Category Archives: mental illness

Toxic Clouds, Toxic Smoke

I had been asked to say a few words of greeting from Center for Victims of Torture headquarters to a counseling group of 12-14-year-old Eritrean refugee boys.  This was daunting, not only because I had laryngitis but because, well, what could I say that could possibly be of interest to them?  I stood up and rasped out a few words about how we in Minnesota do our best to tell their stories to the world, and thanked for allowing me to sit in on their group because it would help me raise more funding so we can work with more refugees.  I hoped that last part would actually be true.

The boys watched me with curiosity as I spoke, probably wondering why I sounded like a chain-smoking man.  My words were translated into Tigrinya, then they nodded and smiled at me and turned their attention to the young counselor who would facilitate the group.  I had expected them to maybe feel self-conscious with me there, but I think they forgot all about me.

I love kids of all ages.  Each age has its adorable and unpleasant aspects, but I couldn’t find anything unpleasant about these kids.  Like boys this age anywhere, they were awkward and gangly.  Some were tall for their age and had deep voices while others were puny and squeaky voiced.  Some had peach fuzz on their upper lips.  They slouched, hunched over, spread their legs wide, and tipped their chairs back until I wanted to lunge forward and say, “Don’t do that—you’ll fall over!”  I thought how difficult it must be go through puberty in their situation.  Many if not all of these boys were on their own, without any family members.  They lived in groups with an adult caregiver in very small houses with no privacy.

When my son was 12, if anyone asked him how he was feeling he would have rolled his eyes, made a joke, and changed the subject.  These boys showed no reluctance to talk about feelings and how to manage them.  In fact, they took the group very seriously.  As I wrote in a previous post, this was the third of three groups designed as a kind of “coping bootcamp” for young Eritreans who were at risk of suicide or of leaving the camps in a futile search for a better life.

None of what was said was translated, but it didn’t have to be.  There were visual aids (complete with misspellings) and I was pretty familiar with the concepts being taught by now.

For instance: it’s normal to feel angry or hopeless considering what they’ve been through; feelings come and go, like clouds, so usually if you wait they will change; emotions can be managed by talking, exercise, meditation, etc.  The facilitator had already taught these concepts in the first two meetings and was drilling the boys about them.  They were totally engaged, almost all raised their hands enthusiastically to answer, spoke gravely, and discussed points of clarity with each other seriously and respectfully.  I may have imagined it or may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me as if they treated the information as if it was a matter of life and death.

I was a bit relieved when the group ended and the boys spilled outside to share some ambasha, a traditional bread.  You could say that branding is literally baked into everything CVT does.

People have asked me how the food was in Ethiopia.  It was really good.  CVT has a staff canteen where two cooks serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I paid about $11 for an entire week of meals.  There was just enough—no seconds, no gorging—you wouldn’t gain weight if you lived there for a long time.

Here is one of the cooks, heavily pregnant, baking ambasha over an open fire on the roof because the power was out (I always asked my coworkers if it was okay for me to take and use their photos).  She had used plastic bags to get the fire started, over my protests.  Note the can of paint nearby, probably highly flammable.  Employee health and safety have a long way to go in Ethiopia.

Losing My Voice

The day I was supposed to give the second half of my presentation, I awoke with no voice.  I couldn’t force out even one husky syllable.  I don’t know if I had a cold, or if it was all the smoke and chemicals, or both.  regardless, this was going to be awkward.

I wrote, “I Have Laryngitis” on a piece of paper.  Then I thought no, they might not know what that was, so I wrote another that said, “I Have Lost my Voice.”  Then I thought dang, we are always talking about giving refugees a voice to speak up for their rights.  What if they think I am making some kind of bizarre white western yuppie artistic statement?

People did give me strange looks when I showed them my sign, but what else could I do?  I slid a note over the breakfast table to Maki: “I can’t give a presentation with no voice.”  She nodded and shrugged.  Did she think I was faking it to get out of doing the second half because I had worried the first one hadn’t gone over well?

“You can go with Yonas to get your camp pass this morning,” she said.  Yonas, not his real name, is our loggie.  “Loggie” is shorthand for logistician.  I nodded and followed Yonas to the truck.

The power and the generator were both off, so the wireless router was going “BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP …” You get the picture.  It was loud and annoying and no one else seemed to notice it.

I had planned to force out some words but didn’t think I could make myself heard above the beeping.  I showed Yonas my note about having no voice and he smiled, nodded, and proceeded to talk to me very loudly.  Ethiopians are normally soft spoken.  I assumed he was trying to be heard over the beeping but he kept it up after we’d left the compound.  I’ve noticed this the other times I’ve had laryngitis; for some reason people seem to think you are hard of hearing.

We went into two camps and called on the administrators with the agency that manages them.  They don’t let just anyone into the camps, for good reason.  Refugees are vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation because they tend to be desperate for solutions to their uncertain plight.

In each office, Yonas and I sat across from the official and the two of them made small talk.  Yonas did all the talking.  I smiled and nodded deferentially to everything.  Yonas explained how I was a CVT employee who was here to observe the programs, that I had come from the US, that I was a fundraiser  who was here for a week.  The official would nod slowly at each statement and then there would be a very long pause as he or she scrutinized the forms Yonas had submitted weeks earlier.  They appeared to relish the power of being able to keep you in suspense as to whether they would grant the pass or not.  Finally, just when I was sure they would stamp “REJECTED” on my pass, they stamped “APPROVED” and that was that.

If I make it sound like Ethiopia was dreadful, that’s not my intention.  So I had a sore throat and lost my voice.  So what?  The thousands of refugees in these camps had lost their homes, their families, their peace of mind, and their hope.  I was so grateful for the opportunity to experience where we work and what we do first hand.

I can’t and wouldn’t show photos of refugees.  You know, there’s that whole thing about treating people like they’re animals in a zoo.  And the thought of posting photos of people online—people who have no Internet access and so will never even know their photo is out there—feels wrong.

Here’s some CVT signage.  It may look depressing but it’s hard to keep it looking good with the mud and rain.  The good news is that CVT has planted a lot of trees, which makes our corner of the camps welcoming, and the fencing is to protect them from goats.  The illustrations are “before” and “after” counseling.

Feelings on a Stick

Day two of my work week in Ethiopia.  I was sitting in on the second day of a training for our staff.  It was interesting enough, but as I wrote it all had to be interpreted into Tigrinya, and the Eritrean staff’s questions had to be interpreted into English, then the answers back into Tigrinya, and on and on.  I was super impressed by our interpreter, who must have been exhausted by the end of the day.  He started every interpretation with a word that sounded like “selezzie,” which I assumed must mean, “he says.”  I also noticed there were certain words that must not have a Tigrinyan word because they jumped out at me in English when he was speaking Tigrinya.  I could understand why “name tag” and “photo copy” might not have a Tigrinyan translation, but “silence” or “responsibilities?”

We worked our way through the manual that counsellors would use to run the groups.  One exercise involved everyone drawing a face on a circle of white paper on a stick to show how he/she was feeling.  You can’t see the faces because everyone except one counsellor drew them very, very small.  Well, and because the iphone takes crappy photos in low light.  It was like the faces drawn by the counsellors were floating inside big white balloons.  When it was my turn to show my face, everyone laughed because it fit the white circle.  I will never know what that was about.

During one of the longer interpretations, my mind started to drift.  I was tired due to living through The Night of the Rat.  I began to do what I usually do in meetings to keep myself looking engaged; I counted how many men there were, then how many women, and calculated the percent that were women.  Then I looked around and guessed how old each person was.  Back home, I would normally calculate what percent of the group were overweight, had blue eyes, or were gay, but in Ethiopia those were non-existent or hidden attributes.

I looked down at my feet as though I was concentrating closely on what was being said and thought, “Dang, I need a pedicure.  I wonder if I’ll have time to give myself one later, or should work on my presentation more, or take a nap ….”

I had been asked at the last minute to train our staff in Ethiopia on proposal writing.  I would have one the one-hour after-lunch slots on Wednesday and Thursday.

This was a great opportunity but also a tall order because I felt I couldn’t train people on how to write proposals without backing up and explaining things like, how do you find donors to apply to?  Who gives away the most money? How do you choose among many different funding opportunities?  What kind of skills to you need to raise funds?  And so on.

I had created an outline offline, then spent hours trying to email it to Maki so she could review it.  I considered loading it onto a flash drive, printing it out, or just handing her my laptop before I finally got an internet connection.  We wasted so much time trying, and trying again and again to get a connection.

During our morning break, I finally got to offload the sweets I had brought all the way from Holland and Austria.  I had stroopwaffle and tiramisu cake and a strudel, all hermetically sealed in plastic and probably loaded with preservatives because they were none the worse for wear except for being a little smashed.

The cook cut them up into small pieces and they were circulated with the popcorn and coffee.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this treats, and one of the youngest counsellors came over and asked me what the tiramisu was.  When I told him, and said it was Italian, he looked at me skeptically.  “I thought I knew all the Italian words for foods,” he said.  “Lasagna, spaghetti, linguine,” he rattled off his Italian food vocabulary.  “Teer-ah-mee-soo,” he repeated a few times to himself, then wandered away to find more.

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

The Eyes Have It

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was feeling kind of guilty about the nun bashing in my last post until I started writing this one about the El Greco Museum.

Lynn and I had seen paintings by El Greco in the Prado Museum, but in Toledo there was an entire museum devoted to The Greek.

The collection was in an old house composed of additions from different centuries cobbled together and connected by ramps or hallways; in some instances you had to go outside to get from Point A to Point B.  Our first stop was a video about El Greco.  It went on at great length about how he was distinguished from his contemporaries by his elongated figures made of long brush strokes.  He was nearsighted, the video said by way of explanation.

In addition, many of his subjects were painted looking heavenward with crazy eyes, and this was thought to be because he used patients from an insane asylum as models.

The nun would have made a great model for El Greco—I’m not saying she was insane, just that her eyes had this same look.

So those are the things that make El Greco a star.  He was so in demand that he had apprentices help him churn out paintings and it’s now difficult to tell who painted what.  I am at a loss as to why El Greco is considered a master while Margaret Keane is not.

But as I’ve fully disclosed before, I’m not a New York Times art critic.

After shuffling along in the museum for a couple hours, we thought a brisk walk would do us good.  On the trolley tour we had spied what looked like giant escalators cut into the hillside, and the narration had said there was a nature walk.  The sun had come out, so now was the moment.

We attempted to find our way out of the city—ha!  Here is a map of Toledo set in the pavement, lest we needed reminding of what a labyrinth it was:

Eventually we found ourselves, quite by accident, outside one of the city gates where we could see the River Tajo.  I grew up near the Mississippi, so my inner Tom Sawyer kicked in and I joyfully crashed through the undergrowth toward the water.

“Where are you taking us!?” Lynn cried.

I ignored her until I stopped short at an orange plastic tape printed with “¡Cuidado!” every few inches.

“This must have been used to section off a path for a marathon,” I guessed.

“A murder, more likely,” Lynn responded.

When most people see things like this, they turn back.  I hopped over the tape and kept heading for the river bank.

“Where the hell are we going!?” Lynn asked, picking her way through the bushes behind me.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I just want to see the river.”  We reached the bank and stood looking at the muddy water.

“Well, just as you suspected—it’s a river,” Lynn said.

“Yep,” I replied, and we turned back toward the city.

There was time for one more museum, the intriguing-sounding Museum of the Visigoth Councils and Culture.  It was housed in the Church of San Romain, which had a small entry door set inside the giant-sized door that many churches have.

I’ve stopped mentioning how much entry tickets cost unless they vary substantially from the typical 4-5 euros.

There was a tiny glass booth just inside the door where an old man collected our €1 entry fee.  He gave us a piece of paper and we made for the exhibit but were commanded by him to stop at another booth three feet from the first one, where another old personage collected the piece of paper, stamped it, and gave us another piece of paper. Whew!  We were legal now.

The museum was worth the entry fee. There was this one display of something beautiful.

The rest was mainly Spanish signage. I have a hard time following historical narratives in English, much less in Spanish, so I am none the wiser about the Visigoths.

Synagogue of the Virgin Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Have you ever been in the London Eye? If not, it’s a super sized ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames with a bird’s eye view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and much more. 

Imagine, being in the Eye, watching yesterday’s terrorist attack unfold. The confusion, the fear, maybe some twisted excitement, the plain-old inconvenience of being stuck up there until thd police gave the all clear. 

Will this attack hurt London’s tourist economy? I doubt it. No matter how many of these incidents happen, most of us have the capacity to believe it won’t happen to us.  And statistically, it won’t, so keep on traveling.  

Day Two in Toledo. Today we would visit the Synagogue of the Virgin Mary and the Mosque of Christ the Light.

“I can just hear the Christians saying, ‘There, we showed ‘em!’ as they nailed up the new signs,” I said.

The so-called synagogue which hadn’t been a synagogue in hundreds of years was just steps from our hotel.  The website, which I won’t link to here, makes it look like you could spend days there.  It was lovely, but there wasn’t much to it:

There was a nun in the back of the now-church, and she sort of floated through the place and out a side door.  We followed her, since there was nothing else to see in the main building, and she went into a small out building which we entered to our regret.

You know how you walk into a place and immediately wish you hadn’t? The nun was there, seated behind a table piled with books and pamphlets and art prints.  The walls were hung with drawings.  The nun was ecstatic, in the original sense of the word, “involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I was raised in a Catholic family but never felt Catholic. I explored various religions and somehow knew I was Jewish immediately upon beginning to study Judaism.  So I’ve been Jewish since I was 18, which is a long time ago.  I’m also an atheist, which, conveniently, isn’t incompatible with being Jewish.

All this is background to saying that—having been schooled by nuns for 14 years— when I saw this nun I knew her type.  In fact, she was a dead ringer for Sister Mara, my 8th grade teacher.  I recognized the glassy-eyes, the never failing smile, and most of all, the enthusiasm to share what she had discovered with others, whether they were interested or not.

Fervently religious, or mentally ill? They are often intertwined, regardless of the faith.  None of this was triggering Lynn, who has neither Catholic or Jewish baggage.

The art, pamphlets, and books were all by and about some guy—possibly still alive and living in a monastery or cave in the mountains—who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after having a vision.  He was an artist, a poet, and (naturally) a visionary, the nun told me breathlessly in Español muy rapido.

The art reminded me of Peter Max (example below), which made me wonder if her visionary also took drugs, but it was executed like my three-year-old nephew’s drawings, which feature people with pumpkin heads and tooth-pick legs.

It was better than I am making it sound.  I wish I had taken a photo to show you but I didn’t want to demonstrate too much enthusiasm.  The nun had moved on to how Israel was wrapped up in the vision, so it was time to break in and say, “Thank you very much, it’s been fascinating.”

Even the tiniest tourist attraction in Spain has a gift shop, and the ex-synagogue one had this on display:

As usual, the non-Jewish author had used a photo of an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall, instead of a picture of me, a much more typical Jew.

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.