The “UofMosaic Talks Peace: In the Aftermath of War” series came to an end on February 24th, 2015 with an event on South Sudan at York University. The series, launched on October 1st, 2014, was an initiative led by students from the Mosaic Institute’s Student Advisory Committee.  The series focused on four countries affected by violent conflict – Somalia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan-, and on the ways in which their respective diaspora communities in Canada can work together to promote peace.

Somalia: “Building Here vs. Building There”

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Event attendees at York University, October 1

On October 1st, 2014, the Mosaic Institute’s UofMosaic Program launched its Fall/Winter discussion series entitled “UofMosaic Talks Peace: In the Aftermath of War” with an event that focused on the Somali community’s experience in Canada. The event, “Building Here vs. Building There: The Somali Diaspora’s Double Burden”, took place at York University and was co-presented by York University’s Centre for Human Rights and by the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

More than 50 people of both Somali and non-Somali background attended the evening discussion. Featured speakers were Faduma Mohamed, Co-Founder Positive Change, and Abdi Hersi, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Toronto and member of Mosaic’s Student Advisory Committee. Hiqab Gelle, community activist and curator of Couchiching Conversations, served as the discussion’s moderator.

The event began with a broad overview of the Somali community’s history in Canada and a synopsis of some of the current challenges and opportunities the community faces. There was a general agreement among attendees that, while the diaspora has progressed significantly since the 1990s, when many Somalis began arriving in Canada to escape the Somali civil war, the community still faces significant challenges.   At the same time, many members of the Somali community in Canada are contributing in extremely significant ways to the development and redevelopment of Somalia.

Both Faduma and Abdi emphasized the need for the community to better organize itself, and to learn from other communities in order to begin tackling issues that affect them such as Islamophobia, racism, unemployment, and mental health difficulties. Many attendees underscored that inter-generational learning was also critical both to improve the community’s experience in Canada and to enhance levels of support for grassroots development initiatives in Somalia. Other issues discussed included the difficulty of overcoming entrenched community divisions in the diaspora, and the experiences of many Canadians of Somali background who have chosen to return to Somalia in order to contribute to local development.

The event was valuable not only as a forum for the exchange of experiences and ideas among members of the Somali diaspora who have too few opportunities for such dialogues, but also as a unique opportunity for students and other attendees from non-Somali diaspora communities to learn firsthand how Canadians from other societies affected by conflict are successfully confronting their own integration challenges while simultaneously promoting the conditions in which peace can flourish in their countries of heritage. This is one of the most common but powerful traits of the Canadian Mosaic.

Rwanda: “Forgiveness is Personal; Reconciliation in Political”

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Emery Rutagonya and event attendees, Mosaic Institute, December 9 

On December 9th, 2014, students from the Mosaic Institute’s Student Advisory Committee (SAC) hosted a “lunch-and-learn” event entitled “Reconciliation and Forgiveness in Rwanda”. The event, held at the Mosaic Institute’s offices, featured Rwandan genocide survivor and peace advocate Emery Rutagonya as the main speaker. The session was part of the “UofMosaic Talks Peace: In the Aftermath of War” series.

Emery focused the first part of his talk on his own experience surviving the genocide in 1994 and the subsequent, slow process of learning to forgive the perpetrators. He recounted the brutality, horror, and profound loss that overtook his home city of Kigali and claimed the lives of almost everyone he knew. He shared that, for many years following the genocide, he grappled with feelings of guilt, and would often question why he alone survived while most of his family was killed.

Emery also could also not understand how he could forgive people who had committed such horrific acts, and did not feel he had the right to forgive in the name of those who had been killed. It took Emery almost a decade to realize that feelings of resentment and anger would lead him nowhere. That realization finally brought him to the point of deciding to forgive as an act of his own will. That decision, in turn, liberated his heart and led him to become a peace educator and advocate.

In the second half of his talk, Emery addressed the many issues surrounding the question of how to foster systemic reconciliation in Rwanda after the genocide. He argued that reconciliation is not about forgetting about what happened, but rather about sharing difficult truths, offering meaningful forms of justice, and providing platforms for the sharing and legitimization of multiple narratives about the issues that led to the genocide in the first place. For him, true reconciliation –which has yet to be achieved- requires the political will of all Rwandans, including the ruling elites, and is just as important to the future of the country as its economic development. According to Emery, understanding the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation is essential, particularly for people working in the fields of peace education and conflict resolution.

This event was a much-needed opportunity for students with connections to other conflicts overseas to learn about the Rwandan experience and reflect on the ways in which conflict has affected their own communities. For instance, participating students with personal and family connections to the Sri Lankan civil war were able to draw parallels between the conflicts in the two countries, and to begin thinking of ways in which the respective diaspora communities in Canada could learn from and support one another.

Sri Lanka: “Post-War is not the same as Post-Conflict”

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  Dr. Amar Amarasingam at the Mosaic Institute on February 11

On February 11th, 2015, students involved in the Mosaic Institute’s UofMosaic program hosted a “lunch-and-learn” event entitled “The 2015 Presidential Election in Sri Lanka: Implications for Human Rights”.  The event was held at the Mosaic Institute’s offices and featured Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam, an up-and-coming sociologist and human rights researcher, as the main speaker. The session was part of the “UofMosaic Talks Peace: In the Aftermath of War” series.

Dr. Amarasingam began his talk with an overview of ethnic tensions in modern Sri Lanka, which date  back to at least the 1950s. He then provided a brief summary of the civil war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) that ravaged the country between 1983 and 2009, and that resulted in large Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslim Sri Lankan diaspora communities forming in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, where thousands of people fleeing the violence found refuge.

Dr. Amarasingam then proceeded to examine the years since the end of the civil war in 2009. He noted that, although the war ended almost six years ago, the reasons that led to the violence remain largely unaddressed. He then focused on specific issues that are preventing Sri Lanka from moving into a post-conflict context marked by truth, justice, and pluralism. Some of the issues Dr. Amarasingam examined include the repression of civil society groups, both at home and in the diaspora; the strong influence of the military on the economic and political situations in the predominantly Tamil regions of the country; the significant impact that the conflict had on women; and what he sees as misguided government efforts to “rehabilitate” former LTTE fighters and to promote Sinhala culture in Tamil areas of the country. He also stressed the need for a process of collective remembering and dialogue to make sure the war is not seen in a simplistic light that reduces its complexities into an “us versus them” dichotomy.

In this context, Dr. Amarasingam echoed the feeling of cautious optimism put forth by several members of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada about the election of Maithripala Sirisena as the country’ new president in early 2015. Dr. Amarasingam stressed that while some of the new government’s actions have been encouraging, the new executive needs to begin to progressively tackle some of the structural issues mentioned above in order to foster meaningful change in Sri Lanka.

This event was an opportunity for young Canadians with community ties to Sri Lanka to continue the important peace-focused conversations that Mosaic has been facilitating since 2009. Attendees at the event also included students with an academic interest in Sri Lanka and in South Asia in general.

The “UofMosaic Talks Peace: In the Aftermath of War” Series was presented as part of the Mosaic Institute’s UofMosaic program. The UofMosaic is the Mosaic Institute’s campus-based peace building program for university students. The program delivers programming at Ryerson University, York University, the University of Toronto, Concordia University, McGill University, and Simon Fraser University. UofMosaic is made possible by the generous financial support of BMO Financial Group. For more information, please e-mail info@mosaicinstitute.ca