Tag Archives: Palestine

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Car Talk

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

If you love cemeteries like I do, you would love New Orleans.  Bodies are buried in above-ground crypts so the … whatever it is that oozes from decomposing bodies doesn’t seep into the groundwater.  Thanks to the heat, bodies decompose quickly and fresh ones can be added onto the pile in after only a year.

Lafayette Cemetery #1 is not to be confused with St. Louis Cemetery #1, where the voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried.  I visited that one my first time in New Orleans, and the two cemeteries look the same except that Lafayette is in the posh Garden District and St. Louis is in Treme, which as depicted in the hit HBO crime series.

The four of us split up and wandered around.  I was wondering over this rubber duckie-themed tomb when my phone rang and an androgynous voice asked for “Miss Anne.”

Rubber Duck Grave

“This here is Tracy,” s/he drawled, calling ya’ll bout your car.  It’s lookin’ real bad …”

The line went dead.  I hit redial.  The connection wouldn’t work. I wandered around for another 20 minutes, clutching my phone and willing it to ring.

When it finally did, Tracy laid it on me: “It needs all new spark plugs,” s/he said.

“How much?” I asked.

“A’m sorrah Miss Anne, but I hate to tell ya it’s gonna be ….” Click.

Lynn, trying to be helpful, said, “That’s what I thought all along!  Spark plugs—and now you know that your car has spark plugs!”

I don’t remember what I said but it wasn’t nice. She went silent.  By then we had “done” the cemetery and re-joined a walking tour of the Garden District, featuring the houses of Nicholas Cage and Sandra Bullock.  It was hot.  The phone kept ringing then going dead.  For an hour.

Finally, Tracy got through. “What?” I yelled.  “I can’t hear you!”  Other members of the tour were giving me dirty looks.  I finally got that it was going to cost me $800.  Since my worst case scenario had been that the car would be a total loss, this was actually a bit of a relief, but still not a welcome amount of money to have to lay out on vacation.  Or anytime.

“It’ll take fahv days to get the parts from the dealership in Baton Rouge,” Tracy informed me.

“Five days!  But I have to be in Minnesota on Wednesday!” I moaned.

“Unless ya’ll want to use generic parts, Miss Anne” s/he said.

“Of course I do!” I exclaimed.

“Then it’ll cost ya’ll $550.”  Now I felt like I was getting off easy.  It’s all relative.

After the walking tour we sought refuge from the heat in Starbucks.  I apologized to Lynn, and she accepted.  No drama.  I don’t know what she would say, but I wasn’t surprised that in 11 days spending 24 hours together, there wouldn’t be some disagreement.

We caught the Hop On Hop Off bus again and got off at the restaurant recommended by the guide.  I always figure these are the restaurants owned by the guide’s brother in law, but so what?  It was really good.  In no time Tracy called again to say my car was ready, and I left my pals standing on a street corner in the blazing sun to wait for the bus while I hailed a cab.

The cabbie’s English was not good, but that didn’t stop him from telling me that Tracy’s garage was “too many crooks, and too much expensive.”  He informed me that I should have asked him where to take my car.  Right.  If I could have gone back in time … I changed the subject.

“Where are you from?”

“Palestine,” he replied.

“I was in the Palestinian territories last year.”

He stared at me in the rear-view window.

“You are a Jewish!” he said.

“Ye…sss.” Was he going to take me to a remote spot in Treme, stab me, and dump my body in St. Louis Cemetery #1?

But instead he exclaimed, “We cousins!  You, me … Jew, Arab … we must try to get along!”

Reductive Seduction

There’s a great article circulating among international development people that also addresses mass incarceration in the US. Who knew there were so many connections between these two worlds of mine?

Written by Courtney Martin, it’s titled, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” I’ll quote the opening here:

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

“You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

“Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the ‘Global South.’”

These are real Tindr photos from her article:

World SaverWorld Saver2

Martin goes on to write about the problem of mass incarceration in this country—where are all the new graduates lined up to campaign for change on that? I’ve never met one. I have, however, met many young people who fervently want to work for my organization. Whenever we post a job, we get hundreds of applications, even for admin positions. We get a lot of candidates who can recite all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they can’t enter names into a data base without lots of mistakes. They have no interest in fundraising, finance, HR, or any of the other jobs that keep a nonprofit organization humming. They want to get their foot in the door, then jump to the first “meaningful” job that comes open.

They’re not bad people. I don’t blame them for wanting a job that might send them off around the world to help torture survivors, a job that will cause their peers to fawn over them with admiration. As an English friend once said, “You’ve got a job that’s every Lib Dem’s wet dream.” I once had a woman bow down to me when I told her where I work. Super uncomfortable.

And let’s face it, for those of us who crave the exotic, Nairobi fits the bill a lot better than Moose Lake, Minnesota.

When I was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories … there — I did that thing that my set does. We start sentences with, “When I was in Peru …” or Ethiopia, or wherever. I’m sure people who don’t travel to those places, or who wouldn’t be caught dead in those places, find it really annoying.

But, when I was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I was invited to write an article about it for a local publication. I did, but I also wrote about Vince’s being in prison, mass incarceration, and how people in the US seem to care a lot more about Palestinians than prisoners who live a few miles away. I can’t be sure why, but they never published it.

You may be thinking, “Who is she to criticize–why doesn’t she work on prison reform?  Erm…I am, in my own way.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work on international issues; just be aware of your motivations and your ego.

To quote Martin’s article further: “Most American kids … have some sense of how multi-faceted problems like mass incarceration really are. Choosing to work on that issue … means studying sentencing reform. The privatization of prisons. Cutting-edge approaches already underway, like restorative justice and rehabilitation. And then synthesizing, from all that studying, a sense of what direction a solution lies in and steadfastly moving toward it.”

Maybe Martin’s article will inspire someone to become the Martin Luther King Jr. of prison reform.

When Worlds Collide

I’ve been writing a series of posts about traveling in Cuba that starts here. I am pausing that for a day to write about an unsettling experience where my worlds collided.

I volunteer with the Minnesota International NGO Network, or MINN. MINN is composed of Minnesota companies and nonprofits that work overseas, like my employer, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT).

Last year MINN launched a class called MINNspire, which helps 50-somethings to explore doing something abroad. This could be anything from volunteering with Peace Corps, to teaching English as a second language, to consulting on communications, as I have done. MINN isn’t there to find them placements; we’re there to guide them through the thought process. I led one of the four sessions last year and will do the same this year—I think.

I was excited that we had 18 people registered—about twice the number as last year. It’s kind of a big commitment to come to something after work, in the dark, during the winter.

I walked in and said hi to my friend Carolyn, one of the four facilitators of the class. There were already two students in the room. Carolyn said to me, in a way that told me we might have an “issue”, “Something really interesting happened with registration. I spoke to a Rotary Club that happened to have a lot of members of the DOC, and we’ve got 10 people from the DOC registered for the class.”

The Department of Corrections. The people I never wanted anything to do with, ever again.

I had come from work, where I had spent the day writing about Eritrean torture survivors. Eritrea is known as the “North Korea of Africa.” They have forced conscription, which means every young man must join the military or go to prison. In the military, they are worked like slaves and their service is indefinite. If they try to escape, Eritrea throws them into underground prisons where they are tortured. If they make it to Ethiopia, they wind up in refugee camps with no future, and their family back home is persecuted. Sometimes they try fleeing to Israel, the one country that reluctantly takes them in, but often they are caught by—essentially—desert pirates called Rashida who hold them for ransom, torturing them while their families listen helplessly on the other end of the phone.

As you might imagine, a lot of Eritrean torture survivors have PTSD, and that is where CVT comes in. We provide trauma therapy and we hope to add physical therapy next year.

So I was writing about this all day and then I stepped into a room of people who had been my and my son’s tormentors for a year and a half.

I am in no way comparing what I went through to what Eritreans have endured. My point is that I know firsthand what a flashback feels like. A surge of adrenaline surged through me. My heart started racing and my palms got sweaty. I felt a powerful urge to bolt.

“I figure if I was a prison warden for 20 years, I can do anything!” one of the women exclaimed. The thought of her volunteering in an orphanage made me uneasy.

“My son just finished the boot camp program,” I told them. Might as well get it out there before she said something that would cause me shoot my mouth off. They oohed and ahhed said what a great program that was.

Carolyn knows my back story and has a high EQ.   She emailed later:

“I would never imagine that you would come face to face with your oppressor in MINNspire.  I mean, last year you were in Palestine, looking for ways to collaborate, professionally, with enemies of the Jewish state and now you come to St Paul and you are asked to teach the people whom you’ve written about for years.

“ I have to shake my head at what the universe is throwing at you.  But if anyone can handle it, you can.”

I hope she’s right, because I thought about backing out of the class but I’ve decided to stick it out.  I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, Ten Years On

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.

queen

Hedgehogs, Mice, and Echidnas, Oh My

I pride myself on writing realistically about life. You can count on me to tell the truth as I know it, to question everything, and to imagine the worst case scenario. I don’t know why the Pentagon hasn’t called me yet to offer me a disaster-planning job.

But that doesn’t mean I’m depressed, or even “unhappy”—the more generic term. Being a highly-analytical thinker has its rewards. I notice and think about things that other people do not. There’s often absurd fodder for laughs. Sometimes I’m the only one laughing, but that’s okay, right?

There was an article in the Sunday paper about a study that debunked the popular myth that “happy” people are healthier and live longer. Yes! My friend who works in an old folks home—or whatever they’ve been rebranded as now—has always said, “There are plenty of miserable, crabby 90 year olds. And they’ve always been that way, because their kids tell me they have.”

About five years ago, I kicked the depression that had dogged me all my life. Since then I have felt mostly contentment, punctuated with the normal situationally-appropriate emotions. I felt angry when my landlord raised my rent $300 a month, which forced me to move. I was stressed when I moved again three months later so Vince could live with me. I was anxious when Vince was in solitary confinement. I cried for everything my sister and her kids went through when she had cancer. I felt awe hiking in Petra, in the Jordanian desert, and nervous about crossing over into the Palestinian territories. I felt powerless rage when I was banned from visiting Vince. I had a blast with my friends in Berlin. I’ve been bored at work. I was proud when Vince led his squad at his graduation from boot camp. I am excited at the prospect of remodeling my kitchen.

Hey, I guess I just wrote my Christmas letter!  What a year it’s been.

None of it lasts. Some people figure this out somehow, much earlier in life than I did. Emotions come and go. The pleasant and the unpleasant, they’re all fleeting. So enjoy the nice ones while they last and know that the bad ones will dissipate. Don’t panic if you feel blue once in a while. Don’t latch on to the negative feelings or thoughts. If the blues don’t go away for weeks, of course, seek professional help.

In the last week I’ve had some really good times with people I love.

Yesterday I took my mother to tour the Purcell Cutts House, a prairie-style home build in 1913 and owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This is the living room:

Purcell Cutts

The guide explained that the simple, serene style was in part a reaction to the chaos of the age. The architect was from Chicago, which was the industrial center of the U.S. Meat packing and other industries attracted droves of immigrants and African Americans from the south. There wasn’t enough housing, and the water and sewer systems weren’t up to par. There were no child labor laws, workers’ compensation, welfare, or social security.

So architects brought nature and art inside. Obviously this was not a house that could be produced on a mass scale. The immigrants and African Americans still lived in poorly-heated hovels. But at least this one architect could escape all that and find sanctuary at home!

Last weekend, I hosted a cookie-baking party for Vince and his cousins.

Hannukah HedgehogsTaisei n me

They’re not pretty, but we had fun. Strangely, Vince and I had prepared enough dough to yield 16 dozen cookies but only nine dozen made it to the final stage. Hmmm…or should I say, Mmmmm….cookie dough?

So enjoy the moments that contain things you love. In my case: design, craftsmanship, nature, history. Kids, creativity, and cookie dough.

Have a Little Kidney with that Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you in the U.S.  I’ve been kind of mired in negativity lately.  Here’s a little story that jolted me back into an appreciation of how good I’ve got it.

A woman approached Vince on the train platform to ask if he would sign a petition.  For those of you who started reading this blog in the last month or so, Vince is my son who was released from prison a few months ago and who is living with me.  He blogs here.

Anyway, on his way home from work, this woman approached and asked if he knew about … wait for it … organ harvesting in China.

Organ Harvesting

I work at a place called the Center for Victims of Torture and had a son in prison.  I thought I had heard everything.

Apparently, back in the 90s, the Chinese government gave the stamp of approval to a Buddhism-derived religion called Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa), which promotes truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.  I guess the government approved of it because it represented traditional Chinese ways, including meditation.

Falun Gong became wildly popular, and soon people were meditating in public parks by the thousands.  The government saw this as a threat and began to crack down.  Adherents are now routinely thrown into labor camps and tortured.  According to the brochure, captive Falun Gong practitioners are blood-typed and used as a large, live organ donor bank, killed on demand for “transplant tourists”—people who travel from other countries and pay for an organ transplant.  Do they know that someone will be killed to save their lives?  How can they not?  Again, according to this brochure, the wait for a kidney in the U.S. is five years.  In China, it’s 15 days.  Well that is slightly suspicious, don’t you think?

So why isn’t the west up in arms about this, like they are about the Palestinians or the Syrians?  Maybe it’s because China doesn’t have freedom of the press?  We know about the plight of the Palestinians because, ironically, Israel has a free press.  We know about the horrors Syrians have endured because they’ve managed to escape to other countries where reporters can talk to them and we see them in our Facebook feeds and on Yahoo News every day.

I don’t know who this young woman was who approached Vince on the train platform, but he thought she was Chinese.  So apparently Chinese in the U.S. are getting organized.  The brochure and their website are pretty basic.  If the Chinese can hack into the CIA’s websites, why haven’t they taken down the Falun Gong one?  I am very skeptical on a lot of issues, but this woman cared enough to stand on a train platform on a very cold Minnesota day and approach strangers with brochures.  If it’s not true, why would there be an organized effort against it?

I’m sorry if I ruined your appetite for turkey and mashed potatoes.  This story makes me feel grateful to not be in a gulag waiting to be murdered so my organs can be sold to wealthy transplant tourists.  No, wait…that’s kind of extreme.  I’m grateful that I can write about this, share the story, spread the word, and maybe contribute in some way to ending it.  Here’s a petition you can sign and share with others if you want.  Thank you.