Healing the Tiger…in Egypt and in Each of Us

30 01 2011

COMPELLING. CAPTIVATING. We CONNECT with the drama unfolding in Eqypt. Why? In the U.S., we sit in our cozy homes and have the freedom to make a living (although many of us are admittedly struggling with that right now), the freedom to make decisions about our lives, and the freedom to speak our minds. We complain that the government is too big or not doing enough and yet our government has checks and balances with the three branches of government; no one person can dictate entirely what happens in the country and no one person can rob the country and the people in it of funds and assets. We are blessed and we so often take it for granted.

We are riveted to the stories of those who don’t have the freedoms we have…people like those protesting in the streets of Eqypt. Perhaps we are trying to imagine what it must be like to have lived 30 years under an oppressive regime. Perhaps we are stunned to see the police so powerless and the army for the most part just standing by, supporting the people, and allowing them to protest. Perhaps we are also stunned that a few people who take to the streets to protest would be gunned down and that the Internet and cell phone service would be shut down for an entire country. This would not happen here. No one person has that much power.

The country and people of Egypt seem to be suffering from societal trauma. Dr. Peter A. Levine, author of “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,” says that:

Citizens in our inner cities randomly destroy property and life as the effects of years of accumulated stress, trauma, hostility, and economic oppression combust.

Credit: Dominic Harness

Dr. Levine talks of how an animal in the wild handles being attacked by another animal. It can fight back, flee, or freeze (play dead) until the attacking animal loses interest and then run away. The last option of freezing is what happens to people when their options are taken from them.

Unfortunately, human beings…unlike a tiger in the wild…don’t know how to shake off the trauma physically after freezing and we wind up internalizing the trauma sometimes for decades. Perhaps the traumatized part in each of us (for whatever reason…child abuse, a surgery, an accident, a divorce, a job loss, losing our home, the loss of a child, returning from war, etc.) connects with the people of Eqypt. They are acting out the effects of decades of trauma and woundedness and we get it.

Dr. Levine says that:

Trauma cannot be ignored. It is an inherent part of the primitive biology that brought us here. The only way we will be able to release ourselves, individually and collectively, from re-enacting our traumatic legacies is by transforming them through renegotiation.

He goes on to say that:

Transformation requires a willingness to challenge your basic beliefs about who you are. Through transformation, the nervous system regains its capacity for self-regulation. Our emotions begin to lift us up rather than bring us down. They propel us into the exhilarating ability to soar and fly, giving us a more complete view of our place in nature. Our perceptions broaden to encompass a receptivity and acceptance of what is, without judgment. We are able to learn from our life experiences. Without trying to forgive, we understand that there is no blame. We often obtain a surer sense of self while become more resilient and spontaneous. This new self-assuredness allows us to relax, enjoy, and live life more fully. We become more in tune with the passion and ecstatic dimensions of life.

Perhaps this is happening with the people in Egypt; they seem to be feeling more confident and more hopeful and are transforming as a people. We are watching history in the making, unfolding before our eyes. We see the possibility of what happens when people unite in a common cause to help lift each other and a nation up. It gives us hope as individuals that we can lift ourselves up out of our own personal traumas and transform our own personal and collective lives.

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A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.





Stoned to Death for Having Unmarried Sex in Somalia

8 11 2009

33-year-old Abas Hussein Abdirahman, who confessed to adultery in an Islamic court, was stoned to death on 11/7/09 in Somalia for having sex with his girlfriend. She will be stoned to death after she gives birth to their baby. The BBC reports that an eyewitness…one of 300 to the stoning…said that Abas Somali Al-Shabaab - Credit BBC“…was screaming and blood was pouring from his head during the stoning. After seven minutes he stopped moving.”

The BBC reports that this is the third time this year that Al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgency group in Somalia, has stoned a person to death for adultery. Two men were stoned to death last month after being accused of being spies.

According to the BBC, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed “has accused al-Shabab of spoiling the image of Islam by killing people and harassing women.” Ahmed also had this to say about the Al-Shabab:

Their actions have nothing to do with Islam. They are forcing women to wear very heavy clothes, saying they want them to properly cover their bodies but we know they have economic interests behind – they sell these kinds of clothes and want to force people to buy them.

Somalia has not had a functioning national government in 18 years. Ahmed was sworn in as president in January after UN-brokered peace talks. Ahmed has said he wants to implement the Islamic Sharia law, but the Al-Shabab say he will be too lenient.

One of my most-read posts is Remembering 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow from Somalia. She reported being gang-raped as she walked to her grandmother’s and was stoned to death, accused of being an adulterer.

Surely God would not condone killing a soon-to-be father and mother who physically expressed love for one another and a child who was gang raped. Stoning them are not acts of honor and love for God. These are acts of terrorism under the guise of religion. They are about instilling fear in people in order to control them. They are senseless acts by people who use God’s name to harm others in order to assert their own power.

I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia years ago and I understand that in Muslim countries, religion and law are combined in a way we don’t experience in the U.S.  We must be respectful of the laws and traditions of people different from us. Still, I wonder how long Muslims will stand by and allow this to happen in their religion’s name. How long will the world stand by and quietly condemn these acts while they continue?





NBA Star Tracy McGrady Creates a Darfur Dream Team

7 09 2009
Tracy McGrady Houston Mansion

Tracy McGrady's Houston Mansion

30-year-old NBA Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady, who makes an estimated $21.1 million a year, is an unlikely advocate for refugees in Darfur. He could just live a cushy life in his 35,000 square foot mansion with his four children and wife. Instead, he heard about the plight of Chad and Sudan refugees in Darfur, wanted to see for himself, thought that surely there was something he could do, and traveled there with John Prendergast and Omer Ismail from the Enough project, which bills itself as “the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity.”

Tracy grew up in a rough neighborhood in Auburndale, Florida where he witnessed shooting, robbing, and dealing drugs. He said that when he got aTracy McGrady - Credit NBA website well-paying job, he wanted to have nice things, but said that “…those things don’t really mean anything to me anymore.” Before he went to Darfur, in the western region of Sudan and bordering Chad, in the summer of 2007, he said he had no idea what genocide was and was nervous about what he would see…and he saw a lot.

His trip resulted in the documentary 3 Points, which has just been released and can be seen on Hulu. Tracy is so passionate about the film and his work that he has changed his jersey number to 3 to remind people of the three goals for the Darfuris: peace, protection, and punishment (of those who have harmed them).

Tracy goes there with a big heart and a lot to learn. He…like most of us…has no idea what the life of the refugees…all 2.2 million of them…is like…that the women are being raped, the men are being killed, and their villages have been burned down. He sees children running and wants to build them a soccer field (which would cost just $1,000) and an indoor swimming pool (which would be considered extravagant), but learns that these children have more basic needs such as clean water, food, safety, and schools and supplies. There are no secondary schools (high schools). The people tell them that they have nothing…NOTHING.

He sleeps in a tent for the first time and displays a lot of naivete, but a willingness to learn about the Darfuris. He learns that children and families walked 200 miles to be in the camps, that the women choose to go out to get firewood because they will only be raped; if their husbands go out, they will be killed. Refugees are bombed by planes that look like United Nations planes, are surrounded by land mines, and eat once a day if they are lucky. People are attacked, killed execution-style, and even buried alive by Sudan’s military and Janjaweed, the government-backed militia. Children watch their parents being killed and are instantly orphaned and traumatized. Even small babies being carried on their mothers’ backs are shot.

Tracy asks questions that reveal a lot about the refugees:

  • “Who is protecting you?” No one
  • “What did you [young children] do when your village was attacked?” We ran, hid in the bush for a month, and walked for 10 days to get to a refugee camp.
  • “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 3 boys: I want to be a teacher. A girl:” I want to run my country.
  • “What kind of help do you need?” We have nothing. Everything was burned.

These are brave people, courageous people, strong people, survivors. They have seen unspeakable atrocities and injustice…the worst from their own government. Tracy reflects…

Tracy McGrady with Darfuri Children - Credit Darfur Dream Team

Just imagine that this could be us. What if the roles were reversed? What if the dice were rolled another way? This is not a joke…it’s not a game…this is real. This is our people we’re talking about. I guess that I am beginning to feel that I was put on this earth to really like help people. There’s more to me than just playing basketball, doing Adidas commercials. This is who I am and who I’m going to be. This is the beginning stages that we’re in. There’s definitely a lot more that needs to be done.

After returning from Darfur, Tracy visited with the State Department with his teammate Dikembe Mutombo and got input about how he can make a difference in Darfur. He recruited several other NBA stars to help in this effort as well as other non-profit organizations. He started a Darfur Dream Team Sister School program, which connects middle schools, high schools, and universities with students in the refugee camps of Darfur.

Tracy also visited his alma mater high school in that rough neighborhood of Auburndale, Florida with his Enough project allies who told the students that by being passive and nothing, they help evil triumph. Omer Ismail, the human rights activist from Darfur who joined Tracy on his travels there, said this to the students:

One day somebody is going to look you in the eyes and ask you “When Darfur was declared genocide, what have you done? I want you to look them in the eyes and say “I knew about it then and I’m proud to tell you that I’ve done something about it.”

Here’s a trailer about the 3 Points movie. Watch it. It will touch you. If it moves you, consider donating to the Darfur Dream Team’s Sister School program. Refugees in Darfur need all the heroes…like Tracy McGrady and you and me…they can get to help lift them up and into a better life.





Empowering Women to Hold Up Half the Sky

28 08 2009

Her family in need of money, at age 14, Abbas Be left her home in Hyderabad, India and went to New Delhi to become a maid…or so she thought. Instead, she was locked up in a brothel, beaten, gang raped, made to service customers sexually, made to watch girls who didn’t comply be murdered, and was never paid for her work. Eventually she was rescued by police and taken back to Hyderabad, where she found a home in a shelter that helps trafficked girls heal and learn skills for a new life. Abbas is getting an education, has learned bookbinding, is counseling girls on how to avoid being trafficked, and is earning enough money to help her sisters get an education and help them avoid being trafficked.

How can we improve the plight of women and girls globally? One very important way is through education, as is demonstrated in this story and many others in the upcoming book Half the Sky BookHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which will be released on 9/8/09. The book is written by the husband and wife team of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and journalist and author Sheryl WuDunn, who have both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. They wrote an essay called “The Women’s Crusade,” which is adapted from the book and appeared on 8/17/09 in the New York Times. Here are some of the things they report:

  • In 1990, while living and reporting in China, they read an obscure report that stated that 39,000 baby girls die in the first year of life annually in China because parents don’t get girls the same medical care they do boys.
  • A bride is burned once every two hours in India because the dowry isn’t high enough or the husband wants to get rid of her to marry someone else.
  • Anywhere from 60 to 107 million females are missing from the planet due primarily to not getting adequate nutrition and health care. This number is more than all the men who were killed in all the wars in the 20th century.
  • The poorest families in the world spend approximately 20% of their incomes on alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts and only about 2% of their income on educating their children. Studies show that when women are able to have an income, it is more often spent on good food, medicine, and housing and children are healthier.
  • In some cases, fathers drink away $5 a week at bars…$5 that could purchase a mosquito net and save a child from dying of malaria.

Sometimes even the simplest things can make a huge difference in the lives of girls. Examples mentioned in the article are:

  • A study done in Kenya by Harvard economist Michael Kremer showed that the best way to motivate sixth grade girls to better academic performance is to offer them a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade and recognition at an assembly.
  • In another Kenyan study, it was shown that dropout and pregnancy rates can be significantly reduced by providing a $6 school uniform to girls every 18 months.
  • Another way to keep girls from missing classes is to aid girls in menstruation by providing pads and a place to change them.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

President Obama has appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls. Nicholas and Sheryl have three concrete recommendations for the Council, which would cost no more than the U.S. has given to Pakistan since 9/11:

  • Set aside $10 billion over the next five years to educate girls all over the world.  When Larry Summers was chief economist of the World Bank, he said that “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”
  • Sponsor a drive to help countries all over the world iodize salt and eliminate iodine deficiency. Approximately a third of households in developing countries don’t get enough iodine and it can affect particularly female fetuses and reduce girls’ IQs 10 to 15 points.
  • Provide $1.6 billion over the next 12 years to eradicate obstetric fistulas. A fistula is a hole formed inside a woman during a difficult childbirth and it can leave her smelly, incontinent, and shunned by her village. It only costs a few hundred dollars to repair.

There is a Chinese saying that inspired the title of the Kristof/WuDunn book:

Women hold up half the sky.

Sometimes women just need a little help. If you’d like to make a difference in the lives of women and children all over the world, here are just a few of the many organizations that would appreciate even a small donation:





Youssou N’Dour: Goodwill and Music Ambassador of the World

16 08 2009

It penetrates. It uplifts. It feels joyful. Grammy award-winning Youssou N’Dour’s music. Mostly sung in his African Senegal native tongue of Youssou N'Dour Sept 2004Wolof, one does not need a translator to feel this music. Described by Rolling Stone magazine in 2004 as “perhaps the most famous singer alive,” Youssou N’Dour is the subject of a documentary called I Bring What I Love, which was shown at many prestigious film festivals around the world. It is now being shown in theaters across the country and I had the privilege of seeing it on Friday.

I received an email from UNICEF USA about the movie. Youssou is an UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and, per the the email, “advocates for children at home and abroad, giving benefit performances and participating in social mobilization and advocacy campaigns. He has been a consistent supporter of the Roll-Back Malaria Partnership, a global initiative launch in 1998 to significantly reduce the number of malaria deaths.”

The email also had this to say about the movie:

Enjoy the tantalizing beats, be inspired by Youssou’s compelling story, but also go see the film because there is more at stake. It’s all too rare that an African or Muslim subject gets this kind of film making and this kind of attention. Amid the images in the U.S. media of African AIDS, war and poverty, this film is a chance for Americans to see a positive, realistic representation of contemporary Africa. In addition, it is all too rare that stories go below the surface and give nuanced views of a more tolerant Islam.

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Youssou N’Dour is is often credited with introducing the music of Africa to countless new audiences. Now the innovative Sengalese singer, composer and producer is the subject of a new documentary film, ‘I Bring What I Love’, currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit and in cinemas.

Director and producer Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s cameras followed Mr. N’Dour for three years, documenting family life, concert appearances around the world, the infectious energy of Senegal and his Sufi Muslim faith.

The resulting music-driven journey unfolds at an extraordinary moment in N’Dour’s career, when his most personal, spiritual album to date sparks controversy at home when it is released.

Youssou is revered in Senegal and all of Africa, but originally the Egypt album, which was loved all over the world, was rejected in his home country. Considering it a testimony of his faith, he released it during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan; many considered it blasphemous. It was only after the album won a Grammy…Youssou’s first…that it was accepted.

I was privileged to attend the one showing in Austin that was followed by a discussion of the movie. About 20 former Peace Corps volunteers were present as well as several native Sengalese. The discussion was lively and intelligent, as would be expected from the worldly, curious, and open-minded people who stayed to participate. I came away with a new appreciation for the country of Senegal and a renewed interest in Youssou N’Dour.

Not only is he a world-renowned musician and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Youssou N’Dour also:

  • Organized in 1985 a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela
  • Performed in the 1988 worldwide Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour
  • Acted in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace about the abolitionist William Wilberforce
  • Performed at three Live 8 concerts
  • Worked with the United Nations
  • Advocated for public health (including AIDS/HIV activism) and civil and political stability in Africa
  • Helped change the economic landscape in Senegal through the Youssou N’Dour Foundation
  • Was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2007 by Time magazine

Check out the movie if you have a chance and definitely check out some of his music. It will make you smile and make you want to get up and dance.

Here is the South by Southwest Film Festival trailer about the movie:







Phoenix Family Shuns Gang Raped 8-Year-Old Girl

24 07 2009

In Phoenix, four boys from Liberia aged 9, 10, 13, and 14 lured an 8-year-old Liberian girl to a shed on pretense of getting some gum. There they held her down and took turns brutally gang raping her. Police responded to reports of her hysterical screams and saw the four boys running away from the shed.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, according to an Associated Press report today, police Sgt. Andy Hill said the father of the raped girl:

…told the case worker and an officer in her presence that he didn’t want her back. He said “Take her, I don’t want her.”

Liberia has been emerging from 14 years of civil war and a culture of rape, and is one of the few African countries that has outlawed rape (in 2006). Although this is beginning to change, for many years in the Liberian culture, the crime was not as important as the shame to the family of a daughter being raped. The girl is now in state custody to protect her from her own family.

This is truly a tragic story. A little girl’s innocence and trust in people…and these were other children from her own culture…are now broken. Her own father has said he doesn’t want her and has said she has brought shame to the family. She did nothing wrong and yet was victimized by the rapists and her own family.

These young boys possibly saw this as a way to have some fun and yet their selfishness and cruelty has forever impacted this little girl’s life and the life of her family. The 14-year-old who was the ringleader will be tried as an adult with two counts of sexual assault and kidnapping. The other three boys were charged as juveniles with rape and two also with kidnapping…serious charges.

Senseless. Tragic. Horrendous. Life altering. Physically damaging. Emotionally damaging. Shameful. A lifetime of pain. The sexual assault on a child or an adult has real consequences that last a lifetime. And there’s nothing honorable about a family that shuns an 8-year-old little innocent girl who was gang raped. She needs all the love and support she can get after such an horrific experience. When will the African and Muslim families who consider “honor” more important than the welfare and well-being of their own children stop hiding behind that as a so-called religious precept and start standing up for what’s really important…love, kindness, acceptance, and understanding.





Ishmael Beah: Former Sierra Leone Child Soldier

5 07 2009

At the age of 13, Ishmael Beah was forced to become a child soldier in a horrific civil war that started in 1991 in Sierra Leone. Rebels had ishmael_beah burned many villages and killed everyone in them, including his family. He and a group of boys roamed from village to village looking for food and shelter, just trying to stay alive. They had many close calls when they were mistaken for rebels and were almost executed. They saw things that children shouldn’t see…mutilated dead bodies (including those of other children) in piles and blood soaking the ground…and they cheered each other with boyish games to avoid feeling the pervasive fear and despair that drenched this war-ridden country.

They thought they had finally found safety at a military encampment in Yele. Ishmael was given food and stayed in a cement brick house with over 30 other orphaned boys between the ages of 7 and 16. For a while, it seemed idyllic as he helped prepare food and played his beloved soccer. One day everything changed. Lieutenant Jabati announced that the boys were needed to fight the rebels and told them “This is your time to revenge the deaths of your families and to make sure more children do not lose their families.”

Sierra Leone Child Soldier - Credit: Foreign Policy Assn

Sierra Leone Child Soldier - FR: Foreign Policy Assn

And so it began. Ishmael and his friends…upon threat of death if they tried to escape…became child soldiers. They were given AK-47 assault rifles, trained in how to attack and kill, and given marajuana, amphetamines, cocaine, and brown-brown (a mixture of cocaine and gun powder) to dull the horror of killing. They believed their commanders had juju…magical skills…and they did what they were told, which included execution style killings, slitting throats, and many other horrendous acts to prove their loyalty and soldiering ability.

Ishmael survived many harrowing scenes in which less clever and determined men and boys perished. He was rescued after almost three years by UNICEF and sent through an 8-month rehabilitation program, which required his caretakers…especially the very caring Esther who became like a mother figure to him…to be willing to see him and other former child soldiers as children and not as willing killers. He had a really difficult time withdrawing from all the drugs and facing what he had done. He suffered flashbacks and nightmares and had to relearn to trust adults.

He was repatriated by going to live with a long-lost uncle and his family in the city of Freetown. He was one of two children chosen to represent Sierra Leone at the United Nations First International Children’s Parliament in New York City. There he told his story of being a child soldier and the effects it had on him and other children.

Ishmael returned to Sierra Leone, attended school, and continued living with his uncle. On May 25, 1997, soldiers entered Freetown and raped, killed, threw tear gas, and plundered. Ishmael’s uncle suddenly became ill and died. With war raging around him, Ishmael knew that he needed to escape or he would be killed if he refused to become a child soldier again.

He made the decision to never go back to that soul-killing way of life and called Laura Simms…one of the NGOs (non-governmental officials) he’d met at the New York conference…and asked if he could come live with her. She said yes. With a few clothes and some money she sent him, he started the very dangerous path out of the country and escaped (barely) to Conakry, Guinea. From there he was able to get to New York and Laura became his foster mother.

Ishmael finished his last two years of high school at the United Nations International School in New York and went on to get a degree in political science in 2004 at Oberlin College. The book he eloquently wrote about his experiences…A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier…was published in 2007. I just finished reading that book and found it moving, disturbing, and in the end, hopeful.

There are hundreds of thousands of children worldwide who are forced to be soldiers. Since Ishmael was liberated from soldiering, positive changes have been happening in Sierra Leone. Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008 states that “A landmark in international justice was forged by the conviction in 2007 by the Special Court for Sierra Leone of four people on charges that included the recruitment and use of children during the civil war.” It goes on to laud Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and Liberia for establishing truth commissions to address the issue of child soldiers.

The report names these countries as having used child soldiers in armed conflict between April 2004 and October 2007: Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan and Southern Sudan, Uganda, Yemen, and the UK (which sent under 18-year-olds to fight in Iraq). Under pressure from the United Nations and human rights organizations, some countries have ceased deploying child soldiers, but these victories have been limited. There is much work to be done.

To learn more about Ishmael Beah, you can visit the website http://www.alongwaygone.com. He has established the Ishmael Beah Foundation, which is “dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives.” He was a long way gone, but now he’s a long way positively influencing the lives of others through his work with the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, speaking before the United Nations, serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and doing other work to bring to light the effects of war on children. Here’s Ishmael speaking on CBS News on June 4, 2007.





We Can’t Afford To Turn Away

31 05 2009
We pay a high price for refusing to look at the atrocities being committed all over the world. The atrocities continue…bodies, minds, and hearts are destroyed…and we bear a collective responsibility and guilt for allowing them to continue.
 
My family members and friends rarely visit my blog and read my posts. Most never have. They don’t want to read about what I write about…particularly the abuse and injustice toward women and children all over the world. I try and talk with them about it and they don’t want to hear.

To refuse to see and acknowledge what is going on winds up hurting all of us at a very deep level. We deny the humanity of others who have less opportunity and more injustice than we do. How can we live with that? By staying incredibly busy and tuning out the inconvenient and raw truth? How authentic are our lives when we constantly do that? How authentic is our humanity?
 
Here’s an excellent New York Times op-ed column on this posted May 30. What are your thoughts?

“Holding On to Our Humanity” by Bob Herbert

Overload is a real problem. There is a danger that even the most decent of people can grow numb to the unending reports of atrocities occurring all around the globe. Mass rape. Mass murder. Torture. The institutionalized oppression of women.

There are other things in the world: a ballgame, your daughter’s graduation, the ballet. The tendency to draw an impenetrable psychic curtain across the worst that the world has to offer is understandable. But it’s a tendency, as Elie Wiesel has cautioned, that must be fought.

We have an obligation to listen, for example, when a woman from a culture foreign to our own recalls the moment when time stopped for her, when she was among a group of women attacked by soldiers:

“They said to us: ‘If you have a baby on your back, let us see it.’ The soldiers looked at the babies and if it was a boy, they killed it on the spot [by shooting him]. If it was a girl, they dropped or threw it on the ground. If the girl died, she died. If she didn’t die, the mothers were allowed to pick it up and keep it.”

The woman recalled that in that moment, the kind of throbbing moment when time is not just stopped but lost, when it ceases to have any meaning, her grandmother had a boy on her back. The grandmother refused to show the child to the soldiers, so both she and the boy were shot.

A team of female researchers, three of them physicians, traveled to Chad last fall to interview women who were refugees from the nightmare in Darfur. No one has written more compellingly about that horror than my colleague on this page, Nick Kristof. When I was alerted to the report that the team had compiled for Physicians for Human Rights, my first thought was, “What more is there to say?”

And then I thought about Mr. Wiesel, who has warned us so eloquently about the dangers inherent in indifference to the suffering of others. Stories of atrocities on the scale of those coming out of Darfur cannot be told too often.

The conflict has gone on for more than six years, and while the murders and mass rapes have diminished, this enormous human catastrophe is still very much with us. For one thing, Sudan has expelled humanitarian aid groups from Darfur, a move that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told Mr. Kristof “may well amount to genocide by other means.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and the systematic sexual attacks on Darfuri women have been widely reported. Millions have been displaced and perhaps a quarter of a million Darfuris are living in conditions of the barest subsistence in refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border.

The report by Physicians for Human Rights, to be released officially on Sunday (available at darfuriwomen.org), focuses on several dozen women in the Farchana refugee camp in Chad. The report pays special attention to the humanity of the women.

“These are real people with children, with lives that may have been quite simple, but were really rich before they were displaced,” said Susannah Sirkin, a deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The conditions in the refugee camps are grim, made worse by the traumas that still grip the women, many of whom were witnesses — or the victims — of the most extreme violence.

“I don’t think I was prepared for the level of just palpable suffering that they are continuing to endure,” said Dr. Sondra Crosby, one of the four interviewers. “Women were telling me they were starving. They’re eating sorghum and oil and salt and sugar.”

Dr. Crosby and her colleagues had a few crackers or cookies on hand for the women during the interviews. “I don’t think I saw even one woman eat the crackers, even though they were hungry,” she said. “They all would hide them in their dresses so they could take them back to their children.”

The women also live with the ongoing fear of sexual assault. According to the report, rape is a pervasive problem around the refugee camps, with the women especially vulnerable when they are foraging for firewood or food.

“It is so much easier to look away from victims,” said Mr. Wiesel, in a speech at the White House in 1999. “It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.”

But indifference to the suffering of others “is what makes the human being inhuman,” he said, adding: “The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”





Waking Up from a Tortured Past

26 04 2009

King Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for the deaths of 10 – 15 million people in the Congo between 1885 and 1908…twice the number that Hitler had killed. Have you even heard of him? I hadn’t until I read the unbelievable book King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.

King Leopold II

King Leopold II

Leopold could not convince Belgium to get involved in colonization so he developed his own private company…the International African Society…and laid claim to the area he called the Congo Free State, which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He cloaked his takeover of this land and the ivory and rubber trades as doing philanthropic work.

Wikipedia says: ” With a complex scheme of political intrigue, corruption and propaganda, he wins the assistance of one of the greatest explorers of the time, Henry Morton Stanley, as well as that of public opinion and of powerful states.”

It took decades for people outside the Congo Free State to know the absolute reign of terror he held over those people, his ruthlessness, and the massacre of over half the population. Outsiders believed he was liberating the Congo people and helping them.

The world has amnesia or ignorance of this monster and the mass killings and maiming he ordered and caused. This reign of terror that King Leopold II started seems to be imprinted in the psyche of the people in the DRC.

Millions of people are still being killed on the same land…today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Second Congo War…the “African World War”…which started in 1998 and on paper ended in 2003 (but still continues) has resulted in 5.4 million deaths.

Child Soldiers in the DRC

Child Soldiers in the DRC - Credit: Reuters

Horrendous rapes and other sexual violence committed there as a tool of war are the worst in the world. Children are seized by the armies to serve as soldiers and sexual slaves. Over half of the victims of sexual violence are children. Girls and women are raped and their insides are then torn apart with butts of rifles, burned, or other horrors. I wrote a post Women Suffer Atrocities Silently in the Congo about this.

So what does this have to do with you and me? We have just lived through eight years of a monarch who appeared on the surface…as did King Leopold II…to be beneficent. Horrible atrocities were being committed, though, and justified under the guise of keeping us safe.

Yoga science defines samskara as “…an imprint from past experience in the unconscious mind, which later creates our experiences by causing a person to automatically behave a certain way.”

How does one…or a nation…heal from samskaras? By becoming aware of these imprints, deciding we are not going to just react like a Pavlovian dog, and by choosing different and healthier responses.

We must wake up from this 9/11 terror-induced coma we have been living in and acknowledge what was being done and hold people accountable for their atrocities. Otherwise we, like the people in the Congo, will hold torture in our psyches and will not be able to move on to being a more enlightened, awake, ethical, and peaceful people.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — Poet and Philosopher George Santayana

A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” –Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron

UPDATE 4/29/09: Human Rights Watch issued an alert today as reported on Reuters:

More than 100,000 displaced civilians in Lubero territory in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo desperately need protection from further attacks by Rwandan militias and Congolese forces, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations peacekeeping force and humanitarian agencies to take urgent steps to increase protection and assistance to the civilians at risk.

You can read the full report on Reuters here.





Sierra Leone Females: Poor, Uneducated, Butchered

28 02 2009

Kidnapped by women, stripped naked, and paraded through the streets. This was the plight of four women journalists on February 7 in the city of Kenema in the African country of Sierra Leone. The reason? To punish them for reporting on female genital mutilation (FGM). The United Nations reports that 94% of women and girls in Sierra Leone ages 15 – 49 have experienced FGM, which is done to control their sexual urges, make them ready for marriage, and to make them an acceptable female member of society. Women cannot even hold office in Sierra Leone unless they have been cut.

Last year the Sierra Leone government said it would ban FGM, but it has done nothing about it. Patricia Kabbah, the late wife of previous President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, sponsored (paid for) the circumcisions of 15,000 girls in order to get votes for her husband. A decade ago, the woman who later became the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Women’s Affairs in Sierra Leone threatened to “sew up the mouths” of those who preach against FGM.

It is hard to imagine that women such as the journalists’ kidnappers, the ex-president’s wife, and a minster of women’s affairs would all advocate the barbaric practice of cutting off the clitoris (and sometimes also the labia) of girls. The practice is often done with a crude knife, razor blade, or even a piece of broken glass and can cause severe bleeding and infection, injure girls for life, make them incontinent, make them infertile, cause complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and can even cause death.

Rugiatu Turay Fights FGM - Credit: The Independent

Rugiatu Turay Fights FGM - Credit: The Independent

One brave woman in Sierra Leone who is working to stop this practice is 26-year-old Rugiatu Turay. Ms. Turay is a victim of FGM herself. The Independent online reports this about what happened to Ms. Turay when she was 12 years old:

Ms Turay was mutilated at her aunt’s house where she was staying with her three sisters and her cousin. “We didn’t even know that we were going to be initiated,” she says. “They called me to get water and then outside they just grabbed me.”

She was blindfolded, stripped, and laid on the ground. Heavy women sat on her arms, her chest, her legs. Her mouth was stuffed with a rag. Her clitoris was cut off with a crude knife. Despite profuse bleeding she was forced to walk, was beaten and had hot pepper water poured into her eyes.

“My mother had always told me never to let anyone touch me there. I was scared and I tried to fight them off. Nobody talked to me but there was all this clapping, singing, shouting,” recalls Ms Turay. “When I tried to walk on the seventh day I could not walk. All they could say is ‘Today you have become a woman’.”

For the past six years, Ms. Turay has waged a war with the 20 people on her staff against FGM through her organization Amazonian Initiative Movement. She became an activist after a cousin bled to death from FGM. She works to persuade the soweis, the women who do the cutting, to lay down their knives and stop practicing FGM. So far she has convinced 700 to over 1200 soweis (the numbers vary according to different reports) in 111 villages to stop the cutting and participating in the traditional bondo ceremony. Ms. Turay has received numerous death threats, been attacked, and has had magic used against her. Because she is still alive, the local people think she has special powers and they now leave her alone.

Katrina Manson, the journalist who wrote The Independent article, asked President Koroma of Sierra Leone, elected in 2007, his thoughts on FGM and he said “Let people in civil society deal with this issue.” That means that brave people such as Ms. Turay must fight against the 3 million new African girls being mutilated each year, adding to the 92 million already circumcized.

It is shocking that girls as young as FIVE years old are trained to be circumsisers. 35-year-old Marion Kanu, interviewed by Ms. Manson, gave her reasons for practicing it: “I didn’t like it when it happened to me and I worry about the pain of the girl, but I do it because they pay me, and because we met our ancestors doing it.” The woman’s two children also are circumcisers. In this poor country it is a way to make a living. The village elders have an incentive to keep the practice going also; they receive the equivalent of $25 for every circumcision rite.

Sierra Leone ranked last in the UN’s Human Development Index in 2007 and 2008. Life expectancy there is the lowest of any country in the world: 42 years old. Only 25% of women are literate; 37% of the entire population is literate. The country has the highest rate in the world of mothers dying during childbirth: 1,800 women for every 100,000 live births “…largely due to lack of human resources and corruption in the healthcare sector” according to the UN. 25% of children die before the age of five. Annual income is about $240.

This is a country where people are uneducated, live in extreme poverty, and are steeped in traditions and in corruption …all making it extremely difficult to stamp out female genital mutilation. According to the World Health Organization, the best way to begin to do this is literacy, education, and alternative forms of income for the soweis.

International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation is sponsored by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) each February 6. If you want to help, you might consider going to Unicef.org and making a donation.

Additional information can be found at the Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project.





Pure Joy – African Children’s Choir

30 01 2009

Huge smiles on beautiful brown faces. Bright tangerine and purple outfits. Energy for days. Dancing with sheer abandon. Twenty-two children ages 7 to 11 moving in sync and singing with big hearts. A packed crowd, many with small children who were mesmerized to see children their ages performing so beautifully. Sheer glee. An enthusiastic crowd. Wild applause. A non-stop smile so big on my face that it almost hurt.

african-childrens-choir

The African Children’s Choir came to Austin tonight and I was privileged to witness their incredible performance. Formed in 1984 by Ray Barnett, an Irish-born minister who travelled to Uganda during the reign of terror of Idi Amin. He came back afterward and saw homeless children and was so moved, he knew he had to do something. He gave a ride to a small boy who sang during the entire two-hour trip. This was what Ray could do…form a singing group and take them to the U.S. and other countries to raise awareness and funds for the children. Thus the first African Children’s Choir was born.

The choir I heard tonight is the 35th choir. The children are picked from all over Uganda and go to a training center for five months. Following their tour, they are enrolled at the Music for Life Primary School. The school can accommodate 120 students. Currently there are plans to build a new facility that can take 400 children. There is a drive to raise the 1.1 million dollars needed to make this dream a reality. There was no charge to hear them sing, but donations were accepted and people gave freely. How could they (I) not when these precious and talented children so delighted them (me)?

Similar programs are also in place in Sudan, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria. This program is changing lives and helping children break the cycle of poverty. Without this opportunity, many of these children would live on the streets with no parents to care for them and no way to care for themselves.

Many students who have participated in the African Children’s Choir and education have gone on to earn degrees and even advanced degrees. It was touching as each student introduced themselves with “Hallo. My name is _________ and I want to be _________ when I grow up.” Their responses varied: teacher, nurse, bus driver, doctor, lawyer, builder…. The light in these childrens’ eyes signified to me that they will realize their dreams.

If you want to know more about this wonderful organization, check them out at http://www.africanchildrenschoir.com. Watch for yourself and I just bet you will start smiling!





Tis the Season…for Cutting Girls

5 12 2008

This is not a joyful time of year for girls in Kenya. It’s the cutting season.  Girls 10 years old or younger have their clitoris and sometimes their labia removed so they will be “clean” and to prepare them for marriage. This process is called Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This barbaric practice, considered a human rights violation by the United Nations, is done to girls as young as two years old with no anesthesia and a razor blade, knife, or even broken glass. Besides the initial severe pain, girls often experience lifelong problems and effects such as shock, excessive bleeding, infection, infertility, higher death rate for newborn babies, and even death.

The World Health Organization estimates that 100 – 140 million women and girls have experienced FGC. 2-3 million more are at risk every year, mostly in 28 countries in Africa, some Middle Eastern countries, some ethnic groups in South America, and Indonesia. FGC is a long-practiced custom and it is difficult to convince women to stop having it done to their daughters or granddaughters. In places where it is common, girls who are not cut are often ostracized.

The country where FGM is most prevalent is Egypt, with 78-97% having experienced it, followed by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Mali. Egypt passed a law banning FGM in 2007, as have many other countries. The U.S. passed a federal law banning FGM in 1996.

February 6, 2008 marked the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) fifth International Day against Female Genital Mutilation.  The UN has launched a multi-million dollar program to reduce the practice by 40% over the next seven years.

This video features some village women in Lunsar, Sierra Leone talking about the practice of cutting. Amongst their many startling (to our way of thinking) assertions is that if a girl bleeds excessively from being cut, it means that she is a witch.

Many girls in Kenya have recently fled to churches or rescue centers to wait out the November to December cutting season and escape forced genital mutilation. At this time of joy and celebration, if you’d like to do something to help protect the rights of these girls and women all over the world, consider making a donation to Americans for UNFPA.





WORLD AIDS DAY – December 1

30 11 2008

A gay friend of mine told me that in the 1980s he was going to a friend’s funeral every week, sometimes twice a week – all due to AIDS. We must keep AIDS and HIV at the forefront of our consciousness and thus we have World AIDS Day, which is about raising money, increasing awareness, fighting prejudice, and improving education.

Q. Why are bloggers involved?

A. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) www.nida.nih.gov and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of HIV/AIDS Policy’s www.AIDS.gov came to BloggersUnite to ask us to come together to share information about HIV/AIDS.

Q. How does AIDS differ from HIV?

A. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that “Having AIDS means that the virus has weakened the immune system to the point at which the body has a difficult time fighting infection. When someone has one or more specific infections, certain cancers, or a very low number of T cells, he or she is considered to have AIDS.”

Q. What are some basic numbers associated with AIDS/HIV?

A. 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV. 1 million people have HIV in U.S. Of new cases of HIV in the U.S. (either sex), 49% are African-Americans. Men having sex with men (MSM) account for 53% of new cases of HIV. 2.5 million children have AIDS. 25,000 Americans don’t know they are HIV positive. About half of people are infected with HIV before the age of 25 and are killed by AIDS before they are 35 years old. Around 15% to 20% of adults are infected with HIV in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Q. What is being done?

A. Here are two of many positive things being done to help with HIV/AIDS:

  • AVERT is an international AIDS charity based in the UK. They have projects in areas where AIDS is rapidly spreading such as India and where there are high rates of infection such as sub-Saharan Africa.
  • NIDA has developed a Learn the Link: HIV + Drugs campaign to make American youth aware that using drugs and/or drinking can lead to HIV infection. Here is a video they put together to make this important point:

Q. What can you do?

A. Get tested. Urge your partner or friends to get tested. Use a condom. Don’t drink and have unprotected sex. Don’t think you’re invincible and that it won’t happen to you. It just could.





Women Suffer Atrocities Silently in the Congo

23 11 2008

You see it in their eyes. Blank stares. Emotional and physical pain. Hopelessness. Witness to unbelievable violence and cruelty. Abandonment. Silent suffering. Tens of thousands of women of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are being kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and tortured.

Emmy-winning filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson, herself a victim of gang rape, traveled to the Congo and interviewed women there who have experienced these horrors. She also spoke to armed itinerant gangs who are the rapists, doctors who help the women, and those advocating for the women and trying to help them. The result is a moving and unforgettable HBO documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. I watched this documentary for the second time today. It is beyond comprehension what these women experience. Here are a few of the women featured in the film and the descriptions given about them on HBO’s website about the film:

congo-woman-marie-jeanne-mbweshe1

Marie Jeanne M’Bweshe, 42 years old, mother of 8
Raped and viciously beaten by the Interahamwe after witnessing the murder and dismemberment of her husband.

congo-woman-safi1

Safi, from Bunyakiri, 12 years old
Raped at age 11 as her home was being looted by soldiers.

[The film showed her with a baby, which was the result of the rape.]

congo-woman-alexandrine

Alexandrine M’Kajibwami, mother of 9
Raped by Rwandan soldiers, her husband was murdered trying to protect her.

A brutal war has raged in the Congo for ten years and over four million people have been killed as a result. Tens of thousands of women have been raped and brutalized. They are usually cast out by their husbands, families, and villages after being raped. They are often left with lifelong injuries that leave them incontinent and worse. They are also often infected with AIDS and/or become pregnant as a result of the rapes. Some women have been forced into sexual slavery.

The rebel forces – and often the Congolese Army soldiers who are supposed to protect people – justify the rapes by saying they have needs and if a woman won’t submit, they must take her with force. There is no consideration or thought about how their selfish acts ruin women’s lives.

You can watch the HBO trailer for the film The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo here:

congo-displaced-people-camp-nov-12-081Refugees have been forced from their homes and live in squalor in camps such as these due to the decade-old war. This photo and 38 others are shown on the Boston Globe’s website in an article about this on 11/21/08.

The Doctors without Borders organization has created their own initiative called Condition Critical to “bring global attention to the humanitarian consequences of the intensifying war in eastern DR Congo.” The Boston Globe reports that the UN Peacekeepers are unable to do much to help. This is the shortened form of the video put out by the Doctors without Borders organization. Go to their website to see the whole video.

There are many organizations trying to provide relief and help in the Congo. A partial list of them is located on the HBO documentary’s website. These women and children who suffer are continents away from us, but they are still our sisters. Their suffering is our suffering. Our hope for a better tomorrow can be their hope.

UPDATE: Associated Press tells more stories of these women in this March 16, 2009 article. The stories are heartbreaking, but also show tremendous courage on the part of the damaged women.