For a few hours last Sunday afternoon in Stouffville, Ontario, Canada, the world felt a little more peaceful. Some extraordinary events took place in our town with its first ever Peace Festival. The festival included a series of events over four days. On Sunday, the final two events were the unveiling of a Peace Plaque on the Main Street of town as well as a Peace Panel with panelists, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish and Dr. Gerry Caplan. It was an exceptional occasion. In fact, Dr. Caplan noted in his opening remarks that “The idea of a peace festival is so novel, is so outrageously unusual, that you have to shake your head at first and say: You know, I don’t remember when the last one was.”
It was my honour to be the moderator of the Peace Panel. It was delightful to welcome these two gentlemen to our town. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is often called “the Gaza doctor”. He was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Dr. Abuelaish and his family become known around the world as a result of an astonishing tragedy. In January 2009, Israeli shells hit his home in Gaza, killing three of his daughters and a niece. The response of Dr. Abuelaish to that tragedy is described in his remarkable book “I Shall Not Hate”. Dr. Gerry Caplan is an historian, author, teacher, commentator and political activist. Over several decades, Dr. Caplan has worked as an advisor to the United Nations, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the African Union. He was part of the International Panel to Investigate the Genocide in Rwanda. He was the author of the panel’s 300-page report Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide. Dr. Caplan continues to teach, speak and write on the theme of why genocides occur and why those who could prevent them fall short of doing so.
For two hours late on Sunday afternoon in Stouffville, people in a packed auditorium listened intently to the thoughtful responses of these two panelists as I interrogated them with questions on the broad topic of peace. We divided the discussion into three themes: Peace in Theory; Peace in Practice; and Peace at a Personal Level. The hours flew by and many of us wished we could have kept the discourse going all evening. The good news is that we came away from the event with at least a few ideas about how we advance the cause of peace. There were three key solutions that jumped out to me: education, interaction and imagination.
Both of our panelists pointed to education as a top priority. Dr. Abuelaish wisely noted that “Ignorance is our enemy.” It reminds me of how Nelson Mandela wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” In terms of formal education as a tool to promote peace, Dr. Abuelaish particularly emphasized the importance of education for girls. One of the positive outcomes of his incredible tragedy has been the establishment of Daughters for Life, an organization whose mission is “to advance the education and health of girls and women in the Middle East”.
The second solution that was emphasized on Sunday was that of interaction. Throughout the panel discussion, members of the audience asked questions and shared their perspectives on peace. Even in those brief stories, we heard from people who had very different backgrounds. One member of the audience had been a conscientious objector who had refused to bear arms during World War II. Another member of the audience was a Canadian who came to this country as a refugee from war-torn Sri Lanka. Clearly, everyone has a story. There is plenty of evidence that the more human beings interact and the more we get to know one another, the more likely we will be able to understand another person’s perspective and find peace with them.
The third theme of the discussion was that of imagination. In fact, the tagline of the entire Peace Festival was: “Imagine Peace”. As our panel discussion evolved on Sunday it became clear that imagination is a secret “weapon” for peace. Often the path of peace is harder to imagine and therefore harder to enact than the path of violence. In 1946, American politician Adlai E Stevenson II famously noted, “Making peace is harder than making war.” As an example, we discussed the extremely complex situation in Syria. While no one on the panel or in the audience could have claimed to know the solution to the current crisis, Dr. Abuelaish managed to sound optimistic that peace could still be discovered through diplomacy. Both of the panelists were emphatic about the importance of imagining and exploring non-violent solutions in every type of conflict.
It was such a privilege to be part of Sunday’s panel. We were moved by the way the panelists responded with honesty, intelligence and integrity. We walked out of that auditorium dreaming of peace. I’ll paste below some excerpts from Dr. Abuelaish’s remarks. I have tried to write his words so that you will see the cadence with which the words were spoken. For what we heard was a poem for peace.
“Were we born to fight and to kill or to live and to give life to others?
I had to accept as a Palestinian child that I never tasted my childhood.
I don’t know the meaning of childhood.
What can I do to get rid of the misery of life and to succeed and to have peace in mind?
For me, I have to move forward.
And that is the peace – not to look backward,
To move forward and not to accept the injustices in this world,
To be free – that’s peace – to have our freedom.
Peace is justice – lack of fear.
And peace – where can we dream big?
In this world we can see it.
Someone can imprison, can kill, can deprive, can intimidate, can do everything,
But no one can keep us from dreaming.”