Slavery, rape, AIDS, sexual abuse of children and genocide are not the things Canadian citizens typically face in their day-to-day lives. But those are the things that are the focus of West Kootenay based non-profit Martial Arts for Justice (MAJ).
MAJ was started several years ago by Master Dean Siminoff, martial artist and owner of Kootenay Christian Martial Arts, which has dojangs in Castlegar, Nelson and Playmor Junction. The idea was born out of his desire to take part of his student oath “to be champions of freedom and justice” and move it from words into actions.
Siminoff hopes to motivate and mobilize fellow martial arts schools to fight for justice on a global scale.
“My focus is always going to be doing things that someone else isn’t already doing,” he said. “We are not about going out and spreading martial arts, we are going to places and targeting the most poor and vulnerable.”
MAJ has two primary focuses — raising money for International Justice Mission (IJM) through its signature fundraising event Breaking Boards Breaking Chains (BBBC) and on the ground, in person work in Africa.
Work in Africa
Siminoff, his wife Marleen and MAJ board member Stacy Devries will be spending the month of March in Africa.
Building on relationships they have been establishing over the last few years, the group will be launching projects in Rwanda and Uganda.
The focus will be on women’s self defence, empowerment training and seminars. Gender-based violence is rampant in Rwanda and Siminoff believes that giving women the confidence and skills needed to defend themselves can help reduce the violence.
MAJ will be working with the Poor Woman’s Development Network, a local Rwandan NGO that is working with 3,000 at-risk women. Organizers have selected 20 women who will be trained as leaders in an intensive two-week immersion program so that they will be equipped to train other women after the Canadian contingent leaves. With this plan, the number of women who will be helped will multiply continually.
Zura Mushambokazi, a second-degree black belt who has been part of the Rwandan national taekwondo team, has been recruited to be a key leader on the ground to oversee the program between MAJ’s visits. MAJ is working on a visa to bring Mushambokazi to Canada for about a month to further develop her leadership abilities and train her in the concepts of using martial arts as a training tool to promote leadership and justice.
Interwoven in the program are trauma coping skills.
“After a rape or violent attack, your body sort of shuts down,” explained Siminoff. “Most people don’t process that energy and the trauma becomes ongoing. We have found that the self-defense training — the kicking and punching and getting up and physical training — actually helps heal people who have been traumatized.”
“Most of these women have already experienced some kind of violence. Anyone there who is over the age of 30 will remember the genocide,” explained Siminoff.
In Uganda the team will be working with St. John the Baptist Catholic School, located on the edge of one of the largest slums in Kampala. The 400 students are surrounded by the slum and what is known as one of the worst prostitution streets in the city.
The same type of program, but on a shorter scale will be run in the school. Older students and some adults will be selected to receive intensive training with the hopes they will continue to pass the knowledge on until MAJ can return and run a longer, larger program.
About 100 miles away from that slum sits an orphanage housing between 300 and 400 children left without parents due to the AIDS crisis. The team will be doing a two day stop there, teaching kids one day and women and leaders the next and exploring options to expand the program there on future visits.
“The poverty there is more extreme than what we see in other places, along with a higher incidence of AIDS,” said Siminoff.
The dire situation of these children is often made worse as some of the girls that arrive at the orphanage will discover that they are already carrying children of their own — most conceived through violence.
“Ideally, when things get rolling, potentially you are teaching children how to defend themselves, so that they never become victims,” said Siminoff, “so you could virtually change a whole community.”
MAJ believes that to be effective on the ground for the long term, they need to develop and train local leaders to carry on the work.
Breaking Boards Breaking Chains
MAJ is also gearing up for their annual break-a-thon style Breaking Boards Breaking Chains (BBBC) fundraisers which will be held across Canada in April to support International Justice Mission (IJM).
IJM is an international organization that works for justice for the poor and enslaved across the globe. They work with local authorities to not only free those suffering from violence, but also to prosecute those who commit the crimes, restore victims to a functioning place in society and strengthen the justice system.
The specific project that MAJ will be supporting this year is the support, rescue and recovery of child sexual assault victims in Bolivia.
Castlegar supporter and participant Shana Kaviloff’s story about why she is passionate about the cause is featured on IJM’s web page.
From just a handful of schools the first few years, the fundraiser has grown to include 15 martial arts schools last year and organizers have set a goal of 20 schools this year. In all, BBBC has raised over $87,000 with a goal of another $75,000 during this year’s campaign.
Martial arts schools from cities across British Columbia, including North Vancouver, Richmond, Kelowna, Vernon, Midway, South Slocan, Nelson and Castlegar, have already signed up for this year’s event. As you move east across Canada, you will find schools in Turner Valley, Alta., Swift Current and Regina, Sask. Winnipeg, Man. and Toronto, Ont. participating.
Toronto will see a large-scale public event at the Woodbine Mall that will include some workshops for women and girls along with the board-breaking fundraiser. Canadian actress Melinda Shankar (Degrassi, How to be Indie) will be helping with the event.
Castlegar’s BBBC event will be held April 22 at New Life Assembly. More information about MAJ and a way to donate directly to the organization can be found at martialartsforjustice.org.
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