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Puerto Rico: One Way to Help

I’ve just had a long conversation with MacKay Wolff, one of the relief workers who wrote a story for my book, “Another Day in Paradise,” about his gig as a human rights’ observer during the First Intifada in Palestine. After an earthquake in Turkey, he designed “Child Friendly Spaces,” which could easily be transported by UNICEF, who run the program, to get the kids in Puerto Rico into safe spaces where they can have a bit of schooling, food, and play time, as their families and the island recover.

“Women and children first. Relief at the most elemental level,” says MacKay. “They will certainly be using local clinics and schools in the communities as they get them up and running."

Usually, the basics for human life—food, water, health care, tents for shelter, and control of sewerage—are brought in within 72 hours of a natural disaster by UN agencies and various NGOs. But Puerto Rico is an American Territory so FEMA and the US Military is in charge. President Trump would have to request UN support to augment FEMA’s efforts. This is a major disaster and it’s surprising that he hasn’t. Future preparedness, and a return to participation in the the Paris Climate Agreement, should also be considered, given that this disaster is firmly linked to climate change.

I was pleased to hear that President Trump has temporarily waived the Jones Act, albeit very late, so that ships other than American ships can land on the island with supplies. The French and the British are also working hard on their respective hard-hit islands. In pre-Trump times, collaboration would have been possible. But our allies are wary these days.

PR, our lovely island in the sun. The American Virgin Islands are suffering, too, perhaps even more so. What can we do?

“Often the problems are just logistics,” says MacKay. “The supplies arrive and there are no trucks or truck drivers, no tires for the trucks, no fuel, to deliver them. This island is very dependent on fossil fuel. The roads may be impassable. Air drops are very expensive and not that efficient.”

The military, on the other hand, is very efficient, and essential in such a disaster zone. Aid workers rely on soldiers to--literally--move mountains. Mackay is certain they are working 24-7.

But for the suffering people, the long view, is difficult. No water, no food, sewerage everywhere, and the danger of a cholera epidemic. Hospitals have been shut down because there is no fuel for their generators.

Yesterday, an email arrived from Rebeca Garcia Gonzalez, a long time friend of my friend, Carol Tateishi, the former Director of the Berkeley Writing Project. Rebeca is a native Puerto Rican, teacher and artist, whose information Carol trusts:

Here is an abridged version of her email:

"It has been one of the worst weeks of my life. I didn't know about my dad or other family for 8 days. Finally through social media I found someone who could walk to his house and check on him. I have not yet been able to talk with him to tell him I have a ticket for him to come to CA. My cousins are flooded and isolated even though they live just minutes from the metro area. My other cousins from my mom's village saw all the crops flattened. There was a scary flood that reached their home and brought corpses with it. They are completely isolated. No one is delivering goods to the island. Emergency supplies have arrived but they are not being distributed. There is no signal for planes to use... "

Donations are important, of course, but so are the calls we make to our representatives to keep the pressure up. Since the election, I have had their numbers post-it on my computer.

If you have a chance today, please make just one call. And discuss the logistics of getting supplies distributed. Is it happening? Are the roads still impassable? Suggest that the President request that the UN agencies—such as UNICEF— amplify FEMA’s relief efforts. Ask for details about the children, about the elderly, about the hospitals.

I have just talked to the aides in Senator Gillibrand's and Congressman Espaillat's office. I couldn't get through to Senator Schumer.  Read More 
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Tell Your Story Here

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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The Student & The Harpist

You shouldn’t be surprised, dear reader, that I am writing about students at the beginning of the semester. I love to teach, as well as to write, and I love my students—their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their effort. Young, middle-aged, or elderly, experienced writers or newborns, they arrive in my workshop starstruck and hopeful.

And, so, in the waning days of summer, as I sit at my computer, prepare my syllabi and amend my reading lists, I contemplate two recent encounters that reaffirm my dedication to teaching. The first was on the “A” train, a source of many stories. It’s a microcosm of the city, a gathering of the city’s diverse population.

The Mexican guitarists had disappeared and the trains had been quiet for a while. Perhaps the hiatus prepared us for the arrival of Benjamin, The Harpist. Dressed as a mariachi player, he carried a miniature harp and played “Besame Mucho,” translation: “Kiss Me A Lot.” It was written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, and is one of the most famous boleros ever recorded. I began to hum. Others took off their headphones, or stopped reading. When it was over, everyone burst into applause. Benjamin is a talented musician.

The train pulled into 59th street, which was also my stop that day. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A young man followed The Harpist out of the train. I stood and watched as they began to talk. Suddenly, the harp had been passed along and the young man was plucking at the strings, his ear close to the top of the harp to feel its resonance. I was touched by Benjamin’s kindness, his easy, generous mentoring, and couldn’t resist a flash interview. I took out my notebook and asked a few questions. The young man, Daniel Mahfooz, is a music student at LaGuardia High School of Art and the Performing Arts, my daughter’s alma mater. His family are originally from Egypt. I asked if he’d heard of Naguib Mahfouz, a famous Egyptian writer, but his answer was lost in the cacophony of incoming trains. And he was mostly interested in the harp anyway.

Then later that week, I met a young woman I will call Flo, as our conversation flowed so easily. She works at the welcome desk at the Y where I swim. I was waiting for a friend and had some time. We started chatting. She told me she was a student, and I told her I was a professor at NYU. She perked up. Thwarted by financial strain and disinterested professors, she explained, she was losing interest in getting her degree. I will not name the instituion where she is studying, it shall remain anonymous, as shall Flo’s real name, but I was shocked when she told me her story. How can a young woman, already in college, be so discouraged? It really hurt me. What she needs is a mentor, I thought to myself, a mentor like Benjamin, The Harpist. I shall be her mentor, if only for a few minutes, I said to myself. I asked about her major—English —and when I asked what she likes to read she said she didn’t like to read and, by the way, did I have any tips to “get through” Beowolf and Chaucer. So I gave her some tips—not for “getting through,” but to begin a relationship with these ancient works, and to get into the minds of the writers and oral story tellers who lived so long ago. “I write poetry,” Flo then told me. “And I like Malcolm Gladwell’s books.”

“I thought you told me you didn’t like to read?”

“My teachers don’t care what I have to say. I usually go off on tangents. ”

“I would love you in my class,” I said. “But you do need to learn how to read more tenaciously, at least one book a week,” I said. “Let Malcolm Gladwell lead you to other books. Take notes. Find a line that resonates (I told her the story about the harpist on the train and his resonating harp) and continue the line into your own poem. Follow your heart, discipline your mind. Read everything on your reading list in the same way. Read and write, read and write, all day long. Ignore disinterested professors who may feel as discouraged as you do, by the way. Maintain interest in yourself and your education. You’ve paid your tuition, don’t waste it.”

I gave Flo my card and encouraged her to stay in touch. I want to know how she does this year. Like all young people, she deserves a demanding education and teachers who care about her.  Read More 
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