Tag Archives: Refugees

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.

Penultimate Day in Ethi

My penultimate day in Ethiopia.  There, I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Today I would be observing a training and a women’s group.  But first, I settled up my canteen bill, handed in the Chinese dongle that had never helped me get an Internet connection, and returned the ancient Nokia I had been given the first day.  For once, my age was an advantage with technology, since I had learned to text using the ABC system way back in 2005.  Pity the millennial or younger generation who has only known smart phone qwerty keypads with autocorrect.

I could receive messages but the phone wouldn’t send them.  I could see a queue of failed sends attempted by previous users.  I also received various messages in Tigrinya.  I will never know if the message below was important.  Had I missed an incredible two-for-one offer on camel milk?

Maki sent me several messages and I responded to her via my iphone.  Then she would reply to the Nokia. It was a little confusing.

I did some packing and noticed that my mattress was covered with this fabric.

I stared at it.  Why were there kangaroos all over my mattress and why had I not noticed before?  I had been here a week.  I can only posit that it was an example of how the mind narrows down when it is overwhelmed with too much new stimulus.

It could also be related to what I call “the gauze effect.”  I have often gone on a trip to a developing country thinking I’ll write blog posts every day, or fill my hours drafting a novel, or learn French because I’ll have lots of time on my hands.

I do none of that.  In fact I do nothing much, because the pace of life is so slow, the heat so intense, and getting the smallest task done feels like a major miracle.  It feels like a soft cotton gauze has settled over your head.  You can’t think, you can’t act.  Making a photocopy feels like a big accomplishment worthy of being rewarded with a nap.

I attended a two-hour training on attachment in the morning that was given by our expert psychotherapist to employees of other NGOs working with Eritrean refugees.  Several young women had brought their very cute babies, and I thought it must be a nice bonus for them that they got paid to learn about child development and attachment on the job.

A rooster had flown over the wall of our compound and was crowing incessantly in an alcove outside the training room.  Suddenly I saw one of the cooks stride purposefully past the door and the rooster gave an alarming “Bwuauck!”  We would be having poultry for dinner tonight.

After lunch we rode to one of the camps and hung around waiting for clients to show up.  One by one, women arrived, some with children.  CVT has a childcare tukul but the babies stay in the groups with their mothers.

About 15 minutes past the hour there were 10 women assembled and the facilitator began.  Thankfully she didn’t ask me to speak, she just told them who I was and I gave the same introduction as the rest of them: name, age, marital status, number of children, and how long I had been in Ethiopia.  “One week,” I said, smiling. And I thought, pained,  And I get to leave tomorrow, while none of you knows when she’ll return home or be resettled, if ever.

The facilitator translated here and there but mainly it was similar to the boys’ group the previous day; I knew enough to get the gist of what was going on.  All of the women were married with children and dressed in traditional clothing except one.  She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt and had her hair in a glamorous up-do.  At first she sat slouched down in her chair with her arms crossed as if to say, “I’m not one of you.”  But as the group went on and the women shared she sat up and leaned forward.  It was a remarkable transformation, and a great example of the power of group counseling.

 

 

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.

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.