let them stay

We went to the benefit last night for the War Resisters Support Campaign - an evening of music, spoken word, interpretative dance, political action and community. Now that I've been to one meeting and this fundraiser, I can write something about this group and my experience so far.

On a personal level, I have seldom seen a group more friendly and welcoming. Walking into a new organization for the first time is never the easiest of social prospects. When attempting to get involved with a new organization, I've been greeted with everything from a wall of stony silence and snide remarks, to a warm welcome, and everything in between. The War Resisters Support Campaign gave us a truly warm, open and accepting welcome.

It's wonderful to be in a place where, when people hear we left the US, we don't need to explain why. It's wonderful to be in a place where people feel as we do and are working for a common cause. The core group of this organization were Vietnam deserters or resisters themselves. I'll be honoured to work beside them.

From the moment we landed, Canadians have always welcomed us and gone out of their way to make us feel at home. I have felt that Canada is my larger community from the very beginning. Now this feels like it could be my own community within Canada.

For me the political work is inseparable from the personal community. I've mostly felt like an outsider my whole life. In the US, the only times I have felt truly connected is through activism. So this feeling of belonging is extremely important to me. It helps me do the work, it makes the work part of my life, and the work gives my life meaning. It's a seamless circle.

* * * *

On the political level, I've joined the group at an unusually busy time, when several strands of work are coming to a head.

The main crux of the Support Campaign is to provide material aid to war resisters coming to Canada, and to coordinate the campaign to persuade Canada to let them stay.

To that end, the Supreme Court will soon announce whether or not it will hear the case of the first resisters to make it that far through the process. If the Supreme Court won't hear it, the lower court's decision (against refugee status) will stand, and the Campaign will have to go a different route.

Organizers say they are optimistic about building political support in Parliament. Most of the Canadian public supports the resisters, and - unlike in the US - that's got to count for something.

But if the Supreme Court will hear the appeal - although of course there's no guarantee of the outcome - it will be a major milestone, an interim victory.

* * * *

Last night, before the music, Phil McDowell told his story.

Phil joined the army shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, believing he was helping to protect and serve his country. Over time in Iraq, he began to realize the invasion and occupation were based on lies. He saw atrocities committed against civilians on a daily, routine basis. He saw the physical and psychological torture of people whose "crime" was sticking up for themselves when US soldiers broke into their homes.

Phil made it through his first tour, glad to be home and vowing to leave the military forever. Only months later, to his utter shock, he was "stop-lossed": involuntarily re-enlisted. (This happens to almost all Iraq War veterans who come home in one physical piece. Remember, since a draft is politically untenable, they have to get their bodies somewhere.)

Phil said no. No more. He explored all his legal options. There were none. After much soul-searching, he and his partner, Jamine Aponte, came to Canada.

The crux of Phil's story was this: the only way this will ever stop is for people to say no. The crowd erupted in applause and affirmation. I was deeply moved.

On our way out, I found Phil and thanked him. Thanked him for resisting, and thanked him for being public about it.

So many people have told me and Allan that we are "brave" or "courageous" for moving to Canada, but we don't agree. We filled out forms, we saved money, we waited. It didn't take any moral courage.

Of course it takes a certain confidence and sense of adventure to embark on such a Big Life Change, but is it any more "courageous" than a mid-life career change, or moving to a different region of your own country, or having a baby, or any of the other BLCs people make? I don't think so. It might be a little more unusual, but it's not especially courageous.

What Phil McDowell did, now that is courage. What Jeremy Hinzman, Brandon Hughey, Clifford Cornell, Joshua Key, Ryan Johnson, Patrick Hart, Christian Kjar, Corey Glass, Suzanne Swift - on through the list - did is true courage.

* * * *

There are a few hundred US war resisters in Canada, most of them living below the radar. About 35 of them have come forward to apply for refugee status. If you believe, as I do, that they should be able to live in Canada as free, legal residents, here's how you can help.

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