The following collection of stories features women who are or have been partners of MCC at some point, or who are known to MCC in some way. Most of these women work at a grassroots level, whereas some have attained leadership roles in their specific contexts. Some of these women would identify themselves as peacebuilders while others would say that they are only going about their daily lives. While each story focuses on an individual woman, it is important to remember that these individuals are members of larger networks of women working for peace. These stories appeared in the Women as Peacebuilders 2016 Peace Sunday Packet.
Doreen Ruto (Kenya)
Doreen Ruto was a secondary school teacher on August 7, 1998, when her husband was killed in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Over 200 people were killed in the Nairobi bombing and in a simultaneous one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Doreen’s journey to find healing led her to become involved in trauma healing and peacebuilding. She first attended Eastern Mennonite University’s training program on trauma healing (STAR) in 2001. She eventually graduated from the program and went on to become one of its trainers.
Back in Kenya, Ruto gave leadership to a whole variety of trauma healing and peacebuilding initiatives. She worked with youth, women, teachers, social workers, police and others. After the Westgate Mall bombing in 2013, Ruto offered trauma healing training to victims, caregivers and first responders, with support from MCC.
Doreen Ruto died on January 21, 2016. She is remembered for her personal strength, her laughter, her love of life and her passionate commitment to trauma healing and peacebuilding.
Hala Al Hamidia (Syria)
Hala Al Hamidia is 26 years old. She lives in Damascus, Syria, where she works for the national relief and development committee of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which MCC partners with to provide assistance to people in serious need. Al Hamidia’s job is to write funding proposals to organizations like MCC and to distribute cash vouchers to people who need help paying rent or buying medicine. She also organizes programs for children and youth.
Syria has experienced war for five years. Over 270,000 people have been killed, 6.8 million have been internally displaced, and 4.2 million have fled the country. Some 13.5 million are in need of ongoing humanitarian assistance.
Al Hamidia used to enjoy walking in the neighbourhood of the Syrian Orthodox Church; now she phones ahead each morning to make sure that there have been no bombings or signs of unrest along the way. One day, while she was at work, 27 mortars exploded very near the church. Several times she has been nearly hit by a mortar herself. The threat of rocket attack is always present.
Al Hamidia has had the opportunity to attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University and gain training in restorative justice, trauma healing and peacebuilding. Subsequently, she has helped to organize dialogue groups for people from different denominations, has worked with youth to prevent them from being drawn into armed militias, and has planned activities that include Christian and Muslim children. She says, “Being a peacebuilder in Syria for me means helping other people regardless of their beliefs or their background.”
Many of Al Hamidia’s friends have left Syria, but she and her family choose to stay, despite the dangers and incredible difficulties. She says, “Being a peacemaker in a war area is very challenging as many of my generation think that the voices of weapons are louder than other voices, but I believe that this is not true and that the world can live in peace.”
Jawahir Mohamed Muse (Kenya)
Jawahir Mohamed Muse currently serves as a senior government administrative officer in Nairobi, Kenya. Her primary job is to maintain peace and security within the community of Eastleigh. It is very unusual for a woman — especially a Muslim woman — to rise to her position in such a male-dominated part of Nairobi. This speaks to her strength and wisdom as a peacemaker and community member.
Muse’s peaceful approach to conflict between police officers and the youths of Eastleigh community has been seen by many in this area as an act of restorative justice. Her initiative to work with the notorious youth of Eastleigh is also viewed as a measure to address radicalization and has earned her a good reputation among her peers within the county. This has facilitated her collaboration with many individuals and organizations working for peace in the community, including the Nairobi diocese of the Kenya Mennonite Church.
In a religiously diverse urban setting like Eastleigh, the dynamics surrounding interfaith relations (primarily between Christians and Muslims), and refugees and the host population (Kenyans) can become unstable. Misconceptions and stereotypes about faith groups and the refugees are sometimes intense. Muse’s job involves creating an environment where all can feel safe and secure to run their businesses and lives without threat.
She does this in a variety of ways: by regularly organizing and hosting public peace and security talks in the community, by mediating conflicts between individuals and groups and by organizing barazas (publicly held meetings with the chiefs from the community). Her mediation extends to domestic cases, inter-group conflicts, religious conflicts and business rivalry conflicts. Before serving as assistant chief, she was actively involved in spearheading peacebuilding activities through women’s groups, youth groups and through public awareness campaigns. She served as a community facilitator in peacebuilding and conflict management and as a community mobilizer.
Angelina Atyam (Uganda)
Angelina Atyam was a nurse-midwife and mother of six in the Acholi region of northern Uganda when her daughter Charlotte was abducted from her school in 1996, along with 30 other students. In short order, Angelina became an outspoken advocate for abducted children.
For over a decade the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted children and youth to serve as soldiers, slaves and so-called “wives” to LRA commanders. After her daughter’s abduction, Atyam co-founded the Concerned Parents Association to support families, to raise international awareness of the situation and to call for the unconditional release of children and youth abducted by the LRA. The group documented some 24,000 abductions. More than 1.5 million people were displaced and thousands killed during the height of the LRA insurgency.
At one point Atyam’s outspokenness got the attention of an LRA commander and he offered to free Charlotte if Atyam would cease her advocacy work. She made the difficult decision to refuse, saying, “All the girls are my daughters.” Charlotte eventually escaped on her own, after eight years in captivity; by then she was the mother of two small children.
Several times the Ugandan government launched major military attacks to try to destroy the LRA insurgency. Atyam and others opposed the use of violent force against the rebels, because so many of those rebels were abducted children. “Let us think about forgiving,” Atyam said. “Because if we don’t forgive these rebels, we are signing the death warrants of our own children.”
Today, Atyam is retired and living at her homestead in northern Uganda. Her courage and strength in the face of great violence is a legacy passed on to others.
Jenny Neme (Colombia)
Colombia’s armed conflict has been going on for more than 60 years. Generations living in Colombia have not known what peace means, because they have not experienced it. And yet, in June of this year, a ceasefire was signed between government forces and the armed guerrillas of the FARC (the largest and oldest of Colombia’s rebel groups).
At a young age, Jenny Neme was urged to join the ranks of an illegal armed group. She did not respond to the call. Instead, she adopted a commitment to peace and nonviolence, even though at the time she had no language for this commitment. Involved in the Colombian Mennonite Church, she gradually came to understand the centrality of peace to a life of faith in Christ.
As a social worker, Neme quickly put her faith into practice, becoming involved in community development, human rights and peacebuilding — in the church and in secular contexts. For the past eight years she has served as Director of Justapaz, an organization of the Mennonite Church that accompanies human rights and peacebuilding processes.
Neme has supported conscientious objectors, individuals experiencing human rights violations, and communities threatened with violence and displacement. She has participated with ecumenical groups to support a ceasefire, to accompany victims and to organize religious ceremonies of healing and reconciliation. Many people in Colombia oppose these peacebuilding efforts, and so her work requires great courage and fortitude.
At a Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference and Festival in Waterloo in June 2016, Neme said, “I have learned about the effects of advocacy, which are real. I have learned about the power of collective prayer, which generates hope and I have learned that it is necessary to continue walking hand in hand with the One in whom we have believed. I have learned that being salt and light is something real and possible in our contexts, guided by the hand of God.”
Leah Wang (China)
Leah Wang lives and works in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, China. In 2005-2006 she participated in MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program. While in the U.S., she heard a young man do a presentation about Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and its ministry in Palestine. She learned that CPT workers accompany young Palestinian children as they go to school to keep them safe from the very real possibility of violence from Israeli settlers. The experience impressed upon her that peace is more than simply “no war” — it is also the presence of justice and human rights.
Wang returned home with a new way of understanding her own country. She saw a country developing at such a swift pace that it was wreaking havoc on the social fabric of communities and contributing to domestic violence, school violence and structural violence. She recognized the militaristic culture that Northeast Asia shares. And she saw a great need for peacebuilding and peace education.
Together with a friend, Wang founded a local organization called Peace in China (PIC). Its first project was to promote a peace camp for youth from China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Because of historical grievances and misleading media and education, young people in Northeast Asia carry burdens of hurt and hatred for each other. Yet, since 2009, the camp has helped to break down prejudices and stereotypes for 280 young people.
Wang states, “There is nothing more beautiful than seeing stereotypes shattered, hatred become love, distance shortened, misunderstanding melted, fears overcome, new friendships made and the commitment of peace growing in young hearts.”
A Christian and follower of Jesus, Wang is passionate about guiding children in the way of peace. She says that nurturing children with love and justice will influence the rest of their lives.
Wang has big dreams for her country. In addition to organizing the Northeast Asia youth peace camp, she hopes to introduce restorative justice principles in the schools, as well as in family life. She plans to initiate anti-bullying workshops in the schools and to establish a peacebuilding network in China. Down the road, she hopes to write a book on peacebuilding practice for the Chinese cultural context.
Mavis Étienne (Kanesatake First Nation, Québec)
Mavis Étienne is a Mohawk of Kanesatake and an evangelical Christian. She is a counsellor, a broadcaster and a Bible translator. She is also a peacebuilder.
In the early 1990s Étienne’s Mohawk community near Oka, Quebec found itself in a major confrontation with Quebec police when the mayor of Oka announced plans for the expansion of a golf course and the building of condominiums on the site of a sacred Aboriginal burial ground. The Mohawk people had been trying to negotiate a comprehensive claim on the land for decades. When negotiations with the municipality to stop construction on the golf course broke down, the Mohawk put up barricades on a road, thereby preventing any work on the golf course. The Quebec police were sent in to dismantle the barricades by force; in a botched raid, one police officer, Marcel Lemay was shot and killed.
The situation escalated quickly, with the Mohawk community setting up more barricades, with increasing resentment on the part of the Quebecois population, and with the police and also the Canadian military moving in to surround the Mohawk. Étienne acted as a mediator in that context, helping to de-escalate a very tense situation and prevent further violence. The land issue was not quickly resolved, but no more lives were lost. Many Indigenous groups across the country drew strength from the Mohawk defense of their traditional land.
In subsequent years, Étienne led healing ceremonies and continued her translation work. In 2004 she and her team spoke at a church on West Montreal Island. At the service a woman from the congregation got up and apologized to Étienne and her companions about the racist behavior that they had so often experienced from Francophone Quebecois. She also identified herself as Francine Lemay, sister to Marcel Lemay. Ever since her brother’s death, Lemay had been seeking to understand the Mohawk people and their story.
Mavis and Francine became good friends and partners in helping the Francophone community better understand the original inhabitants of the land. Lemay in fact translated an English anthology compiled by the Mohawk about their history into French. She said, “This is like my contribution for the pain the Mohawks endured throughout the centuries, my way to make amends.”
Étienne believes that God had a purpose in bringing her and Lemay together. She believes love has empowered them to forgive and to reach people with a message of reconciliation.
Merelyn Amaya (Honduras)
Merelyn Amaya lived in the neighbourhood of Chamelecón, a suburb of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. In late 2014, the area became a war zone with two gangs fighting each other. One day, when Amaya’s bus stopped coming to Chamelecón because of the fighting, she tried to catch a bus on the other side of the territorial line but was forced back home at gunpoint. A gang member followed her and shot at her feet as she walked away. “I just started to cry and asked God to hold me in his hands,” she said.
In this context Amaya’s church Vida en Abundancia Iglesia Evangélica Menonita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church) strives to bring hope and peace. The congregation, which once drew some 200 people, now has about 70 — four members were among bystanders murdered in the conflict and many fled the area after being told by the gangs to leave or be killed. Despite the violence, Amaya and her church decided to stay.
At the height of the conflict, the congregation held intercessory prayers for peace in the streets for a week at a time every few months. Gang members had shot out the street lights, but church members went out each night with a generator and their own lights. They set up between the two rival gangs to pray and sing. “With all that was within our spirit we worshipped,” said Amaya. “[One night] one of the gang members made a shot into the air, he wanted to frighten us, but we just continued.”
Another way they work for peace is participating in a program of MCC and Proyecto Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Project), an organization of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Honduras. The program trains volunteers to present lessons in schools on respect, forgiveness, self-esteem, education, human rights and conflict resolution. By reminding students of these values they will be better equipped to deal with the violence. Amaya was project coordinator in Chamelecón and helped to find the volunteers.
Even during the intense violence, Amaya and the church chose to stay. “We never closed the door as the church. To the contrary we worked harder and more,” she said. “God gave us the hope that this will stop. And if we would have stopped, it would have been shutting down the only light. We were a light of hope as a church.”
Amaya passed away in March 2016 from health complications, but her legacy and the project in Chamelecón continue.
Ruth Hiller (Israel)
Ruth Hiller is a mother and grandmother, a peace activist and an Israeli Jew. Born in the U.S., she visited Israel as a teenager and ended up staying there, making her home on an Israeli kibbutz.
Hiller’s son was 15 when he told her that he was a pacifist. Her oldest two children, daughters, had already completed their mandatory service in the Israeli military. Hiller was caught off guard by her son’s desire to refuse the draft, since, as she put it, Jewish women are “encouraged to become the ‘national womb’” and to produce children who will defend Israel’s national security. But she also admitted her son’s request surfaced a deep tension she had experienced for some time.
Hiller and her husband committed to “walk the path” with their son. After several years of dealing with lawyers, committees and military tribunals, their son was released from the military as a conscientious objector. Her three other sons have also managed to avoid military service because of Hiller’s advocacy and accompaniment.
The experience of supporting her oldest son led Hiller on a personal journey away from Zionism and toward a critique of Israel’s policies of occupation and militarization. She met with other Israeli Jewish women on a similar journey. They eventually founded an organization called New Profile, which is committed to supporting draft refusers and conscientious objectors and to working for the “de-militarization” of Israeli society.
Often misunderstood by their own people, Hiller and her friends hope their efforts build a just peace for all people — Israelis and Palestinians — who call the land of Palestine and Israel their home.
Shatha Al Azzeh (Palestine)
Shatha Al Azzeh is only in her mid-twenties, but she has already experienced much struggle in her life. The descendant of Palestinians who were forced from their home in 1948, Al Azzeh grew up in the ‘Azza Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Like many Palestinians, she has lived all her life under Israeli occupation.
Only a month after her wedding and her move to Aida Refugee Camp, Israeli soldiers arrested her husband Khaled and imprisoned him. The three month imprisonment felt like two years, she said, and contributed to ongoing health problems for Al Azzeh.
Ever since she was a young teenager, Al Azzeh was fascinated with biodiversity and environmental science, especially related to water. After attending university and graduating with a bachelor of science degree, she was hired by the Lajee Center in Aida Camp to run its environmental unit. As part of her work, she conducts tests on water safety and consumption, leads training workshops on water use, and encourages rooftop gardening.
Water is “not just a local problem,” Al Azzeh emphasizes. “It’s a political issue.” During the hot Palestinian summers, access to clean water is severely limited, and not just for residents of refugee camps. Israel controls access to Palestine’s aquifers, redirecting almost 90 per cent to Israeli West Bank settlements and towns inside Israel. Israeli water companies sell the remaining 10 per cent back to Palestinian residents.
Despite the ongoing challenges of living under military occupation, Al Azzeh maintains her positive attitude and focuses on building holistic peace in her community. She sees peace as something needed not just between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Palestinians and each other, between husband and wife, between humans and their natural environment. She insists, “Without peace you cannot live.”
These stories appeared in the Women as Peacebuilders resource ahead of Peace Sunday in 2016.