In 2005, a good friend told me about a small independent film being made for which they were looking for a 30-something South Asian woman; this actor was to play the mother in a Muslim family. Only four years after 9/11, global wounds were still fresh and having been born a Canadian member of the 95% peaceful Muslim population of the world, I was anxious about any media which would perpetuate dominant stereotypes and heighten the already rampant Islamophobia of the day.
Once reassured by my friend that the film was geared towards children and the focus was to promote respect, inclusion and understanding, I went to the audition and met Toronto TDSB teacher, writer, producer and director Mitra Sen. I was immediately struck by her calm and reflective demeanour; I watched her interact with her team, with the children who were auditioning and with the adult actors. In every conversation and exchange, I could see the respect and consideration Mitra gave to each person’s contribution. I am not a professional actor, so I observed, did my bit and walked away from the experience, at ease that – regardless of what happened with me – this was a thoughtful project that would be handled with care.
I was surprised and delighted to be chosen for the part and began the process of rehearsals and filming. It was an incredibly nurturing environment and a very interactive process where Mitra welcomed and encouraged the feedback of her actors and the community. She wanted to be sure that the performances and the portrayal of the characters was multi-dimensional and real; she wanted to make sure that the coming together of the two families was not just a “fairy tale” ending, but that it happened organically and made perfect sense, just like in main character Shazia’s vision of the world, portrayed by the magical and charismatic little Tamil actress Aiishwariya Haran.
To me – an anti-war activist – making this film seemed just a small foray – a beacon of light and a call to peace – in a politically and socially fractured world. In small but deliberate steps, the film began making the rounds at renowned film festivals and winning awards. The message of peace, inclusion and coexistence was resonating loud and clear with audiences around the world. A year later, Mitra founded Peace Tree Day, proclaimed by Toronto’s former Mayor David Miller, a festival that empowers children and youth to celebrate peace, diversity and fusion through the arts in order to help children around the world. Students from schools across Ontario, multi-faith communities and families were encouraged to come together and celebrate the spirit of peace of all cultures and faiths through expressions of art and camaraderie – which they did with openness and enthusiasm.
From there, the film continued its global orbit, gaining fans in both adults and children and The Peace Tree Spirit (initiative) began growing its roots in more and more communities all over the world, establishing the Peace Tree Ambassadors program for children, inspiring Peace Tree Clubs and Peace Tree Centres in schools, creating Peace Trees that reflected symbols of diverse cultures and faiths, holding Peace Tree Mini-Conferences and workshops. This year, for the first time, Peace Tree Day was proclaimed by mayors across the country in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, Victoria, Vaughan and Brampton. In 2013, Peace Tree Day was also proclaimed in Boston after the Boston Marathon attacks. In York Region, the Police Services created the first Peace Tree Garden and Peace Tree Pavilion. In Israel, Arab and Muslim children have been united through the Peres Centre for Peace and The Tel Aviv International Children’s Film Festival as they celebrated Peace Tree Day in 2010 and connected through Skype with the Toronto Peace Tree Ambassadors.
Arab and Muslim children will unite again this year to celebrate peace, respect and diversity for their Peace Tree Day celebration in July. In 2009, Taranum Khan, spear-headed the Peace Tree Day celebration in Jammu/Kashmir, an area that has experienced conflict for more than 50 years. Mitra realized the importance of carrying on with the mission to educate and empower children and youth to create peace and celebrate diversity through the arts, literacy and fusion, so she founded Peace Tree International, a non-profit organization that presented Peace Tree Day and provides resources for teachers and children to celebrate diversity and create peace through peacetreeinternational.org.
This year, attending the Peace Tree Day celebrations and its 10-year Anniversary at the North York Centre in Toronto, I couldn’t help but be emotional and heart-bursting proud. As she has for the last decade, I watched Mitra lovingly talking and connecting, organizing and nurturing, like the conductor of some beautiful opera of understanding and compassion. My movie daughter Shazia (Aiishwariya Haran) had grown into a beautiful, university-going young woman who was still committed to the ideals of the equally beautiful child she portrayed on film. The crowd in attendance reflected the diversity of our much-beloved city; they were enthusiastic, interacting easily and comfortably with one another.
The performances by children and youth were outstanding – everything from the Chinese Collective Arts Association’s beautiful ribbon dance, to the kindergarten children from Rawlinson Community Ecole kicking off the vibrant festivities with the Peace March and performing the Cuban national dance Danzon with such precision. The SHIAMAK Toronto Showkids energized everyone and had us moving to their beat, followed by the gorgeous fan dancers from the Korean Dance Studies Society of Canada flowing with such grace and beauty. Soon after the Ukrainian Academy of Dance and the Arkan Dance Company had the audience clapping with their vibrant colours and acrobatics. The new band 360Peace highlighted a unique fusion of Chinese Dance with Bharatnatyam Classical dance performed by Christine Leung and Aiishwariya Haran, accompanied by the Priyana Sen Smet on the keyboard, Sarah Kaplan and Anikate Guleria on the tabla, reflecting the true spirit of Peace Tree Day.
The festivities closed with the lovely Kathak dancers from M-DO/Kathak Toronto and the very sweet little Japanese Ayame-Kai Dance Group who melted everyone’s hearts in their sparrow costumes. Finally, NGOMA Ensemble and Beyond Sound Empijah rocked the North York Centre, which saved the day by opening their doors when unexpected rain threatened a full cancellation of the event.
Almost 200 children, youth performers and workshop leaders took art to activism in order to support children around the world through their participation and advocacy of campaigns by Red Cross and UNICEF (Nepal Earthquake Response), War Child Canada, Free the Children, the Malala Fund, Because I am a Girl and He for She. It was an incredible showcase of talent, diversity and compassion of children and youth working together creating change – sharing their music and their art, teaching and learning from each other and engaging parents as well in the Peace Tree workshops ranging from Aboriginal Dot Painting to Rangoli Art presented by the Kelsey Peace Club and children across the GTA. The Peace Tree Ambassadors have now taken their campaign online to support children and youth around the world where donations can still be made at www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/peace-tree-day-2015-fundraiser/.
Ten years later, I wasn’t just a part of a “fairy tale” ending. The Peace Tree Day celebrations showed a world that could be; a world where families of every background united, interacted, contributed and celebrated together – and it made perfect sense.
Ayesha Adhami is a Toronto-based activist, artist and musician.