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2018 in Review

A few days before the start of the New Year, I had the opportunity to visit PeaceGeeks HQ in Gastown, Vancouver, to talk with Digital Projects and Fundraising Manager Cherrie Lam about all that PeaceGeeks accomplished in 2018.

The general feeling surrounding the past year was one of tremendous growth, along with the inevitable growing pains that accompany rapid change. While 2017 was marked by a winning streak for the organization—a Top 5 placement in the Google.org Impact Challenge and two new projects being greenlit by the Canadian Government bookended the year—2018 was defined by the intense challenge of living up to these commitments.

This challenge was accepted with alacrity. PeaceGeeks, running previously with just three full time staff members, finished the year with a complete team for the first time in its seven-year history. A full time developer works on the Google Impact Challenge-funded app for newcomers, transferring the design in-house. Marketing, communications, fundraising, and further project management support also came aboard. A team is now consistently working in Jordan, dedicated to the Meshkat Community Project, and regularly collaborates with the Vancouver office. PeaceGeeks, at the beginning of the New Year, finds itself moving from a small, volunteer-based organization, to a fully professional NGO.

As is par for the course, this rapid transition has been nearly as stressful as it has been exciting. Cherrie discussed the pressure to succeed that naturally accompanies the shift from a quirky startup to a more professional and skilled organization. Cherrie reminisced about the “good old days” when PeaceGeeks was mainly focused on small passion projects and relied heavily on volunteers: while neither of those qualities has changed about the organization, it is now working on significant publicly and privately-funded projects that have firm delivery dates and high expectations; projects that have the potential to be game changers in the peace-tech industry.

PeaceGeeks is developing an app for newcomers and refugees to the Metro Vancouver area. With an anticipated launch date of March 2019, the stakes are high to come away with an application that will fulfil the vision for what is required by the parameters of the Google.org Impact Challenge and government funding. The team spent most of 2018 referring back to their collaborative community ethos and consulting, conversing, and cooperating with partners and advisors on the project. After creating, scrapping, re-working, refining, and hair-tearing, the the project is progressing toward a clean, simple, effective, and user-friendly final product that the team and its partners are proud of and excited to share.

In Jordan, the PeaceGeeks team operates three principal programs: Meshkat Community, Artists-in-Residence, and the annual Peace Awards. Funded by the Government of Canada through 2020, Meshkat strives to promote alternative messaging defined by acceptance and tolerance online to combat the prevalence of hate and extremism in digital content in the region. The Artists-in-Residence program nurtures bloggers, filmmakers, and photographers to address critical community challenges and spark important conversations to create unity and advocate for positive change. The annual Peace Awards celebrate outstanding individuals who contribute to a safer, more inclusive community.

PeaceGeeks also took time in 2018 to transform its foundations in terms of what the organization stands for and how its mission and values translate from theory into practice. The PeaceGeeks team, led by a dedicated Board of Directors, determined to fully shape and understand their core statements in order to move forward with cohesion and intention. The organization now has a more concise and accessible byline: PeaceGeeks builds digital tools to empower communities in the pursuit of peace.

So what does the coming year hold for PeaceGeeks? The organization is continuing to refine its mission and values, with a reorientation of the signature speaker series “PeaceTalks,” to be more engaging and relevant to the contemporary socio-political climate and the Vancouver community, where the talks are hosted. The launch of the newcomer app in March will kickstart the project into a new phase defined by user feedback, marketing, and community engagement to ensure the app reaches its full potential of usability and positive impact for newcomers. Still a quirky startup in many ways, PeaceGeeks will continue to seek new and innovative funding opportunities to facilitate and expand its project base.

With a transformative year under its belt, PeaceGeeks is up and running with a refreshed momentum and the tools it needs to carry forward for the long term. With a full and diverse team of Board members, staff, volunteers, and a strong network of community partners, PeaceGeeks is providing digital empowerment tools to immigrants and refugees in British Columbia, challenging hate and extremism online in Jordan, and engaging with the Vancouver community to raise awareness and foster dialogue about peace technology and its potential to make the world a better place. 

There’s much work to be done, and a lot to look forward to in 2019.

Daniel Morton is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Jan 7, 2019
Category: Media

Refugee family reunited after years apart just in time for Christmas

Mohammed Alsaleh arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee four years ago, at the end of November. He fled Syria in early 2014 and spent most of the year in transit in Lebanon, before winning a lottery to be sponsored by the Canadian government. It was month before Christmas when he touched down in Vancouver, and Mohammed describes that winter season as a period of “prolonged jet lag.” After years of living through constant war and conflict, imprisonment, torture, and displacement from his home and family, he doesn’t remember anything about Christmas 2014, his first on Canadian soil. Operating in survival mode, the thought of having his family in Canada with him seemed, at the time, nothing short of impossible.

Mohammed considers the following year his first “real Canadian Christmas,” which he spent with new friends, part of a life he built from scratch, a life that would look very different from what he had in Syria, where he was attending school to become a doctor. Though he was surrounded by his network of new friends and thankful to be settling into a more secure life here, Mohammed longed for his family to be able to share in the joys of the season with him. “During the holidays particularly, you feel far away. You miss your family,” he says. “I was sad I couldn’t celebrate with my family, and I wished I could be with them. I always wished that.”

Remembering Christmas in Syria

Mohammed reminisces about Christmases spent with his family in Syria and his Christian community. “Before the war, there was a lot of diversity in Syria,” Mohammed recalls, “There was peace and harmony between people from different religions, and with different beliefs – like in Canada.”

Prior to the outbreak of war in 2011, Christmas in Syria comprised familiar activities including taking children to visit Santa Claus, and admiring the Christmas light displays. “On Christmas Eve, the whole sky lights up with fireworks,” Mohammed shares, “[the holidays were] always celebrated with family.”

The onset of war changed everything. There was neither time nor resources for celebrations, and on Christmas Eve the sound of fireworks was replaced with the sound of gunfire. “Instead of fireworks, there were planes, bombs, and death in the sky," Mohammed remembers.

The path to reunion

After multiple imprisonments for political activism, which included documenting and broadcasting videos and images of military brutality, and being caught in possession of satirical caricatures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in his med school dorm room (those belonged to his roommate), Mohammed was forced to flee the country to protect his life. Separated from his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two younger sisters, who made their way as refugees to Turkey, Mohammed ended up in Canada alone.

After several years apart, he determined that the dream of being reunited with his family should become reality. So he set to work. Engaging with his professional and volunteer networks through the Federal Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, and the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia, Mohammed began raising the necessary funds to bring his family safely to Canada.

By the end of 2017, Mohammed had raised $60,00 - a combination of his own savings, a successful GoFundMe campaign, and significant contributions from an anonymous couple moved to action by his family's plight.

A holiday wish come true

Mohammed's family finally arrived as privately-sponsored refugees on October 17th this year. Mohammed became a permanent Canadian resident just two days before, on October 15th. “I feel like I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Arriving alone as a refugee, and now, as a Canadian, welcoming my family as refugees,” Mohammed beams with pride. “Bringing them to Canada is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

Mohammed is thrilled to introduce his family to his friends and his life here just in time for Christmas. Already, they’ve decorated a Christmas tree, and have gone to Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver to see the Christmas Light Festival.

A new year, a new chapter

“No matter who you are, there’s something about the promise of a new year to be excited about,” says Mohammed. “There’s time for reflection, and an opportunity to start fresh.”

Mohammed’s New Year’s hopes are for his family to have a successful transition and settlement in Canada. His youngest sister will attend junior high, and his other family members are enrolled in English classes.

Arriving in a new country, especially arriving as a refugee or displaced person, and not knowing the language, the culture, or any people there, not knowing how to get around, or what support services are available or how to access them, is intensely daunting. Fortunately for Mohammed’s family, they have him and his self-made support network to rely on as the foundation of their settlement into life in Canada.

Services Advisor Pathways

PeaceGeeks’ Services Advisor Pathways project looks to support new arrivals in a similar way. Canada welcomes an average of 300,000 migrants each year. Access to information for newcomers is one of the top barriers to resettlement today. Launching in March 2019, the Pathways app is being designed in partnership with immigrants, refugees, and community service providers, and will help newcomers more effectively navigate their settlement. The app will be piloted in Metro Vancouver, which is home to 153,000 newcomers to Canada, will be available in seven languages, and will be updated by local service providers regularly in order to remain accurate and informative. Find out more about the project here: https://peacegeeks.org/pathways

What can you do?

The holidays are not always an easy time for everyone, but Mohammed views them as a universal occasion, and an opportunity to coalesce around singular issues to give back to our communities and make them a better place for all. Newcomers to Canada are amongst the most vulnerable population groups for whom winter and the holidays are uniquely challenging.

Mohammed’s ideal for an inclusive holiday season starts with smalls steps from all of us: “educate your children. Remind them to wish their classmates from immigrant families ‘Happy Holidays.’ You don’t know what they might be going through. We can all do that, to our colleagues and neighbours too. Share happiness with those around us.”

This year, as you purchase gifts for your friends and families, please consider making a small donation to programs that will provide refugees with a holiday meal or support year-round. You can also donate to PeaceGeeks, which will go directly toward our Pathways app project and our other peacebuilding projects here in Canada and in Jordan and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.

PeaceGeeks wishes Mohammed and his family, all refugees and newcomers, our partners, donors, and volunteers, and their families a Happy Holidays.

PeaceGeeks interviewed Mohammed two years ago. You can read more on his story here: https://peacegeeks.org/news/interview-mohammed-alsaleh-fighting-oppression-syria-building-life-canada-advocating-refugees

If you, or someone you know, are having a hard time over the holidays, selected support services in Vancouver are:

Amelia Mitchell is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Dec 20, 2018
Category: Media

Volunteer Spotlight - Vincent

Meet Vincent Tom, our first in-depth Volunteer interview. Vincent has been with the organization since November 2015 and is a member of the Membership Team. Check back every month as we turn the spotlight on one of our dedicated volunteers.

 

What is your involvement with PeaceGeeks?

 

I am the Membership Lead with PeaceGeeks - Slowly but surely developing a structure to better engage our lovely volunteers.  

What drew you to the organization?

 

The fact that they connect two fields that I passionately care about. Since my university days, I've been interested in connecting technology to the endeavors of non-profits. There are so many opportunities for the two fields to work as one, yet I felt that many organizations out there weren't coming together. PeaceGeeks was one of the first ones I heard about that did that.

 

Describe a moment of impact you've felt while volunteering with PeaceGeeks?

 

It was during one of the Hackathons I attend last year, where I was in a room full of people with such diverse backgrounds putting their heads together to discussion, create, and implement potential solutions to current on-going issues. It was amazing just to see that type of collaboration and how PeaceGeeks can create that space to encourage it.

What are your most passionate about when it comes to tech and development?

 

Putting the power back into the hands of the people. There are so many ways to use technology to empower people everywhere in the world. Something as simple as your twitter account can have the potential to overthrow governments, encourage civic encouragement, or give voice to the marginalized. It's not just for tweeting about your lattes anymore.

 

What is your career journey to date and what are your future aspirations?

 

I completed my BA in Political Science at SFU, focusing on international humanitarian issues. This led me to interning at Free The Children which led to a full time position with them as a Program Coordinator. I am now working for the Centre for Community Engaged Learning at UBC, as their Project Coordinator. I'm always looking to find that balance between learning new skills and applying them in the workplace. I'm hoping to complete my Masters at some point, keep working and volunteering with amazing organizations that I feel passionate towards, and travel as much as I can at the same time!

 
Mar 30, 2016
Category: Media
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PeaceGeeks On WhyDev Blog

On Tuesday July 3, 2012, WhyDev posted an article co-authored by PeaceGeeks Executive Director Renee Black and Dalia Association former Executive Director Nora Lester Murad entitled, "Is anything going right in NGO-INGO relations?" about challenges and possibilities looking forward. Check it out here.

 

Nov 13, 2012
Category: Media

Peace Geeks Ed Featured In Networking In Van

Peace Geeks Executive Director Renee Black was featured yesterday in the Networking in Van's column, Women Making a Difference, talking about Peace Geeks and women helping women. Check it out! Networking in Van has been profiling a different Vancouverite woman every day in March in celebration of International Women's Day, which took place on March 8.

Nov 13, 2012
Category: Media

Peace Geeks Interview On Projecting Change

 
Renee was interviewed by the Projecting Change Film Festival about what Peace Geeks is, how it got started and the role of film played in inspiring this group. You can watch Projecting Change with Peace Geeks on their blog. Note that since the filming of this interview, we have changed our mandate to include non-profit organizations working on peace, accountability and human rights, which will include women's organizations working on peacebuilding.
Nov 13, 2012
Category: Media

Georgia Straight Interview With Renee Black

The Georgia Straight interviewed Peace Geeks Executive Director, Renee Black, this week to ask her what Peace Geeks is all about. You can find the full interview at http://www.straight.com/article-517156/vancouver/geek-speak-renee-black-executive-director-peace-geeks.

Oct 28, 2011
Category: Media
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