‘Swimming against the current’

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What does peace look like? “In my context, working for peace is to swim against the current,” writes Alejandra Romero, a Colombian who helps school children with conflict resolution in a country where violence is prevalent. “It is not easy to commit to live in peace when there are people willing to harm you.”

Romero was one of 10 international young adults involved in peace work brought to Alberta by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Alberta for an initiative called “Planting peace: How do we stop killing each other?” The internationals—from Nigeria, Uganda, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, the Dominican Republic and Colombia—spent a week with teens at Camp Valaqua, held a public event at Calgary First Mennonite Church, and then participated in several days of peacebuilding workshops with Canadian young adults at a Calgary retreat centre, all from late August to early September.

The initiative was inspired by a Ugandan program called “Living with shalom,” which brings people from conflicted tribes together to learn to understand one another. MCC Alberta staff members Abe Janzen and Kim Thiessen enlarged the idea of “tribe” along international lines, and came up with the “Planting peace” event.

Kari Enns, an MCC staffer and interim director at Camp Valaqua, said participants learned “how to dialogue and listen to each other to break down our assumptions and stereotypes that come from not knowing each other. That’s why there were people from so many corners of the Earth and from Alberta and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, to talk about our poverty and injustice and peace issues here, too.”

MCC Alberta designated Nigerians Gopar Tapkida and Sani Suleiman to facilitate the workshops. Tapika, a Christian, and Suleiman, a Muslim, have a wealth of experience building bridges of peace and understanding between their faith groups.

Camp counsellor Brent Retzlaff related a story about the effect Tapkida and Suleiman had on the group. “One of the campers in my cabin especially benefited from his relationship [with Suleiman],” he said. “This particular camper was filled with anger at the world and would not hesitate to use violence against other campers if he felt that they had done him some kind of wrong. I spent much of my week attempting to convey the love of God and the possibility of peace to him, but he was not willing to listen to me.

“He took very well to Sani and there was a particularly moving time during a chapel when Sani called my camper up and got him to sing a song about peace with him,” Retzlaff added, noting, “My camper was changed at that time. There was a noticeable difference in the way he behaved around other people and I noticed him trying to avoid violence. This was a radical change for this camper.”

The experience was also valuable for camp staff.

“I found it very beneficial and I learned a lot about different places in the world,” said counsellor Kevin Stoesz. “I enjoyed sitting down and talking with the internationals individually and sharing Canadian culture with them, while they shared their culture with me.”

Cara Baergen, freshly home from a year serving with MCC in Tanzania, was already familiar with building cross-cultural relationships when she attended the Calgary workshops. The most impactful event for Baergen was a tour of downtown Calgary given to the group by a former homeless man from Alpha House, an organization that works with issues of addiction and homelessness.

“It was interesting to see the internationals’ reaction to the fact that there are poor people here,” Baergen said. “Our issues are generally out of view. We push the conflicts away from us.”

As with any first time event, “Planting peace” has a few bugs to work out of its system.

“Although there were fairly obvious benefits to the camp program, it was also a huge hassle to have 10 extra adult-age children walking around with no sense of time,” Retzlaff pointed out.

Thiessen agreed the camp program needs work for next year. “It is critical that we have a First Nations voice at the table, and we didn’t,” she said. “That would be one thing we would focus really hard on.”

Alejandra Romero, a Colombian, enjoys the “sky swing” at Camp Valaqua, Alta., during this summer’s ‘Planting peace: How do we stop killing each other?’ event that brought together 10 international young adults and a group of their Canadian counterparts.

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