Tag Archives: Refugees

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

Caravans and Bunkhouses

Last week I wrote a Facebook post which went sort-of viral:

Long post but important, I think.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It’s important to know that asylum seekers Are Not Eligible to receive government benefits (no subsidized housing, no food stamps, no welfare, etc.) and they also are Not Allowed to work in the US for five months after their arrival.  

Most of the people in the so-called caravan in Mexico are hoping to claim asylum. They have the right to do so under international law. That Does Not Mean they will be granted asylum; the process can take years, and only 10% will be approved.

Asylum seekers are people who have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and otherwise abused by their own governments, militias, gangs, police, etc. This may have been because they were fighting government corruption, organizing small businesses or unions, they were related to someone who was doing these things, they were the wrong religion or ethnic group, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How would you survive for five months if you weren’t allowed to work and you couldn’t get any public benefits? While they wait for their cases to be heard, asylum seekers literally depend on the kindness of strangers. Many clients of my organization, the Center for Victims of Torture, depend on two local religious orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Friars, for housing. When you are thinking about year-end donations, think about contributing to one of them.

I don’t know why this particular post spurred people to share it.  When I started working where I work, I remember being shocked that asylum seekers could not work or get government benefits.

“But how do they survive?” I asked one of our social workers.

“Barely, that’s how,” she replied. She explained that they go from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends who belong to their same nationality, or they sleep in homeless shelters, because there’s no way the Sisters of St. Joseph and Franciscan Friars can house all of them. “You can imagine,” she continued, “how stressful it is for someone who’s been tortured and is having flashbacks and is afraid of being sent back—how stressful it is to be in a homeless shelter, with people yelling and fighting with each other.”

Heidi and I arrived at Ayers Rock Airport, located in Yulara, a five-hour drive from Alice Springs.

Here, I would have a comical flashback to my son’s time in prison.

Heidi, with the help of her sister—a travel agent—had planned this whole thing.  I had followed Heidi’s instructions to bring only a backpack. She had also urged me to bring a pair of shoes I wouldn’t mind tossing when we left, since rugged hiking and the red dust would destroy any footwear but hiking boots.  I don’t own boots and I didn’t have time to break in a new pair.

A bus took us to Ayers Rock Resort, which holds a monopoly on accommodations in the centre.  There is every level of price and comfort, from a luxury hotel to caravan park, all owned by the same people.

Heidi had booked us in to a bunkhouse.  “I reckoned we’re only here one night, so how bad could it be?”

It was actually named the “Pioneer Lodge.”  There’s a reason they don’t show photos of the interiors on the website.

These people are outside because, well, who would want to spend any time inside?


“I feel like we’re in an episode of Orange is the New Black,” I commented as we surveyed the place.

“We’ll certainly get our thirty-eight dollars’ worth,” quipped Heidi.  It was, indeed, only for one night—this was an adventure.

We “fought” over who would sleep up top with the giant pipe.  Heidi sleeps through the night, while I get up several times to use the bathroom.  “You can’t climb down that ladder in the dark,” she insisted.

“I could hold a flashlight in my teeth,” I suggested feebly.  Heidi didn’t get much sleep, since the pipe turned out to be a hot air pipe.

Beautiful City in a Sad World

Colombia has been in the news lately in the US.  Last night there was this story on the PBS News Hour about the election, which is taking place the day this posts.  Near the end, it talks about all the activists who have been threatened—and more than 50 who have been killed—in the ongoing conflict for power.

So I wasn’t overreacting when I worried about our tour guide in Bogota being at risk.  I wrote that Lynn and I would follow him on Facebook and maybe raise a stink if anything happened to him but in reality, what could we really do?  If he suddenly stopped posting, what would we do—call the police in Colombia?  I’m sure they would get a good laugh out of that.  We could contact Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.  I don’t know.  It’s another thing to worry about, along with all the plastic in the ocean and the violence in Gaza and Russian interference in the US elections.

Just for fun, I made a list of the first three titles of emails I saw in a typical morning at work:

And here is a sampling of my daily dose of funding opportunities from the US government:

  • Bureau of International Narcotics-Law Enforcement, Combating Wildlife Trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Health Services and Economic Research on the Treatment of Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Use
  • National Technical Assistance Resource Center for the Prevention of Sexual Violence
  • Investigation of the Transmission of Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus
  • NIH Collaborative Cross Mouse Model Generation and Discovery of Immunoregulatory Mechanisms

That last one is kind of amusing, until you really think about what will happen to the poor mouse.

In one of my daily international news digests this week, there was an article (behind a paywall so I can’t provide a link) about the Colombian government conducting a census of Venezuelan refugees. A few excerpts:

“Exact numbers of people who have arrived are hard to come by and it is difficult to ascertain if people intend to stay in Colombia or move to another country in South America or the Caribbean.

“The lack of accurate data influences the way the United States State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGOs can plan for and respond to the crisis, a problem the Colombian government hopes the census will help solve. According to [Felipe] Muñoz, there are 30,000 Venezuelan children in the Colombian public school system, and 25,000 in the child care system. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans have been provided free medical care by Colombia’s public health system.

“The Colombian government also intends to set up a formal process for Colombians who had fled their own country during a decades-long civil war for Venezuela, but now seek to return home. This includes children that have a parent from each country but were born in Venezuela and do not have Colombian identity papers.

‘They have the right to be Colombian,’ Muñoz said.”

This almost makes me weep.  What a contrast between how Colombia, where the average monthly salary is $692, treats refugees vs. my country—where the average monthly salary is $3,428.

We are a country living with an epidemic of fear and hatred.

Lynn and I slept the sleep of the dead after our five-hour drive and two-hour walking tour.

Breakfast was on the rooftop restaurant, which had great views.  That’s the Cathedral in the distance.

We noted that the hotel had witch points on some of the rooflines.  Nora had told us this was a Colonial-era building requirement by the Catholic Church—to keep witches out of buildings.  I guess it works, because we never saw a witch, inside or out.

Soon we were out on the street.  Here’s the Cathedral again, in the distance.  Such a beautiful city.

The interior was cool and quiet.

Lynn led us on to Iglesia San Pedro Claver.  St. Peter Claver, as we know him in the US, was a priest from Barcelona, the first saint of the new world, and—so the legend goes—a champion of slaves.

Deserving Immigrants

The next day I would go to Oxford for some meetings with Oxfam people and to hang out with Lynn and Possum.

I had to leave the house early but first I let in the cleaners into the flat.

People in the States have asked me what Brits thought about Donald Trump.  Typically, I would meet a new person and he or she would make small talk while looking down at the ground, then after 10 minutes broach The Topic.

“Sooo … what do you think of your new president?” They weren’t sure where I stood, so they posed an open-ended question.

When I expressed my opinion, they invariably let out a sigh of relief that I wasn’t one of “those Americans” who think he’s Terrific, and they would launch into a screed about him, usually looping in the themes of Brexit and nationalism.

“We think he’s a complete tosser!” was a typical comment.  Tosser, wanker, arsehole, mad as a bag of ferrets.  Just a few of the British endearments I heard about our president, not to mention the universal terms racist, sexist, nationalist, moron, jerk, sociopath, and narcissist.

Granted, I tend to hang out with very liberal people, but I went to a few parties where I wasn’t sure what was coming.  It was always the same.

So when the Polish couple who cleaned the flat once a month stated that they love America, I expected the same.  They were immigrants, after all.  Fortunately they didn’t ask my opinion first.

“And we love your President Donald Trump!” the husband exclaimed as the wife nodded heartily.  The husband waxed enthusiastic.  “He is strong man!  In Europe, we understand about the Muslims.  You Americans need a strong man to keep them out!”

There was a lot going through my head at that moment.  Normally I’m a fighter and I would have challenged them.  But here I was, alone in Eton.  No one knew I was here aside from Sam and my people back home. This guy was about 6’ 2” and burly, with blonde hair and blue eyes—an ideal Aryan.  He was yelling—not angrily but animatedly—and waving the five-foot-long wand of the Hoover around in the air.  This was not the time to mention I was a Jew, and how I empathized with Muslims and hated all of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

The wife stepped forward, excited to share her opinions.  “We live in UK 11 years.  We go home to Poland every year, town near German border, and see what the Muslims do.  They change the country.  They make crimes, they are dirty.  They rape German women!  No, no, we stay here.  We have two kids; the boy he 13, the girl she 11.  They English!  We want keep refugees out of England.”

Wow.  I couldn’t even begin to know how to tango with the illogic of her statement.  During the election, I had heard a Vietnamese immigrant to the US on National Public Radio lauding Donald Trump and stating she would vote for him.  I had figured she was an outlier.

But now I wondered.  Is it a thing?  “I made it to safety/prosperity so screw all of you in line behind me.”  Or did a Vietnamese immigrant really see herself as completely virtuous and deserving of being taken in, while no Muslim was?  It boggled the mind.

I couldn’t resist asking, “What will happen to you with Brexit?”

They beamed.  “We love Brexit!  Brexit will keep new immigrants out.  There are enough immigrants here now.”

I really wanted to ask if they were aware that many Brits think Poles are pond scum.  Google “British views of Poles” and 18 million results come up.  I thought one chat room comment summed it up well:

“Poles are the second-largest overseas-born community in the UK after Indians. This isn’t new (Polish Jews came in 19th century) but much of it has to do with Poland joining the EU in 2004 making migration easier.  So I’d imagine anti-Polish sentiment being the British equivalent of American dislike for Mexicans.”

But instead of diving into this conversation, I grabbed my bag, waved good-bye, and exited to catch the train to Oxford.

Happy New Year, You’re Beautiful!

Yesterday I went to the British Arrow Awards with Vince.  Five years ago, I would never have imagined going to the Walker Art Center to watch 70 minutes of British TV commercials with my son.

Five years ago, I would have spent New Year’s Eve an agony of wondering where he was.  Three years ago, I knew where he was—in prison.  Two years ago, he was living in my 10×10 foot (3×3 meter) spare room alongside the washer and dryer, and things were extremely tense.  A year ago, he had moved out with sober friends, had a job, a car, and things were looking up—or at least were stable.

Today, he has a job he likes with benefits—for the first time in his life.  He’s moving in with his girlfriend.  He’s got three and a half years of sobriety and works his program of recovery like today is his first day.  Well, maybe not every day, but he does work it.  I realize things could fall apart, as they have before, but I don’t worry about him every day like I used to.  It’s such a relief.  Thank you, Vince.

So even though it was -15F (-26C) I got in my frozen car and drove to Minneapolis to meet Vince and his girlfriend and her two daughters for Thai food and sushi.

I had bought two tickets to the Arrow Awards a month ago, then when I went back to buy more so others could join us, they were sold out.

There is a weird phenomenon in Minnesota.  It’s the only place in the US where we get 10-year-old episodes of EastEnders on TV and pay $14 to watch British TV commercials.  Two weeks ago, my local PBS station started airing the great series Dickensian, which Lynn and I had binge watched in Scotland.

So in addition to being quirky in a general way (Minneapolis-St. Paul is the #12 quirkiest metro area according to Travel + Leisure), we are eccentric in a particularly Anglophile way.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you will likely think I am an Anglophile and I am, but I am also a Francophile, and a Berlin-o-phile, and a Malta-o-phile, and So-Many-Other-Places-o-phile.  I’m sure there are plenty of fantastic shows and ads in other countries but since I don’t speak French or German or Maltese, I’m not qualified to writing about them.

The Walker Art Center is a place I like to know is there for other people, but where I never go except for this annual event.  I used to belong to the Walker when I was young and hip and trying to meet young, hip men.  But my days of pretending that giant rusty chains suspended from the ceiling are Avant-garde art are over.

The Walker screens back-to-back showings of the Arrow Awards Thursday through Saturday from 1:00-8:00pm and tickets sell out within days.  It must be a real income generator.

The ads make you laugh, then cry.  Two of the funniest, Vince and I agreed, were for Rustlers frozen hamburgers and the Lottery, featuring James Blunt.

And then, when we were laughing out loud, the next ad would be for UNICEF or another organization trying to get the world’s attention about the biggest refugee crisis since WWII.  I had heard about this theme ahead of time so I was prepared with Kleenex.

Since I work for an NGO and blog about travel, I am always feeling the juxtaposition of my safe, happy life with the terror and despair with which millions of people are living.  This was another contrast, in the newspaper a few weeks ago.

Articles about a man burying drowned migrants and the racist rally in Charlottesville, then an ad about diamond rings.

I don’t care about diamonds, but should I skip a trip this year and donate the money to UNICEF?  Do I justify travel, my one big indulgence, by saying it sustains me to carry out my work raising money for refugees?  Should I call travel an indulgence?  Do I have to justify myself?  I don’t think there are any right or wrong answers, but I constantly struggle with the questions.

Scenes from a Refugee Camp

I spent two days in the refugee camps.  On the first day I got a walking tour of the camp from the young colleague who had shown such great interest in tiramisu.  He walked at a brisk pace and I managed to keep up despite the ground being muddy and strewn with large rocks and pocked with water-filled potholes.

We stopped in at the Women’s Centre which was run by International Rescue Committee.  We visited a primary school, where little faces looked up at me briefly and then back to their books.  They were probably used to strangers touring the camps. We walked past the playground:

It may look sad, but when you turned around there was this spectacular view of the mountains:

My colleague asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee and I responded enthusiastically.  People had set up small businesses along the main road; some sold beer, some packets of crisps and nuts or single application shampoo packets.  There was a cigarette vendor who sold one cigarette at a time, since no one could afford a whole pack.  We stepped into a thatched hut that served coffee.  I was the only woman and I got a few looks—not hostile or lewd—they just seemed to be noting, “Huh, a woman in the coffee hut.”  Knowing how hard women here worked, I wondered if there was a separate women’s coffee hut somewhere or if they managed without coffee.  Just the thought makes me tired.

We sat on the ubiquitous white plastic chairs, drank bittersweet coffee, and chewed on some kind of beans or nuts.  My colleague’s English was difficult to understand, so as I chewed I wondered if I would soon be seeing flying unicorns.  He talked about being an artist and a project he was working on.  I could croak out a few syllables now, but I didn’t want to be mute while traveling back to Europe in a few days so I mostly just nodded and smiled.

We returned to the CVT area.  There, we have built tukuls that serve as cool, calm oases in which people attend counseling groups.  We’ve got an art therapist from Chicago who is leading the painting of tukuls for children and creating mandalas on others.

We arrived at break time, so there was more coffee and popcorn with the whole staff of about 10 people.  They insisted I sit on the one (white plastic) chair while they stood or squatted on the ground.  I had been warned about this by others from headquarters who visited—that our staff will insist on visitors taking the chair and that it would be embarrassing.  I had just had an hour-long hike around the camp under a blazing sun.  I was twice as old as all of them.  Age is revered in some cultures and if my age or perceived status as a visitor got me the chair, I wasn’t going to say no.

After the break I was taken to a tukul where a group of 12-14 year old boys was assembled for a counseling session.  CVT’s standard counseling groups run for 10-weeks.  However, if you’ve ever had a teenaged boy in your life you know how restless they can be.  These Eritrean teenagers had picked up and walked out of their country.  They did not enjoy hanging around a refugee camp with no prospects.  As I’ve written briefly about before, many of them walk off again, toward the Sinai Desert in hopes of reaching Israel, or farther on toward Libya and the Mediterranean Sea with hopes of reaching Europe.  Some do make it, but most are kidnapped in the Sinai by Bedouin or other traffickers, or drown in the Med.

Ten-week groups are just too long—many of the boys won’t be around by the third week.  So CVT developed a three-meeting group model, and I was sitting in on the third one.  Everyone had a chair.  But first, they made me stand up and give a speech, since I was such an important person from headquarters.  Now this was a little uncomfortable.  Little did they know that I am nobody special, but I rasped out a few words anyway.

No Way Out

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Mike’s Place is a tourist complex where we would go kayaking or canoeing—it wasn’t  clear—in caves. Mike’s also featured “zip lining, hiking/swimming/rock climbing, food/drink/picnic/BBQ, and Wifi.”

Wifi, in case you wanted to watch a movie set in a jungle after hiking through a jungle.

Mike’s had been founded by a Canadian guy named Mike.  Here is a picture of him when he arrived in Belize.

Mike no longer looked like this.  He had probably partaken of a lot more food/drink/picnic/BBQ than hiking/swimming/rock climbing.  But never mind, he had a beautiful Belizean wife about 30 years younger than him.  She did the cooking and serving, and she seemed to adore Mike.

After 30 minutes of milling about, discussing vital questions such as “Should I bring a water bottle into the cave?” “Are there bats in the cave?” “Is there a place to go to the bathroom in the cave?” Jose our guide finally corralled us at the water’s edge and gave us a five-minute background on the history, geology, and safety concerns of canoeing in caves.

I live in Minnesota so I have done a lot of canoeing on rivers, in lakes, and in wilderness areas near the Canadian border.  I know how to steer; it’s really simple.  But I had no idea what to expect of canoeing in a cave. I had questions too, but I kept my mouth shut in hopes we would get going sooner and just find out once we were in inside what was involved. Would the water be calm or would there be currents?  How deep would it be?

These questions were not answered on the Wilderness Adventure website, and that’s okay—I don’t want to know everything in advance or it wouldn’t have been an adventure. When Mark and I had talked on the phone he hadn’t known anything about the canoeing either, since he had never been to Belize.  The packing list had recommended water gear as though it would be a serious canoe trip, and I had jettisoned mine after moving twice in three months the previous year.  I had gone shopping for water shoes and water-repellant clothes, none of which are cheap or findable in second-hand stores.  I browsed the water shoes and dropped them like they were red hot when I saw the price tags.  In the end, I brought some cheap Sketchers sandals I found at TJ Maxx.  Worst case scenario, I would throw them away if this canoe adventure turned out to be rigorous.

It was extremely tame.  They made us wear life jackets and helmets—because it was a cave with some low hanging outcrops—but we never paddled faster than two miles per hour.

Here is the cave entrance and the canoes.

As we paddled into the silent cave, the hooting of a barn owl that sat in a niche high above the entrance echoed in the darkness, which closed on us as soon as we were a few meters in.

A second guide, Alex, had been called in from his Sunday off because Mike hadn’t been expecting our group.  We drifted along at a leisurely pace, looking at the formations and ancient pots left by the Maya (maybe).  We paddled about a mile into the interior, and I asked Alex about his life.

He was 25 and from El Salvador, from whence his family had fled during the civil war.  He lived with his mother; his father had gone north to California, where he had a successful business.  Alex’s siblings had followed his father one by one and wanted him to join them.  He hadn’t seen his father in over 20 years.  He had no future in Belize.  But he was the youngest child, and his mother wanted to stay in Belize.

“Last month,” he said, “My father got me a visa and I was prepared to go.  But I just couldn’t leave my mother.”

I groaned internally.  Donald Trump had just issued a decree ordering the number of refugees admitted to the US in 2017 be cut in half.  Alex had probably missed his last chance.

Strangers, All

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

The trolley ride was worth the agro of finding the tickets and figuring out how to get on the damn thing.  As I’ve written, many of the streets of Granada are no wider than one lane.  The trolley was narrow, but it came within inches of grinding against the stone walls on either side.  Granada is also very hilly.  At one point we were going downhill and it felt like the brakes weren’t engaging.  Everyone cried out in alarm.  I think there may have been an old woman with a basket of kittens crossing in front of us.  At the last minute the trolley lurched to a stop and we all laughed nervously in relief.

Lynn and I wanted to find a fast, cheap lunch place.  We came upon a hole-in-the-wall Syrian restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol but that was okay.  The place was maybe 12 by 12 feet, had four tables, and was decorated with rugs depicting scenes from Syria, presumably. It was run by a man and wife; she was the cook and he ran the front of the house, such as it was.  He spoke some English and was able to tell us he had come from Syria two years before.

The door opened and a little girl waltzed in, as little kids do, twirling and fidgeting and humming.  Her father gave her a very long hug; I wondered if that was his usual style or if he fiercely appreciated being safe in Spain with his family.  Was this all of his family?  He went in back and came out with a giant present for her—a puppet set.  She sat near us and I spoke Spanish with her.  She was five years old and no, it wasn’t her birthday; the present was from her aunt and uncle who lived far away.

Our host brought our food.  After my two-week trip to the Middle East the year before, I had sworn I would never eat hummus again.  But it was great to have something different—hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, a simple salad with vinegar, and olives and pita bread.

Other customers filtered in and I heard an American accent.  It turned out that one of the guys at the table next to ours was a Syrian-American from Chicago visiting cousins in Granada.

I asked where the toilet was, and the owner pointed behind me.  What?  I stood up and turned around, then parted two rugs hanging from the ceiling to reveal a dilapidated door that didn’t lock.  Now, “toilet” in Spain and most other places in the world means what most Americans call the “bathroom.”  The bath “room” was smaller than a broom closet and the actual toilet was not bolted to the floor so it made a loud thunking noise when I sat down.  It was awkward, and I just had to do what I had to do even though probably everyone in the restaurant could hear it.  Where was the loud music when you needed it?

Lynn and I went our separate ways for the afternoon.  I visited the Musuem of the Sephardi aka the torture museum, which I wrote about as soon as I returned.

As I write this, the headline on the front page of the Sunday Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper is, “Twin Cities Jewish Community Shaken by Rising Anti-Semitism.”  So while the exhibit was historical, it really wasn’t.

Meanwhile, Lynn had found the tourist office and had asked about the Flamenco shows.  To my relief, she had decided she didn’t need to see one.

We tried another hole-in-the-wall restaurant for dinner.  We ordered a pizza and it was clearly a frozen one that had been microwaved.  So what?  We wolfed it down, and their cheap house red wine was fantastic.

We were the only ones in the place besides a young woman who we guessed was Chinese.  She was frantically trying to get her mobile to work.  I wondered if she was homesick.  We would have been happy to keep her company her if she had ever looked up from her phone.

On the Move

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

I awoke in Malta to a new a racist, misogynist, and xenophobic regime in my poor country.  Of course that’s just my opinion and I’m one of those elitist, city-dwelling liberals who believes in facts.  Who needs facts when you have someone telling you what to think?

Based on the American news, I had expected to see hordes of refugees in Europe.  I follow the liberal news sources, and the scenes we see are of throngs of swarthy, dusty people behind fences, their fingers entwined in the chain links as they call out to be released from whatever camp they are in. Cut to scenes of dark young men sitting on the sidewalk in some European city, looking like they’re plotting something. Then there are the close-up shots of dusty, tired-looking women (always wearing hijabs) holding young children who have one tear rolling down their dusty cheek.

The impression we get from even the liberal news is that refugees are invading in massive numbers.  Specifically, Muslim refugees.  Now, I don’t know the exact numbers but since I work for an organization that serves refugees, I know there are many thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe.  However, the images we see didn’t play out for me in Europe.  I never saw crowds of refugees—unless they were wearing Prada and I mistook them for Italians.

I may as well say here that my American image of Italians as being dark, short, and well-dressed were confirmed on this trip.  The Maltese were also dark, even shorter, and while not as impeccably dressed as the Italians, I didn’t see many people wearing jeans or sweatshirts.  Many of the Maltese I saw also had beautiful green or amber-colored eyes.  Was this a result of the mingling of many nations that had taken place over millennia?

I could count on one hand the number of women I saw who were wearing hijabs.  I saw more nuns than black people during the entire three-week trip in three countries.

As I wrote on Election Day, I did meet an Ethiopian immigrant in Malta who went to the immigration office with me to find out if I could claim political asylum or just buy my way in.

After I learned that I couldn’t run away to Malta forever, I decided to at least see as much of it as I could in one day.  I had been up drinking espresso since 4:30 am and had had very unsettling news; what a perfect mode in which to explore a new country!

I found the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus, which is a great way to get the layout of a city without having to figure out public transportation. Here is the map:


I ran to catch the bus, then sat for 45 minutes and talked to the driver and ticket seller until starting time. Both of the men appeared to be in their early 40s.  There were no other passengers, and the rain drizzled down continuously while we waited.

The driver didn’t have much to say but the ticket seller was up for talking. Topic number one was the American election, and they were as shocked as I was about the outcome.

“Probably some people here are happy about it,” the ticket seller said.  “Malta is a very conservative country.  Very Catholic.  Abortion is illegal and divorce was only legalized a few years ago.  Gay marriage?  Don’t bring it up.”

Maybe it hadn’t been such a great plan, me moving to Malta.

“But things are changing.  We’ve only got 400,000 people and of course a lot of the young ones have different ideas.”

Finally, the bus got going.  We stopped at a few hotels and picked up more passengers.  The first “stop,” if you could call it that, was in Tarxien, just outside of the capital city of Valletta.  The street was so narrow and congested that the bus basically slowed to a roll while some of us leaped off.  The driver waved his arm to the left and yelled, “Hypogeum!” then to the right and yelled, “temples!”

I was hopelessly lost within five minutes.

Dakota Bound

I’m on a road trip! No, not to New Orleans. Believe it or not, I am going to meet with three potential donors in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Yee haw!

Here’s the deal. The Center for Victims of Torture, where I work, does psychotherapy, physical therapy, and social work for survivors of torture and war trauma. We do it in groups in Jordan, for instance, because all the clients speak the same language. We do it on an individual basis in Minnesota, because clients come from 36 different countries and speak myriad languages which must often be translated, which doubles the time everything takes.

This is all good as far as it goes, except that there are an estimated 1.3 million torture survivors in the US alone. We do a lot of training to try to equip professionals outside of CVT to recognize and help torture survivors. But there’s also no way we can train every doctor, social worker, cop, or immigration officer that might come into contact with a survivor.

People have been talking about doing something with technology at CVT for years, but without funding that’s just dreaming. Part of my job is to find new sources of funding, and that’s what I hope I’ve done. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are three HUGE international development innovation funds that we hope to tap. To do this, we need to find partners who know how to reach patients in remote or difficult to access situations. That’s why we’re going to South Dakota.

It’s so important, when you’re trying to get people fired up about complicated ideas, that you have the right people on your team. My co-pilots on this trip are a colleague who is from Sioux Falls and whose father has opened some doors for us, and CVT’s clinical advisor for our international programs, who is Kenyan and a PhD psycholgist. He describes the needs this way:

In Nairobi, there are thousands of Somali torture survivors living in the slums who are not there legally, under the protection of the United Nations. They literally cannot leave their dwellings during the day, because the Kenyan police will round them up and shake them down for bribes. Which would you choose: Pay a bribe, or be sent back to Somalia where you may face certain death? They may not have iphones, but could we develop a text-based therapy intervention?

Among the survivors who are in Nairobi legally, there are many Congolese and people of other non-English speaking nationalities. Kenya is an English-speaking country. The refugee kids may have already missed years of schooling due to being forced to serve as child soldiers and living on the run or hiding. Now they spend 12 hours a day in school—regular school, plus an extra block of time added on to learn English. They have survived unimaginable horrors. Many of them need psychotherapy or physical therapy, but they don’t have time for it. Could we develop a game-like therapy intervention that would appeal to youth?

CVT also works in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp on earth, in northern Kenya near the Somali border. Its population is about the same as Minneapolis—about 350,000 people. Could we do tele-therapy with them—either mental health or physical? If so we could reach so many more people. We could also use videoconferencing to train our own and other organizations’ staff.


“Do they all have smart phones in Dadaab?” I asked. I have been to Nairobi but not Dadaab.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “We would have to do a survey to determine who has the old Nokias, how many have smart phones. The Chinese are making big inroads into the African market with cheap smart phones. Most Kenyans use their mobiles for everything. They don’t have tablets or desk tops or TVs or land lines. They’ve basically skipped over those generations of devices and they do everything on mobiles.”

I love projects like this. They’re big, messy, uncertain, and complicated. They require me to work with people with whom I don’t normally interact. They may have big payoffs. And in this case they require a road trip.