Aisha Sherazi – Ottawa Citizen, Canada
April 3, 2014. 11:58 am
As I started out my journey to Doha, I began with the exact ideas that I was there to combat: stereotypes. For some years, Rabbi Blum Executive Director and Spiritual Leader of the Ottawa Torah Centre and myself have been conducting workshops in the public school system.
We walk into a school together, and the students have no clue who we are. We don’t speak, so we hold up signs and they have to guess. They guess that Rabbi Blum is from Israel, and speaks Hebrew. They guess I am from the Middle East and speak Arabic. When Rabbi Blum speaks his beautiful Parisian French and tells them he was born and raised there, the students are surprised. When I begin speaking on my British accent and don’t speak Arabic at all, they are equally blown away.
Rabbi Blum and myself were invited to Qatar by the Qatar government to attend this year’s Interfaith Conference in Doha, put together by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. This year’s theme was “The Role of Youth in Enhancing the Value of Dialogue”.
Rabbi Blum wasn’t able to attend unfortunately, he is in the middle of building a Center in Barrhaven that Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs can enjoy. I tore myself away from my children and deserted my husband for a week to attend the conference and share the work we do here in Ottawa. It was an honor to be invited, and Rabbi Blum and I submitted a paper, keen to share the work that we feel makes a difference in the lives of young people.
I went armed with my own notions about the Middle East. The migrant workers being treated terribly. The oppression of women in traditional countries.
As I arrived at the airport in Doha, all but one of the immigration officers were women. Young, beautiful women, efficiently smiling their way through passport control. I was greeted at the conference booth at the hotel by numerous young girls, eager to help everyone, male and female alike. They were super efficient. The conference itself was opened by Professor Aisha Yousef Al-Mannai, her strong voice spoke to everyone about the importance of youth and dialogue in order to combat extremism and violence, in an increasingly troubled world. Translation devices were provided throughout the conference for those of us who didn’t speak Arabic.
So much for my notions of the role of women in the Middle East. I was faced with the real challenge of addressing my own biases and willingness to box people in.
The conference addressed some of the challenges in youth engagement. Dr. Andrew Smith from the UK’s The Feast Project outlined one of the major challenges he faces in Muslim-Christian youth dialogue – ‘getting kids to turn up at all’.
It’s a very valid point. I’ve written before that kids are more comfortable tweeting and texting to talk. How will we overcome this challenge if we really want to engage kids in dialogue? He is making huge efforts to reach out and get kids together for meaningful dialogues, and doesn’t shy away from getting kids to deal with the difficult issues in order to find common ground.
Rabbi Michel Schlesinger spoke very well when he said that we will have to use social media tools and give young people causes they can be passionate about, if we really want to engage young people and encourage interfaith dialogue.
Reverend Donald Reeves emphatically said that the only role an ‘old person’ (his words) can play is through mentorship. He admonished leaders who think mentoring is simply advising, not listening to young people.
Imam Juan Francisco says dialogue opportunities in Latin America are limited, and that second and third generation Muslims are still viewed as immigrants, even when they have assimilated. But he is quick to point out the heartening story of young people getting together to discuss how they can help in the event of a natural disaster.
On the first day of the conference, the Doha Centre for Interfaith Dialogue awarded the Doha International Prize for Interfaith Dialogue 2014 to organizations and individuals for their work in the field.
Jordan’s International Forum for Moderation, Britain’s Three Faiths Forum, Princess Rohaniza Usman of the Philippines and Mihai Valentin Vladimirescu of Romania won the top awards. The award will help provide them with funds to continue their work.
All in all, I was so impressed with the organization of the event itself and the level of professionalism, although there was room for improvement of course. I was equally impressed with the diversity of the participants, who spanned all denominations and almost all countries.
And what of the exploited migrant workers? When I arrived, there were a horde of people arriving, Indo-Pak people, keen to find work. Along with them, I noticed there were so many westerners (far more than Arabs), presumably here for business opportunities. Yes, we must address the fact that workers have a right to be paid fairly and with dignity (although I never witnessed any abuse whatsoever in my measly three days there). But we must also address why those people are having to leave their own homes, in order to find work in places like Qatar. The driver summed it up very nicely when he brought me to the hotel. “Why would I work in Sudan, when I can earn more money here?”