A pillar of hope in the Middle East


by Patrick McDonagh

With an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees, Jordan lies at the forefront of the refugee crisis. Many of those fleeing civil war in their homeland have made their way to Jordan’s capital, Amman; once there, many have been assisted by Al Waqa, an International Community Action Network (ICAN) centre established in east Amman in 2011 by Talal Qdah, MSW’02, a graduate of McGill’s internationally renowned ICAN program.

Al Waqa has focused its efforts on helping refugees understand and exercise their rights, and supporting women and children who have been victims of violence. “Much of our work with the Syrian refugee community, both with groups and individuals, is about defining abuse and helping people to identify it,” says Ibtisam Khasawneh, MSW’16. Al Waqa has been providing psychological counselling services and literacy programs to the growing Syrian refugee community.

Al Waqa is one of 11 ICAN centres in the Middle East; there are five more in the Palestinian territories and another five in Israel. More than 120,000 people benefit from the programs offered by the centres each year.

The Nablus ICAN centre in the Palestinian territories offers
empowerment programs for local women.
(Photo: ICAN)

“Each centre emphasizes helping individuals one-on-one, like a storefront for community activism,” explains ICAN’s executive director Amal El-Sana, MSW’99. “But if enough people share concerns – for instance, around the need for housing – then the centre can develop programs to address these concerns, gather people together to train them as activists, and, eventually, bring issues to the institutional or governmental level, where policy can be changed.”

When ICAN does press for change, it has an impact. For instance, in Israel, persistent problems with access to housing and welfare led to ICAN lobbying the government for groundbreaking public housing laws that have since enabled 30,000 low-income families to purchase homes. ICAN also spearheaded a three-year legal and advocacy effort that ended the Israeli government’s welfare-to-work program, which made it difficult for people unable to work to access welfare benefits.

At the heart of ICAN is a two-year McGill master’s program that brings students from marginalized, disadvantaged communities in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and, as of 2016, Syria, to Montreal for a year to study courses relevant to their experiences. The courses offered include Migration and Social Work; Trauma and Resistance; International Social Work: War and Genocide; International Community Development; and Advanced Techniques in Community Development and Rights-Based Practice.

Travel and living expenses are supported through ICAN Fellowships, which were funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) until 2010, and by generous donors since. While in Montreal, students volunteer in local institutions as part of their training, and share a year-long exchange of stories and experiences, getting to know their peers from different cultural and religious communities. “These exchanges changed how I think,” says Khasawneh, speaking from Jordan. “They gave me the opportunity to hear people from the West Bank and from Israel. Thanks to this experience, I believe that communication can solve anything. I feel I am still learning from this program.”

In their second year, students return to their home communities to complete the graduate program’s field work component by launching a new project – establishing a new ICAN centre, for instance. Since its inception, ICAN and its graduates – now numbering 62 – have opened 11 centres, influenced government policies, strengthened support services in partnership with other organizations, and established new university social work programs in the region. In short, ICAN – the McGill graduate program, its alumni, and the centres they have established – has largely transformed social support services in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

Unlikely classmates

It all began with social work professor Jim Torczyner, who created the McGill Middle East Program, as ICAN was first known, in 1997. “I was motivated by a strong belief that universities have a responsibility to promote social justice, particularly for marginalized populations,” he says. “And the connection between inequality and the difficulties of peace-building were always clear to me.”

Social work professor Jim Torczyner is the founder of ICAN.
(Photo: Christinne Muschi)

So he set out to find ways to bring community leaders from Israel, Jordan, and, eventually, the Palestinian territories together. He soon realized that it wasn’t going to be easy. One potential partner, the University of Jordan, was interested in Torczyner’s approach, but its president was blunt in outlining the obstacles. He also offered some key advice.

“After many meetings, the university president said, ‘Look, I think the way you do, but we’re not going to jump into a joint project with the Israelis after a long history of distrust, violence and hatred. Do something we need, and if it’s in the same domain as something they’re interested in, the projects will link naturally,’” Torczyner recalls.

That history of wariness and suspicion also stood in the way of establishing a program in the region in which Israelis and Jordanians could interact and learn from each other.

“Decades of distrust made it impossible to host such an initiative in the Middle East,” Torcyzner says. “But we could do it in Canada. Jordan had no social work profession to speak of, so we arranged that McGill’s School of Social Work would help launch one by bringing Jordanian scholars to study in a specially designed master of social work program – and we would offer the same program to Israeli scholars.”

In 1997, the first five ICAN program participants arrived, all sharing the same office. Two were older Jordanian professors, and two were Israeli activists; the fifth was Amal El-Sana, the current director, then a young woman from the Bedouin community of Lakiya in Israel.

“I had met Amal at Ben-Gurion University and wanted her in the program,” says Torczyner. “The Bedouin male patriarchy said ‘Don’t take her, she’s trouble,’ but I said, ‘That’s why I want to take her!’” El-Sana’s family was initially resistant, so Torczyner met with them, promised to act in loco parentis, and gained their permission to take their daughter to Canada – a coup that proved instrumental in the program’s early success. “The Jordanians could see Amal as one of them, and so did the Israelis,” recalls Torczyner. “So Amal said, ‘If I’m part of both groups, I guess we’re just one group.’ And our process began.”

El-Sana’s story is in many ways the story of ICAN. She cut her teeth as a community organizer at 21, encouraging literacy in her region by creating a low-budget mobile library: a donkey pulling a cartful of books (eventually a donor enabled the purchase of a van, which still operates today). The first Bedouin woman to pursue an undergraduate degree in social work at Ben-Gurion University, in 1997 she was assigned as a guide to a visiting McGill group led by Torczyner. He was so impressed by her passion and commitment to her community that he invited her to join that first cohort.

Coming to Montreal was a shock. “There I was, a Bedouin coming from the desert, where it is regularly 40 degrees in the summer, to a Montreal winter, with the 1998 ice storm,” she says. But it was also a revelation. “I used to think of Lakiya, my village, as the world, because it was my world. But local issues are very much related to global issues. I found that my conflict is not the only conflict, that there are others that we must engage ourselves in to be citizens of the world.”

Meeting with Jewish Montrealers was particularly instructive. “The only encounters I had with the Jewish majority in Israel were negative experiences with soldiers or police, but in Montreal I found Jewish people who cared about human rights and equality, and I realized such people had to exist in Israel too.” Inspired, El-Sana returned to Be’er Sheva to establish the Arab-Jewish Centre for Empowerment, Equality and Cooperation (AJEEC), which aims to build a vision of shared communities.

El-Sana ran AJEEC for 12 years, during which time she guided the launch of programs in early childhood education, economic empowerment, health, and the environment. Eventually, she realized that she wanted to conceptualize and share the extensive experience she had acquired running the centre. Despite being offered scholarships to Oxford and the University of London, El-Sana returned to McGill in 2012 for her doctorate. “I felt McGill was the only place where I could pursue research, but still be an activist whose work related to people’s lives,” she says. Three years into her PhD, she was asked to lead ICAN.

Making a difference

El-Sana’s narrative is not unusual, at least not for ICAN alumni. Sami Kilani, MSW’00, PhD’10, now a professor of sociology and social work at An Najah National University in the West Bank city of Nablus, joined ICAN in 1998 as part of its second cohort. A community volunteer and human rights activist, an academic with a background in physics and science education, a poet whose works led to a trial for “incitement,” a Palestinian negotiator at the Madrid and Washington peace talks in the early nineties, a founder of the Arab non-violence movement, a former political prisoner (his case was addressed by Amnesty International) who spent years incarcerated or under house arrest (effectively halting his career in physics): Kilani is all of this.

“ICAN’s program seemed ideal for building a conceptual theoretical framework for what I had been practicing for a long time,” he says, stressing that “we cannot be captive to our pain, to the past. We have a responsibility to work for the future.” For his master’s degree fieldwork in 2000, Kilani established the first ICAN centre in the Palestinian territories, the An Najah Community Service Centre in downtown Nablus. Within months, the centre was making a difference. It birthed an out-of-school program pairing older students with children experiencing difficulties learning, often due to lack of support at home, as well as a housing program that helped poor families improve their living conditions, resulting in the renovation of more than 600 homes so far.

All ICAN centres partner with local academic institutions and other organizations to ensure sustainability, and Kilani has been creative in using his connections with An Najah National University. All university students there must perform community work before they graduate, so Kilani successfully lobbied the administration to have the centre become responsible for the entire university’s volunteer placements.

As a result, the centre now manages about 1,500 student volunteers each semester, taking the students it requires for its programs, and delivering the remainder to other local community programs that need help. “The volunteer program not only contributes to the success of our activities,” says Kilani, “it also links students to the most marginalized members of the community.”

Like El-Sana, Kilani returned to McGill to complete his doctorate; his dissertation, which explores the development of rights-based community practice in the Palestinian territories, received the School of Social Work’s 2010 Director’s Prize for Outstanding Doctoral Research. Today, he is developing the social work curriculum for An Najah National University and supervises ICAN students on their second-year field placements in the Palestinian territories and Jordan – two more examples of ICAN’s impact on the growth of social work in the region.

Bridging communities

ICAN’s efforts aren’t restricted to the Middle East – it is also bringing its potent brand of community-building activism to assist marginalized Montreal communities. The Montreal City Mission (MCM), founded in 1910 and now based in the St. James United Church in downtown Montreal, includes support for immigrants in its mandate. Anwar Alhjooj, MSW’16, joined the MCM as an ICAN volunteer in November 2015, and has since been hired to coordinate the Montreal City Mission Arab Action Network (MCMAAN), a project he launched, which is particularly concerned with helping Montreal’s Syrian refugee community. ICAN’s first Syrian graduate student, Adnan Almhamied, MSW’16, also worked on this initiative before returning to Jordan to help launch a mobile centre addressing the needs of Syrian refugees there.

“I believe that if we work with other communities in establishing interfaith and intercultural partnerships, everyone can benefit,” says Alhjooj. The MCMAAN hosted a Martin Luther King breakfast bringing together Muslims, Jews and Christians, and organized three events at Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival connecting to the refugee community.

Anwar Alhjooj, MSW’16, is the coordinator for the
Montreal City Mission Arab Action Network.
(Photo: Christinne Muschi)

The MCM hosted a public Iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan), an interfaith celebration that attracted more than 200 Montrealers. Last December, Alhjooj collaborated with the Muslim Association of Canada to organize a “celebration of light” at the Al-Andalous Islamic Centre in St. Laurent, inviting members of the Jewish and Syrian Christian communities to celebrate together in the mosque. “It is a sign of acceptance, a sign that we are different but can be here together,” he says.

Alhjooj is a model of what he describes: “I speak Arabic and Hebrew, I’m Palestinian and Muslim, I lived in Israel, I work in the United Church – so that puts me in the middle of a lot of things.” This winter the MCM began a new initiative with Montreal schools, bringing in student volunteers to engage with 30 recently arrived Syrian children, primarily in sports and extra-curricular activities.

Speaking shortly after the murder of six men as they prayed at a Quebec City mosque, Alhjooj stresses that interfaith connections create opportunities for Canadian society. “People want to make these bonds,” he says. “I will continue to work at bringing different communities together.”

Bringing communities together, addressing inequalities and creating change: these have remained ICAN’s fundamental goals for 20 years. “Every day I think how much [the program] has affected me,” says Ibtisam Khasawneh, now in Amman working with Syrian refugees through the NGO International Medical Corps. “I feel we have been given the tools to change things.”

That belief characterizes the people who have been involved with ICAN through the years. “ICAN is about [creating] opportunities for people who can be leaders of their communities. Our graduates all come from marginalized, disadvantaged communities, but they want to change things,” says Amal El-Sana, who exemplifies this profile. “They have the seeds of fire in them.”

Patrick McDonagh is a Montreal-based writer and teacher. He is a contributing editor for the online magazine Carte Blanche. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Walrus and Chatelaine.

published in June, 2017

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