THUNDER BAY, ON --- September 5, 2010 ---- I have no intention of turning this into another book review column. While that is certainly an endeavour I enjoy, it is ably covered elsewhere. However, on those occasions when a new book brings up a topic that I believe you should be aware of, it is certainly more ethical to discuss the book with you than to pretend the thoughts are my own and strip-mine the book in return for a passig acknowledgement.
Citizens of Nowhere is a new book written by veteran CBC News and Public Affairs producer Debi Goodwin. It reads, by the way, very much like a documentary. One can imagine the shots on a full-hour of The Fifth Estate, with much of the text as voice-over. That is not a criticism. Rather, it is a metaphor that the video-happy reader will be comfortable with. A bookumentary.
The bookumentary in question follows the first year in the life of 11 Somalian refugees scattered across Canadian universities quite literally from coast-to-coast and far, far removed from their families and ‘home’ in a Kenyan refugee camp. That camp, by the way, has over 270,000 citizens. Roughly the population of Thunder Bay and Sault Ste.Marie combined in an area the size of Kenora.
What is significant in terms of public policy is, well, let one of the students present it to you. A student named Abdirizak says at the end of his eleventh month in Canada:
“Those people who are inside Somalia, all they think about is the short term because they have not been exposed to the real world. They do not know how stable and peaceful the world is. All they know is, okay, today you have someone who was killed by this person. Tomorrow you have to get revenge. All they know is, how do you get food tomorrow. So most of their thinking is preoccupied with really short, targeted thoughts and most ominous, really bad ones. And such people cannot think about the future. They can’t be expected to be good patriots. Those people who are outside Somalia, whether in Kenya, whether in Africa, whether in Europe or America, if anybody can help, they are the ones who can help and will. If anybody wants good things for Africa, those are the ones.”
I will offer this freely to any party or politician willing to listen. There is a foreign policy hidden within this book and what Abdirizak and his compatriots say. Just as Pierre Trudeau had his Third Option foreign policy and Bill Clinton ‘triangulated’ contentious policy issues, there is a sweet spot between the debating points of Canada as a warrior state (albeit one only a mercenary on the side of ‘good’) or Canada as a withdrawn state. The latter will never win the day, which is why the former did and we are at war in Afghanistan.
Deep down inside, we know as Canadians that we’ve got a hell of a sweet deal. In terms of stable national governments, well-running economies, reasonably honest elections and an absence of bodies being dragged away in the night, we are among the fortunate few. Very few.
Because we know it deep down inside, we want to share it. We want to be engaged and do Good Works. We take pride in our history as UN peacekeepers, yet are not sure how to go about being peacemakers. Surely, we think, the evolution of western philosophy has sunk in to the point where we recognize that war is a pretty lousy agent of positive social change. But in the cases of Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Gaza and all their peoples damned by the strip of land where they were born, there must be a way of helping them that is not war.
For in reading Citizens of Nowhere, the thought occurs: One of the reasons pushed forward as a rationale for Canada’s involvement in the Afghan War is that we are fighting for ‘rights’, particularly women’s rights. Well, not to in the slight belittle the cause of democratic voting rights, but surely the cause of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is its equal? For those unaware - and for once I hope this is actually stomach heaving - FGM is the process whereby at least the clitoral hood, but usually the entire clitoris and the greater portion of the labia is cut from pre-pubescent girls and the remaining opening is reduced to a narrow duct by a combination of ‘suturing’ twigs and quills and scar tissue. The result is painful menstrual cycles, bacterial infection, urinary infection, maternal death and agonizing, unpleasureable intercourse.
So why have we not invaded Somalia? Because a war of minds cannot be won by guns. A gun has never won a debate. It delivers its bang as its opening statement and then it has nothing to add. The culture of a people can only be changed by its people - to attempt change from the outside is like feeding Topsy - the opponent just gets bigger and stronger.
But if we desire engagement and the free option of a foreign society to adopt western norms, the only logical avenues of diplomacy and influence is the diaspora. And if there isn’t a diaspora - make one.
The eleven students in Citizens of Nowhere came to Canada as the result of the work of the World University Students Canada (WUSC) a so scantily federally supported agency that it actually had to go into receivership, yet has managed to continue. Its outreach is in the for of individual campus committees who will offer to sponsor individual refugee students in their education. that level of support varies from one year’s tuition to five, residence room, books, laptop, all variable. Ultimately, it boils down to how much the individual student government is prepared to ante up. Lakehead University students pay $2 each per year and sponsor one refugee student every 2-3 years. Others, depending on the size of campus, put up between $4-16 per student to bring in a refugee per year.
I dare say that the cost of one day of war in Afghanistan might pay for a full ride for a 100 students, who will in turn assist their home families and refugee camps and so might change the world. Does this not seem a better plan to you than, well, killing people?
I look forward to your comments. Be seeing you.
For Lake Superior News