You can’t hold a gun while you’re dancing

A friend sent me a link to an article the other day about a shooting range in the West Bank that offers tourists the opportunity to “shoot” terrorists. The camp is apparently a fun outing for the whole family. One man from the US brought his family there for the experience, wanting to “teach them values.” The article goes on to write “Upon entering the range, his five-year-old daughter, Tamara, bursts into tears. A half hour later, she is holding a gun and shooting clay bullets like a pro.” That’s so touching.

I don’t know what kind of values that man is trying to teach his daughter. The shooting range’s website helps clarify: “At our program we combine together the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting which makes the activity more meaningful.”
Proof that you can have fun without a gun.
The tourist part of the shooting range is absurd, particularly when it becomes part of a family vacation with young children (OK, shooting ranges in general don’t get my vote of approval either). As I write these words, I am sitting in an office in Amman at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a UN agency responsible for providing Palestine refugees with access to education, among other services. The office is spacious and sparsely decorated, with two laminated posters of children’s drawings on the walls. Behind me is an old photograph of Palestinian girls performing a traditional dance near a tent. It’s a beautiful image that reminds me of the many workshops I have facilitated in the Middle East where the participants – all adults – at some point during the workshop pull out a mobile phone, play traditional music, prop the phone next to a microphone and all break out in dance.  A bond between individuals is strengthened, hands are held, smiles erupt, and it’s easy to sense the importance that dance plays in the lives of the people present. Those are values I can get behind.
If we talk of values to instill in our children, I cannot even begin to understand the motives behind the man at the shooting range who brought his five year-old daughter. He is quite simply insensitive, mindless, and is probably holding on to a profoundly skewed conviction that he’s doing the right thing by exposing his children to guns. And not just for target practice (which is bad), but to “shoot” terrorists (which is nuts).
Parents have a responsibility to teach their children values. A guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is that of the child’s “best interests.” Essentially that means that all decisions related to a child’s development, all actions by parents and others responsible for such development like teachers, must act in the child’s best interests, not their own. I’ve got two boys, now nine and 11. When each one was five years old, my wife and I decided that their best interests were having a safe and secure home, being kind and respectful, having fun and being loved. I may have missed a thing or two but “holding a gun” wasn’t on the list, and it never will be.
Let kids be kids. I’ll get back to my work now, writing a toolkit for Palestinian teachers on how to teach about human rights. Respect, equality, non-discrimination, inclusion, and tolerance – nothing you will ever learn by pulling a trigger.

Birthday wishes: world peace and all that crap

Yay, 42nd birthday coming up soon. The day means more for my kids than it does for me, primarily because they hide my gifts around the house and write clues to help me find them. I don’t really want anything, but I will probably get a bookstore gift card and some beer. Perhaps a Star Trek novelty toy. I don’t wish for things anymore, at least not like I used to when I was younger. Back then:
  • By the ages of four, five, and probably six, I wished that my father would come back to life, but deep down I sort of knew that wasn’t going to happen.
  • By 10 or so I wished for an X-Wing fighter, I got it and it’s still somewhere in the basement. But I don’t play with it anymore (please, I’m a Star Trek fan).
  • By 16 or so I wished for a role in a Star Trek movie. Hasn’t happened yet but I’m enthused by my chances thanks to the reboot. Also wished for innumerable chance encounters with plenty of girls I had crushes on. As best I recall, nothing panned out, but I don’t really care about that now.
  •  By 20 I wished I’d never opted to study applied mathematics and physics in university. Anyone sane would wish for that too.
  • By 24 I wished for Kraft Dinner, a Dunkin Donuts doughnut, and a Molson Dry. Those were days when I lived in Africa and my food and drink options were quite limited.
  •  I used to wish for world peace.

Ha! World peace. As if. Nowadays let me be more practical:

  1.  I wish for the immediate release of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, human rights defender who was arrested, beaten, jailed, and sentenced to life in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. Plenty of other innocent people are being held in prisons in Bahrain and also deserve to be released. Abdulhadi has been on a hunger strike now for over forty days.
  2. I wish the Syrian government would stop the bloodshed. One life lost is one too many. Ten thousand deaths in one year are unfathomable.
  3. I wish the Canadian government would do a better job of fulfilling its human rights obligations to the poorest of our nation, including the First Nations.
  4.  I wish the Canadian government and other rich nations would do their part and commit to the 0.7% pledge, whereby this small percentage of a state’s gross national income goes towards overseas development assistance. Canada’s percentage is hovering around 0.33%.
  5.  I wish that local non-governmental organizations working to protect the rights of others get the support they need to continue their work. This applies just as much in Canada as it does for small NGOs helping in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts of former child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere. These organizations are doing great work without all the fanfare.
  6.  I wish that all the nasty guys on the International Criminal Court’s list are caught and put on trial the way Thomas Lubanga was.
  7.  I wish governments, businesses, and average folks in a position question human rights abuses and violations do so more adamantly than ever before. I wish they could realize that there are solutions to nearly 10 million children under the age of five dying yearly from preventable diseases, there are ways to prevent the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who die yearly from pregnancy-related complications, and there should be more public outrage against millions of people dying in conflicts around the world.
  8.  I wish some people would stop arguing about rights that aren’t worth arguing about, like gay rights. They’re just rights, please accept them and do your best to “get it.” There is no ambiguity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.” Please find something better to do – plant some flowers or go ride a bike, but stop getting riled up over nothing.
  9. I wish people would stop thinking that poverty, disease, and climate change aren’t “their problems” – they’re everyone’s problems, and they will be our children’s problems too. Only they’re bound to get worse by the time our kids are as old as us.
  10. I wish people would care more and hate less.

Oh boy. I might wish for a beer while I’m at it. Make your life better, make someone else’s life better.

A Letter to My Sons: Three Questions

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

Last week I spoke to some university students about poverty. Only a few students showed up, but when I think back to my days at university, I probably wouldn’t have gone to any talk about poverty. As I struggled to think of what to say to them, I thought back to a book Mommy read to you a couple of years ago: The Three Questions. In the book, a young boy goes on a journey to find answers to three questions. He finds the answers he needs by meeting friends along his journey.

These are the questions the boy asks:
Do good for the person next to you, now. That’s it.
  1. When is the best time to do things?
  2.  Who is the most important one?
  3.  What is the right thing to do?


As he nears his journey’s end, one of his friends offers these answers: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.  For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”

I never thought of these three questions before reading this book – at least not the way the boy asked them. By the time I finished university, the question I asked myself – which I never really shared with anyone – was “Is this all there is?” And by “this” I basically meant the life I was leading and the purpose I had for being on this earth. The answer was simple enough: “No.” But that kind of answer didn’t tell me what I should be doing.

I found some answers to what I should be doing by seeing more of the world. As I began to travel I realized that there was so much of the world that lived a harder life than mine. Before traveling, I’d seen images of poor people on TV, but that was the extent of the poverty I faced. The more I learned about the world, the more I realized not everyone went to school, not everyone lived in a nice house, not everyone had enough food to eat, not everyone had enough clean water to drink, not everyone was healthy, not everyone felt safe and secure.

The more I saw of the world, the more I hurt. The more I thought of that question – Is this all there is? – the more I felt I should do something.  Like the boy in the story, I learned that the time to do things was right now. Not later, not when I felt like it, not when the world would get better because it wasn’t. There was no waiting, it was just now. As for the answer to the boy’s second question: “the most important person is always the one you are with.” The one next to you. Nowadays many people will tell you that the world is a lot smaller. Our phones, computers, airplanes, and other technology have brought many of us closer together. If this is the case, then isn’t it true that the person “next to you” can be anyone in the world? The answer to the third question is to “do good for the one who is standing at your side.” In an increasingly smaller world, this means you can do good for anyone, anywhere.

But there comes a point when you have to make choices. I decided long ago to try to help people in many places, and that’s what still takes me away from you. Before leaving a few days ago, you asked again, “Why do you have to leave?” Leaving you is hard for me, harder than you can imagine. But as much as my love for you compels me to stay home and be with you all the time, the same three questions the young boy asks himself are always on my mind. The answers to the boy’s questions also compel me to “do good,” or at least try to help others. Whether you “do good” by teaching kids in school like Mommy, or by becoming a Lego Master or a rock star/dog babysitter like you want to be one day, you end up making others happy, and you’ll make a difference in this world.

Je t’aime Alexandre, Je t’aime Sam.