Syria Comes Closer

I have been silent over the past 2 weeks, trying to process a recent journey and an experience that had a profound impact on me. Although it would seem there are several ways to tell this story, I will start from the beginning and later this week delve into more specific details.

It is late April 2013 and I find myself working in Istanbul as a media trainer for a group of about 12 Syrians.  Outside our hotel is the bustling city of 12+ million people, living their lives in a relatively prosperous and peaceful nation, which despite its problems feels more like an oasis when compared to what is happening just south of the border. (despite the recent car bombing) Inside our hotel, day after day, I find myself getting to know a group of Syrians who only last week were living in a war zone. Who next week will be back in that war  zone, and the only thing that will have changed is that -hopefully- I (together with my partners on this project) have successfully taught them new and better methods for reporting the extremely important and tragic events unfolding around them.

Friends in Istanbul. - April 2013
Friends in Istanbul. – April 2013

But while there may be peace outside and inside this Istanbul hotel, in our classroom war is ever present. Every piece of advice we have to give on recording and story telling has to be tempered with the disclaimer that if your city is being bombed and you’re in constant risk if being shot, you might have to do this another way.  In between lessons we see the students consulting facebook and other independent Syrian media outlets for the latest developments back home. They show us photos and videos that depict unspeakable horror, and in between photos of children smiling amidst the rubble, people showing a peace sign in font of their destroyed homes.  We are told about the terrible loss of friends and family over these past two years.  The harsh reality of life in Syria today becomes more real to me in these rooms among these beautiful people, in a way that I have never felt before.

I want to hug my new Syrian friends (and we do hug). I want to do something more, yet everything feels  insignificant considering the size and scope of the struggle they face. There is even the irrational desire in my heart, to take them all away to some place safe.  Put them all living as my neighbors where we can have dinner every night together and enjoy the peaceful life they so obviously deserve.

But that is not the goal of this project nor of these new friendships.  Each one of these people has a personal mission to return to their city, to keep trying to get the information out to the world. To at the very least, document the loss of life and culture, when no one else has the ability or the courage to do so.  2 years ago many of them were university students of science and humanities, when suddenly their world collapsed. Most never intended to be reporters or journalists, but when war broke out, they saw it as their personal responsibility.

After one brief but intense week together, I too was left with a renewed sense of personal responsibility.  Though it pales in comparison with the task they have undertaken, I too want to help record and communicate the stories of Syria.  I want to honor my students, my new friends who are toiling right now in different parts of that precarious land, by sharing their experiences and their stories with anyone and everyone who cares about human life in this world .

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The Refugee Church of Amsterdam

At the beginning of this winter, as I prepared for the great journey to North Africa, here in Amsterdam I heard about a group of asylum seekers who were living in a tent camp somewhere in the city. Despite my preoccupation with my own plans, I was pleased to hear that many organizations and individuals that I know to be good at making things happen and finding solutions were involved. Then in early December I heard that after their tent camp was taken down by the authorities, with help from concerned citizens of Amsterdam, the refugees occupied an empty church not far from my neighborhood. They called it “De Vluchtkerk”, literally translated: “The Flight Church”, though I prefer to simply call it The Refugee Church.

After all my travels and everything else that has kept me busy these past few months, a few weeks ago I finally had the good fortune to be welcomed at the church and meet some of its residents.

VluchtKerkAs I walked into this strange cement structure, I immediately noticed the chilling cold in the massive main hall. It felt almost colder than the wintery weather outside, which made it perfectly understandable that everyone I saw standing or sitting near the entrance was sporting a winter coat and warm hat. Near the door, a few Dutch volunteers look through paperwork and chat with a few residents. It feels like a routine day, a camera crew sits near a couch and have a laugh during what seems to be a long interview. At a make-shift computer lab consisting of 4 computers in one corner of the hall, several men seem captivated by whatever they are reading. As I look forward towards what used to be the alter of this defunct church, I see a man and two women preparing what will surely be dinner using their improvised kitchen setup. Every few minutes someone else walks out of one of the side doors which  lead to dorm style sleeping areas behind what are clearly recently created plywood walls. Each door is decorated with signs and pictures, featuring text in English, French, and Arabic. Every time one person passes another they speak a quick “hello my brother” or “hello my sister”. I also try to get into it by nodding my head towards people who pass me, “good afternoon”, “salaam alaykum”, etc. The friendliness is contagious.

The group, which is now comprised of over 100 men and women from countries like Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania, and Eritrea, has become a tight-knit unit where everyone knows each other. I’m welcomed by Mouthena, who I had arranged a meeting with via telephone the day before. He is dressed in full winter gear and sports an uneven beard to go along with his obvious tiredness. “I’m sorry I’m probably looking very tired because its too cold to sleep these nights. Many of us just stay up all night with this cold,” he explains to me in French. Mouthena is Western Saharan, though no such country exists in the eyes of most of the world. The UN technically looks after the territory of Western Sahara and Morrocco exercises control over much of what happens there. Mouthena identifies himself as Polisario, the traditional name of the independence movement that has been largely outlawed by Morrocco despite being recognized by the UN. As a result of all the difficulties within the territory, Polisarios like Mouthena live most of their lives in refugee communities just over the border in Mauritania. As he pours me a cup of tea, he explains the difficulties of living in such a place, and the tribal conflict that became a threat to his life and caused him to flee to Europe.

Over the course of the next few hours, Mouthena explains what had been his goal to seek asylum in Sweden, the complicated journey and eventually getting apprehended on an international bus ride in Germany, where immigration sent him to the Netherlands, the country from where the bus originated. The details are captivating and frustrating, yet he explains it all with relative calmness, until he comes to parts that clearly make him upset. “I can’t tell you more of these details, they make me too sad. Not today. But I’ll tell you other things about this place and its people.”

St. Joseph's As we take a tour of the massive grey hall, every few steps he stops to greet a resident and introduce them. As I shake a very well dressed quiet man’s hand, Mouthena sings his praises, “This man is very talented. His name is Shirac, he is a singer-songwriter.” Sure enough I spot a poster on the wall with images from a concert by the “Vluchtkerk Band” and there he is on stage. Over in a side room we’re greeted by a stern, imposing African woman who is busy folding bed sheets with great gusto. Again Mouthena explains, “She is our mother. To all of us who don’t have mothers here. We call her our mother and she treats us like her children.” He sneaks a hug which the woman accepts gracefully.

The stories become too many to communicate in one text, one interview, or one video. Thankfully one by one, several journalists and dedicated media makers have been recording and disseminating these stories over the past months. Many of them prominently found on the church’s website.

When this month ends, so too will the temporary agreement local activists made with the property owner to house the group. Always the resourceful types, the organization says the Refugee Church will come to an end but the group will continue its struggle with Dutch immigration authorities, to not be sent back to their home countries where death and despair await them. I ask several members of the group what they think will happen, a question which always earns the same response: “We don’t know. We are hopeful. But we never know. The only thing we want is to be able to live legally and in safety. And after this experience, it is now important to us that we stick together.” When Mouthena answers this question he adds his own twist, “You know, in our home countries we have many conflicts, borders, languages, all kinds of differences that separate us. Here we are one family. These are my brothers and sisters now.”

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Kamal Hakim: Beirut, A City and Life of Contradictions

Circus, by Kamal HakimKamal Hakim grew up in an era of reconstruction after the civil war in Lebanon. As the son of a Greek Orthodox – Sunni Muslim marriage, he recalls eating sour-kraut cooked by his protestant grandmother. His life was marked by all the struggles of a city of contradictions, contradictions which he recognizes in himself as well. As an illustrator, Kamal has a dream, a dream he must reconcile with the financial demands of life during an economic crisis in a country that lives every day not knowing if there will be a tomorrow.

This podcast was recorded on one of the exciting days I spent in Beirut last month, as Kamal and I met for the first time in the 1 and only city park. We quickly moved from the details of his personal life and professional training, to the big picture questions of life, art, the shadow of war, and the things that happen in between in such a fragile country. Meanwhile all around us children chase pigeons, old people occupy park benches, and men yell greetings at each other. All in a days work while getting to know Beirut with the help of a wise new friend.

Check out more of  Kamal Hakim’s work on his blog Kamatopia. And remember his name, so you can say you knew him way back when…

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Unpack those Expressions

Restored Vietnam Photo by Alexandra Nicole Photography / flickr

It is perhaps surprising to some regular readers/listeners of my work, but I don’t much care for the way elections and campaigns are carried out in several countries including the United States.  But don’t stop reading assuming this text is about elections, it isn’t.  It is about the words and experiences of someone less well known internationally who happens to be running in an election in the US. Words that I think should echo throughout the world and be truly understood.

His name is Bob Kerrey former Senator from Nebraska, not to be mistaken with the more well known John Kerry, Senator from Massachusetts and former presidential candidate. After a hiatus of several years, he is now once again running for Senate in the upcoming election, which is part of why I got to read a recent interview he gave and couldn’t help but re-read a few times, his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War.  There is a contreversial story involving a mission he had some authority over, where through a series of events his team wound up gunning down a village full of women and children. Kerrey, along with members of his team, did not speak publicly about the event for many years afterwards. But when it did come out, the former governor did not deny the story. He came out and painstakingly explained what had happened and including how the women and children had been murdered. Some argued that he gave the order, while a member of his own unit said that is not the case, but indeed he did not use the power he had to put a stop to it.

The long term result of this horrible event is that today Kerrey is staunch critic of any governing official of any party that speaks of going to war as an acceptable approach to handling disagreements between nations. He seems to take any and every opportunity to remind us that military action means terrible things for all sides, the civilians and soldiers who lose their lives or are forever scarred by what they experience.  The cost, and not just in the money sense of the term, of war.

This comes as nowadays so many voices, especially in positions of power, talk about going to war with a nation like Iran, as if it is an option to be used within the foreseeable future. Like choosing something to eat off a menu, they talk about “options on a table” and “having no choice.”  What I find admirable about Kerrey is that here we have someone who has carried out war. He has done horrible things based on strategies and what some see as “acceptable” means to solve  problems.  Yet all these other powerful people, who’ve never lived the reality of being a soldier or a citizen who’s home is under attack, they will claim they know what is best and what the risks are, and that war is still something they will use when they feel its necessary.

Myself I’ve never been a soldier, a victim of war, or a politician. So I listen to someone like Kerrey who speaks from experience and is honest about things that are more complicated and horrible than I could ever imagine.  Those aspects of war that few people can handle really talking about, much less fix in its aftermath.

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