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ON THE SCENE: ICAN seeks to make a difference across Middle East borders

May 3, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

For centuries, the Middle East has been a land of strife, a situation in no small degree the result of three conflicting religions having been born there, religions with a shared root in the Old Testament.

Over the last century, that dynamic has been exacerbated by the massive oil reserves that lie beneath the region that many internal and outside forces have sought to control, and more recently, by the increasing impact of climate change that's shrinking once fertile valleys to a shadow of their former glory. Further, the Middle East has long sat astride trade routes that have connected Eastern and Western civilizations.

As part of outcomes of World War I, new countries were formed out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, including the state of Israel in 1948, lines created across a largely nomadic culture with little regard for the occupants resulting in many forced to live in refugee camps, a mode that continues to this day. Within this cauldron, over the past two decades, the International Community Action Network, formerly known as McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building, has been training young adults from the Middle East in social work and peace-building skills.

Article Photos

Nir Fytiovick, an Israeli, Manar Nejm, a Palestinian, Haya Abu Kishek, a Palestinian living in Israel, and Goni Ketain Meiri, an Israeli
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

This highly subsidized program requires that those attending return to their home countries to address a self-selected challenge they wish to take on. Over the years, ICAN and its graduates have established a network of nine academic and civil society partners and 11 front-line, rights-based community action centers to facilitate the work of the graduates in advancing the rights of the powerless in Israel, Jordan and Palestine along with a few in other nations.

This past Saturday evening, April 27, four of the students along with Dr. Jim Torczyner, founder, and Hanya Omar, fellowship coordinator, shared their dreams and experiences at the Keene Valley Library. The students were parceled out among various local hosts and having a grand time, though the weather was not the best for hiking and sightseeing. One of the oft-mentioned benefits of the program for the students was having the opportunity to come to know and develop friendships with people of different faith and life experiences - friendships hard to establish in their home countries.

"We come to Montreal to gain community-building skills and practice and to learn about each other," said Nir Fytiovick, who lives in southern Israel. "We spend our first year of study at McGill and our second year back in our home countries, in my case Israel, where we will do an internship. After the second year, we will continue to work through an ICAN community organization as we seek to implement the skills we learned back in Montreal."

Goni Ketain Meiri, an Israeli whose first career was as an artist, has been working in a halfway house in Jerusalem for released prisoners, often encouraging them to use the arts as a vehicle for expressing their emotions. Most of the people she works with arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union, but she also works with people who are Arabs, Jewish Israelis and of other backgrounds. After Goni returns, she and Haya Abu Kishek, a Palestinian living in Israel, plan to work in the mixed city of Lod, locally known as "Murder City," a drug capital dominated by gangs and violence. There they will work at Nam, a center for women suffering from domestic violence.

"Goni and I both had a year in social work at the Hebrew University before coming to McGill," added Haya. "I mainly work with kids from both the Palestinian and Israeli communities who have behavior issues. I volunteer a lot with youth movements, especially with the Palestinian community."

"Since 2009, I have been working behind the separation wall for ICAN Palestine," said Manar Nejm, a Palestinian and mother of three. "I'm a lawyer. I work to help people living in this marginalized area receive their legal rights." She explained how many families have been divided by the wall and cannot legally live together, a policy she's determined to change. Part of her work is getting children registered so they can cross through the checkpoints. Manar has learned that her clients' needs are social as well as legal, so she's come to McGill to gain social worker skills so she can better empower and serve her people.

"ICAN has helped me see my clients as human beings," said Manar. "It's helped me better understand their life experience and learn how to help them relieve their pains. It's helped me understand what they're going through and give them the advice they need."

Spending a year in Montreal provided two added shared experiences, dealing with winter, a first for many, and living in a city where people are fluent in the two main languages of English and French, which is by no means the case in Israel where many Arabs are required to learn Hebrew while few Jewish Israelis know how to speak Arabic.

"Montreal is more towards the French side, but the people who live or grew up in the city can speak and communicate in both languages," said Goni. "It never crossed my mind that the Arab community in Israel can speak Hebrew, and we cannot speak the Arab language. Montreal is a diverse society with people coming from all over the world, and they are respected for their beliefs. I think this is something really beautiful. I'm sorry for myself that I wasn't exposed to it before."

A third benefit of the ICAN program in Montreal, is that it brings together people who in their home countries never meet, or if they do, they don't see the other as a person with many of the same challenges that they face.

"When I am in Israel, I don't see Israelis as a person; I see them as a soldier because they've all served in the military. He's a soldier, he knows how to fight, he's my enemy," said Manar. "Goni and I live 7 miles apart, but I never met her until I came here. I've learned she's a human being, not this monster thing. This is a good aspect about coming to Montreal. Here we can talk to each other. Coming here made a difference. Here we can share life, emotions, our cultures. We learn that there are many common things between our cultures, even between our religions. Coming here changed many things."

The presentations and questions blew past the time allotted and could easily have lasted into the wee hours of the morning as the challenges and issues were so complex, and the participants and their teachers so engaging.

What was clear is that ICAN is changing perceptions and making a difference in the lives of both the would-be peacemakers and the people they serve.

"I'm originally from New York City," said Dr. Torczyner, founder of ICAN. "I had a dream that it's possible to promote one concept across borders that all people share the same rights, and that we can assist people to know what their rights are, organize and know that they're not alone."

Aside from the over 100,000 people that have been served by ICAN's graduates, for Torczyner, founder of the program, being succeeded by Dr. Amal Elsana, one of the first graduates, is one of the most concrete outcomes that demonstrates ICAN is working.

"What better thing to do than for a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors to hand over the leadership of this to his Bedouin daughter," said Torczyner.



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