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This Writer Wears a Hijab

With thanks to my daughter, Chloe, and son-in-law, Ryan, for raising a flock of multi-ethnic chickens. Wishing all my readers peace in this season of universal rebirth. 

 

We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.

         

--Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

If I confided to you, dear reader, that when you do not see me or hear me or notice me, in front of the classroom, or on the train, or on the bus, I am wearing a hijab not out of necessity, but out of choice, how would your opinion change about my professional status, for example? Would you ask me if I were documented, or if I was a first or second generation American, or if I prayed, or if I had terrorist inclinations, or if I even belonged here in these United States? Or would you remain silent, silent and admiring, or silent and enraged, or silent and curious, or silent and wary, or silent and frightened? Would you report me to your superiors, have me watched, or try to recruit me to spy on my friends? And in case you are wondering, dear reader, if these scenarios are real, let me assure you they are real, they have happened to me, been reported by me, and I have written about them  over the years in different guises—journalistic voices and fictional disguises. I am Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Kurd, Iranian and Iranian-American and Haitian-American and Honduran-American. I am an American. It does not matter where I come from—originally. I am here. This is my country. I am a child of refugees. I am a child of immigrants. Do not tell me this is not my country.

 

These were my troubled and angry thoughts as I woke this morning. And also the word enfiladed, out of a dream, the writer wearing a hijab in solidarity with the non-violent Arab world, which is our world, our extremely endangered world—walking along an enfiladed hallway of ash-filled urns, the remnants of what was once a multi-cultural, multi-faceted open society, a society without borders that still only exists in an internationalist's imagination.

 

Yesterday, this enfiladed hallway was alive with students attending a small community college where I work as a writing tutor for nine hours every week. It is a bit too quiet these days—not enough students take advantage of our services—but when a student enters and sits down, and is courageous enough to ask for help, it is always interesting. I know that the student—white, black, or brown, wearing a hijab or dreads or a pony-tail—is  probably struggling to pay the rent and  pay for school. Perhaps she has no health insurance and her parents are sick and she is looking after them. Perhaps she has been in the military, perhaps she has been in prison, or had a baby too soon, or is the first person in her family to go to college because she dreams of being a paralegal or a social worker or nurse; perhaps she remembers watching her father executed in front of her eyes—in Mexico, or Guatemala, or Sri Lanka during the Civil War, perhaps she was born blind. This is the post-colonial, endangered, gentrifying world, families fleeing from man-made violence and natural disaster, families trying to survive on declining incomes without a safety net or extended family to lend a hand, or government benefits, or unemployment when a factory shuts its doors, or farmland is bought up by conglomerates,or barns sold off to millionares from the city for weekend getaways. This is the neighborhood in which we live. These are the Americans forgotten by our politicians in the last presidential election. We have already learned our lesson: we  must never forget them again.

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Incarcerated Children; An Urgent Message

“Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack or individual attack directed against any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population. The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg trials.” Source: Wikipedia

I was on a bike at the gym trying to ignore the horrific news on multiple TV screens and searching my New Yorker Today for a good article to read when I found one I’d missed on April 3, 2017 by Rachel Aviv, an outstanding reporter. It’s about the epidemic of comatose children in Sweden whose parents have not been granted asylum after many years of exile, adaptation to new surroundings, and years of waiting for an asylum application to be processed. The children of these families are analogous to our Dreamers; though most have not been born in Sweden, they have spent most of their childhoods in Sweden. Children being children, they learn a language quickly, make friends quickly, and soak up their host culture like sponges—the clothes, the music, sport fandom. More than 400 have fallen ill when asylym has been denied. They become sick for the family, they cannot move. “They fall away from the world,” one psychiatrist said. "They willingly die," said another.

Sweden had been the most beneficent country, taking in more refugees than any other European nation. This beneficence is an expression of the moral center of a humane, previously homogeneous society. But there had been a retrenchment, a right-wing surge, and more deportations if the country of origin was not at war. These deportations, Aviv explains, had become an “affront” to the country’s national character.

Even the Swedish king was alarmed, petitions were signed, the deportations eased, asylum was granted to the families of the comatose children and they began to recover as soon as they “heard” the news.

What can we learn from this astounding story? A great deal, I would say. Most importantly that it is our mandate as citizens to pay attention to the dangerous erosion of our moral center as a nation. Secondly, that we must continue to protest and give voice, as writers, as citizens, to those who are incarcerated and cannot speak. Thus my urgent message today, dear readers.

I find it telling the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court founded in 2002 as a permanent international criminal court to "bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes and crimes against humanity,” nor, more surprisingly, is it party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Indeed, the United States is the only United Nations member state that has signed but does not participate in the conventions all civilized—and even some uncivilized nations—have recognized as fundamental to the protection of the world’s children and world peace. And who can say that the United States is a civilized nation these days? I cannot.

Please read Rachel Aviv’s original article for full details about the “apathetic” children in Sweden:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation

And join me on June 30th wherever you are, in whatever country, city or state you reside to demonstrate against the horrific, inhumane actions of the current administration. Please vote in the primaries and get out the vote in November.

Support the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law:

http://www.centerforhumanrights.org/Staff.html

and the American Civil Liberties Union:

https://www.aclu.org/  Read More 
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Tell Your Story Here

This year, more than 400,000 refugees have landed in Greece. Photo: Courtesy UNHCR
A friend’s daughter, Sarah, recently graduated from college, and went to the island of Lesbos to teach English to Syrian women in a refugee camp. We are Facebook friends and I noted that she’d put up a post or two during her three-month “mission,” the word relief workers use to describe their forays into the netherworld of refugees and the internally displaced, as the UN calls them. There is a lot of jargon in this netherworld. I think the word “mission” originated in the religious relief organizations, of which there are many. The word “testimony,” of which more later, also comes from a religious tradition. Relief workers are, by definition, outsiders, yet often find it impossible to stay neutral in their opinions, especially in a war zone, and when they write about their experiences some say they are “giving testimony.”

Sarah posted Facebook photos with short captions, not of her refugee students, but of herself, a friend or two, I recall, a cerulean sky. I didn’t ask if she kept a journal; somehow I knew she would. Then her three-month EU visa was up and she left Greece for Morocco where she has been studying Arabic. She was never a constant Facebook user, but I missed the occasional posts she put up from Lesbos. I was confident she eventually would write her story and perhaps use some of these posts—photos and text—as well as her journal entries to document an essay.

Then a phone call from Sarah’s father, Steve, reassured me that all was well with Sarah in Morocco, more than well. Steve is a physician, enough time had passed for Sarah to obtain a new visa for Greece, and together father and daughter met in Lesbos for a couple of weeks--a short mission--to work in the same camp where Sarah had been before. She had missed her students and reunited with some of them; others had moved on. Steve worked with mostly Congolese refugees in a clinic. Such work is challenging, taxing, and often very upsetting.

Relief workers are expected to sign time-limited contracts, not to stay on and on, or shift agencies and take on other missions one after another. They get hooked. They have to be encouraged to take R&R, take care of themselves, and one small way to do this is to keep a journal and to use Facebook to write long captions to their photos. Social media now amplifies journals and emails; it’s a useful tool.

It was not difficult to gather stories for my book, “Another Day in Paradise,” even though the logistics were often daunting. Eventually, I traveled to London, Amsterdam and Geneva for editing sessions, and emailed drafts back and forth numerous times. Without exception, all the workers were avid readers, kept journals, and had a fundamental understanding of how to shape a story.

Now Steve and Sarah, father and daughter, after just a short time “in the field,” have many “witnessing” stories of their own. I look forward to reading them.  Read More 
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My Mother's Library

My mother, Gerda, as a young woman in Vienna. She arrived in America as a refugee.
She died at 99 holding a book. Not literally so, but metaphorically speaking, she was a free-thinking person of the book and interested in all books, all people, all of life, everywhere. She was difficult, opinionated, even prejudiced occasionally, but she usually returned to knowledge and tolerance. She was an enlightened, educated, emancipated, complicated woman.

She was fully conscious to the end, thinking about and verbalizing her experience. She lay in her hospice bed, her family around her, observing her own death, talking about it to us and to herself in an inward reflection. “I’m dying,” she said. She instructed the nurses to give her more morphine, or less. We played her music, put buds in her ears, read poetry to her. She wanted to wait for one of her grand-children to arrive from Wyoming, she said, clearly. As a physician, she understood the power and solace of morphine, how it could be used to control one’s last breath, or delay it. She consulted my sister and her husband, also both physicians, but this was pro forma. She didn’t really need them. She knew what she wanted, she was in control, she had come to the end of a long and eventful life, she was regnant upon her hospice bed.

Her father, my Czech grandfather, was a traveling salesman who traveled from Vienna to Yugoslavia to sell high-end leather gloves. My mother adored him—she was an only child—and dreaded his departures. The promise of a gift upon his return soothed her. It was always a leather-bound book, inevitably a classic. By age 10, my mother had her own library and become an avid reader. In America, in my childhood home, there were bookshelves in every room, the library organized by subject and author. My stepfather had his own shelves, his own interests: dictionaries, history, Goethe and Heine in German. My mother never read a word of German once she was on American soil. She spoke English, she spoke French and that was enough once she’d disembarked. It was odd and troubling, at times, how she’d rejected her mother tongue.

Often, I’d want to borrow a book and if I took it off the shelf and held it in my hand, she’d become agitated. Books were her totems. The library held life together, it was a commentary on the past and present, perhaps even the future. If it was disturbed, I thought, this held-together world might collapse as it had in Europe when the war began, and all was left behind, so many loved ones murdered. So I was careful, I always asked, I always returned books to their proper place on the shelf and rarely took one away. Which probably explains why my mother constantly bought me books and insisted that I read them right away so we could have a discussion about them. Many were duplicates of the books on her own shelves, and though this may seem profligate, it was not profligate; it was necessary.  Read More 
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Soldier

...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

--From the Book of Isaiah

I had wanted to tell his story or to help him tell his story. He had approached me after a seminar and said he was in transition from the military into humanitarian work and had recently returned from a stint in a refugee camp.

He’d been in Afghanistan, he’d been in Iraq, he still had all his limbs, he spoke English and Arabic and Dari, which is related to Farsi, the language of Iran. He had a very American name—Bryan—and had grown up in a very American middle-class military family in a suddenly—one year to the next, it seemed—impoverished textile down in Northern New England. Many of the young men and women had enlisted or gone to seek their fortunes in the cities across America and the world leaving their bereft extended families behind. He had lost many comrades.

This is Donald Trump’s America. We would do well to pay attention.

For several months I tried to fashion a book proposal about veterans like Bryan, young men and women who had enlisted for economic or patriotic reasons, or both, men and women who were deployed and then re-deployed, brutalized by war and witness to war. Men and women who had decided to become healers and helpers. But they had trouble talking about their experiences in war zones, they had moved on, and the stories never took shape, so I moved on, too, into my next project.

Since then, several impressive anthologies have been published but none, so far as I can tell, celebrate the soldiers who have become humanitarian workers:

https://acolytesofwar.com/2016/11/20/veterans-war-writing-anthologies-r-us/

Maybe I am thinking about these particular vets again today because there is still so much terrible conflict in the world with no end in sight; or because the promise of peaceful resolutions and solid diplomacy seems even more remote as Donald Trump enters the White House.

There are no golf courses or business opportunities in refugee camps.

We are asked by some to “give our new president a chance,” and to forgive his egregious transgressions and hate speech thus far. Many professionals are trying to rein him in, to educate him. I wonder if this would be easier, or even necessary, if his own sons had been drafted, or enlisted, or lost comrades overseas. I know that Bryan and his decimated unit, deployed and re-deployed, would have a lot to teach our new president about altruism, civility, and world peace.  Read More 
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Shakespeare's Empathy

Lest we ever forget the empathetic, imaginative genius of The Bard, we have another reminder in an up-and-coming digitalized archive at The British Museum Library. It’s a play, circa 1600 that was never produced. (The original playwright is unknown,) . The authorities were afraid it would incite riots. Why? Because the main character—Sir Thomas More—makes an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of French Hugenot refugees seeking asylum in London. Sound familiar?

Shakespeare was brought in as a script doctor, as were others, but scholars agree that his contribution is the most moving and well-written. Indeed, he fixed the script; many speeches have a distinctive Shakespearean signature.

For those who have not read “Wolf Hall,” or seen the adaptation on PBS, Sir Thomas More was Henry VIII’s councilor and lord chancellor. And by many accounts, including Hilary Mantel’s, he was not a particularly sympathetic figure. Shakespeare re-interprets Sir Thomas More, deepening his character in the rewrite of the script.

“At its heart it is really about empathy,” says the library’s curator, Zoe Wilcox, in an article in The Guardian on March 15, 2016. More is calling on the crowds to empathise with the immigrants or strangers as they are called in the text. He is asking them to imagine what it would be like if they went to Europe, if they went to Spain or Portugal, they would then be strangers. He is pleading with them against what he calls their ‘mountainous inhumanity’ ” :

“You’ll put down strangers,/ Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,/ And lead the majesty of law in lyam/ To slip him like a hound. Alas, alas! Say now the King/ As he is clement if th’offender mourn,/ Should so much come too short of your great trespass/ As but to banish you: whither would you go?/What country, by the nature of your error,/ Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,/ To any German province, Spain or Portugal,/ Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England:/ Why, you must needs be strangers.”

We would do well to remember that these are not Sir Thomas More’s words, they are Shakespeare’s.  Read More 
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There But

A Refugee Camp in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Courtesy: UNHCR
I went to my favorite fancy café to have a cup of cappuccino and a pastry. The bill was nearly $10. This may not seem like a lot of money to most people and it didn’t seem like a lot of money to me in that moment. I had just paid and was gathering my belongings when a young man sat down at the end of the communal table. There was something about his face that stopped me and I did not want to leave. I was feeling a familiar pain deep inside my body I call “my refugee pain.” Somehow I knew, I knew instinctively as I always do, that this man was a refugee or an asylee. My parents were refugees and I grew up witnessing this pain and feeling it. Writing eases the sensation and is therefore of some use to me and others, I feel. I am writing about it now.

I took off my coat and sat down again. The young man did not take off his grey wool coat or his green knitted cap. I was relieved to note that these clothes were clean. He was wearing large glasses that were slipping down his nose, shiny with sweat.

He sat for a while and looked around, bewildered. He was black. He was African. All the other visible employees in the café were white. One of the waiters put a menu in front of him. He picked it up in a desultory way and then looked around the capacious room. Conversation was buzzing. It was lunchtime. Finally, I said to him, “The service is not great here. You’ll have to call someone over.”

I don’t know why I said this. Maybe just to open a conversation. Because I knew that this young man was not there to drink cappuccino.

“I’m here to see the chef,” he said. Behind the hutch where the waiters collect the food were two men in toques. Both were black.

Then the manager came over. She was from Finland, tall and lean and blonde, studying to be a fashion designer. I bring my students here, sit for hours and read their manuscripts, and I know all the hired help. I was sure the well-dressed beautiful manager from Finland was on a student visa. She bent over the young man instead of sitting down next to him and asked a few questions. And though he didn’t have a CV, he’d been recommended by one of the chefs so she gave him an application and left him to fill it out. She’d been kind or kind enough, I thought.

The young man was from Congo, he told me when I asked. I could not imagine what he’d had to leave behind or who had been killed—friends, an extended family, maybe even a wife and children. He had escaped. He was safe. Was this enough?

I watched as he began to fill out the form. He stopped to think. Congo is a Francophone country; maybe he was having trouble with the English questions. Should I do more? Help him fill it out? His pen ran out of ink and he flicked it with his wrist. He put it down and I offered him mine. It was the least I could do. He needed a job. I doubted this would be his lucky day.  Read More 
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