You are here

Issue Briefs

COVID Blog #3: Finding Support & Resources in Vancouver

We are now a few weeks into quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Greater Vancouver community has come together to offer support during this challenging time in inspiring and unprecedented ways.

We compiled a list of resources in various areas for those living in the Greater Vancouver area and hope this helps us all remain connected and kind to one another during this time of social distancing. Many of these resources are working documents and people are welcome to continue contributing to them.

Supporting local businesses: People are staying home and self-isolating, and many local businesses are struggling with this new economic reality as a result. This document lists local companies who are offering delivery services in industries such as food, beauty and health, technology, clothing and more. You can also check out the YVR Local Delivery listings as they’ll match what you’re searching for to a local business who can deliver the item to you.

If you order something via a delivery service, be considerate of the safety and livelihood of couriers and employees. Instruct them to leave packages at your door to minimize risk of contracting the virus. Tip them generously if you are able to.

Finding employment: Many individuals whose industries have taken a hit because of COVID-19 have been laid off and are now looking for employment. A job search can be difficult enough on its own, but searching during a pandemic comes with a unique set of challenges. This list compiles employers across Canada hiring during the pandemic along with the industries they are hiring employees for.

Financial resources: There is also a working document sharing resources for any possible type of financial situation – from applying for employment insurance or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, listing relief services for bills and payments, or providing information on credits and tools for struggling businesses. Future sections include financial resources for the elderly, Indigenous communities and vulnerable populations.

For senior citizens, the Safe Seniors, Strong Communities program from bc211 matches seniors who need support with volunteers in the community who can assist them in obtaining non-medical essential supplies. The Chinatown Cares group fundraiser is also raising funds for a grocery delivery program for seniors in the Chinatown area. Their first delivery to five seniors will go out this week and they are hoping to establish themselves as a reliable grocery delivery service within the community.

Mutual aid: Looking for something specific? Or want to provide services to someone in need? The Coming Together Vancouver app connects those who need help with those wanting to give help – whether it’d be doing a grocery run, shopping for medicine or supplies, or simply giving a phone call to someone who needs company. A Facebook group moderated by the app’s creators also exists to provide an online forum where people can make requests and offer their services.

More recently, the United Way launched their Local Love in a Global Crisis site to help connect those in need of support with the services they need while the City of Vancouver has launched their Give a Hand site to collect offers from businesses an individuals seeking to help during the crisis. 

BC Hotline: British Columbia is creating a new information hotline solely dedicated to answering non-medical questions about COVID-19. Service providers at the new phone line will help answer questions about travel recommendations, social distancing, and what kinds of support, resources and assistance are available from the provincial and federal governments. The new hotline, which can be reached by calling 1-888-COVID19 or 1-888-268-4319, will be staffed from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day with information available in more than 110 languages.

Don’t see a resource on this list? Feel free to share it in the comments below. In the midst of this scary and uncertain time, people are putting their best foot forward in times of crisis. By sharing information and helping each other, we as a city and community will get through this together.

Apr 8, 2020
Category: Issue Briefs

The media needs to diversify its coverage of refugees. And readers need to demand it.

“The media doesn’t do a good job covering refugee stories,” said journalism veteran and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre Peter Klein to the overflowing room at Vancouver Public Library, in September The crowd had gathered for a PeaceTalk panel, an ongoing series of events that Vancouver NGO PeaceGeeks started in 2011 to bring people together to talk about pressing issues of peace and unity.

Klein was joined on the PeaceTalks panel by Vancouver-based journalist Alia Dharssi, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Jean-Nicolas Beuze, and former refugee and refugee advocate Amir Taghini.

The crowd had gathered to hear stories of refugees, and understand the ways their portrayal in the media could differ from their lived experience. The first speaker, brave enough to share his difficult story, was Taghini.

Taghini echoed Klein’s sentiment—the media needed to improve their coverage of refugee issues. And he would know, as it was his story that had been told, and too often poorly told, as he spent five years detained at the hands of the Australian Government at their internationally condemned offshore detention centre on Manus Island, where he was placed for trying to seek asylum.

Amir pleaded for support to journalists, governments, and regular citizens from a homemade mobile phone smuggled in piece by piece. Access to something as simple as a phone and as complex as connection with the rest of the world are among the long list of restricted items on Manus Island.

Amir was required to share information via a smuggled phone,  as the Australian government maintains tight control over access to Manus Island, as well as  their alternative refugee processing facility on Nauru. Media is not allowed to visit either facility and supervised visits are limited to nearnone and journalists trying to enter have often cited having their visas denied.

Without a combination of Amir’s unrelenting determination and the reach of media, both traditional and online, Amir’s story and ultimately his connection with the five Canadians who privately sponsored Amir to come to Canada would not have happened.

The panel and audience shared their frustration in the too often sensationalized headlines and fast news that leaves little room to tell the complex stories of refugees. Today the world’s refugee coverage is littered with detrimental terms like “illegal arrival” and “border crosser”, while narrowly covering the world’s crises and making refugees  over represented in crime stories.

The media had their say as well in the PeaceTalk as journalists Dharssi and Klein shared their experience working for a range of media outlets. They shared insights into some of the reasons for the lack of in-depth, informative and non-sensationalized coverage of refugees’ experiences.

Dharrasi cited the changing media landscape and mass job cuts leaving limited resources resulting directly in less investigative journalism. And Klein explained that mainstream media is structured to want people to click on more pages to appease advertisers.

Klein reflected on the dark truth for both journalists and readers that the media covers plane crashes not plane landings.

In an over stimulated world, the “plane crashes”—the outlier situations as Klein explained them—get our attention. Outlier situations show the extremes, and while, as Klein said, they make great stories, they ignore the bulk of the issue. “

And if people’s only ‘interaction’ with refugees is via these outlier stories, then they are only seeing a small, distorted part of a much bigger picture.

“Outlier stories can do great damage,” Klein contended.

From Taghini’s perspective, there is also political agendas and government secrecy—like in the instance of Manus Island and Nauru. To this end, Taghini vouched for the journalists who are seeking truth from within the walls surrounded in secrecy by the Australian government.

“There are journalists putting their lives on the line,” he said, “to show the world the truth and to tell refugees stories.”

The panel reflected that many journalists and outlets are pursuing the full story and looking at new engaging ways to make sure it reaches more and more people. During his time on Manus Island, it was The Guardian and Huffington Post ( ), he said, that were telling his story well. Dharssi is inspired by Netherlands-based outlet De Correspondent. They have a model similar to The Discourse (, where she currently writes, which runs a member-based model that gathers information from its members and allows its reporters to dig deep and investigate and share refugee stories in the spirit of slow news.

Taghini reminded us that as readers we have a big role to play in this too. 

“Are we asking, Why is Amir leaving Iran? Are we asking, why are these countries being bombed?”

Taghini put the question back to the room and the panel. The urge was clear. Ordinary citizens, and journalists alike need to be more than curious. We need to be proactive in our efforts to find out more, and to get informed.

Taghini was passionate on this point, that action starts when the ordinary citizen steps in. He ultimately credits the actions of his five Canadian sponsors for his new life now. And, as he mentioned, we can all take action in many different yet powerful ways when it comes to media, like taking responsibility for our media consumption—writing to editors and being inquisitive in our search for more information

It is hard at times to comprehend what is happening to people all around the world. Although, that shouldn’t be used to justify inaction.

At the conclusion of his talk, Taghini reflected on his time in detention, on not only his own story but the stories of all the other families he met there, many of whom are still there. He somberly remembers being disabled by the stories I was hearing from Nauru.

“But I never gave up.”

Thank you to the incredible, informed and insightful panel. And to the inquisitive, passionate audience who joined this PeaceTalk on September 13, 2018.

From the panel and audience combined, we walked away with some insightful ways we can be more responsible consumers of refugee media coverage:

  1. Seek your news from multiple sources. See how different outlets will tell the same story. The panel’s recommendations included: The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Discourse.
  2. Pay for news you respect. Support outlets whose coverage you trust and help them continue to invest in slow stories and investigative journalists (as opposed to “fast news”).
  3. Write to editors. Dharssi called it “power of the readers”. Each of us can write to editors, we can tell them what we want to read more about and we can tell them when we aren’t happy with their coverage.
  4. Seek out more of the story. Don’t know why someone would be trying to reach Canada from Syria, Venezuela, or somewhere else from around the world? The UNHCR’s website do a great job at sharing current world crisis situations. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the details now, what matters is you work to find out more.
  5. Turn knowledge to power and action. Share what you’ve learnt with friends, advocate for refugees and help shift the narrative. Get involved in on-the-ground refugee resettlement projects near you. Check out what PeaceGeeks are up to with the new pathways app looking to connect new arrivals to Canada with services, mentors and more or join our #GiveItUp4Peace fundraiser this October.
Oct 5, 2018
Category: Issue Briefs

Closing Dadaab: How the Muslim Ban is affecting Somalis

A travel ban implemented on January 29th, 2017, by executive order, has effectively prohibited citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. on any visa for 90 days; in addition, new refugee applications have been suspended for 120 days.

For Somalis and other asylum seekers, the reality of being barred from the U.S. is harrowing. Within the Horn of Africa there are an approximate 892,794 registered Somali refugees, with 37% seeking refuge in Kenya according to data by the UNHCR.

Of those seeking refuge in Kenya, many have made Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp their home. With a population larger than the City of Burnaby, Dadaab is set to close in May. Data from the UNHCR indicated that the 261,496 residents of Dadaab must be resettled since the camp has become rife with violence, disease, and has become a recruiting ground for Al-Shabab, an Islamist militia group.

Resettling those who live in Dadaab is an arduous process that has just become more difficult with the executive order put in place by the U.S. For refugees who have now lost the option to relocate to America, returning to Somalia means going back to a country that has been in civil war since 1991, as well as confronting an anticipated drought crisis, potential famine, and Al-Shabab attacks.

According to an article by the Guardian, “up to 26,000 [Somalis] who hoped to travel to the U.S. have been hit by the new [executive order]. The total includes those cleared for imminent travel, as well as those whose applications are under review.”

“[Refugees], who have all been rigorously screened by US and UN officials, have waited for between seven and 10 years for their resettlement to be approved and organised.
Some had already checked in for the flight to their new homes in the US when they were told they would not be allowed to board the plane. Others had travelled to Nairobi with children ready to leave. “These are people who have packed their bags, emptied their bank accounts, sold all their goods and said their goodbyes. Then they hear they are not going to the US after all,” said one aid worker in Nairobi.”  see more

While the fate of asylum seekers is very uncertain, PeaceGeeks stands committed to developing technology for peace, and is currently working with partners in order to facilitate refugees’ access to services with our Services Advisor App.

Feb 8, 2017
Category: Issue Briefs

Interview with Mohammed Alsaleh: fighting oppression in Syria, building a life in Canada, advocating for refugees, and discovering Starbucks

A few weeks ago I interviewed Mohammed Alsaleh: a 27 year-old refugee from al-Hasakah, Syria, a new Canadian, and a powerful advocate for refugee issues. I met Mohammed in a busy coffee shop in Vancouver. His slight build and warm demeanor disguised the force of his personality, and the stories of struggle he had to tell.  

Mohammed fled Syria in 2014 after being arrested and tortured for his involvement as a videographer in the early days of the war in Syria. He works at the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia (ISS of BC), helping refugees and immigrants to Canada resettle and adjust to their new home. His family members are currently refugees in Turkey, and expect to immigrate to Canada in 2017. During his time in Canada he has met both HRH Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We talked about the early days of the Syrian Civil War, his escape from his home country, the many layers of the Syrian conflict, his hopes for the future, and what it’s like to work at the ISS of BC here in Vancouver. 

Q: What was your life in Syria like before 2011?

A: Before 2011, I was a completely different person. I was a medical student. My dream was to treat cancer, after losing two cousins to it. I dreamed of treating this disease.

Q: What was daily life like as a medical student under the Assad regime?

A: You know—Syria is a lovely place; an amazing place to live…living there, with the product of tens of thousands of years of civilization was quite an awesome thing. We had such a wonderful life, and although the Assad regime was cracking down in terms of political freedoms—other than that it was good. We had everything, a very modern, progressive society. The Assad regime took a more progressive approach than other governments in the region, so that produced a better, more liberal situation that I was a part of in Syria. This all changed after 2011, after we demanded our political freedom.

Q: Then they cracked down completely?

A: Any dictatorship would play this game with their people—they give them safety in lieu of freedom. “If you want your freedom, I’m taking away your safety, I’m sending the army into the streets, I’m opening 'Hell's Gates,' on you guys” — which is what happened.

Q: Were there some in the country who didn’t like the more progressive approach of the Syrian government before 2011, or was pretty much everyone on board with it?

A: Just to clarify one thing, Islamic State, ISIS, came to Syria in 2013. Because the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war, they crossed the borders to seize this opportunity to force their agendas on our people. Prior to the ISIS invasion, Assad was persecuting extremists, he arrested and detained them in his jails. But when Assad was facing a people’s uprising against his dictatorship, he let the extremists out of his prisons. Instead he began arresting the civil activists, the moderate powers, and started giving pardons to the Islamists, the extremists. He wanted the conflict to stop being a revolution against a dictatorship. He would rather have the whole world see him facing terror, facing extremism.

Q: He wanted ISIS to get stronger so the world could see him fighting terrorists instead of him fighting a liberal uprising in his country?

A: Yes, because he knows that if it were a conflict between him and his people, his people would win. It’s happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, all over the region. So he was smart enough to kind of be a step ahead of us, and to take the narrative where he wants. After two or three years, it stopped being just a people’s revolution against the dictatorship, there became a military component of it. ISIS saw this war and instability as a fertile environment for them, so they came to Syria. Initially, Assad and ISIS attacked the opposition—because they were weaker—with the intent to then attack each other once the moderates were finished.

Q: So, the picture that we have now of what’s going on in Syria is basically what Assad wanted us to see?

A: Exactly. His agenda, his plan…that he is conducting with the help of his allies — Iran and Russia.

Q: What is your ultimate hope for the region?

A: My hope is every Syrian’s hope: for this war to end. I watch the news, just like any other Syrian, feeling so bad, so down, so shocked by the scale of destruction and suffering. In Syria, before the war, we had 24 million people. Right now, less than half that number is still inside Syria. The others fled, were killed, internally displaced, and so on. Sadly, this is not coming to an end, this is just the beginning, and it's getting more complicated everyday. I hope for an end to the war, an end to the bloodshed. I hope for a tomorrow where we can wake up without hearing news about the death of any Syrian, regardless of their affiliation — with Assad, the opposition, even with ISIS. I’m not so optimistic to believe that the Syria I was born in will come back, because I don’t think it can. But, to have a realistic hope, I hope for my countrymen to stop dying.

Q: I know you’re not a political strategist, but how do you think that happens? How do you think the war does end?

A: Prince William asked me that too. I told him that I, on behalf of the Syrian people, want to let you know that I don’t think it’s in our hands anymore. It’s something that the international community has to stop. We need the whole world to come together, and specifically the US and Russia, to stop this madness. If they decide that this war has to end, they can, they have the means to stop military supplies to everybody, impose a no fly zone — it can be done. Until we see that, I don’t think anything will change. And, I am just wondering why the whole world is OK with this continuing.

Q: Apart from, perhaps, the US having a stronger [post-war] presence in Iraq, ensuring the government was in better shape, and including more Sunni in the military and government, what do you think could have prevented the creation of ISIS?

A: The whole concept of the American war in Afghanistan and Iraq are the reasons that we are dealing with this chaos. So, if there had been something that could’ve been done: it would've been not to go there in the first place. We had a stable pond, and the US threw a hundred rocks in and just ran away.

Q: Would it have made a difference if the early, more peaceful, protests against Assad had received international support?

A: At that time, early on? Absolutely. Also, the fact that the US made a deal with Assad and Russia to confiscate his chemical weapons meant that, in some ways, Assad had the “green light” for anything but chemical warfare.

Q: You had said you were in prison before ISIS had come because you were involved in the opposition against Assad. So, at that point, before the invasion of ISIS, were you already thinking that you wanted to leave Syria?

A: No, no, no. I’d been arrested a few times, first in April 2011, a month after the uprising started. I was taking videos of the demonstrations in the streets against Assad and uploading them on YouTube. A month later I was arrested during a demonstration for taking pictures. The soldiers arrested me and stole my camera, but I got lucky that time, because the soldiers greedily kept my camera for themselves, they didn’t give it to the other security officials. If they did, I would’ve been screwed. They kept me in the basement, tortured me for five days and let me out, that’s it.

Q: What was the breaking point? Was there a specific incident that made you flee?

A: Yes. After I was released, I kept on taking photos and video, trying not to get caught. But, they caught me again in November of 2011, and I spent about 20 days in jail. Again, I got lucky, they didn’t really have any evidence. I was just arrested for protesting, got tortured, and was let out. By that time, the protests against Assad started to shift to military actions and weapons, which is something I didn’t believe in, so I became less active. I kept taking videos during peaceful demonstrations, but that’s it. Then, in August 2013, they came after me again, for being critical of Assad’s regime on social media. The turning point was that this time they tortured me so badly I almost died. I was in a place where more than 10-15 people died a day, of torture, malnourishment, and disease. I witnessed the reality behind the photos leaked by the military police’s forensic photographer. Nobody knew what was happening before that. When I got out, nobody believed me. But after seeing that, after seeing death, I promised myself that if I ever saw the sunlight again…I’d go. I was released from jail the last time a few days before the end of 2013. I went to visit my family and say goodbye.

Q: How did you manage to get out of the country?

A: Luckily before being arrested the last time I applied for a passport and I got it.  I remember that I was shaking when the border guys were looking at my passport, going through their databases and stuff, but they stamped it and told me “OK go.” And we headed toward Lebanon, and the Lebanese authorities let me in.

Q: And from Lebanon you went to Turkey or you stayed in Lebanon?

A: No, no, I stayed in Lebanon. Right now if anybody in Syria wants to do the same thing, it’s impossible. The borders are now shut. I was lucky. One of the things about me, I’m always lucky.

Q: (Laughing) So, stick around you, ‘cause you’ve got good luck?

A: Absolutely. My story is full of lucky moments like this.

Q: You went to Lebanon, stayes in Lebanon, and applied for refugee status in Canada?

A: All I wanted to do was get out of Syria. I started trying to do something with my life in Lebanon, looking for a job…but it was very challenging, there are no jobs, there isn’t a welcoming attitude from Lebanese people—it’s a very small country and it has two million Syrian refugees, so it’s ok for them [the Lebanese] not to be welcoming. I came to realize that I couldn’t build a life in Lebanon. You can survive, but it isn’t a life. I started losing hope. In a hopeless attempt I approached the field offices for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). There are no travel applications, you just register with them as a refugee. So, just like all the other Syrian refugees, I registered and forgot about it. A month later, I received a call telling me I might be eligible for a resettlement opportunity in an unknown country. The next morning I was offered an interview, and that’s how it all started.

Q: Was this another instance where you got lucky? How many people got this opportunity?

A: In 2014, Canada welcomed 200 government-assisted refugees, 28 came to BC, I was one of them. I was among the 200 people who were helped by Canada, from the 5 million Syrian refugees. So, it was super lucky. It was like winning the lottery.

Q: Now you work at the ISS of BC. Tell me a little bit about working there. What are your responsibilities? What do refugees need most from you?

A: In the Welcome Centre we help thousands of immigrants and refugees every year. It is the first institution where refugees and immigrants can find all the services they need under one roof. There’s a section that works with refugees specifically, another section that works with any newcomer, we have a bank, a clinic, a food bank, and a daycare. We have everything. In my position I work very closely with refugees from day one of their arrival to their one-year anniversary of arrival. We help them apply for their SIN, for their health care card, open their first bank account, and find their first new home. I work with them on a follow-up basis to make sure the adults are going to English classes, the kids are going to school—my job is to make sure the basics are being met.

Q: As a person who was a refugee yourself, and went through all sorts of hell to get out, it seems like working at the Welcome Centre would be a very fulfilling job.

A: My dream was to treat cancer because I wanted to help other people, and to make this world a better place and I feel lucky that I am in a position to do something that is as rewarding as treating cancer, changing peoples’ lives, helping immigrants with their new future in Canada.

It’s really fulfilling to work with refugees, because the refugee population does not lack any motivation or ambition to succeed. They are so desperate for this opportunity. They have some barriers that they have to overcome, beginning with language, cultural shock, PTSD; it depends on everybody’s situation. But absolutely, the only thing that they need is time.

Q: What were your first impressions when you came to Canada? What did you think when you got off the plane?

A: Oh my god, my first day in Canada was a Tuesday. It was November 25th, 2014. I made it to Canada after a 20-hour flight. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, but I went through all the immigration procedures right there in the airport. I walked out of the plane as a refugee, but left the airport as a resident of Canada. I was sent by taxi to the ISS of BC’s welcome house, and I was greeted, given a bed, and told that I should rest…I was just thinking, “what did I do to myself?” I am all the way on the other side of the world, and I don’t even know the language a lot…these feelings of frustration changed the next morning when I had my first real conversation with a Canadian. I felt the warm reception; everybody was so welcoming and helpful.

Q: What were your first impressions of small things, stupid little things like your first meal, or seeing the city, what were some of the small experiences you had?

A: The first thing ever that I did in Canada was to get my coffee when I woke up in the morning.

Q: Did you go to Starbucks or did you go to Tim Horton’s?

A: I didn’t know about Starbucks, and I didn’t know about Tim Horton’s. Those are things I had to learn. That was the first time ever I went to Starbucks. One of the things about Starbucks is that Starbucks people assume that you know everything about Starbucks.

Q: That’s true; they assume everyone who walks in knows the whole menu.

A: (Laughing) I think that one of the things that newcomers have to go though is maybe a Starbucks orientation thing.

Q: Like what a Frappucuino is, what on earth a Caramel Macchiato is.

A: All of this variety…coffee is just coffee in Syria. 

Q: (Laughing) There’re no Pumpkin Spice Lattes?

A: No, no.

Q: So, getting back to Syria, what is happening right now? I know you distanced yourself from it once war fully broke out, but what's your perspective?

A: Well, I am sad to say that the dreams that we wanted to achieve and the goals that we had in 2011 and were hoping to achieve, are no longer there. I don’t think that any of the factional parties that exist on the ground right now represent the dreams of the Syrian people anymore.

Q: When we first started talking, you mentioned that it felt special growing up in Syria, in an extremely old and ancient place, where some of the buildings have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. I know that recently ISIS, and the wars in Syria have destroyed some of those buildings.

A: When they took control of Palmyra—that was just terrifying. Some people don’t really know this—but Assad gave them control of the city. Assad is smart; he knows how to play the game. He was controlling Palmyra. He retreated, and ISIS came. He knew that ISIS…

Q: …you think he gave them control because he knew they were going to destroy it?

A: …Assad knew that ISIS would destroy one of this most ancient of places. It’s a World Heritage site. Recognized by the UN. So, he knew to use this as a way for him to say, “I am representing civilization against ISIS.” After they devastated the area, he came back and took the city back. It was a political move by Assad.

Q: This is…and it’s a tough question for me to ask because I don’t know the implications of it, but, from what you’ve described, there’s obviously at least two evils…there’s Assad and ISIS. But, and this may be an impossible question for you to answer, but would you theoretically be OK with Assad staying in power if peace came again, and things went back to…

A: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think if I make the comparison between a single person’s death and the state of Assad I would rather see Assad stay rather than seeing that person dead. Even though it might be personal for me because the Assad regime almost killed me.

Q: That’s why I was afraid to ask that question.

A: …But no, the state of peace and the stop of bloodshed is more important to me, and if Assad was able to achieve it, absolutely, come on do it. But he can’t. He is the root, the source of the problem. If he wanted Syria not to go to war he could’ve done that. He took us that way. He played a big role in the establishment of ISIS, by releasing all the extremists, not fighting them when they were weak, allowing them to fight the opposition and fight the opposition side-by-side with ISIS. All of this has to be acknowledged. If we make just a very basic comparison between ISIS and Assad, of course Assad is better 100x more. But, if you take the context, I think what I’ve mentioned so far is enough reason to demonstrate that Assad is part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Q: Returning to your life, you said that you’ve changed completely as a person.  Back then you were a young medical student, and I imagine through the things you’ve experienced you’ve learned a lot about yourself, your country, about people in general. What are the bigger things that you’ve maybe learned about yourself?

A: Well, I came to experience firsthand that the instinct of survival is the most powerful, on a personal level, and on a collective level. Five years of the worst crisis since WWII did not break us. We still love life, we work very hard to survive, and to overcome all of that. I see it firsthand with the people that I work with, and how even though they’ve seen the worst of the worst of the worst, they are still hopeful for the future. I think that I’ve come to know that nothing is impossible, and miracles can happen, and I found out that I’m the luckiest person alive.

Q: What are your personal hopes and goals for your personal future in Canada? What are your goals for 10 years from now? Would you want to be helping refugees still? Go back into medicine?

A: I hope to be in a position where I can help more people, not only refugees. I want to work more on being more active, more impacting to the community that is around me. I want to participate in so many other areas than refugees. I want to be able to have an impact in terms of making our environment cleaner and to be part of broader social changes for a better future. 

Q: Apart from PeaceGeeks, and the ISS of BC—I know you said you’re still in the process of moving your family here—but what does your personal community look like in Vancouver?

A: I feel lucky, again, that I was able to build a network of the most amazing Vancouverites ever. In my network I managed to meet a lot of wonderful people who are participating in a lot of advocacy, a lot of activism, a lot of social change work. I am personally focusing on the refugee advocacy awareness work and I do participate in trying to raise awareness about refugees. So, I’ve found my passion in activism, and refuge advocacy, representing the plight of Syrian refugees, which was the gateway to raise awareness about a lot of other related issues. Unfortunately our voice as a Syrian people was not heard from 2011, it was just heard now.

Q: To conclude, what would you tell people who are already Canadian citizens about what they can do to welcome the new Canadians from Syria and all over the world? What would you tell them is the most important thing to do?

A: To be informed, and to be aware of everything, to be considerate. I think Canadians are doing very well in terms of that. Canadians are very welcoming, very supportive.

I wasn’t welcomed as a refugee, I was welcomed as a new Canadian: and I acted like it. Here I am two years later, being a really active member of my new society, and it’s our responsibility as Canadians to make sure we give the same reception for the people to come.



Photograph: ISS of BC (Mohammed Alsaleh not pictured)

Dec 16, 2016
Category: Issue Briefs

PeaceCast Episode 1–Interview With Adel Iskandar

The first instalment of the PeaceGeeks Podcast is here! In it, PeaceGeeks volunteer Dylan Waisman interviews SFU professor of Global Communication Adel Iskandar in a discussion centred on the rise of violent extremism in the twenty-first century. This is the first episode of the series, Countering Violent Extremism.

Extremism appears to be on the rise everywhere simultaneously, whether it be in the Middle East, the United States, or Europe. But why is this happening now? What political and historical events have given rise to its proliferation in the modern age? How does it relate to modern media forms, and to what extent has social media contributed to the problem?

Perhaps most importantly, how can we counter violent extremism? Adel Iskander gives us valuable insight to these very important questions.

Stay tuned every month for a new episode of the PeaceCast, created by PeaceGeeks volunteers.

Listen to it here:

Oct 25, 2016
Category: Issue Briefs

Gun Violence, Politics & Social Movements in the US - Is this time different?

By Dylan Waisman

In the wake of America’s largest and most recent mass shooting, the reignition of multiple rights-based movements has propelled the advancement of the gun-control discussion. Angered by the political inaction that has followed past mass shootings, gun-control advocates hope that Orlando may be the catalyst necessary to reinvigorate political debate, influencing change in Capitol Hill.

Despite a surge of solidarity among citizens, protests against the National Rifle Association (NRA), Democratic Leader walkouts and sit-ins, and comments by the President expressing hope that Orlando would be the tipping point to impose restrictions on the sale of guns, the Senate has rejected all recent proposals for the implementation of gun-controls.

Proposals ranging from the delay of gun sales to a terrorism suspect, to an expansion of background checks, have each been narrowly rejected, receiving between 44 and 53 votes, out of a required 60 to advance in Senate.

Following the proposals’ failure Monday, a bipartisan group of elected officials have written a compromise proposal dubbed the “no-fly, no-buy bill”, set to go to vote this week. If passed, the proposal will bar the sale of guns to individuals on the FBI’s “no-fly” and “selectee” lists, but it is more narrowly written than its predecessors, as people on the broader “terrorist watch list” may still purchase firearms freely.

The NRA has expressed their opposition to the compromise legislation, stating that “Keeping guns from terrorists while protecting the due process rights of law-abiding citizens are not mutually exclusive.” They instead suggest that Congress should focus on keeping the public safe from radical Islamists, a task they propose is distinct and unrelated to the restriction of the sale of firearms to terrorism suspects.

Scrutinizing the bill further, the restriction on disallowing those on “no-fly” lists to buy firearms will hardly affect gun violence in the country, but will give the government more power of surveillance on a particular class of people. That class of people is disproportionately Arab-American. Since 2014, the government had 680,000 people on their master watchlist, many of whom had “no recognized terrorist group affiliation". The passing of this bill would be the first step towards gun regulation in recent memory, but does that accolade outweigh its inherent deficiencies? 

Is this time different?

In 2012, 20 7-year-olds were shot in Sandy Hook. San Bernardino saw another 14 people murdered in 2015. Both were followed by the same public outrage and demand for change, culminating ultimately in legal inaction and reform proposal rejections. The saddening regularity with which America sees mass shootings, has many believing that reforms were not possible in an unremitting, vicious cycle. But is this time different? Is it possible that a combination of political will and active social movements can finally break the deadlock that has prevented reform in the past?

Gun Violence as a Gay Rights Issue

Analysts suggest that the Democratic party’s political will, combined with the organization and prowess of the gay rights movement, may be one of the factors that can finally influence congress, widening the scope of the issue from gun-control, to a broader issue of civil rights. The Washington Post has called the gay rights movement one of the “most effective political movements in recent American history”, due to their ability to organize quickly and effectively, citing the NOH8 Campaign, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG as recent examples of major triumphs in equality. Following the historical civil rights success of last summer’s legalization of gay marriage, LGBTQ supporters may be able to continue changing hearts and influencing courts. Activist and actor George Takei has described the fight for gun-control as “the next chapter of LGBT history”.

Gun Violence as a Race Issue

Ninety percent (90%) of the victims killed at Pulse Nightclub were Latino or of Latino descent. In their statements following the attack, many leaders including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and House Speaker Paul Ryan offered their condolences to the victims’ families and their solidarity with the LGBTQ community, but failed to acknowledge that the attack was also fuelled by racial hatred against a marginalized minority. The grave importance in acknowledging the multiple dimensions of the attack is to promote visibility of an invisible minority within a marginalized group.

Glossing over the racial aspect of the attack has been widely criticized as a “whitewash[ing]”. A New York Times article explains the statistics behind how LGBTQ people are at the highest risk of attack when compared with other minorities, but fails to discuss the risks faced by minorities within that identity group. This is in part due to the lack of statistics available for overlapping identities, but speaks to a greater issue of the struggle of recognition, and protection, faced by minorities within the LGBTQ movement. Despite the disappointing lack of acknowledgment by high-profile leaders, the overlap of race and sexuality has further solidified the convergence of civil rights issues, and has widened the scope for much needed conversation.

Gun Violence as a Feminist Issue

Gun violence is also very much a feminist issue. The unspoken side of gun violence is one of domestic abuse against women and children. 70% of mass shootings in the United States occurred in the home, with 57% of incidents involving a family member or intimate partner. The accessibility of firearms is not solely or predominantly an issue of terrorism. More people are killed by frequent, smaller-scale domestic tragedies than terrorist attacks. Where a domestic abuser has access to a gun, victims are eight times more likely to be killed. Furthermore, 64% of all victims in mass shootings are women and children. This matter is currently championed by Hillary Clinton, and will form a part of her platform on the need for better gun controls.

Congress & Senate Action

This focus on gun-control as a civil rights issue has also infiltrated Congress, and appears to be the strongest platform used thus far to influence legislative reform. Led by John Lewis, an African American civil rights icon, and current representative for Georgia, over 100 lawmakers participated in a sit-in on House-floor on June 22, demanding cooperation from Republican counterparts on gun-restriction proposals. During the 26-hour sit-in, participants waved signs with the names of gun-violence victims, and sang civil-rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome” in protest of inaction. Based on this wilfly successful campaign, Democrats have promised that more of this is to come. 

Online Social Movements

Grassroots campaigns have also materialized online, achieving unparallelled support on online forums. GoFundMe has raised an unprecedented $6 million to support victims of the Orlando shooting. The next highest earning fund has raised £1.3 million for slain British lawmaker Jo Cox, occurring within the same week. This outpouring of support reflects the far-reaching impact of high-profile gun violence. Online petitions demanding legislative change have also begun to emerge, and as the election moves into full swing, we can expect to see more movement in this space in the months ahead.


Despite deep pockets, (the NRA budget is seven times that of the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization) and even deeper entrenchment in the politics of conservative America, the NRA have reason to be concerned that “Our [gun] rights are under attack like never before”. The combination of political will and social movements could prove to be a potent combination that could finally break the cycle in this election year.

Legislative change may remain deadlocked for now, in a Republican-controlled house, but this time, lawmakers are far from inactive. Regardless of the outcome of the “no-fly, no-buy bill”, the influence of pressure groups, both online and offline, has shifted the conversation from one solely about gun-control, to a multi-faceted conversation encompassing wider problems of race, sexuality, and inequality, which are supported by a broad group range of social movements. With Clinton championing gun control as an election issue and the split in the Republican party against Donald Trump, we may be witnessing the US’s best chance yet to advance gun control measures.

Jun 23, 2016
Category: Issue Briefs

Rape, A Crime Against Humanity

A 28-year-old Saudi woman was recently sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail for being gang raped. The crime had occurred in 2006. The woman, known in the media as “the girl from Qatif,” was 19-years-old. She was kidnapped, along with her male companion, and raped 14 times by a gang of seven. And to clarify my opening statement, she was actually sentenced for breaking Sharia law, by being alone with a male who was not a relative. Originally condemned to 90 lashes, the girl from Qatif had her sentence increased on appeal for drawing international media attention. Her male companion was also gang raped, as well as sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail.

The Qatif rape case is one of the more shocking cases. First, that the perpetrators were convicted at all is the exception to the rule. It is estimated that globally, less than 5 percent of all rape prosecutions actually lead to a conviction. Moreover, most rape crimes go unreported. Victims are reluctant to speak out for fear of being stigmatized or targeted for retribution. Furthermore, while most countries have legislated against rape as a criminal offence, many lack policies for enforcement, leading perpetrators of sexual violence to enjoy impunity. In countries such as Kenya and India for example, the police tend not to readily involve themselves in matters of rape. This is especially true when the victim is poor. Such norms contribute to a climate of impunity, and the expectation that rape is both normal and inevitable.

The average rape victim comes from the poorest and most vulnerable communities in society. In Canada, for example, Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of violence, including sexual violence, than non-Aboriginal women. The average rape victim is also female. Often, she is a young girl. But men and boys are also, not uncommonly, victims of rape and sexual abuse. Similarly, anyone can be a perpetrator of a sexual crime, particularly when that person is in a position of power.

People are raped in every country; yet it happens more often where sexual criminals enjoy impunity. Victim blaming is one such tactic. With legal maneuvering, the girl from Qatif was in effect found guilty for being the victim of a crime. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is not the only country with draconian laws that injure victims and discriminate against women. In Somalia in 2008, a 13-year-old girl named Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was publicly stoned to death for “adultery” after being raped. Needless to say, women who live in countries where adultery is illegal are terrified to report a rape for fear of being indicted. This allows rapists to get away with their crime. In less extreme circumstances, victim blaming is more implicit, though no less prevalent. Anyone who has experienced an attack and been asked whether she was wearing “revealing” clothing knows this all too well.

Yet nothing contributes more to a climate of impunity than the sanctioning of rape as a deliberate tactic of war. Rape has always been an unfortunate product of war. Scholars now recognise that rape has been and is currently used as a strategy to control and destroy opposing communities. A witness testimony of prisoners in the Trnopolje concentration camp during the Bosnian war remarked on its effects:

“They could [explain] when somebody steals something from them, or even beatings or even some killings. Somehow they sort of accepted it… but when the rapes started they lost all hope. Until then they had hope that this war could pass, that everything would quiet down. When the rapes started, everybody lost hope, everybody in the camp, men and women. There was such fear…”

In Bosnia in 1992, rape was used explicitly as a strategy for ethnic cleansing. Women were targeted so they could give birth to Serbian babies. The same tactic was used in 1971 by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War, and more recently by the Janjaweed in the Darfur region of Sudan. Rape as a tool of war is used to sow terror, destabilise the community, and exert control. Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is deemed the worst place in the world for sexual violence. Near-constant violence in certain regions has led to extremely high (though wildly underreported) incidences of rape and sexual violence, which then spill over into stable areas free from conflict. It is estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC.

According to international human rights law, rape perpetrated on a mass scale is a crime against humanity, which makes it prosecutable under international law. In 1996, Canada’s Honourable Louise Arbour was appointed Chief Prosecutor to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). These ad-hoc tribunals prosecuted agents of the state for instigating mass rape as an act of genocide. An estimated 250,000 women were raped in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and approximately 60,000 women were raped during the Bosnian War from 1992-1995.

I had the chance to speak to Louise Arbour about the difficulty of prosecuting rape as a crime against humanity. She articulated that while the legal basis for such a definition was set in the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the difficult part was in drawing attention to rape when so much death and other atrocities had occurred. And the “really difficult part was in prosecuting rape as a crime of genocide.” In doing so, Madame Arbour has fought against the impunity with which heads of state have allowed the bodies of women, girls, boys, and men, to be used as casualties of war in the most horrific sense.

Arbour also stressed the difficulties encountered as a prosecutor in gathering evidence for crimes of rape when victims were so reluctant to speak about their experiences. Rape is a horrific crime in all manners and definitions, and at all times. Communities must fight against the stigmatisation connected to rape victims. We must work together towards healing and ending impunity for sexual offenders.

Groups that seek to empower women, such as the Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL) which PeaceGeeks helps to promote, will strengthen social bonds and de-stigmatise crucial issues. Civil society, with organisations like Amnesty International, must constantly put pressure on states to enforce their own laws against rape crimes and fight back against draconian laws which prosecute the victim. Indeed, international pressure led Saudi King Abdullah to, in the end, pardon both the girl from Qatif, and her male companion. If we recognise the prevalence of rape within societies, we can fight against it. We can end impunity for those who perpetrate one of humanity’s most grotesque crimes.

Apr 1, 2015
Category: Issue Briefs

Forging New Homes For Syrian Refugees

An unthinkable number of Syrian men, women and children have been forced to watch their homes burn to the ground. Metaphorically and literally, they have seen their houses, communities and nation burn for four long years in a vicious civil war. Many have been forced to flee and are currently waiting in desperate anticipation to be able to return, so that they can rebuild their lives. For now, they persist in a kind of limbo. They have lost that critical foundation which allows them to move forward. So they wait to have a home again, to live again. This is the plight of the refugee.

Today, almost half of the population of Syria is displaced. That is to say, in a country of 22.85 million, 9.5 million no longer have homes. According to Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this has been the worst mass exodus since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Indeed, Syria’s civil war is commonly held to be the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when peaceful protesters, inspired by the dawn of the Arab Spring, took to the streets in opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Government forces immediately responded with violence. Continued clashes led to an armed resistance and eventually, to the formation of a powerful coalition of opposition forces. The United Nations estimates that approximately 220,000 people have been killed since fighting began nearly four years ago.

Both government and opposition forces have been cited for crimes against humanity by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. This includes sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrest, indiscriminate killings, raids against hospitals and medical personnel, targeted large-scale killing by government forces… even starvation is used as a “deliberate tactic of war by the regime,” according to ICRtoP. The worst stories coming out of Syria are the chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by Assad’s forces in Damascus and Aleppo, which left hundreds of civilians dead. Syria has become an image of rubble and suffering and death. For the half of the country who have been forced to flee their homes, they’ve left behind a place that no longer resembles itself. Until the fighting stops and the rebuilding begins, they no longer have a home to return to.

The most commonly cited reason for Syrians fleeing their home is to escape atrocities perpetrated on civilians. But fleeing itself is infinitely dangerous, potentially as high-risk as staying. Families must walk through the night to avoid sniper fire and coming across soldiers, who will abduct their sons to fight for the regime. Displaced persons in general face severely high risk of disease, violence, exposure, and death by leaving the safety of their homes and committing to the most dangerous journey of their lives. Still, the number of displaced Syrians has grown exponentially every year.

The vast majority of Syrians remain internally displaced, and thus less accessible to humanitarian aid. Those who are able to cross the border into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt are entitled to refugee status under the UNHCR. Of Syria’s 9.5 million displaced persons, 3.8 million are refugees.

At the beginning of a crisis, refugee camps are essential to help shelter, feed, and protect the mass influxes of refugees escaping disaster. But over time, a camp can become the stagnant setting of a family waiting to begin their lives again. Indeed, refugee camps are expressly designed as temporary shelters. For Syrians, however, the crisis is entering its fourth year. Many have languished for too long already.

According to the UNHCR, a “protracted” refugee situation is one in which the conflict lasts for at least five years. With two thirds of the world’s refugees living in protracted situations, the average time in exile is closer to twenty years. This means that generations of children have grown up in camps all over the world, never having known their homeland, or any kind of home which was not constructed on the foundations of transitory living.

Syrian refugees are already facing obstacles relevant to a protracted situation. Their needs have shifted from food aid and shelter, to the need for employment, self-sufficiency, and dignity. Children must go back to school and adults back to work. Homes must be rebuilt and communities reformed. What refugees face in camps are the ever-worsening conditions of disease, poverty, increased militarization, and violence, including sexual violence, along with high rates of despair, boredom, and low self-worth. Indeed, many Syrians have already left the camps in an attempt to forge a life for themselves in the local community.

In the border towns of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees try to make a living. Yet many families end up sleeping in parks and relying on charity for food. Young boys are sent to work to support the family, and refugees are paid measly wages as local employers take advantage of their desperation. Many lack access to basic health care, partly because the country’s resources are seriously strained. Public services such as hospitals, electricity, and transportation systems are stretched to the limit, especially in countries like Lebanon, which struggles to support their own population. Cultural clashes and language barriers are significant impediments to refugees’ ability to integrate in the local community, not to mention religious and sectarian violence.

Humanitarian actors have attempted to shame the international community into resettling a greater number of refugees. Too often, the burden falls on low to middle income countries in the conflict’s surrounding areas to bear the cost of sheltering refugees. Recently, Canada committed to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. In Sweden, 30,000 Syrians are already making a new home, and Germany has resettled 40,000. But overall, humanitarian actors are disappointed with the international community’s “pitiful” response (as put by Amnesty International) to the crisis by offering humanitarian admission to only a small fraction of Syrian refugees.

Moreover, the international community can help bear the cost of refugees by investing in local, long-term development. For example, Syrian refugees currently lack the long-term, preventative health care and health-related education necessary in any settlement situation. Investments in health services will benefit the local area by decreasing disease (and by extension, poverty), as well as by providing increased access to health services for local communities. Investments in education and other public services will likewise contribute to the well-being of both refugees and local groups. Indeed, studies indicated that a policy of local integration – whereby refugees can legally seek employment in the local community – will actually benefit the host country’s economy in the long term. Not to mention, policies of local integration, along with campaigns against refugee discrimination, go a long way towards encouraging solidarity, and decreasing the threat of regional and sectarian violence.

No matter the path to forging a new home – either through resettlement in a foreign country, or local integration – the solutions for long-term refugees must be long-term themselves. The international community and development agencies must direct their resources towards providing a space for refugees to make a new home for themselves. This is done through funding for housing, employment opportunities, health services, educational facilities, and so forth. These represent a shift from humanitarian aid, which aims to provide the necessary elements for life, to opportunities for self-sufficiency. As the saying goes: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In this story, Syrian refugees already know how to fish. All they need now is access to the river.

Over time, the Syrian story becomes old news. International funding dries up, camps languish, and refugees are forced to rely on diminishing assistance. The way we think of and assist refugees in long-term situations needs to change. Humanitarian assistance that targets local development and community integration can provide long-term benefits for both refugees and local groups. Syrian refugees need the chance to live their lives again. They need to be able to forge new homes. Then, when the war is finally over and it is safe to return, they will know how to rebuild their lives – because they did it once before.

By Layne Carson

Feb 17, 2015
Category: Issue Briefs

Child Mining: The Cost of Technology

One hundred kilometres inland from the Congo’s lush green forests and deep blue rivers, seven-year-old Lukoji awakes at five o’clock to begin work in the local heterogenite mine. He lives in Katanga Province, somewhere on the outskirts of civilization. As he walks three miles to the mine, in the early light of the morning, the landscape blends into the road, making it almost invisible. The dull colour of dirt and dust seem to blanket the whole earth, like a sweeping and unconditional misery of tedium, a lack of freedom, diversity, or opportunity. The rest of the world seems unreachable beyond the horizon.

Lukoji will spend his morning above ground, sifting and washing heterogenite, before he heads out to school in the afternoon. His older brothers, twelve and thirteen, are not so lucky. They will work eleven hours today, extracting minerals from inside the deep, narrow, and precarious tunnels of the mine. With bare hands and feet, and zero protective gear, the boys risk sickness, permanent injury, and death. At the end of the day, they may earn anywhere from $0.75 to $3. Then, tomorrow morning, they will do it all over again.

Child mining is pervasive. Though mining is a difficult and dangerous job for adults as well, children are particularly susceptible to trauma and illness, as they are in the midst of development. The International Labour Organization estimates that over one million children around the world work in mines and quarries. This is considered among the worst forms of child labour, and one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. It’s not difficult to see why. In Guatemala, children as young as five work in stone quarries, carrying heavy loads, breathing in fine dust, and suffering dehydration from prolonged hours working in the sun and heat. They risk injury from explosives and flying shards of rock, as well as disease from tainted water. Children in salt mines in Niger and Senegal suffer exposure to corrosive salt elements, which can permanently damage their skin and vision. Similarly, child gold miners in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mongolia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, are exposed to mercury – a neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system, used to separate gold from rock in the local gold mines. Child miners risk tunnel collapses and falling rocks, as well as disease from breathing in toxic gases. With little to no protective gear or proper training, serious and permanent injury, illness, and death, are common.

An estimated 6 children die each month due to soil collapses in heterogenite mines in the DRC alone. The DRC has approximately 64% of the world’s coltan reserves, and in fact, serious conflict has arisen over coltan mining, including the eight-year-long Ituri conflict. Coltan is a fundamental mineral in most modern electronics for its capacity to hold high electric charges. The mine where Lukoji works is Chinese-owned, and the cobalt and coltan that he helps clean go into making automobiles and cell phones for the world market. In fact, Apple products (such as cell phones) are most commonly assembled in China, with coltan extracted from mines in Africa. Of course, Lukoji is unaware of this. He thinks that the minerals end up at the local (Chinese-owned) depot down the road, when in fact, that cobalt went into making the rechargeable battery in my iPhone. Knowing all this, it’s difficult not to feel guilty somehow. But the story is further complicated.

Child miners face hardship long before they enter the mines. They are born into poverty and like Lukoji, they often live on the outskirts of civilization. There may be a school nearby, even a local clinic, but in general, they lack the most basic public services. Most child miners are school dropouts. Their decision to work in the local mine hardly qualifies as a ‘decision,’ given their lack of options. Sixteen-year-old Adam from Tanzania risks his life twelve hours a day for a bag of rocks which, if he’s lucky, may contain traces of gold. Without even the illusion of choice, Adam travelled fifty kilometres last year when his local mine shut down and he needed to find work elsewhere. With their lack of education, twelve-hour workdays, six to seven day weeks, insignificant pay, and vulnerability to injury and illness, those who work in artisanal mines are the poster children for poverty traps.

It is difficult to underestimate the hardships they face. Young boys in the DRC are exploited both as miners and child soldiers, as many of the small-scale mines in Katanga are owned by local militias. In Côte d’Ivoire, boy miners are so overburdened by the physical abuses of mining, including constant sickness and exhaustion, that they commonly abuse amphetamines just to get through the day. One can only imagine the traumatic experience for a five-year-old girl who is forced to go down into the deep, narrow pits of a mineshaft in order to drain water. Story after story illustrates the endless shocking tragedies of child miners all around the world. In general, the mines that employ child labour are local, small-scale ‘artisanal’ mines, often illegally operated. In fact, most countries that employ child miners have explicit laws against child labour, though these are rarely (if ever) enforced. The raw minerals from these mines are exported on the world market, to surprisingly little benefit to the country.

But this is not just Africa’s, or Asia’s, or Latin America’s story. Child mining has a long history in the West through the Industrial Revolution. Until the early twentieth century, children were favoured to work in coal mines, due to their ability to fit into small passages. They were also favoured for their cheap labour and because they were easy to manage. Eventually, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a series of laws were passed which began to limit working conditions for children. For example, in 1833, a Royal Commission in Britain recommended that children 11 to 18 should work a maximum of “only” twelve hours a day. Coal miners commonly suffered from respiratory ailments, mutilating accidents, and exhaustion. Children were killed frequently. Of course, children didn’t just work in coal mines. They worked in textile factories, mills, department stores, and more. In fact, the very notion of ‘childhood’ as a developmental stage is fairly recent in history. Children have been labouring alongside adults for as long as we know.

Today, however, child labour is recognized as an egregious human rights violation. It is heavily legislated against in most countries, although, as mentioned earlier, not always enforced. To be clear, child labour is considered to be any kind of work which interferes with a child’s health and/or education, and impedes physical, mental, or emotional development. This is in contrast to child ‘work’ where, for example, children help out on the family farm, but still have time to play and go to school. Children who work in mines and factories represent some of the most common experiences of child labour today.

So we can all agree that children should not be allowed to work in mines then, right? Actually, no. Certain development economists, such as Ha-Joon Chang for example, believe that developing countries would be better (or at least should be allowed) to follow the development models undertaken by now developed countries back in the dark days of the Industrial Revolution. That is to say, if child labour helped Britain and the Netherlands and America develop economically in the beginning, then why should Niger and Ghana and China (where children are employed as factory workers) be told that they cannot employ child labour? In essence, maybe lax laws (among other things) will actually increase incomes, promote development, and eventually children won’t need to work in the mines anymore. This is not to say that child mining is a good thing. It is to suggest that it may in fact be the lesser of two evils. As Martin Wolf puts it, “these children work not because their parents are more wicked than those anywhere else, but because of their poverty.” What other options do they have? It is possible that the only sustainable solution to such a horrendous crime against children is the slow and brutal (and in no way inevitable) process of development itself.

So what can we do? In the late 1990s, campaigns against blood diamonds focused on boycotting. Diamond mines were operated by African warlords under inhumane conditions to help finance wars in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia. These campaigns were largely successful because they encouraged the public to insist that their diamonds be conflict-free. Unfortunately, assuming that cobalt and copper and gold mining in Ghana is the same as diamonds in Liberia is problematic. Boycotting minerals from small-scale mines around the world may in fact only contribute to the problem. With few resources in artisanal mines, child miners are already paid so little for so many hours of work, and do without costly protective gear. With less money going to artisanal mines, the children will most likely end up working just as hard for less, given their desperation and lack of options.

One must also be careful not to throw money into the situation. Of course, it would be amazing if we (those of us with even the smallest amount of excess resources) could substitute a child’s labour. Indeed, some organizations promise that you can do this. By giving them money, which they will then directly offer to the child, who will, because of you, no longer have to toil in the mines for twelve hours a day. Beware, first of all, that this may not be true, or at least not in a way where your money is directly puts into the hands of the child. Not to mention, it does nothing to address the systemic causes of child mining. As well, it may contribute to a system of aid and giving which has the potential to counteract positive development initiatives. Development economist William Easterly refers to this idea of development as “the white man’s burden.” We may think that, as people with resources, it is up to us to save those child miners, when perhaps it is not.

At the end of a long article depicting the shameful and deplorable conditions of child mining, it is difficult to write that perhaps there aren’t any easy solutions. Maybe the first thing we need to do is understand how complicated the situation really is. Maybe that will lead us to understand the invaluable experience of those who live within those communities where child mining is prevalent. In fact, development initiatives are in many ways moving away from international aid donations, towards the promotion of grassroots movements. We understand more and more, that communities on the ground know better than us what is needed to incite change. We should, first of all, understand that child mining is a serious problem attached to many of the modern products we see on the world market today. Secondly, we should give credence to the fact that social, economic, historical, and moral factors make this a complex situation without any simple, guilt-free, Band-Aid solutions. Thirdly, let’s keep talking about this.

By Layne Carson

Jan 12, 2015
Category: Issue Briefs

Reflection 20 Years After The Rwandan Genocide

When I left journalism school in Montreal there were two promises I made myself: a) I would never cover town council meetings; b) stick a microphone in the face of a grieving family member and ask “What are you feeling?” and “How’s about a picture for the front page?” Both, I felt, were below me.

The first promise fell by the way side within three months of graduating when I found myself covering the rural satellite towns of Sudbury, at the time a struggling mining centre in Northern Ontario. For $3 a column inch I did that. It was my baptism to the darkside of the business.

The other earnest pledge took longer to catch up to me. Almost six years later I went to Rwanda to write a magazine piece about the pursuit of justice in a post-genocide era. Within a day of being there I had asked more people about the intimacies of their grief to last a lifetime. For if one is to write about genocide how can the privacies of both the deceased and the survivors not be invaded? Everyone has a story. Horrific stories of butchery, rape, and betrayal. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to find people who continue to endure the profound losses that come with the extinction of their entire family.

Asking questions of genocide survivors was exactly as unpalatable as I expected it to be. Many assured me to ask whatever I wanted—they had been through it countless times before with other mzungu journalists on their fleeting genocide tours—but that did nothing to assuage my guilt. It was as classy as rubber-necking a bloody accident scene. I first got to plumb the depths of man’s depraved indifference an hour’s drive south-east of Kigali, at the end of a red dirt road that leads to the parish of Ntarama. The journey there is enough to lull you into a sense of amnesia. The way is lined with fragrant eucalyptus groves and over-sized aloe trees. The countryside is stunningly beautiful, a series of rolling, terraced hills that stretch for miles until they melt into the rose haze of the horizon. Beside the road goats graze under the watchful eye of herdboys, and in a lush valley below women wash clothes in a slow moving river while peasant farmers work their plots in the simmering equatorial heat. It is as it should be, but not as it was.

There at the end of that dirt road is a church - a simple red-bricked number that now serves as one of many grim and poignant reminders of the nightmare that visited in 1994. Littered across the church floor are the human remains of a massacre that claimed an estimated 5,000 lives. A child’s broken rib cage lies next to a pelvis. On a kneeling bench someone’s lower jaw rests beside a corn pipe and a rosary. Scattered between the bones are some of the personal belongings of the victims: a pink shoe, a blue kerosene lantern, a couple of soiled mattresses.

Outside in a makeshift shack hundreds of skulls are piled neatly on a table, row upon row, as if to give order to the unthinkable. Among the heads, some scared by single bullet holes or the hacks of machete blades, toy figurines of Jesus and the Virgin Mary keep a vacant watch. As I browse the skulls, not unlike someone inspecting the cabbages in a grocery store, an elderly man approaches. “We took refuge here for four days before the Interahamwe came,” explained Pacifique Rutaganda, a retired farmer who lost his entire family of 12 and serves as a guide at the memorial. “We thought we would be safe inside the church, but they broke open the walls and threw in grenades. When people tried to escape they were waiting for us outside with guns and machetes.”

As we speak my eyes kept drifting to the figurines. To my lapsed Protestant mind their presence there seemed off. How does a believer reconcile their faith in a God when the sanctity of His house was so disrespected in His presence? Do the locals really hold no hard feelings towards the Virgin Mary? These are questions I should have asked the old man but did not have the nerve to do so. I chickened out. I convinced myself that inquiries of his religion would be an indignity too far.
But my self-censorship was more for my sake than for his.

I have seen the aftermath of other episodes of human cruelty - apartheid, the silent killer of famine and poverty, the broken lives of former child soldiers—but there is something different about coming face to face with the world’s first televised genocide. How many of us watched the savagery on the evening news and still ate our dinners without pause? Or worse, turned the TV off?
God was not the only one who stood aside and let it happen. So did we.

(Photo from Parish of Ntarama, Rwanda)

This blog originally was written by Alan Martin, of Partnership Africa Canada.

Apr 9, 2014
Category: Issue Briefs


Subscribe to RSS - Issue Briefs