Universal Children’s Day: Giving Refugee Children a New "Normal"

Today is Universal Children’s Day, celebrated November 20 to mark the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child over a quarter century ago. It’s a day to recognize children’s rights and to shed light on the progress made in securing such rights while not forgetting the challenges and disparities that persist. In last year’s State ofthe World’s Children issued by UNICEF (there should be a new one soon), it highlighted some persistent realities:  
  • Almost half of children under 5 in the poorest countries do not have the right to an official identity; 
  • The poorest 20% of the world’s children are twice as likely as the world’s richest 20% to be stunted by growth;
  • Children in 4 out of 10 households in the world’s poorest countries do not attend primary school;
  • Girls still have less access to quality education than boys in the world’s poorest nations;
  • Children going to school in the world’s poorest nations have inadequate access to toilets (both at school and at home);
One of the encouraging aspects of the report is that it highlights stories – of inspiration, innovation, care and dedication – on how to fulfill children’s rights. The stories focus on things that make sense: engaging youth, sparking creativity, working with communities, and reaching all children, among others. Reading the report, I came across something UNICEF refers to as their “Innovation Map”  – examples from around the world of successful projects. To take but one example, a project in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan(established in 2012 and currently hosting about 80,000 Syrian refugees) aims to solve the problem of girls and women unable to access the female toilets in the camp because there was no lighting. Channeling electricity to the toilets was not possible due to vandalism, so solar panels were installed above the toilets to provide the electricity for proper lighting.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
It’s a small innovation, but a necessary one. Just for a moment imagine what life is like in a refugee camp. In the case of Zaatari, the number of toilets available means that an average of 51 people share one toilet. The average person reading this blog probably shares a toilet with less than a tenth that number.
Crappy toilet statistics are only one aspect of living in a refugee camp that makes life harsh. Each refugee has 35 litres of water per day (the average consumption for Canadians was a whopping 251 litres per day in 2011). Just over half of the 28,000 school-aged children are enrolled in one of three schools operating on double-shifts. Two field hospitals have 55 beds in total (remember, there are 80,000 people living there, with 80 births per week). To put it simply, life in a refugee camp sucks. The connotation of “camp” implies a temporary condition, an in-between living arrangement from what used to be your home to a place where you don’t have to worry about being killed on a daily basis. The reality of such camps is quite different: a sense of permanence settles in, a sense of despair, and a sense of normality. I’m reminded of a TED Talk by George Takei in which he discusses his time as a child in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War: “Children are amazingly adaptable. What would be grotesquely abnormal became my normality in the prisoner of war camps.It became routine for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. It became normal for me to go with my father to bathe in a mass shower.Being in a prison, a barbed-wire prison camp, became my normality.
As adaptable children are, they shouldn’t have to consider life in a camp as “normal.” There are nearly 50,000 children living in Zaatari camp now. However miserable life is in that camp, conditions in other camps, not to mention the unimaginable struggles Syrian refugees have faced crossing into Europe, can be even worse.
The sheer number of Syrian refugees is astounding. In total, Jordan currently has over 630,000 refugees; overall the number of registered Syrian refugees is nearly 4.3 million. A quarter of them – more than one million – are children. When I try to get my head around such numbers and weigh the reality of refugees’ lives with the ongoing debate of closing our borders to them, I find it very difficult to accept any argument – founded in ignorance, fear, xenophobia or racism, but often a mix of all these things – that supports measures to ignore their pleas and maintain their suffering.
Canada’s new government made a promise to welcome 25,000 refugees by the end of this year and is currently in the process of making sure this happens. Under normal circumstances, it’s an ambitious target, and recent terrorist attacks in Paris (and Beirut, and now Mali) have prompted some to put into question the need to adhere to the deadline of December 31 or even to admit refugees at all. To me, the date is not relevant; moving refugees out of misery is, and whether or not it takes two months or a little longer shouldn’t be a benchmark for success. The government’s approach is a sound one, since it focuses on refugees already registered in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The least Canadians can do is extend a warm welcome to those in need, and give a new place for thousands of refugees to call their home. It’s time to give refugees another option of what “normal” can be.

Find out how to help: The CBC Montreal website recently published a useful post on how Quebecers can help

Update November 23: I referred to the government’s plan as a “sound one” – now that the government has indicated it will not allow unaccompanied men into Canada, it’s not looking sound, nor is it fair. Tom Mulcair summed it up well by saying: “While security concerns remain of vital importance, will a young man who lost both parents be excluded from Canada’s refugee program?” He added, “Will a gay man who is escaping persecution be excluded? Will a widower who is fleeing [ISIS] after having seen his family killed be excluded?” A proper security screening is important for any refugee, regardless of their status as accompanied or not, and regardless of their sex. It is, as many have noted, very uncanadian.

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.

Everyday rights

January 22 marks the anniversary of my mother’s death. Sucks. It’s been four years now. But it’s not a day to mourn – at this point, being sad would no longer be because I mourn her, but because I’d be feeling sorry for myself. Not going to happen. If I did that, my mother – had she still been kicking around – would tell me to stop being such a sissy.

Don’t mess with me, Buster Boy.
At any rate, I want to remember her on this day by looking back at her take on human rights. She was a secretary, a receptionist, a stay-at-home mom, and eventually an old woman who occasionally went bowling and gambling with other old women. Her perception of human rights was essentially created the same way it is for most people: learned through experience, not through any formal education or training on international human rights conventions. So here’s what she knew, written up as “everyday rights” that guided her life, and if you know nothing about human rights, think again, because you probably do. For each “right” below, I’ve put in references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other human rights conventions.

1. Speak up when you’re pissed off (Sure it’s a right. Think Art. 19 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”)
In retrospect, I realize she did this quite frequently. If ever she felt she was not being treated fairly (by a mechanic, a salesman, anybody), she’d go on a rant in French and accuse the person of discriminating against her because she had an English name. Those on the receiving end of her vitriolic attacks always ended up on the losing side of an argument and acquiescing to anything she said. Even at the ripe age of 65, she went down to the local mall and protested with a bunch of other demonstrators and wound up speaking on the radio. I can’t remember why she demonstrated – must have been to protect the English language of the rights of seniors – but I do remember her fiery attitude afterwards. She was pumped at getting mad for a cause. Her demeanour unquestionably screamed, Don’t mess with me, Buster Boy.

2. Always look after the best interests of the child (Think Art. 18 par. 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: “Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.”)
This one’s a no-brainer. She was a pit bull when it came to defending my rights and my brother’s rights. A good education, good health, enough food, water, you name it, there was nothing we went without. There were limitations, however. She made me ingest an unacceptable quantity of lima beans in my youth. Every single bite was disgusting. There had to have been a more palatable alternative.

3. A woman can do anything a man can do (and should never be discriminated against because she is a woman. Think Art. 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women that defines discrimination: “…’discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”)
She was a single mother with two boys. No further explanation required.

4. Don’t discriminate. But if you do, try your damnedest to change. (Art. 2 of the UDHR on non-discrimination: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”)
I like to believe that we – the collective we of planet Earth – are becoming gradually more tolerant and accepting of our differences. I’m more tolerant and accepting than my mother was, and hopefully my kids will be more accepting than me. Here’s an example of the way she thought: when the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, I phoned her from my home in Malawi to reassure her I was fine. Her response: “Are you getting along well with the natives?” I cringed at the outdated reference, but I know she meant well. It’s not to completely fault her – she was influenced by her generation while also shaping her own values and attitudes. When it came to accepting others, well…it was best not to talk about gays and lesbians; no taxi driver who was a “foreigner” could possibly know the streets of Montreal as well as a real Montrealer; all [insert ethnic minority] were cheap; every [other ethnic minority] was smelly; [those others] were rude; and as for me having a Chinese girlfriend – yikes that was a conversation-killer. The years passed and she did mellow out a lot. Perhaps mellow isn’t quite the right word. As she learned more about different cultures, either through TV or the changing ethnic landscape of her neighbourhood, ignorance manifested as subtle racism evolved into uncertainty, understanding, tolerance, and eventually acceptance. Most of the time.

5. Give (making sure that you do your part so that strangers live in dignity, Art. 1 of the UDHR).
I know, giving isn’t a human right. In the final years of her life, my mother decided to give money to charitable organizations that did humanitarian relief work. It was the first time she’d done so. A small gesture to be sure, but it symbolized a recognition that, despite living a life with a fair amount of significant hardships, she found room to give to others less fortunate. The gesture was Article 1 of the UDHR, plain and simple: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood […and sisterhood].”

So far, these everyday rights have worked just fine for me.