Palestinian Sami Al-Kilani admits he could easily have become someone who would resort to using violence against Israel. He spent time in an Israeli prison and his brother was killed in what he calls a peaceful demonstration.
Instead, the just-retired professor at An-Najah National University in the West Bank has devoted the past 20 years to trying to find common ground with Israelis through a shared concern for bettering the lives of the most disadvantaged in their respective societies.
“I chose not to stay in the cage of hate, where you only think of revenge against your captors, but instead dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis … in the hope of a peaceful future for our children and theirs,” he said.
What changed for him was meeting Jim Torczyner, a McGill University social work professor who founded a program that brought together Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, and Jordanians for a year of graduate studies in grassroots community organizing. The following year, they returned to their countries and worked in centres located in poor neighbourhoods.
The centres were created by McGill and its regional partners to help people secure their basic rights, such as housing and education.
Torczyner wanted to expand the program to include Palestinians and Al-Kilani was among the first. Al-Kilani became a fellow of the McGill Middle East Peace Program, now called the International Community Action Network (ICAN), from 2002 to 2004.
A few years ago, ICAN extended its reach to Syria, as well.
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Although the word “peace” was dropped from its name several years ago, for Torczyner and Al-Kilani, who’s now a member of ICAN’s regional management committee, it’s still the program’s ultimate goal and they believe it starts with individuals combatting inequality on the ground.
Over its history, 62 people have graduated from the McGill program. Today, there are 11 centres in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories that operate in partnership with local academic and civil society groups, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and An-Najah.
ICAN celebrated its 25th anniversary at McGill on Feb. 13, where the current group of ICAN fellows – the seventh cohort – was introduced.
Al-Kilani joined a panel discussion with two other regional managers: Talal Al-Qdah, head of the social work school at the University of Jordan and a 2002-2004 ICAN fellow, and Merav Moshe Grodofsky, head of the social work school at Sapir College, near the Negev town of Sderot.
Grodofsky led the effort, along with with Arab and Bedouin residents, to establish a centre in Sderot during Operation Cast Lead, when the area was in the crosshairs of Gaza militants.
Torczyner, who after many years as ICAN’s director is now its academic director, remains as idealistic as when he set out to model a Mideast program on Project Genesis, the storefront community centre in Montreal’s multicultural Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood that he spearheaded in the 1970s.
Torczyner – who describes himself as a “Jewish kid from New York, the child of Holocaust survivors” – said what has sustained him throughout ICAN’s precarious existence is his conviction that “an injustice for anyone is an injustice for everyone.”
The program endures despite a waning peace movement and a perennial search for funding, which now mainly comes from private foundations and corporations in Canada, as well as Quebec’s Ministry of International Relations.
Torczyner thinks it’s fitting that ICAN’s day-to-day operations have been passed along to Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a Muslim woman from Israel. The young Bedouin activist was one of the first ICAN fellows in 1997.
Some years ago, she returned to McGill to add a PhD to the master of social work (MSW) she received from the program.
Alh’jooj became overcome with emotion when she spoke of the “holistic social change” that has come about through ICAN.
Kappy Flanders, a longtime ICAN advisory board member, called Torczyner “a visionary, creating a program spanning half the globe, and his legacy is now being grown by Amal … who is developing the project, nurturing the roots and spreading new seeds that will grow in turn.”
The 2018-2020 cohort includes Haya Abu Kishek, a Palestinian social worker from Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city, and Goni Ketain Meiri, a Jewish social worker from Jerusalem. When they complete their joint MSW degree at Hebrew University and McGill, they plan to work together in Lod at a centre that supports female victims of violence.
The other 2018-2020 fellows are: Shady Safar, a Syrian lawyer who fled to Jordan and is aiding Syrian refugees there; Nir Fytlovich, a social worker in Beersheba who has worked with people with special needs; Manar Assali, a legal aid lawyer in east Jerusalem; and Lyn Hawari, a Palestinian who works with the Bedouin community in the Negev.
Brian Bronfman, who MCed the event, is a supporter of ICAN through his family foundation, a member of its advisory board and a teacher. With his background in conflict resolution and mediation, he leads discussions among the fellows, at which they speak frankly about what’s on their minds.
A quarter century on, ICAN serves as “a model for working for peace,” he said.
It is refreshing, Bronfman continued, to hear words like “empathy,” “justice” and “sharing” spoken by people from a region where hate and violence are more common associations.