Project Genesis: Mideast peacebuilding from bottom up

Women study information technology in Amman, part of a program that fosters equality. (Photo courtesy of ICAN)
Women study information technology in Amman, part of a program that fosters equality. (Photo courtesy of ICAN)

Women study information technology in Amman, part of a program that fosters equality. (Photo courtesy of ICAN)

Note: A clarification appears at end.

The idea was solid, and so was the training of its leaders and implementation of its programs.

After initiating Project Genesis in 1975, McGill University social work professor Jim Torczyner in 1997 succeeded in transplanting that successful formula to the Middle East.

The idea was to use the Genesis model for bottom-up peacebuilding by showing the disadvantaged in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories how to organize themselves to secure their social and economic rights. The training was carried out at McGill’s School of Social Work, with a Montreal storefront serving the disadvantaged in Côte des Neiges as a model.

Its Montreal offices on Victoria, corner Côte Ste. Catherine, remains a hub for advice and counsel on housing, legal and welfare issues but funding cuts and a changed political climate in Canada and Israel are challenging its work in the Middle East.

Until 2012, residents of Beersheba, Jerusalem, Lod, Nablus and Amman could access storefront locations at 11 centres to consult social workers and volunteers on similar issues affecting their rights, including those unique to the area.

An estimated 120,000 people did so, with guidance from among the 50 graduate students in its fellowship program trained under Torczyner’s tutorship. One year was spent at McGill, the second in the field in the Middle East, where they became leaders in showing residents how to access rights.

Along came the Stephen Harper government, with its agendas to slash government programs and its decision to first reduce funding and, as of 2012, eliminate the Canadian International Development Agency, the main financial backer of the McGill Middle East program. The reduction in 2007-08 from $1.4 million to $1 million curtailed the fellowship program.

“It’s a far cry from the expansion trail that we were on, and it’s difficult, it’s not what I’m used to,” Torczyner said last month at the social work faculty on University. In addition, the progressive agenda of its missions in Israel, which do not fit the right-wing policies of the Netanyahu governments, led to a drying up of funding and support from Israeli and foreign sources.

The larcenous activity of Bernie Madoff, serving 150 years in prison for his Ponzi schemes, inflicted huge losses on a variety of charitable organizations, including some that supported the Middle East initiative.

“A lot of the funders of community activity had parked their money with Madoff,” Torczyner said.

For organizational reasons, its activities in Israel imploded and the Beersheba and Lod offices had to close. Rather than sit back, Torczyner decided to rebuild. He launched a campaign and raised more than $600,000 of a total of $800,000 needed to restart the fellowship program and eight candidates are to arrive in Montreal in July.

The money came from the charitable foundations of the Paul Desmarais family, McGill chancellor Arnold Steinberg, real-estate developer Billy Mauer and his Egyptian-born wife, Lillian Schouela, and San Francisco attorney Sanford Gallanter and his wife, Linda. McGill is considering assuming financial responsibility for the program by transforming it into an institute, Torczyner said.

The British, Dutch and American governments are financing centres in Palestinian areas and Jordan. The project’s name has been changed to a more neutral International Community Action Network, or ICAN, to enable funding flexibility and possibly expansion beyond the Middle East.

Expansion inside Israel includes centres in so-called development towns of Sderot and Ofakim, with the participation of Sapir Community College, and another about to open in Netivot. Another centre is expected to be built in the town of Kafr Aqeb East Jerusalem, just outside the security wall. It is an example of why trained social workers who are politically neutral are necessary, even as top-down peace efforts continue.

“Kafr Aqeb is a complex situation. Israel claims it as part of the city of Jerusalem, so people pay taxes but can’t get there, because of the wall. Electricity comes from the Palestinians, water comes from the Israelis, but no one does sewage. And there are no police.”

It is further complicated because Palestinians prefer to get their services from Palestinians, but are reluctant to give up residential rights in Jerusalem.

“It’s very ambivalent, exactly the kind of situation that needs our kind of work. All people have the same rights, but how do you access them, and from whom, and where, and what are the political dynamics?”

An affiliated centre opened in the impoverished Ashrafia neighbourhood of Amman, Jordan, is “doing very well,” Torczyner reports.

Syrian refugees who end up in such areas as Ashrafia, which are already congested, need help to access services.

The centre there runs programs to combat violence against women and assist victims.

Thanks to its lobbying efforts, non-custodial parents of divorce can visit their children at the program’s offices. With advocacy help from the centre, a building in the community that was a refuge for drug addicts and other criminal activity was transformed into apartments.

In the town of Lod, with its mixed Arab and Jewish population, the centre deals with local, regional and even international issues, such as when Jordanian men marry Arab women from that town.

“In Lod, a youth movement from the religious right took over a community centre called Chicago, but would not let it be used by Arabs or Ethiopians.

“We had to organize to fight to get that management changed, to get it reopened as a community centre for everybody.”

Intermarriage and acquiring rights is “a big problem for non-Jews who want to move to Israel, even if they’re married.”

“Two of our fellows, one a Bedouin from Beersheba and a Palestinian from Bethlehem met here, fell in love and got married. She wants to move in with him, but Israel does not want to give her status. The Israeli Supreme turned them down, and they’re both in Washington, D.C. now, living the life of intellectual refugees.”

Torczyner is planning to wind down his role at the university, move to Israel, and hand over the reins of the program to director of operations David Leduc. He is optimistic it will forge ahead.

“Some things are expanding, others are contracting, the whole thing is evolving, but we continue with the same mission, even though the environment is much more uncertain than when we could count on CIDA funding,” Torczyner observed.

This article may not have made clear the fact that Project Genesis and the International Community Action Network (ICAN) are distinct and separate organizations with their own funding sources. McGill Social Work professor Jim Torczyner spent more than two decades with Project Genesis, his involvement ending in the late 1990s when he launched the ICAN Middle East Program.

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