother, a woman who defiantly challenged instances when she was discriminated against. She’d come back from a garage after getting her car serviced and tell me: “They were going to take advantage of me and charge me for things I didn’t need because I’m a woman, but Buster Boy, I told them they’d better not.” She would be verbally abused, but she stood her ground. If she were being treated like shit, she’d throw it back in the guy’s face. She showed me that you had to stand up for what’s right (and that you were pretty stupid if you decided to take advantage of my mother). Just as importantly, her courage in facing discrimination exposed me to its existence in our society. Getting ripped off by a mechanic is not nearly the same as severe forms of violence against women like physical or sexual abuse. However it speaks to a persistent inequality that many men perpetuate and continue to assume is “normal.” But it’s not normal. These forms of discrimination and violence have to be named, have to be talked about, and need to end. 

November 25 marks the start of a global campaign to end violence against women. The campaign is referenced on social media through hashtags such as #16days or #orangetheworld. It won’t happen in the next 16 days, but everyone should take the time – between shopping for that big screen TV at a Black Friday sale, purchasing tickets for the latest Star Wars movie, or buying a couple of gifts on your Xmas list – to learn more about violence against women and ways to bring those real statistics down to zero.
http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/take-action/16-days-of-activism

Learn more: UN Women kicks of its 16 days of activism to end violence against women from November 25 until December 10. Ideas on what to do, including ways to show support through social media, can be found here
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Universal Children's Day: Giving Refugee Children a New "Normal"

Today is Universal Children’s Day, celebrated November 20 to mark the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child over a quarter century ago. It’s a day to recognize children’s rights and to shed light on the progress made in securing such rights while not forgetting the challenges and disparities that persist. In last year’s State ofthe World’s Children issued by UNICEF (there should be a new one soon), it highlighted some persistent realities:  
  • Almost half of children under 5 in the poorest countries do not have the right to an official identity; 
  • The poorest 20% of the world’s children are twice as likely as the world’s richest 20% to be stunted by growth;
  • Children in 4 out of 10 households in the world’s poorest countries do not attend primary school;
  • Girls still have less access to quality education than boys in the world’s poorest nations;
  • Children going to school in the world’s poorest nations have inadequate access to toilets (both at school and at home);
One of the encouraging aspects of the report is that it highlights stories – of inspiration, innovation, care and dedication – on how to fulfill children’s rights. The stories focus on things that make sense: engaging youth, sparking creativity, working with communities, and reaching all children, among others. Reading the report, I came across something UNICEF refers to as their “Innovation Map”  – examples from around the world of successful projects. To take but one example, a project in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (established in 2012 and currently hosting about 80,000 Syrian refugees) aims to solve the problem of girls and women unable to access the female toilets in the camp because there was no lighting. Channeling electricity to the toilets was not possible due to vandalism, so solar panels were installed above the toilets to provide the electricity for proper lighting.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
It’s a small innovation, but a necessary one. Just for a moment imagine what life is like in a refugee camp. In the case of Zaatari, the number of toilets available means that an average of 51 people share one toilet. The average person reading this blog probably shares a toilet with less than a tenth that number.

Crappy toilet statistics are only one aspect of living in a refugee camp that makes life harsh. Each refugee has 35 litres of water per day (the average consumption for Canadians was a whopping 251 litres per day in 2011). Just over half of the 28,000 school-aged children are enrolled in one of three schools operating on double-shifts. Two field hospitals have 55 beds in total (remember, there are 80,000 people living there, with 80 births per week). To put it simply, life in a refugee camp sucks. The connotation of “camp” implies a temporary condition, an in-between living arrangement from what used to be your home to a place where you don’t have to worry about being killed on a daily basis. The reality of such camps is quite different: a sense of permanence settles in, a sense of despair, and a sense of normality. I’m reminded of a TED Talk by George Takei in which he discusses his time as a child in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War: “Children are amazingly adaptable. What would be grotesquely abnormal became my normality in the prisoner of war camps. It became routine for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. It became normal for me to go with my father to bathe in a mass shower. Being in a prison, a barbed-wire prison camp, became my normality.

As adaptable children are, they shouldn’t have to consider life in a camp as “normal.” There are nearly 50,000 children living in Zaatari camp now. However miserable life is in that camp, conditions in other camps, not to mention the unimaginable struggles Syrian refugees have faced crossing into Europe, can be even worse.

The sheer number of Syrian refugees is astounding. In total, Jordan currently has over 630,000 refugees; overall the number of registered Syrian refugees is nearly 4.3 million. A quarter of them – more than one million – are children. When I try to get my head around such numbers and weigh the reality of refugees’ lives with the ongoing debate of closing our borders to them, I find it very difficult to accept any argument – founded in ignorance, fear, xenophobia or racism, but often a mix of all these things – that supports measures to ignore their pleas and maintain their suffering.

Canada’s new government made a promise to welcome 25,000 refugees by the end of this year and is currently in the process of making sure this happens. Under normal circumstances, it’s an ambitious target, and recent terrorist attacks in Paris (and Beirut, and now Mali) have prompted some to put into question the need to adhere to the deadline of December 31 or even to admit refugees at all. To me, the date is not relevant; moving refugees out of misery is, and whether or not it takes two months or a little longer shouldn’t be a benchmark for success. The government’s approach is a sound one, since it focuses on refugees already registered in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The least Canadians can do is extend a warm welcome to those in need, and give a new place for thousands of refugees to call their home. It’s time to give refugees another option of what "normal" can be.

Find out how to help: The CBC Montreal website recently published a useful post on how Quebecers can help

Update November 23: I referred to the government's plan as a "sound one" - now that the government has indicated it will not allow unaccompanied men into Canada, it's not looking sound, nor is it fair. Tom Mulcair summed it up well by saying: "While security concerns remain of vital importance, will a young man who lost both parents be excluded from Canada's refugee program?" He added, "Will a gay man who is escaping persecution be excluded? Will a widower who is fleeing [ISIS] after having seen his family killed be excluded?" A proper security screening is important for any refugee, regardless of their status as accompanied or not, and regardless of their sex. It is, as many have noted, very uncanadian.

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Creative Nonfiction: The Almost Road

The pavement is fresh, hot and black with a sidewalk that reminds me of the boardwalk in Beirut that hugs the sea. For a moment I think I’m there.

“This wasn’t here last time I came,” I tell my friend who’s driving me around. People are still littered on the beach, enjoying the last few hours of the weekend by the sea.

“No, in fact it’s no more than six months old,” he says. “It was constructed by a telephone company that refused to pay taxes to Hamas. They said they already paid to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah so why pay taxes twice? So they struck a deal and decided to take some of their profits to build this road.”

We drive north and pass through some of Gaza City’s main streets. “Ninety percent of the shops have nothing but goods made in China. Compare that to twenty years ago, when most of the textiles, shoes, and other goods were made here in Gaza. We even exported them to the world.”

After a few minutes the road leads to nowhere. It suddenly stops and turns to sand. “You see this area on the left,” he points to open land surrounded by cacti. On what used to be a football pitch, sheep graze. “This used to be an American school. It was attacked, then it was destroyed it and now there’s nothing left.”

Most of his sentences either end with “now there’s nothing left” or “now it’s controlled by Hamas.” The old resort that used to sell alcohol still operates but sans booze. A stable created in Arafat’s time is now a wedding hall. We pass by a huge mosque right smack on the beach erected by a rich politician. Whatever’s left of the road we’re on gets cut up and diverted because of the construction of a sewage treatment plant.  The newish Movenpick hotel changed hands because it could not be a five star hotel and sell booze with an open swimming pool.

During times of incursion, tanks and bulldozers trampled the streets with ripper shanks and cut the road in the middle. You still see the road opened up, left to decay and become part of the sand. It’s desperate, it’s desolate. Children fly makeshift kites, some fabricated out of sheets of paper. Others are crappy cheap plastic hexagonal kites most probably imported from China through the tunnels. Amidst the garbage, bald and burned tires, donkey shit and horseshit, arid land, smashed fences, emaciated sheep, makeshift houses made of scrap metal with old palm leaves as roofs. Flying a kite seems to be the only thing to keep children amused, to look up to the sky as a form of distraction of the miserable reality around them.  It’s all they’ve got.

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Creative Nonfiction: The Coffee Break

I tell the participants to take a short break. I say 15 minutes, but I know it means 30, and that’s OK.

Participants leave the room and head for the hallway where coffee, tea and snacks await. I take a couple of minutes to prepare for the last activities to end this third day of our human rights workshop. The crowd by the cookies dissipates; only the lousy cookies remain. I see one participant from Baghdad idly playing with his coffee cup.

“How’s your family?” I ask Ayman. I spoon Nescafe into a coffee cup and fill it with warm milk and hot water. The milk does little to ease the bitterness of the vile coffee powder. At this point I need as much caffeine as possible to overcome jet lag.

“They’re fine thank you. My youngest is still into Spider-Man.” He pulls out a recent photo on his mobile phone. Two young brothers beam gapped smiles. The youngest one, no more than four, sports a Spider-Man shirt.

I want to suggest Spider-Man gloves, the kind my sons have, but I doubt he’d find them in Amman. Stores scatter the city with dusty rip off versions of shirts, shoes, socks, underwear, schoolbags, toys, and watches with images of Sponge Bob, Spider-Man, Dora the Explorer, Batman, and the ever-present Mickey Mouse.

“Does he like books?” I offer. Having two young children of my own, I appreciate the added bonus of purchasing gifts that take as little space as possible in a suitcase.

“No. He prefers guns.” Well, screw that.
“How’s your mother?” I ask.

“She’s all right, but a few weeks ago we had a scare.” That meant anything from being held at gunpoint to avoiding a rocket blast.

“What happened?” I venture.

“We were walking home from the market when we saw a tank at the end of the road,” he begins. “Usually, when we see that it means there is trouble somewhere in the neighbourhood. There could be insurgents with guns. So we stopped and decided to backtrack towards the market. That’s when we heard the bullets smashing into the walls in front of us. The tank ahead started to veer off down the streets. It seemed like the bullets were getting louder and louder. Even though we must have been caught in the hail of bullets for only a few seconds, it really felt like a lot longer.”

“What did you do?”

Ayman takes a sip from his coffee and pulls a drag of the cigarette. He knows the smell annoys me, so he puffs sideways. “We started running down the street as fast as we could. We were in an area with small shops and people’s homes. I ran up to a door on my left that I saw someone close a moment before. I banged loudly on the door but they did not open for us. I tried to grab my mother’s hand but she was gone. I guess in the mess of it all we must have gone in different directions. I looked around like a crazy man and yelled her name but I got no answer. There were only more bullets whizzing through the air.”

He takes another sip of his coffee, blinks and keeps his eyes closed for a moment longer, reliving the memory. “I figured I had to find a place to get away from the bullets, so I kept knocking on door after door. Everyone locks their door nowadays in case they are attacked. It didn’t used to be like this.”

“People don’t want to open the doors, even for innocent people who are trying to find shelter?” I ask.

“The problem is,” he counters, “it’s hard to tell an insurgent from a civilian. It’s easy to yell from the other side of the door and say you’re being attacked, but in fact you’re the one doing the killing.”

A group of people sitting in the hotel lobby laugh at someone’s joke.

“Anyway,” he continues, “I eventually knocked on a door and someone was nice enough to open it and let me in. The gunfire continued.”

“You were lucky they opened the door for you.” He nods.

“I waited until the noise of the bullets ricocheting off the walls stopped. It was only a few minutes but felt like a long time in my head. All I could think of was my mother and whether or not she was all right. I thanked the family and they slowly opened the door to let me out onto the street. The tank had disappeared. Usually in cases like this, the Americans hear the gunshots and they start to fire in the streets. People know by now to run as fast as they can. I walked back the way I came and hoped I would see my mother. By that point, there were a few other people who had come out onto the street. Our faces are all the same. It’s like we’re all scared, but too shocked to show it. As I turned the corner I saw my mother was walking close to the wall, very slowly.”

“I’m sure she was happy to see you,” I say.

“Of course. And I was so relieved to find her safe. When the bullets rang out she ran in another direction and was fortunate that the first door she knocked on opened. A father and his two sons opened the door for her.” His cigarette’s close to burning his fingers. “We went straight home after that. We didn’t really talk to each other until the next morning.”

I have no way to respond to his story, only a vacant and inadequate look of sorrow. He puts out his cigarette in the nearby ashtray and pastes a smile on his face as another participant joins us. It takes me a moment to realize they’re talking about where to shop later tonight.
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New Videos to Promote a Better Understanding of Human Rights Education for Palestine Refugees

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recently released three new animated videos to help promote a better understanding of the human rights education program it has in its schools. The videos, each about five minutes or less, illustrate some of the human rights education activities that take place in UNRWA schools; UNRWA operates schools in five Fields (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza). I'm pleased to have participated in this project by working on the screenplays for each video.

The first video is about equality between boys and girls:
Here's the first video, with a description from UNRWA: "Palestine refugee students of all ages learn about human rights in their everyday lives through the Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme, funded by the United States. In this short animation, young boys and girls learn to respect each other’s rights regardless of gender."



The second video is about human rights in local communities. 
Here's the description from UNRWA: "In this short animation, young girls discover their rights in the community, in particular the right to a clean environment. The clip forms part of the United States-funded Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme, through which Palestine refugee students of all ages learn about human rights in their everyday lives."



Finally, the third video is about learning to stand up to bullies. 
Here's the description from UNRWA: "In this short animated clip, young girls learn how to respond to a bully and stand up for their rights. The clip forms part of the United States-funded Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme, through which Palestine refugee students of all ages learn about human rights in their everyday lives."

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A Letter to My Sons: City of Dreams, Gaza

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’m back in Jerusalem, writing to you from the comfort of a guesthouse that’s part of a cathedral over one hundred years old. It’s relatively quiet save for the traffic outside my window, my room is sparse but pleasant, with archways defining a ceiling three times my height, and a garden a few steps away that a travel enthusiast would probably label as quaint or charming.

I do my best to appreciate my surroundings, but doing so after a trip to Gaza only compounds the conflicting thoughts I have in processing what I’ve just experienced. I have felt sadness and anger, frustration and disbelief, despondency and despair; yet in equal measure I have seen tenacity and hope, cheerfulness and gentleness, dedication and stoicism.

Over three years ago, in my first letter to you from Gaza, I described the beach view from my hotel window as “beautiful, and it’s full of garbage.” This time, my hotel offered a similar view, although added to the garbage were piles of rusted scrap metal and heaps of crumbled concrete. The scenery going through town and all over the Gaza Strip wasn’t all that different; it was dirty, but once in a while you saw a massive, stinking garbage bin in which people with busted brooms dumped their crap. There were occasional mounds of concrete where buildings once stood. Once in a while you’d see a mosque or an apartment building that would look fine and you’d wonder why no one was in it until you’d turn the corner and realize the front had been bombed to pieces, steel rods sticking through pulverized foundations.

There are no traffic lights that work. Banged up cars share the road with carts pulled by ragged donkeys and emaciated horses, trucks that would have failed any road safety check just about anywhere else on the planet, and a parade of international vehicles including the armoured one I was in. Billboards have layer upon layer of faded, posterized martyrs either looking thoughtful or brandishing guns and rocket launchers. The buildings are grey and brown and the roads are just as drab. There are plenty of people milling about, some merchants selling fruits and vegetables in their carts, others smacking the dust off their displays of children’s clothing or cheap toys made in China. Flocks of uniformed students pour out from the walled schools and flood the streets with their brightly coloured cheap backpacks adorned with Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob, and Mickey Mouse always offering their best smiles. Candy wrappers littering the ground mark the students' homeward journeys.

As we drove up to the blue gates of one school yesterday, the words “We need homes” were spray painted in red. After the violence and destruction that shook Gaza last summer, there are still thousands of people who have no homes left, and with winter’s sting approaching, the suffering of many will only worsen.

I felt tremendous trepidation coming to Gaza this time. I wanted to know how people were doing without prying. When I asked a friend how things were, he looked at me and spoke with his usual, even tone: “My father passed away two days before the end of the war.” Upon seeing my face, he went on to explain that his father did not die as a result of the violence this past summer, but that he’d been battling illness for some time. Still, I reflected somberly, how horrible for his last days to be spent under the veil of constant fear.

My friend told me that it was the first time he’s ever felt truly frightened and helpless. “We were staying at a safe house at one point,” he told me. “I received a call telling me that the house was going to be bombed within five or ten minutes. But when I phoned the police, they could not verify the threat. I didn’t know what to do, so I told the people inside the house about the threat, and they kept on asking me to tell them what to do. But how could I know what was right? What if I told them to go elsewhere and that place would be bombed? How can I have this responsibility to tell someone what to do? I can't do that, I simply can't.”

He decided to stay in the safe house and insisted others make their own decision as to stay or go. In the end, everyone stayed and the house was not bombed. His story reflects only one moment from that horrible time, a time in which he, like so many others, felt defenseless. The depth of fear and despair Gazans suffered was enough for many people I met to label what happened as a “war,” whereas in the past, there were conflicts or incursions.

People are still recovering from the devastation; later that day my friend said his colleagues went to the beach “for stress relief because of the war.” Going to the beach doesn’t sound like much, but when there is so little to begin with, a group of colleagues going to the beach together is as much therapy or freedom or stress relief or faith in God to keep their spirits up and show up for work tomorrow.

The teachers I met over the past three days play a significant role in helping children keep their spirits up while providing a safe and sheltered environment in school. I saw them encourage students to express themselves, to be creative, to participate in class and to proudly assert the rights they have, or at least should have. In one activity in which Grade 3 students drew a new city where they would all like to live, one student showed his artwork and explained to the class, “This is Freedom City. And there’s a school here, because that’s where we go to learn.” Another child’s city was “City of Dreams,” and was drawn next to the sea

To a cynic, such an activity is meaningless, and if anything gives false hope to children who will more than likely live in poverty for years to come. But human rights education has always been more than learning about rights. It’s about helping create a culture of human rights among all people so that we can live a life of dignity and treat others as we would want to be treated by them. Hoping for a City of Dreams in a place that is so often associated with despair, destruction, and hate gives me reason to believe that today’s children will have the strength to dream and contribute towards a better world than the one we’re living in. If a child can do that while living in Gaza, there’s still hope that they will be kinder than those who today act only through violence.

I guess I’m hoping for a City of Dreams too.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam.

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