Tag Archives: human rights

No Spies just Blue Skies

I lay in bed composing a scathing review of the Air B&B in my head.  The one photo of the place hadn’t done it injustice enough.  When I did fall asleep I slept straight through the night for eight hours, which never happens.

I quickly dressed and gathered my few belongings.  I just had to check in for my flight before I left for the workshop, since the agenda said there would be “no internet” in the venue and I would leave for the airport straight from there.  Hmm … I wondered why I hadn’t received an email from Delta yet?

A cold wave of panic flushed through me when I saw that my flight was … tomorrow, not tonight.  Noooo!!  I had briefly discussed staying two nights with our travel agent but distinctly remembered sending him an email saying I’d settled on just one night.  It was my bad, I know.  It’s my responsibility to check the details before accepting an itinerary.  The agent had been careless, and so had I.  This was what moving, my mom’s stroke, and moving my mom had done to my brain, I guess.

Thank goodness I had only written the scathing review in my head, because now I had to ask if I could stay here one more night.  The manager said yes, and even said she wouldn’t charge me because the cleaners hadn’t shown up before my arrival.  That explained a few things.

I felt virtuous, saving my organization hundreds of dollars, even though I was sure my coworkers wouldn’t be lining up to do the same.  I didn’t have my laptop so I wouldn’t be able to get much work done.  I would take a day off in DC, which was something to look forward to.  But first, the USG workshop.

No internet in the venue—I wondered if that was some kind of cool spy vs. spy thing where they blocked satellite transmissions? No, it turned out they had just meant there was no wireless.  Correction: one person did.

Since the election, federal employees have left Washington in droves. The new administration put a hiring freeze in place, so every bureau is woefully understaffed.  The poor DRL people are no exception.  Three of them were trying to work out how to make coffee for 150 people.  This was bureaucracy in action, and it failed miserably.  They blew a fuse and had to start over.  Finally, we all lined up to get a lukewarm cup, only to be greeted by a sign, “No Food or Drink in Auditorium.”  The coffee servers literally winked and nodded at us as we filed in with our cups in hand.

I found a seat and introduced myself to the guy on my right.  He had a heavy accent and I thought he said he was from Grecian Aid but based in the Dominican Republic.  “That must be interesting,” I said, “working for a Greek organization from Latin America.”  He looked at me a long time, then smiled.  “Eet ees Chreeeshchun Aid,” he said slowly, handing me his card that said Christian Aid.

“Ahh,” I smiled, “that makes more sense.”  We talked shop; we were both what’s called “new business” people and we had a lot in common.

The first speaker opened by admonishing us not to have any food or drink in the auditorium, as she winked toward her cup of coffee balanced on the lectern.

A paper-shuffling sigher had sat behind me.  On my left was a woman wearing a flower-festooned headband.  Was she from Ukraine?

I looked around to see about half the audience paying attention while the rest were staring at their mobiles while the speakers were trying to hold their attention.

The content was helpful, and chock full of insider lingo like, “Decisions were made on 7th Floor,”  “Folks at post want this,” and “’F’ Indictors.”

One speaker mentioned “blue sky options.”  I had no idea what this meant but I always come back from workshops with jargon to spring on my coworkers to make them think I’m up to date.  Once I Googled it and knew what it meant I would try to drop it at least once in every meeting.

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.

Happy to Be Here

I’ve written about the rats, dust, diesel fumes, noise, and mosquitoes here in Ethiopia.

Now for the good things.  It is so great to be here.  With others I’ve been trying to raise funds for our Ethiopia program for about three years, and I am finally seeing first-hand what happens here.  It’s easy to get a bit cynical when you’re sitting at HQ.  This has swept my cynicism away.

It took a lot to get here.  I took an overnight flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, the capital.  An hour later I flew north to Axum, and from there it was a one-hour drive to Shire, where CVT has an office.  I flew to Lalibela for some weekend R&R and I’ll write about that later.  On Monday morning, back in Shire, everyone piled into one of the ubiquitous white NGO trucks plastered with our logo and donor recognition—in our case, the US flag with the note, “Gift of the United States Government PRM” (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).

Our destination was Mai Tsebri, home of my dearly departed rat (I hope).  In Mai Tsebri, CVT has a walled compound. The trucks back in through the gate into a courtyard with a dirt floor planted with mango trees and a water cistern as big as a Humvee.  Two floors of rooms ring it—a kitchen, canteen, training room, staff quarters, HR, logistics, and the oh-so important generator shed.

Each morning the staff pile into the trucks for the drive to the refugee camps, which is about a half hour.  It’s spectacular countryside, along twisting roads through the mountains.  I had heard that the ride makes people sick, so I was relieved it didn’t happen to me.

So after eight flights in 13 days and five long, dusty drives, I was in one of the camps where we work.

And it’s great.  I am so happy to meet the staff whose names I’ve entered into online forms.

There’s a lot to write about, but for now I’ll describe the camp and the mornings’ activity.

There’s a small Ethiopian settlement called Adi Harush.  The ground is red, rocky, uneven, and dusty.  The houses are built of square cement bricks and are maybe 15 by 12 feet.  Each has a tin roof, a door, and windows on two sides.  The houses are in pretty rough shape.

Then you cross some invisible line and you’re in a refugee camp.  The houses are the same but they’re brand new, neat and tidy.  The people are the same ethnic group, but they’re Eritrean, not Ethiopian, and they speak Tigrinya instead of Amharic.

There are communal latrines (below) and water spigots, schools, an amphitheater where boys were playing basketball, a women’s center (below) where the ladies can get their hair done, watch TV, and discuss Gender Based Violence.

There’s no barbed wire fence or armed guard to keep anyone in, and that’s a problem, as you’ll learn.

Three CVT staff found a spot of shade against a house and a group of people began to assemble.  One staffer set down two stools about eight inches high, gestured for me to sit down, and sat next to me.  The other two employees began to present information on trauma and torture to about 30 men, women, and children while my stool mate interpreted for me.  We call this a sensitization—to help people understand that if they’re depressed, anxious or not sleeping, that’s normal given what they’ve been through, and CVT can help.

Almost everyone in the camp is separated from his or her family.  Some were forced into never-ending military service, kept in underground prisons, or trafficked.  There are lots of children on their own, and there are waves of suicide among them.

I had the interpreter seriously repeating everything into my ear, while two tiny boys stood directly in front of me making funny faces.  One had no pants on.  Did I laugh at them and risk looking insensitive to the crowd, or remain serious and miss the joy of flirting with small children?  I think I did all of the above.

What We Don’t Know

One more post about prison stuff, then back to the European travelogue.

A couple organizations have been pushing legislation that would improve conditions in solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons.  We Minnesotans think we’re so progressive, and we are in many ways, but we are one of the worst abusers of seg, as testified to by the letter from a prisoner in my last post.  I read the bill and made some suggestions, like that a prisoner’s next of kin be notified when they are put in seg.  I was never notified when Vince was kept there for six days.  I’m sure the prison system would hate that, because they’d have all sorts of mad moms like me calling to demand what happened.  It’s a Republican controlled legislature now, so I’m keeping my expectations low.

If you think US prisons are bad (and they are), Lynn mailed me an article about UK prisons which shocked me—me, and I’ve written a hundred posts about prison.  The link isn’t publicly available, so I’ll recap it for you.

UK prisons are overcrowded and violent.  Assaults against guards and other prisoners are way up, there are riots and strikes, and there were 107 suicides and five homicides in 2016.

I assumed the violence was due to overcrowding, which was due to the same forces as in the US—harsh sentences, corporate interests, institutionalized racism and classism, poverty that causes people to use drugs and alcohol and to deal drugs, and an aging prison infrastructure.

Of course it’s complicated and there are underlying causes.  But the article attributes the violence directly to new “psychoactive substances” which have “dramatic and destabilizing effects.” They’re called names like “Spice” and “Black Mamba” and they can’t be detected in urine tests.

And this is where I laughed out loud: these drugs are being delivered by drones.  Yes, drones!  It’s kind of hilarious, until it’s your son, husband, or brother getting knifed in the kidney by someone who’s high out of his mind.

The US version of The Week ran an excerpt from a Bloomberg Businessweek article which profiled the founder of MyPillow.  Mike Lindell is a recovering addict and I give him lots of credit for that and for building his business.

However, all of his products are stamped with “Made in the USA.”  Lindell is a big Trump supporter and would probably cheer the cutting of government benefits to the poor, which is interesting since MyPillow has contracts for prison labor that must net them millions.

I know this because one of the facilities in which Vince was incarcerated, Moose Lake, had a MyPillow factory line.

And so MyPillow can stamp “Made in the USA” on every box, and it’s true, but that pillow may well have been made by a prisoner who netted $2.00 an hour.

I can’t find anything anywhere to substantiate that MyPillow benefits from prison labor or even that it operates in prisons.  This is the beauty of working inside prisons—it’s a secret!—literally behind locked doors.

I’m not saying MyPillow is doing anything illegal.  However it is hypocritical that Mr. Lindell, a conservative, takes government subsidies.

I wrote to the editor of The Week, Bill Falk, and he wrote right back, which impressed me.   He suggested I write to the author of the original story in Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Dean.  This should have occurred to me in the first place, but better late than never.  So I wrote to Mr. Dean and he responded right away too.  I didn’t expect BB to amend his article; I just wanted him to have the additional information.  There’s no reason a reporter would ask every businessperson he interviews, “Do you operate inside prisons?”  You might think that a “jobs for inmates” story line might be good PR for MyPillow, but Mr. Lindell didn’t bring it up.

Bill Falk also suggested I contact one of my local newspapers, which might have investigative reporting resources and an interest in pursuing the story, since MyPillow is a Minnesota company.  Mr. Dean also urged me to do this, and I did.  A local editor was interviewing Vince within an hour of me sending the email.  Stay tuned.

Susan B

I know you people don’t “like” it when I writing about prison issues instead of travel. Literally, the prison posts are the least liked of my posts.

Well too bad.  That’s how this blog got started—when my son went to prison—and once in a while the absurdities of prison issues pile up to the point where I just have to share them.  So you can skip the next few posts if you want, but I hope you don’t.

You may recall that my local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, ran a series on solitary confinement (segregation, or seg) a few months ago.  I wrote a letter to the editor which was published.  Jewish Community Action, the group I’m active with on criminal justice reform, received the letter below in response.  It’s from a woman incarcerated at Shakopee Women’s Prison.  She was found guilty of shooting and killing her cousin and wounding an attorney at the Hennepin County Government Center over an inheritance dispute in 2003.

So keep in mind that everything she writes may not be 100% true.  If you would shoot someone to death in a crowded public place, you might lie, too.  But maybe not.  Even though this is all public information, I’ve edited out her last name.  Sorry if the writing is a bit blurry; it was the best I could do.

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The End of America

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

Before I move on to Spain, I’m inserting a few real-time updates.

It’s weird to be writing about the November election almost three months later. I recall my sense of unreality.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. I can’t believe we are now using the words “President” and “Trump” together.  I am still in a state of denial, maybe because I haven’t figured out what to do, or how to live, in this new world.

I went on the women’s march in St. Paul with 100,000 other like-minded men, women, and children to protest the new administration’s policies and tone.  It was the first day in months I felt optimistic, but also, sadly, the last.

Conservatives think that liberals hate America.  That’s unfair.  We criticize our country when it acts wrongly.  That doesn’t mean we hate America.  It means we hold it to high standards.  For instance, one thing that has always made me proud of America is all the refugees we take in.  It’s not as many as 100 years ago.  It’s not as many as Germany.  Still, we were on track to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, with about 10,000 slots designated for Syrians.  That’s one of the things that makes America great.  Oops, made.

All that is on hold for four months.  If and when it restarts, the number of refugees will be cut in half.  Syrians will be banned, along with people from other Muslim-majority countries except the ones Trump want to make deals with, like Saudi Arabia, the main producers of terrorists, including 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Why is Trump fixated on Syrians?  I don’t believe there have been any terrorist attacks perpetrated, anywhere, by Syrians.  In my opinion, Syrians are victims of war and terrorism.  But there are a lot of Syrian refugees, and they are in the news frequently, so maybe they’re just an easy target.  Most Americans haven’t heard of Tunisia, which actually produces a lot of terrorists.

The mood where I work, the Center for Victims of Torture, is dark.  Our clients in the US are afraid they’ll be deported, or that their families will never be allowed to join them.  We wonder if we will lose our government funding, and thus our jobs.  We worry this administration will return to the use of torture, which is illegal under US and international law.

There’s so much going down.  One final item: Donald Trump managed to talk about Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or antisemitism.  Was it intentional?  Ignorance?  As a Jew, I think it’s ominous. The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers, it started with nationalist words and laws against certain groups and bullying of the media and control of the messaging coming out of government agencies.

Thanks for reading this.  You probably already knew most of it.  Now you know why I write about travel and not politics most of the time.

My son and I went on a small adventure recently.  He had asked if I wanted to see John Cleese in person on a certain date, and I said, “sure!”  John Cleese is an English comedian and actor best known for the Monty Python movies and Fawlty Towers TV series.

What I didn’t realize until after Vince bought the tickets was that the show was on a Monday night, five hours away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  So I took two days off work, got a room at EconoLodge, and we went on a road trip.

It was really fun.  We joked about the cheap hotel and the terrible steak dinner we had at Texas Roadhouse.  We visited Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team, which fits nicely into the neighborhood unlike our own new US Bank Stadium that looks like the Death Star.

We watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then listened to John Cleese tell stories for an hour.  Did you know Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin financed the making of the Holy Grail, and that George Harrison paid for the Life of Brian, which he considers the troupe’s best film?  Cleese is almost 80, and still full of piss and vinegar. It was good to Just Laugh.

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A Very Bad Good Woman

I’m interrupting my series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain to write about a memorable New Year’s Eve.

I was in Nairobi carrying out a number of volunteer projects for a human rights organization.  The most interesting was interviewing activists, including a dozen slum-dwelling women who were organizing to fight police shake downs and a guy who had been tortured after protesting the 2007 election results.

I was there for December and January, and just as I was ramping up, the director announced that the office would close for two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s.  I was renting a flat with a 22-year-old German guy who was also volunteering.  He was thrilled about this development and immediately made plans to go to Ethiopia with friends to take photos of the ancient churches there.  This would undoubtedly require massive amounts of alcohol.

The prospect of hanging out in the flat for two weeks was depressing.  Kenyan TV featured the  dregs of American shows, like Baywatch, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon.  The Internet was maddeningly slow.  Going for walks was considered dangerous.  My supply of books was already running low; English ones were hard to come by and very expensive in the local malls.

So I booked myself on a safari.

I will always feel very lucky to have had this experience.  I went to Basecamp Masai Mara, a “luxury eco-resort” run by a Norwegian company where Senator Barak Obama had stayed with his family.  If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.  These links are to my safari Facebook albums.

The organization sponsoring my volunteer gig, American Jewish World Service, had paid my airfare to Nairobi.  For Americans, airfare is half the price of a safari.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was possible.

So I spent 10 days going on game drives, touring a Masai clinic, reading, and sleeping.  Each morning I awoke to the dawn chorus of hooting, howling, growling, croaking, and cackling coming from the bush.

For each meal I sat at a white-linen-covered table, by myself except once, when a couple of fellow international development people invited me to join them.  He was Norwegian and she was Swedish.

“We know how it feels to eat alone,” he said.

For the last two nights I moved to a remote camp.  I spent New Year’s Eve gazing out over the Masai Mara and Just Being.  Words cannot describe the beauty of the land and the light.

At my last dinner, a Masai guide named Manfred pulled a chair up across the table from me.  This familiarity was unfamiliar behavior.  Manfred was 30ish and had a sweet, innocent face.  He was short and muscular and his skin had a reddish sheen from working outdoors.

He sat back in the cow-hide chair, spread his shoulders and legs wide, and clasped his hands together in front of his chest.  His body language wasn’t confrontational but he was staking his ground.  He smiled at the floor for a few seconds, then up at me.

“When you first arrived, we all thought you were a very bad woman, but now we know you are not.”

I wasn’t completely surprised by his comments.  I’d had the sense that they didn’t know what to make of me, a woman traveling alone.  But I wondered what theories they had about me.

“Did you think I deserted my husband and children?” I asked.

No, he shook his head but didn’t counter.

“Did you think I was a lesbian?” I asked next.

Manfred laughed uneasily, tipping his chair on its back legs.  Now that’s a universal male thing, I thought.

“No, we have had many homosexual guests and they are very nice people.”

That sounded like a line he’d been instructed to say.  I knew from interviewing a transgender activist that alternative sexual orientations had yet to gain acceptance in Kenya, to put it mildly. 

He couldn’t contain himself any longer; he leaned forward and said, “We thought you were a sex tourist.”

I burst out laughing.  I would turn 50 in a month.  I don’t condone sex tourism, but being suspected of it felt like a compliment.

Happy New Year’s!  Enjoy every moment of your precious life!