King David High School’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 class with Liliane Pari Umuhoza. (photo from KDHS)
On Nov. 24, King David High School Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal invited a guest speaker. The class had the opportunity to hear from Liliane Pari Umuhoza, a child survivor of the Rwandan genocide, who is currently doing a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia.
Hearing Umuhoza’s personal story of healing from trauma, as well as her work with other survivors of the genocide, gave our class a better understanding about how genocide affects individuals and how to help them with their personal growth. Especially interesting was hearing about her involvement with the Survivors Fund, and her process of helping women share their stories from the Rwandan genocide. Having Umuhoza speak to our class was an experience we will never forget, and that we will continue to learn from.
Emma Silber is a Grade 12 student at King David High School.
Holocaust survivors participate in the candlelighting ceremony at the community’s Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. (photo by Al Szajman)
Commemorating the Holocaust and the sad succession of genocides that have been perpetrated since is a sacred responsibility – but it is not enough, says Liliane Pari Umuhoza. That memory must be the motivation that drives people to make a better world, she said.
Umuhoza was 2 years old when her father and a million others were murdered during the Genocide Against the Tutsis of Rwanda, in 1994. After experiencing trauma in her adolescence due to that familial and communal history, Umuhoza has devoted her life to commemorating and educating about the genocide and encouraging people to dedicate themselves to healing their societies.
“When we remember, we help ensure that the memories and legacies of the victims and survivors continue to resonate for future generations,” she said at Vancouver’s community Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. “When we remember, we learn about the history and create awareness. But that’s not enough. What matters the most is how we use that history to create a better world.”
The annual event took place at Beth Israel synagogue on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which is the moment when anti-Jewish regulations and systemic discrimination turned into overt violence and murder. It is seen by many historians as the effective beginning of the Holocaust.
The event was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel and with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign.
Umuhoza arrived in Vancouver several months ago to attend the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and global affairs. She is founder of the Women Genocide Survivors Retreat and is project officer for Foundation Rwanda, which provides funding for education to those who were born from rape during the genocide.
She began by outlining her own family’s history.
“I was 2 years old in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda,” she said. “During this tragedy, my father was killed. Some of my uncles, aunties, cousins and many other members of my extended family are among the million Tutsi who were killed by the Hutu extremists in 100 days.
“One million people were killed in 100 days,” she stressed. “I was lucky to survive with my mother, who managed to escape to a neighbouring country, Congo, holding me, a 2-year-old baby, where we lived as refugees until it was safe enough for us to go back to Rwanda.”
She considers herself fortunate in comparison with many of her peers.
“I now have a stepfather and stepsiblings and I cannot tell you how blessed I feel because most of my friends from home grew up without a father or a mother figure in their lives,” she said.
Umuhoza was too young to understand what was happening at the time, she said. “But I grew up facing the consequences of that tragedy in every corner of my life. As many of you may know, psychologically, young children between the age of 0 and 5 are the most vulnerable to the effects of trauma since their brains are in the early development stage. For most people who have been exposed to genocide or war as children, the trauma can become severe at the adolescent stage and adulthood, if it is not properly treated.”
At the age of 12, Umuhoza began to exhibit symptoms of trauma, including depression, post-traumatic stress, nightmares, frustration, anger and confusion. She used the strength of others as an example to recover, including a friend who had to take on the parent role from childhood after she and her younger siblings were orphaned. Umuhoza is now deeply immersed in often deeply difficult aspects of education, such as translating the narratives of other survivors through Foundation Rwanda.
“My role with this organization was to listen to the stories of these women in their Rwandan mother language and translate the stories in English so we could use those stories to create awareness and educate the world about the genocide and its ongoing consequences,” she said. “I found myself in a series of stories I’d never heard before … stories of mass murder, stories of pain, stories of rape.”
One of the lessons she learned from the genocide is to never tolerate injustice, no matter how big or small, Umuhoza said.
“Speak up and raise your voice when you see or hear people denying that the Holocaust happened,” she said. “Speak up when you hear people saying that the genocide did not happen. Speak up when you see minorities being unfairly treated. Speak up when you see women in Tehran being oppressed. Let’s dare to step out of our common comfort zone and cultivate empathy to people around us.”
She concluded: “Individually, we can change our communities. But together we can change the world.”
Earlier in the evening, Prof. Chris Friedrichs contextualized the history of the Holocaust, emphasizing the importance of synagogues as a place of refuge for Jewish communities. The Kristallnacht commemoration has been taking place in the sanctuary of Beth Israel for more than 40 years, he said.
There were more than 1,000 synagogues in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht, he noted, some many centuries old, while others were newer, having been dedicated in the presence of senior German officials, clergy and others, a testament to the apparent solidity of the Jewish community’s place in the country.
“But then, beginning in 1933, everything started to change,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at UBC. “Once the Nazis came to power, Germans were taught to shun their Jewish neighbours. Jews were banned from public places. They could no longer go to the theatre or walk in the park or send their children to public schools. But one place was still open to them – their own synagogues, where they could gather to worship or study or simply spend time with their fellow Jews. And so it was until Nov. 9, 1938, when, in one carefully orchestrated nationwide night of terror, hundreds of synagogues all over Germany were set aflame, thousands of Jews were arrested, over 100 were killed. The next morning, Jews found their synagogues turned into empty shells and the windows of their shops shattered into broken shards of glass and the contents plundered. No Jew in Germany ever forgot that night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.”
Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, spoke via video link to the audience.
Of the Holocaust, he said, “It was a continuation and manifestation of history’s oldest, longest, most enduring and most toxic of hatreds, antisemitism, a hatred that mutates and metastasizes over time, which is grounded in one generic, historical, foundational, conspiratorial trope of the Jews – the Jewish people, the Jewish state – as the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is evil, which led, therefore, to the demonization and dehumanization of the Jew as prologue and justification for Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.”
A parallel between the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsis, he said, is that they were preventable.
“Nobody could say we did not know,” said Cotler. “We knew, but we did not act.”
Corinne Zimmerman, president of the VHEC, opened the event. Nina Kreiger, executive director, introduced the speakers and acknowledged dignitaries in attendance.
Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, a child of Holocaust survivors, thanked Umuhoza and reflected on her words and those of other speakers. He understands the idea of trauma being passed down through generations, he said. Reflecting on Friedrichs’ discussion of the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life, Infeld said his spiritual leadership of the congregation during the construction of the new synagogue building was a form of response to the history of his family and the Jewish people.
Elected officials also spoke at the ceremony. Taleeb Noormohamad, member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, spoke of his first trip to Berlin, where he walked around the streets of the old Jewish district.
“As somebody who had never really seen firsthand until that trip the horrors of what had happened to the Jewish community and to so many others,” said Noormohamad, “in that moment you come to realize the absolute inexplicable horror that was cast upon people and what it does to people, to communities, to families and to the histories of people.”
He committed to standing with the Jewish community against discrimination and noted the diversity of the audience, which included himself, a Muslim Canadian; Michael Lee, a Chinese-Canadian member of the legislature; and Ken Sim, a Chinese-Canadian mayor.
Parm Bains, member of Parliament for Steveston-Richmond East, was also present, as was Marc Eichhorn, consul general of Germany in Vancouver.
“Antisemitism is not a problem, a fight, that is for the Jewish community alone,” Noormohamad said. “When you look in this room today, we are all in this together. This is our community. You are our family and the remembrance of what happened is our responsibility as much as it is yours.”
The Kristallnacht commemoration was the first official community event for Sim, who was sworn in as mayor of Vancouver three days before. He, too, spoke of visiting Germany, along with his wife and their four sons, where they witnessed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and pondered the Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones” that have been installed to mark the places where victims of Nazi extermination or persecution lived. The family, he said, has also visited Auschwitz, in Poland, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.
During the recent election campaign, Sim promised that, as mayor, he would promote the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, which the previous council failed to do. He repeated his commitment at the ceremony, and council passed the motion on Nov. 16. (Click here and here for stories.)
Sim was joined at the event by Vancouver Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who Sim credited as a stalwart ally of the Jewish community. Together, they read the official proclamation from the City of Vancouver.
“Out of the shards of destruction, in this case the glass on the night of Kristallnacht, often are born the glimmers of hope,” said Kirby-Yung, “and I think that is what keeps all of us going. It is the resilience and faith and the hope of the Jewish community that I think embodies the spirit of what we aspire to deliver here in the city of Vancouver.”
A gift of Elie Wiesel’s Night was among the forces that influenced Madeleine Schwarz’s career path.
Madeleine Schwarz is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Not the kind you would expect to build much of her career prosecuting or aiding in the prosecution of war criminals around the world, including the Nazi war criminal known as the “Beast of Bolzano,” who was living on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
Now based in Toronto, working with the Refugee Board of Canada, Schwarz spoke with the Jewish Independent about a few of her accomplishments.
Raised Catholic, Schwarz was one of seven kids on the block who frequented our house in Vancouver back in the 1960s and early ’70s. Little did we know that she would soon be making history.
She told the Independent that her passion for international criminal law began when she was a teenager and learned about the genocide of the Jewish people.
My parents, Joyce and Bernie Freeman, helped her along her journey by giving her Night by Elie Wiesel, an account of his terrifying time in Auschwitz.
“Your house was very much an introduction to Judaism,” she said. “Yours was a very open, friendly Jewish family. I recall coming to your house for Shabbat dinner in my convent school uniform.”
While studying international relations at the University of British Columbia, Schwarz had a number of Chilean friends who had family members in camps under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. That was her “introduction” to contemporary war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In 1994, Schwarz graduated with her bachelor of laws at Dalhousie University. In 2003, she obtained her master of laws at the University of Ottawa, specializing in international criminal law.
Her first job involving war crimes was at the Canadian Department of Justice. From 1999 to 2005, she worked closely with RCMP officers on investigations into crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Ukraine, Belarus, Italy and Rwanda.
When Italy found Michael Siefert, a former S.S. guard at a transit camp in Bolzano, guilty in absentia of 11 murders during the Holocaust, Schwarz put together the case to revoke his Canadian citizenship. She interviewed many people in Italy, including former resistance fighters who had witnessed his crimes.
“Seifert was quite a young man during the war. He was an old man during the proceedings. But he had committed horrendous crimes,” she said.
One of the documents Schwarz saw during the investigation made the Holocaust all so terribly real.
“I remember that we had an invoice confirming the transfer of a number of people to Auschwitz. That was one of the most horrific pieces of evidence I’ve ever seen.”
In 2003, as a result of her work and that of the legal teams who came afterwards, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered Siefert’s extradition and, in 2007, the Federal Court upheld a decision to strip him of his Canadian citizenship. In 2008, Siefert, aged 83, was sent back to Italy. His residence in Vancouver as a free man for more than 50 years was over.
During her time with the Department of Justice, Schwarz interviewed many victims and witnesses of war crimes. She said that, even when, after 15 minutes, she knew that she couldn’t use their story, she would sit there and listen for the whole two hours.
“When I’ve asked someone to tell me their story,” she said, “it’s incumbent on me to listen.… I might be the only person they will be able to tell their story to [in their lifetime].”
From 2006 to 2010, Schwarz lived in Tanzania, where she was one of the trial attorneys on the largest multi-accused trial for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Part of her work there was interviewing perpetrators of the genocide in the Butare prefecture.
She confided that this part of her job was very hard on her. “I remember interviewing three suspects alleged to have committed genocide in a row. I told my colleague – I need a break before I can talk to the fourth man.”
When it came to the trial, Schwarz and her team secured convictions of all six accused, including the first woman charged with ordering rape as a war crime.
“I think, as a lawyer and particularly a prosecutor, you are assessing the evidence and being critical. You have to be pretty surgical about it,” said Schwarz.
A few years later, at a UN conference, a co-presenter from Butare approached her and told her that his entire family had been wiped out by the genocide there. “And he said thank you very much for your work. And I practically burst into tears because I felt humbled that somebody would say that … it was not something I felt I should be thanked for, nor any of us should be thanked for because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
As a commissioner looking into the killings in Les Cayes prison in Haiti during 2010, Schwarz led an international team and supervised the final report with recommendations on future prosecutions, penal reform, justice reform and police training.
Schwarz was in Kenya in 2013, working as the human rights and justice advisor to the UN Special Envoy in the Great Lakes region of Africa, a region encompassing 13 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. With a team of experts, she collaborated with myriad different organizations to create strong networks of people who would work together to promote better communication, peace and understanding in the region.
“There are so many layers that need to be addressed if you are ever going to deal with root causes of conflict, that range from ensuring people have access to clean water, food, lodging and education, to building trust and confidence among the leaders and civil society, to advocating for accountability for past crimes…. It takes a lot of time,” she said.
From 2016 to 2019, Schwarz worked as a trial lawyer and deputy team leader at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was there that she prepared arrest warrants for individuals alleged to have committed crimes in Libya since 2011.
Despite seeing the very worst of humanity, Schwarz still has hope for the human race. “I’ve seen some pretty horrible things,” she acknowledged. “I’ve also seen people who do tremendous things to try and make change or try and help people.”
And she had this to say about the International Criminal Court.
“I think that investigations and prosecutions of individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are incredibly important,” said Schwarz. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re always getting the complete truth and I do not think we always get it right. However, I do think we get some truth and some accountability that is important for victims, as well as for countries moving out of conflict. I think that is important. And it’s a different way of telling the story than a novelist or historian.”
Cassandra Freeman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. During the early 1980s, she was part of the Jewish student movement that called for the extradition of Nazi war criminals living in Canada.
Éloge Butera, a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsis of Rwanda, and Robbie Waisman, a survivor of the Holocaust, at Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s gala event on May 26. (photo from VHEC)
For the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the first half of 2016 has been a time of intense activity, though the pace of contemporary events has been accompanied by a very conscious reflection on both the past and the future of the organization.
The VHEC held its first gala-style event in more than a decade on May 26, a dinner and program titled “Looking Back, Moving Forward.”
“The event was very deliberately intended to recognize that the organization is at a moment of profound significance,” said Nina Krieger, VHEC executive director. “We took the opportunity to reflect on the past, show our gratitude to those who founded and led the organization, and to take pride in the achievements we have had. But the program was also quite emphatically focused on the future. The VHEC began as a small organization and we have grown dramatically in size and impact, in the depth and breadth of the programs we deliver, and it was our intention to illustrate both of these profiles to the nearly 500 people who attended.”
Co-chaired by Marie Doduck, Helen Heacock-Rivers and Shoshana Lewis, “Looking Back, Moving Forward” intended to give guests a taste of what more than 25,000 British Columbia students experience every year through VHEC programs. Annually, a symposium on the Holocaust takes place at the University of British Columbia. An additional 12 symposia take place in school districts throughout Metro Vancouver. Each of these is an opportunity for students to learn about the Holocaust from an historical perspective, view a film on the subject and then meet and hear the testimony of a survivor.
“The symposia are undoubtedly the most impactful thing we do,” Krieger said.
“We have thousands of letters from students telling us about the life-changing impact meeting a survivor has had on them,” she explained. “We have classes brought to our symposia by teachers who chose their profession because of the impact of a symposium they attended years earlier.”
In a moving moment at the gala event, Caden Dorey, a Grade 11 student from Surrey, read aloud a letter he had sent to survivor speaker Lillian Boraks-Nemetz after he met her at a symposium.
“I have never been so moved in my life,” he wrote. “You have changed my perspective on the Holocaust, and life itself.… I will never forget you, and thank you for letting me share this moment with you. I’m forever impacted by this day.”
The centrepoint of the evening was a joint presentation by Robbie Waisman, a survivor of the Holocaust, and Éloge Butera, a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsis of Rwanda. Both spoke of the importance of sharing their survival stories and the influence it has had on students and others.
Waisman explained that it is difficult to help young people comprehend the idea that 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, so he tells the story of his nephew, Nathan. Waisman was only 8 years old when his older brother Haim and his wife Golda had Nathan. Waisman spoke of his pride on being an uncle, but the Holocaust destroyed their family.
“Nathan was not yet 3 years old the last time I saw him,” Waisman said. “His mother Golda could have easily gone to work in the ammunition factory after the Nazis established the ghetto, but she would have had to give up her little Nathan. She refused to be separated from her little boy and so was sent to the Treblinka gas chambers with him.”
Butera credited Waisman for inspiring him to speak up about his experiences and devote himself to confronting racism and the potential for genocide.
The evening, which was emceed by Dr. Art Hister, also represented the increasing engagement of younger members of the community in VHEC’s work. Children and grandchildren of survivors, as well as others of their generations, were involved in the planning committee and Katia Hessel, a granddaughter of four survivors, spoke about the obligation she feels for carrying on the memory of her family’s history.
While not lining up exactly with the calendar, the VHEC gala event marked three significant milestones. It is more than 40 years since the first symposium on the Holocaust for high school students took place. It is about 30 years since the society that created the centre was founded. And it is more than 20 years since the centre first opened its doors as a teaching and research museum. Honorary chairs of the event were the four past-presidents of the organization: Robert Krell, Waisman, Rita Akselrod and Jody Dales.
Passing the torch of Holocaust memory from one generation to the next has been central to the Holocaust centre’s work recently.
“The greatest single challenge we face is continuing to maintain the relevance of our mission and mandate in a post-eyewitness survivor era and I think we are well-positioned to do that,” said Ed Lewin, who retired after six years as president of the VHEC board at the annual general meeting a week after the gala.
The centre is undertaking a major project of digitizing the archival collections, which will make them accessible worldwide. The process of digitization will also allow the centre to integrate historical materials seamlessly into pedagogical materials for use by teachers locally and wherever educators are seeking supplementary classroom resources.
“We are finding a way to keep the students, who are our audience, enthused and energetic and interested in hearing about stories without actual eyewitness survivors to tell it to them,” Lewin said.
For visitors to the centre, planned upgrades will make artifacts and some of the archival materials more accessible, including through interactive electronic kiosks and visible display units.
Lewin was honored at the AGM with a life fellowship in the VHEC, as was Jack Micner.
Phil Levinson, who succeeded Lewin as president, said he intends to continue to ensure that the VHEC’s mission is met as the number of eyewitnesses to the Shoah declines.
“We have to plan for the time when we don’t have someone standing on the stage who was there,” he said. “It’s going to be easier to deny [the Holocaust] and it’s going to be harder to have an impact live. I would see that, for me and the president after me, as the biggest challenge and the most important challenge.”
While there may be a perception that working in the field of Holocaust remembrance and education is a sad or depressing vocation, people associated with the Holocaust centre say it is quite the opposite. Levinson said watching the reaction of students, who frequently mob survivor speakers and hug them at the end of a symposium, is uplifting. Such reactions demonstrate the power of the program, Levinson said.
“You see what’s happening in that room over the few hours of the symposium, and you look at all the different types of people that are in there that leave unified,” he said. “There are 1,000 people who have a better chance of going out in society now and not being racist and not tolerating it and not turning the other way. That is super-rewarding. That is why I do it.”
Pat Johnsonis a communications and development consultant for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Robbie Waisman, left, and Éloge Butera will be the keynote speakers on May 26. (photo from Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre)
At a first-in-a-decade gala dinner this month, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre will mark three significant anniversaries.
“It’s more than 40 years since the first Holocaust symposium for high school students at the University of B.C.,” said Nina Krieger, VHEC’s executive director. “It is more than 30 years since survivors of the Holocaust formed the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Remembrance and Education with the vision of creating a permanent legacy in the form of a teaching museum. And it is now just over 20 years since the doors to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre opened.”
Krieger said it seemed like an appropriate time to invite the community to celebrate the achievements of the past, learn about the diverse programs in which the centre is currently engaged and also the ambitious plans for the future. The event, titled Looking Back … Moving Forward, takes place May 26, 5:30 p.m., at Congregation Beth Israel.
“As an organization, we are at a turning point,” she said. “What started as a small Holocaust museum on the edge of the continent has grown into an institution that is renowned in its field for innovative, impactful pedagogy, exhibits, programs and collections.”
Thanks to a grant from Citizenship and Immigration Canada and a legacy gift from the estate of Edwina and Paul Heller, she said, the centre is digitizing its artifacts and archival collections, including one of the earliest extensive collections of audiovisual survivor testimonies.
“When Dr. Rob Krell began interviewing survivors on videotape in the 1970s, he was among the first to do so in North America,” Krieger said. “The collection now includes more than 200 testimonies, which have been shared with other archives, including Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, and are currently catalogued into a new VHEC system that will support access to these first-person accounts of the Holocaust.
“With these digitization projects, we are going to be able to reach exponentially more scholars, students and members of the general public in Vancouver, in Canada and around the world,” she continued. “The impact we can have on Holocaust studies will be enormously increased. More importantly, thousands more people will be able to access our impressive collections. Furthermore, thanks to a related project in which we are developing complementary pedagogical materials, educators worldwide will be able to access multimedia teaching resources at age-appropriate levels to share this history in impactful ways.”
Krieger said Looking Back … Moving Forward will introduce attendees to the power of firsthand eyewitness testimony. The keynote speakers will be Robbie Waisman, a survivor of the Holocaust, and Éloge Butera, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Their stories of survival are examples of the kinds of VHEC programs that reach more than 25,000 B.C. students annually.
The event is also intended as an opportunity for attendees to learn about the breadth of VHEC programming.
“People are often surprised at the diversity of the programs and services we deliver,” Krieger said.
Earlier this month, the 41st annual Symposium on the Holocaust at UBC brought about 1,000 students from across Metro Vancouver to the university for two days of meetings with Holocaust survivors and historians. In addition to this annual event, VHEC now delivers similar “satellite” programs in 10 school districts and sends outreach speakers to schools all year round. Teachers’ conferences, learning resources and hands-on Discovery Kits help teachers educate about the Holocaust at age-appropriate levels. School groups and the general public visit VHEC to experience locally and internationally developed exhibits. Survivors access services including financial, medical and social supports. Scholars and other researchers use Western Canada’s largest collections of Holocaust-related materials. Four annual commemorative events – International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, the High Holidays cemetery service and the Kristallnacht Commemorative Lecture – provide opportunities for both mourning and learning.
“We hope that attendees of Looking Back … Moving Forward will come away with a deeper appreciation of the work we are doing,” Krieger said. “And with our deep appreciation that everything we accomplish is due to the support of people who understand the value of what we are doing.”
The event is co-chaired by Mariette Doduck, Shoshana Lewis and Helen Heacock Rivers. Honorary chairs are the four past presidents of the organization: Waisman, Krell, Rita Akselrod and Jody Dales. For tickets, visit vhec.org.
Pat Johnson is communications and development consultant at Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, as well as a member of the Independent’s editorial board.
The Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, centre, addressed Project Tikkun participants at Hillel BC on March 13. (photo from Hillel BC)
As the academic year winds down on university campuses across the province and students gear up for exams and summer jobs, 15 student leaders from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University are also preparing for a totally different experience: a 16-day experiential learning and service trip to Rwanda and Israel.
Project Tikkun was developed by Hillel BC to challenge students to “understand the essence of hate by breaking down stereotypical thinking.” It is a yearlong program of learning that allows participants to explore the root causes of racism and antisemitism, culminating in a service trip to Rwanda and Israel between May 3 and 18.
The overseas component will enable participants to bear witness to how the diverse citizenry of two relatively young nation-states have grappled with a legacy of genocide. It will provide a firsthand examination of conflict resolution and reconciliation through the humanitarian work and activism pursued in each country to build durable and bonded communities.
According to its website, Project Tikkun brings together “undergraduate students of different ethnic backgrounds, religious practices, sexual orientation and personal beliefs to establish a caring and committed community of change-makers.”
Rebecca Recant, program director at Hillel BC, noted that the intent of the project is also to “build a local community of allies that can support each other when a [hateful] incident comes up, no matter which community.”
Student interest in the program exceeded the limited number of spaces and, last fall, a diverse group of 15 participants was selected. The group includes students of Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Korean, Persian and Rwandan backgrounds and a mix of the Jewish, Sikh, Baha’i and Christian faiths. The religious affiliation of the Jewish students varies – some come from secular homes whereas others were raised Orthodox; some have visited Israel and, for others, this will be their first trip to Eretz Yisrael.
Over the course of the year, the participants have been getting to know each other and examining their biases through intensive group learning sessions in which they have explored the history of Canada, Rwanda and Israel. A number of guest speakers, ranging from academics to community activists, have facilitated discussions. Of note, Dr. Andrew Baron, an assistant professor of psychology at UBC whose research examines the cultural and cognitive origins of unconscious bias, structured tests for Project Tikkun participants based on the Harvard Implicit Bias Test that he helped create. Jordana Shani, managing director of Hillel BC, explained that the testing of participants’ level of bias takes place at three different intervals: at the outset of the program, prior to departure and one to two months after return to Canada. The testing provides a way “to measure what we’ve done and how effective the program has been,” she said.
Certainly, much time, effort and money has been channeled into the program, especially the service trip. The journey begins in the capital city of Rwanda, Kigali, where local guides will accompany the students on a tour that will highlight the many landmarks and memorials of the 1994 genocide. The students will then travel to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), where they will spend the bulk of their time. Established in 2008 as a residential community-home to protect and nurture Rwandan children who were orphaned during and after the genocide, ASYV now cares for approximately 500 of Rwanda’s most vulnerable high school-aged students. It is modeled after Yemin Orde, an Israeli youth village founded in 1953 to care for orphans of the Holocaust, and it provides a family-like environment for at-risk youth.
The Rwandan students “grow up in this youth village hearing about the youth aliyah village in Israel that [ASYV] was based on,” said Recant. “It’s an Israeli model that is part of the connection between the two countries. They even know Hebrew words, like tikkun olam.”
At the youth village, Project Tikkun participants will learn and live side by side with the ASYV students and volunteer in the classrooms, on the farm and in the kitchen. They will accompany the ASYV students during their foray into town to fulfil a weekly community service commitment.
Libia Niyodusenga, a second-year UBC economics and geography student who was raised at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, is looking forward to returning to Rwanda as part of Project Tikkun. “I think the country itself has the best ways and methods of teaching people through so many organizations that are based in Rwanda and so many history-based sites that you can learn from,” he said.
From Rwanda, Project Tikkun participants will travel to Israel, arriving on Yom Ha’atzmaut, where they will celebrate Israel’s independence in Jerusalem. Later, they will commemorate the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, tour the Old City and observe Shabbat before moving on to explore other parts of the country, including the Yemin Orde Youth Village. All the while, participants will learn from and volunteer with Israelis who are committed to combating intolerance and inequality – political, religious, ethno-cultural and socio-economic – to effect positive change within Israeli society.
The Israel portion of the trip will demonstrate that complex issues – both regional and domestic – defy the simplistic characterizations often portrayed by the media and that “you can love the country and be critical of it at the same time,” said Shani. The participants, she added, “will meet with people who believe in the right of Israel to exist and who are engaged to make it a better place.”
Jasmeet Khosa, a fourth-year student of international relations at UBC whose Sikh parents immigrated to Canada from Punjab, India, said: “I know that this project focuses on Rwanda and Israel as case studies [for conflict resolution and activism], but what I’ve learned so far is that this extends far beyond – [the message] is universal.”
By all accounts, Hillel BC is pleased with the results of the project thus far. Participants are inspired to help create positive change both at home and abroad and have developed a profound sense of strength through their diversity. As Khosa observed, “… the great thing is that we come from such different backgrounds – academically, culturally, religiously – that everyone brings their own perspective and we get a really great mix in that everyone has something unique to contribute to discussion and friendships, in general.” Niyodusenga added that the connections between program participants are already “deep and intimate.”
In reflecting on the many experiential learning and service trips that she participated in during university and how integral they were to forming her identity, Recant said, “Trips like this are life-changing.”
Shani and Recant are grateful for a grant from the Diamond Foundation that made Project Tikkun possible. While participants will pay a fee, the cost of the program is heavily subsidized to ensure that finances do not pose any obstacles. However, because of the decrease in the value of the Canadian dollar, Hillel BC is continuing to seek financial support for the program. For more information about Project Tikkun, visit projecttikkun.hillelbc.com; to make a donation, call 604-224-4748.
Alexis Pavlichis a Vancouver-based freelance reporter.
Dr. Neil Pollock instructs a team of surgeons in Rwanda on carrying out his technique of circumcision. (photo from Dr. Neil Pollock)
Dr. Neil Pollock specializes in circumcision, from newborn to adult, and adult vasectomy. As a leading expert in circumcision, he has traveled around the world to train physicians and, this summer, he will head to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to teach a team of doctors in medical newborn and infant circumcision.
“After carrying out 50,000 infant circumcisions and traveling recently to Turkey, China and Africa to exchange ideas, I have evolved my technique to make it applicable to infants, children, teenagers and adults,” Pollock told the Independent in a recent interview. “I have developed a technique to do circumcision in this older age group under local anesthetic without using sutures and using, instead, a cyanocrylate skin glue that closes the wound. Being able to do the procedure under local anesthetic and with skin glue instead of a general anesthetic in hospital provides for a much simpler, easier, quicker, safer and improved cosmetic outcome for patients.”
This method, he said, is unique. “I’m unaware of this approach being used anywhere in [Canada] except in my clinics. The older age group is currently requesting circumcision for reasons like reduction in disease transmission, preference of their partners and improved hygiene.”
In 2008, Dr. David Patrick was the head of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Pollock said he was asked by his colleague “to teach my surgical techniques for circumcision in Rwanda, where they were using scissors and stitches, without anesthetic, and their surgeons desperately required training in an alternative quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique that would be accepted by their population. In coordination with their surgeons, I planned with my team a five-day surgical training mission that year and flew to Rwanda. I have been in contact with these surgeons by email since my trip and they have informed me that they are using my technique effectively and safely throughout the country now.
“The impact of our humanitarian effort became known in the international medical community, which led to Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, professor at [the University of California, Los Angeles] Medical School, contacting me recently and asking me to essentially replicate the work I did in Rwanda, but this time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where they are being overwhelmed by the number of patients requiring treatment for AIDS and would receive huge benefit from introducing a preventative strategy to reduce AIDS transmission, such as infant circumcision, which will reduce the risk of their circumcised infants later contracting AIDS when they hit sexual age, by over 60 percent. Its impact and effectiveness has been referenced metaphorically to be like a vaccine.” Circumcision, he added, “works to reduce AIDS by removing the portal of entry of the virus, which is the foreskin.”
Klausner, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and the program in global health at UCLA, is an advocate in the use of medical male circumcision for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. He volunteers with GHESKIO, an organization run out of the Centre for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in partnership with the Haitian government. Operating primarily in Port-au-Prince, their work is supported by Haiti’s first lady and has a mission to combat HIV and improve conditions of maternal and child health. GHESKIO will host Pollock’s training in Port-au-Prince.
Raised in Winnipeg, Pollock explained that he decided to become a doctor “because I had a strong interest in sciences, medicine and surgery from a young age.” Early in his career, he decided to create a special focus on circumcision and vasectomy, and built a highly focused practice and a well-tested – and respected – technique.
“My interest in developing a safe, quick and painless approach to circumcision for the medical community in B.C. arose initially from some of the rabbis approaching me approximately 20 years ago and encouraging me to become a mohel in Vancouver,” Pollock said.
The benefits of newborn and infant circumcision are many, but the rates of the procedure vary from region to region, and remain contentious to those opposed to what’s seen as elective (non-consenting) surgeries for babies.
Pollock noted, “The most important change recently in how the medical community has come to view circumcision is expressed in the … consensus statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics released in late 2012 declaring that ‘the medical benefits of infant circumcision outweigh the risks.’ This is the strongest statement of support ever issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The benefits of circumcision are multiple; they include reduction in the risk of urinary tract infection, which can lead to kidney infection and renal failure, reduced risk of cancer of the penis, cancer of the cervix in partners, reduced risk of balanitis (which is infection of the foreskin), and other foreskin-related problems, like phimosis.” As well, circumcised males also experience a “reduction of multiple sexually transmitted diseases, like HPV, herpes and AIDS transmission. The latter is exponentially more important in places like Haiti and Africa, where a large number of the population has AIDS in comparison to other regions of the world where AIDS is less common.” Possible risks include “bleeding and infection,” he added, “but, in experienced hands, risks are extremely low.”
Rwanda and Haiti share a history of national trauma, which has led in both countries to poor health outcomes. In 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their countrymen in a genocide. In 2010, Haiti, already the victim of more than two centuries of extreme poverty, dictatorships and U.S.-led military interventions, experienced a 7.0 earthquake that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000, and displaced 1.5 million of the tiny country’s 10 million people. Since then, Haitians have been hit by serious outbreaks of preventable disease, including cholera, tuberculosis and AIDS. According to the United Nations, life expectancy is 61 years for men and 64 for women.
The health challenges that Haitians are very similar to those experienced in Africa, and the training is seen as critical in addressing those obstacles. “Like there was in Rwanda, there is a need to train surgeons in Haiti to carry out a quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique,” Pollock explained. “In regards to what accounts to gaps in circumcision rates, there may be a deficiency in trained surgeons to carry out the surgery in an acceptable manner, along with variations in social and cultural norms that influence the choice to have circumcision.”
The ultimate intention of the training, Pollock said, is “to set up a national program accepted by the population, to introduce infant circumcision safely and effectively, and have it evolve to become a widespread practice throughout the country, thereby reducing the transmission of multiple diseases, including AIDS.”
Pollock’s visit to Haiti will involve intensive training. “My goal is to carry out a similar plan to what we executed in Rwanda. I worked with physicians there weeks ahead to set up a surgical schedule of 20-to-30 infants per day, over four-to-five days of operating. After working with doctors on models that I brought to demonstrate the technique and do the primary teaching, they moved to assist me with the surgeries and eventually carry them out under my supervision on the infants booked for circumcision.”
The training in Haiti, part of a nongovernmental public health initiative, will be partially supported by charitable donations. “The commitment from my end for Haiti will include a week away from my practice and the commitment to help raise the $25,000 for the mission to take place. The plan is to raise $25,000 from the Vancouver community in the next seven days or so as to be able to launch the teaching mission in Haiti by the end of the summer. During the week in Haiti, I will train two physicians, who will then train other physicians once our team leaves. I will maintain follow-up with these physicians to help them manage any issues that should arise.” The goal is to create a sustainable public health campaign and donated funds not only will go towards covering the costs for the week, but also for “the next 500 infants once we leave.”
Readers who would like to donate to the effort “will support an initiative, which will undoubtedly over the years save thousands and thousands of lives,” Pollock said. “It’s intended that Haiti will become a training centre for circumcision in the Caribbean. It is likely that my technique, once taught in Haiti, will soon be shared with multiple countries throughout the Caribbean, multiplying its effect to save lives throughout the entire region. So, I’m asking readers and members of the community to reach deep and consider making a financial donation to help us raise $25,000 in the next [several] days to allow this mission to proceed.”
To make a donation, contact Dr. Neil Pollock at 604-644-5775 or [email protected]. “We will make it very easy for people to donate, and make arrangements for their cheques (made payable to the Vancouver Foundation) to be picked up by our team,” he said. Donations can also be mailed to 4943 Connaught Dr., Vancouver, B.C., V6M 3E8.