Protestors demand international community ramp up efforts to rescue Nigerian schoolgirls


“Please—rise up and take action now!” cried Comfort Ero, utilizing a megaphone at a May 10 rally in Vancouver to demand that Nigeria and the international community bolster their efforts to rescue hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls.

“Bring back our traumatized girls and ease the pain and shock of their parents!” continued Eros, president of the Nigeria-Canada Development Association of British Columbia, whose members turned out en masse at a Bring Back Our Girls rally to sing protest songs and pound traditional African drums at Robson Square in the city’s downtown. Another rally is planned for tomorrow morning (May 13) on Vancouver’s Burrard Street Bridge.

On April 14, 276 students were abducted in a midnight raid of a girls’ school in Chibok in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno. Many of the pupils had travelled there to take final exams. The abductors were members of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is a sin.” Initially, the group said it would sell the girls in the marketplace. However, a new video released May 12 showed about 130 of the students, seemingly unharmed, while Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau demanded the release of imprisoned insurgents in exchange for the girls’ freedom. The Nigerian government has been criticized for its ineffectual response to the schoolgirls’ kidnapping.

The 14-year-old terrorist group, bent on creating an Islamic state under Sharia law, began insurgent attacks in 2009. It has terrorized the Sahel region, killing 1,500 people, including school kids and police, and targeted UN headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. Nigerian-Canadian education consultant Joshua Afuye, who was at the May 10 rally, is worried about Boko Haram’s militarism and believes that the group is linked to terrorist organizations, reportedly al-Qaeda. “It’s an international network,” Afuye said. “They are getting international support.”

Such malicious terrorism requires a coordinated pushback. To this end, a strategy to find and rescue the girls is being undertaken by Cameroon, Niger Republic, the United States, Chad, France, Canada and the United Kingdom. (Canada has offered surveillance equipment to help in the search.) Ero said that, unless the terrorists are stopped, parents will cease sending their girls to school. This would a tragedy for the country, she said. “Nigerians have a saying, ‘If you educate a woman, you are educating the whole nation.’ ”

Burnaby’s Bryne Creek Secondary student Merve, a Turkish immigrant, called the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls “a horrendous act. These girls belong in school and they aren’t for sale.” Her schoolmate Yasmine, a Jordanian-Canadian, added that the kidnapping is a “major blow for the progress of women.”
Nigerian-born Priye Iworima, who came to Canada in 2004 when she was 16, is fearful for the schoolgirls’ safety but refuses to give up hope. “At least there is action now.” But there must be no more delays, Iworima said. “Their lives are at stake. The action needs to be immediate.”

Return to Afghanistan inspires hope — and warning

Mellissa Fung

How does one pass the time while a chained captive in a dusty hole in Afghanistan? Journalist Mellissa Fung, who was on assignment in 2008 with CBC News when she was kidnapped while exiting a refugee camp, prayed—a lot. She also smoked—12 cigarettes a day, carefully meted out over a 24-hour period: half a cigarette at the top of the hour, the other half at the bottom of the hour. Fung also contemplated the lives of the many refugees and orphans she had met—children like Eid with the pink headscarf, who wailed with grief when she was forcibly separated from Fung. Even held captive, with her life hanging in the balance, Fung realized she was better off than many of the refugees she had encountered.

Fung’s captivity ended 28 days later when Afghan intelligence secured a prisoner swap. Afghanistan and its people, however, haunted Fung upon her return to Canada, and her book, Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity, was written in part to try to reconcile with the ordeal.

Fung spoke about her harrowing odyssey to a crowd of more than 200 on April 29 at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver. The event—organized by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan—showcased Fung’s 15-minute documentary, “Return to Afghanistan,” which aired on CBC’s The National this past December. “A lot of people thought I was crazy to go back,” says Fung. However, dismayed at the negative coverage about Afghanistan dominating the Western media, Fung wanted to return to tell “good stories” about the country. Fung pointed to the remarkable statistics: more than 10 million children in school, with more than 40 percent of these girls, in comparison to rampant illiteracy under Taliban rule.

Fung related other stories about the people of Afghanistan, remarking upon one orphan Afghan boy whose face was severely disfigured by burns. At one time, such a boy would have been an ideal target for Taliban recruiters, but he was determined to focus upon getting an education. If educational opportunities had been available to her captors, Fung said, perhaps they “wouldn’t have been doing what they were doing.”

Education has become a powerful tool to improve the standard of living for Afghan families. NGOs like Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan have implemented literacy and teacher-training programs that have significantly helped the Central Asia nation recover from a protracted civil war. However, said Fung, Afghanistan still needs support from Western nations to ensure that the tremendous gains that have been made aren’t lost, due to a still-precarious economy and security concerns about Taliban insurgency.



Afghan-Canadians Condemn the Taliban and Celebrate their Nation’s Election

7571Leila, a Langara College student, attended the anti-Taliban rally in Vancouver.

More than 75 Afghan-Canadians gathered in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery on April 6 to condemn Taliban terrorists who—despite threats of violence—were unable to derail Afghanistan’s historic national election, held April 5. “I felt like a kid on Christmas day,” said 22-year-old Hamid, one of Afghanistan’s diaspora who watched the elections on television with his mother. “It’s very, very cool.”
Small children sat on the grey, stone steps of the Vancouver gallery, holding signs directed at the Taliban such as, “Enough! Stop Killing!” while their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers listened to members of Vancouver’s Afghan community condemn Taliban insurgencies.
In the run-up to the election, the Taliban stepped up its attacks in Afghanistan, targeting such landmarks as La Taverna du Liban, a famous Lebanese restaurant in the capital of Kabul. Two Canadians died in the attack that killed more than 20 people. Days before the April 5 election, another attack wounded Canadian AP journalist Kathy Gannon and left Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus dead. North Vancouver optometrist Roshan Thomas, who created the Sparks Academy in Afghanistan for girls and boys, was also killed, along with Calgary nurse Zeenab Kassam, in an earlier Taliban attack at Kubul’s luxury Serena Hotel.
“The recent killings were a shock to the world,” Afghan-Canadian Mustafa Delsoz told the Vancouver crowd. “We show solidarity with those who have passed away.”
Lauryn Oates, the projects director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, which has established schools, teacher-training and gender equality programs in the Central Asian nation, also spoke at the rally. The Taliban’s sole “goal is the surplus of violence. They are against modernity, civilization and human rights,” Oates said.
Oates declared the April 5 election “a triumph that is unparalleled.” Twelve million Afghans were eligible to vote, and the turn out was estimated at about 60 percent—double the number who voted in the last national election. Many millions of women cast their ballot, a momentous step forward in a nation where fundamentalist Islamic edicts set forth by the Taliban during their 1996-2001 reign stripped women of any rights. Mr. Parwani, who organized the anti-Taliban protest, added that the increase in women voters communicated a definitive “ ‘no’ to terrorism.”
Leila, a 26-year-old Afghan-Canadian nursing student, was thrilled by the elections. “It’s so exciting, I wish I was there to be a part of it.”
Pundits are saying that a clear winner will be unlikely to emerge from the April 5 elections, thus requiring a runoff election in the near future.
DSC_7584Children in Afghanistan are often the victims of Taliban violence, a tragic legacy that Afghan-Canadian youngsters are acutely aware of.
27634Lauryn Oates, projects director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, says that, for the Taliban, violence is an end in itself.
7619The Taliban are especially brutal towards Afghan women.
DSC_7563Afghan-Canadian children participated in the April 6 rally to protest widespread Taliban violence.
7603Sabit Mirzad (left) and Wali Sarwari are Afghan-Candadian students who have high hopes for Afghanistan’s future following the success of the democratic national elections April 5.

Memorial March Honours Vancouver’s Dead Women

HP“I come every year to honour all our women.” Harriet Prince

Every year in Vancouver on Valentine’s Day thousands of people participate in the Memorial March that starts at Main & Hastings in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. Canada’s poorest off-reserve postal code, the Downtown Eastside has been a killing field of sorts for hundreds of women—most of them aboriginal—who are the victims of murder, violent assault, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction and HIV-AIDS. As the Memorial March winds its way past flophouses, run-down hotels and back alleys where women have been found dead or assaulted, aboriginal elders stop to perform a smudge ceremony, and leave a yellow or red rose in a gesture of remembrance and love.

The death of women in the Downtown Eastside, as well as other parts of Canada and the world, is evidence of ongoing systemic violence perpetrated against females on a daily basis. But there is a global women’s movement, One Billion Rising, which was formed several years ago to stem this tide of violence. On the same day that Vancouver’s Memorial March mourned the death of our most vulnerable, poor and powerless women, One Billion Rising supporters from more than 200 countries danced to demand an end to gender inequality around the globe.

The world must work together to end the political, social and physical abuse endured by millions of women on a daily basis. Even Western women are vulnerable to losing ground in the hard-fought battle for gender equality that began in earnest a half century ago. Fighting for the rights of women in the developing world is a fight to maintain our own freedoms against institutionalized and pernicious patriarchal forces.

Memorial March, Vancouver  February 14th 2014

Two young girls drop rose petals along the Memorial March route.

Memorial March, Vancouver February 14 2014

“I am honouring my ancestors and all the people who have been tragically taken away from us.” Kim King


First Nations elders lead the Memorial March through the streets of downtown Vancouver.

A woman sings a traditional First Nations lament.

Traditional Valentine’s Day roses become a symbol of love, loss and mourning for the victims of violence.

Nurturing a free press key to Afghanistan’s democratic future

Ariana TV (ATN) transmission towers above Kabul, Afghanistan. ATN, a private television network, was launched in 2005. It focuses on informative, cultural and entertainment programming.

Saad Mohseni, chairman of the Moby Media Group, the largest media organization in Afghanistan, recently penned an article about the importance of the media to the future of democracy in Afghanistan. Within five years of the 2001 fall of the Taliban, Mohseni writes, Afghanistan saw the growth of “the freest media sector in the region,” which allowed “civil society to flourish.” This development of a free press, Mosheni added, was “our greatest accomplishment since 2001.” As a result, gender inequality issues and violence towards women became part of the public discourse and awareness around such things as polio vaccinations and voter registration was disseminated. With the upcoming national election in April, it is vital that a new president and his government extend protections to the media. As a safety net, Mohseni adds, the international community must place conditions on aid to protect press freedoms in the years to come.
Mohseni’s position resonates profoundly with Journeys to the Edge. Nurturing, protecting and respecting a free media is something our organization is actively trying to support in Afghanistan by giving the J2E Emerging Journalist Award to Mubareka Sahar Fetrat of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. Sahar, only 18, but already a prolific documentary filmmaker, has been accepted into Vancouver’s Langara Digital Film Production course, an intensive four-month program that will enhance her filmmaking skills, allowing her to become an even more significant figure in the Afghanistan media when she returns home. It will also help prepare her to realize her dream of running Afghanistan’s first female-headed production company.
Two months into 2014, Journeys to the Edge is still working with Sahar on obtaining a Temporary Resident Visa. She has made the initial trip to Islamabad, Pakistan, which is the closest Canadian visa office to Kabul (something that needs to be changed!) but must return for a second visit with additional documentation. It is a long and challenging process, but we remain highly optimistic that Sahar will be here in time to start the Langara College program this September.
The future of Afghanistan lies with its youth, of which Sahar is an excellent example. Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, they have “an insatiable appetite for entertainment, news, and current affairs,” writes Mosheni. They are the leaders and the peacemakers of tomorrow. It is important for the West to keep this in mind, and continue to support the nation in tangible ways.

Journeys to the Edge Trek article recognized

My story about Lauryn Oates and Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, “Courage, Education & Hope” published in the University of British Columbia’s alumni magazine Trek, was just awarded the bronze medal in the Individual Features or Feature Articles category in the 2014 CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) District VIII Communication Awards competition. District VIII covers the US Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. Trek magazine picked up a gold medal. Congratulations to editor Vanessa Clarke!

Happy New Year!

The Journeys to the Edge team of Roberta Staley and Tallulah Photography would like to thank the incredible supporters who helped make the multimedia show, Afghanistan Rising, such a success in 2013. We’ve got lots planned for 2014, including bringing the second recipient of the J2E Emerging Journalist Scholarship award to Canada to obtain advanced digital filmmaking and journalism skills. The first scholarship recipient was Sebastian Petion of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who is back in his home country working for various international media outlets.

To close our New Year’s message, J2E would like to give special thanks to the following individuals who, without their help, neither J2E nor Afghanistan Rising would have been possible: über web designer John Ngan, intern Kari Barret, technology wizard Bryce Ferris, Chapel Arts Club owner Nathan Weins, musicians Levi and Elliott of Parentheses, as well as the following businesses: Lace Embrace Atelier, RMT Massage from the Electra Health Floor, Rawket Chocolate, Finlandia, Paranada, The Eatery Restaurant, Mystic Masala, Creampuffs, Rayne Longboards, Hair Cats, Fairview Plastic Surgery, Renaissance Spa, Queensberry Flowers and Three Birds Bodycare and Massage.

May you have a happy and fruitful New Year!Burka. Afghanistan

Farewell to Nelson Mandela – Peacemaker

Several years ago, the Journeys to the Edge team of Roberta Staley and Tallulah Photography travelled to Soweto, South Africa to report upon the efforts of a palliative care organization that supported slum dwellers who were suffering HIV-AIDS alone, immobilized and unable to feed themselves or travel to obtain their antiretroviral drugs.

Soweto, which was the heart of the anti-apartheid movement, is also the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, which killed 1.7 million people in 2011 alone, and has killed about 35 million since 1981, when statistics were first compiled.

In 1981, Nelson Mandela, also known by his Xhosa clan name ‘Madiba,’ was still behind bars in his prison cell on Robben Island. But the tide was turning against the apartheid regime that imprisoned him in 1964. International pressure helped secure Mandela’s release in 1990 and Mandela, who became president in 1994, dismantled apartheid.

One of the places that Journeys to the Edge visited was Regina Mundi Church, which held a rousing and moving memorial service for Mandela on Dec. 8. If Soweto was the heart of the antiapartheid movement, then Regina Mundi Catholic Church was the centre of its heart. Within the embrace of its red brick walls, touched by rays of yellow, white and pale blue streaming through simple stain glassed windows, anti-apartheid activists would communicate their clandestine plans by signing the time and location of covert meetings. The church was the only place that people could assemble without fear of arrest for breaking a state edict forbidding gatherings of three or more people.

We were all touched by Mandela’s remarkable statesmanship. His legacy is one that—we hope—will endure, for it was founded on love, forgiveness and the courage to live a moral and ethical life.

Peace and healing to the people of South Africa. Rest in peace Madiba.


Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day

Today, December 10, is International Human Rights Day. Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan are calling for assurances from the Government of Canada to ensure that accountability measures are taken to prevent any Canadian funding to the Government of Afghanistan from inadvertently contributing to legal or judicial changes in Afghanistan that will be a setback for human rights, writes Madeliene Tarasick, President of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

In November, a working group on sharia law within the Ministry of Justice of Afghanistan proposed draft revisions for punishments for “moral crimes” in its new penal code, including stoning to death. The draft provisions specified that married women and men who engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage would be stoned to death in a public location, and whipping of 100 lashes would be proscribed for those unmarried men and women who engage in sexual intercourse.
Fortunately, in response to international media coverage and outrage from human rights and women’s organizations, President Hamid Karzai quickly announced that stoning to death would not be included in the new penal code.
Nevertheless, it is great cause for concern that elements within the Afghan Government were advocating for the return of a barbaric practice that clearly represents an egregious and blatant violation of human rights. Officially sanctioned and routine stonings to death were emblematic of the pariah Taliban’s infamously crude and brutal “justice” system, the end of which was celebrated by the people of Afghanistan.
It hardly needs to be said that stoning to death is an inherently cruel practice that no human being should be subjected to under any circumstances, for any crime. It is unacceptable that in the 21st century this practice continues to occur in several countries, an affront to the spirit and intent of international human rights law and the establishment of an enlightened community of nations committed to valuing and protecting human life, in the aftermath of the Second World War.
However, it is even more atrocious that stoning to death could be proposed in a country where the government is financed almost entirely by members of that community of nations, including Canada.
The Government of Afghanistan has been on the receiving end of billions of dollars of aid, one of the most ambitious and broad-based efforts of international cooperation ever mounted. Yet, the Karzai-led administration has frequently and flagrantly violated its own international legal commitments, domestic criminal and civil law, and human rights policy objectives. The country’s own Constitution (Article 7) stipulates that “the State shall observe the United Nations Charter, inter-state agreements, as well as international treaties to which Afghanistan has joined, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Afghanistan is also a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among others.
In response to these violations, donor countries have often raised objections through diplomatic means, but have failed to enforce any robust accountability measures upon the Afghan Government.
In particular, Canada and other donor governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on legal and judicial reform in Afghanistan. The Afghan Ministry of Justice is almost entirely financed by international donors, and yet a working group within that ministry advocated for a return to the punishment of stoning to death.
Women are particularly at risk in the face of laws that target “moral crimes” and seek to regulate and repress the sexual behaviour of citizens. The justice sector is systematically failing to protect the rights, dignity, and lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, and this most recent example demonstrates that the current Afghan administration is not serious about its promises to improve the dismal status of women, to protect human rights, and to reform the justice sector.
While Afghanistan is indeed a sovereign country and must gain the capacity to legislate its own laws, its Government, including its legal system, is financed by the taxpayers of foreign nations. Donor governments must ensure that their funds are not used to support legal and judicial practices that violate international human rights law. Norway has now cut its aid to Afghanistan on the grounds that it failed to meet its commitments to protect women’s rights and fight corruption. Indeed, Human Rights Watch is calling for donors to withhold funds if the proposed provisions in the penal code are passed. The Government of Canada should consider the same.
Our organization is committed to promoting and protecting the basic human rights of Afghan women and girls. We will continue working towards this task regardless of what 2014 brings, and we urge the Government of Canada to continue its support for gender equality and human rights objectives in Afghanistan. To this end, Canada must insist that the government of Afghanistan uphold its international legal commitments to human rights protection, and should make all existing and future funding commitments that flow through the Afghan government contingent on strict accountability measures to this end.
It is essential that Canada stand by the people of Afghanistan to ensure that their government works to reform and progress its legal system, rather than regress it. We owe nothing less to both Afghans and Canadians.