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Posts Tagged ‘refugee’

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Photo: Alight (formerly American Refugee Committee)
The nonprofit called Alight, which believes in “doing the doable” amid daunting challenges, knows how to make a huge difference with just a small gift. For this tea lady in Sudan, the gift was a few chairs for customers.

I love this nonprofit and want you to know about it. It used to be called American Refugee Committee. Today it is Alight, an organization that focuses on doing the doable for those in need, including refugees here or in camps around the world. I get Alight’s e-newsletter, and it’s always full of inspiring stories about places many people think of as hopelessly damaged. Here are some words of cheer from Sudan.

Alight’s “Changemakers 365 is all about doing the doable. It’s about opening our eyes to the opportunities to make an impact in a person’s life with relatively few resources – and making change each and every day of the year. …

“Tea ladies are a neighborhood institution in Khartoum. They provide the place – a piece of shade and a place to sit – for the community to meet, connect and share a cup of tea. They don’t earn much at all, but they really are the glue that holds together communities.

“Fatima’s tea stand is right outside [Alight’s] front door. And that’s given us a great opportunity to get to know everyone who lives and works in the neighborhood.

“We wanted to thank Fatima for her service to the community, so we asked if there was anything she needed.

“ ‘Chairs,’ she said, immediately! Fatima’s stools weren’t very comfy and she wanted everyone to feel at ease as they discussed neighborhood happenings and the news of the day.

“It was an easy wish to grant. 30 minutes later we delivered a couple dozen chairs to an astonished Fatima.

“ ‘I’m the most happiest ever!’ ” Click here.

“Mayo is a large section of the city that is home to people who’ve relocated to Khartoum, mostly from western Sudan. And inside Mayo, there’s a neighborhood called Mandela that refugees from South Sudan now call home. Some came fleeing conflict near home, others were seeking the opportunity of the capital and the chance at a different future.

“For most the promise hasn’t lived up to reality. But there is a group of changemakers in Mayo determined to change that. Samira and Kemal lead the Green Hope Association for Peace and Development. They don’t have any regular funding. So, when they decide to do something new, they mostly just bootstrap it by gathering resources and talent from their own community.

“Green Hope offers adult education, skills training for women in carpentry, welding, food service, handicrafts, electrical repair and more. They even offer a food-for-work program for the vulnerable elderly in the neighborhood, providing food staples in exchange for seniors collecting trash in the community. But Green Hope’s primary mission is running a K-8 school for 200+ students.

South Sudanese and Sudanese students attend together in harmony. Teachers are college educated. There are no funds for teacher salaries, so they volunteer. And when the school day ends in the afternoon, they have to find some small jobs to make ends meet.

“Green Hope is abundant with hope, joy, possibility and a can-do spirit. But scarce in almost everything else. When we asked the students how we could help, their response was unanimous. Books! …

“So they gave us a list and we headed to the store to buy all the books that students from 5th to 8th grade would need to prepare for their high school entrance exams – Arabic, English, Mathematics, Geography, History, Science. The budget allowed for a notebook and pen for every single student in the school. And we received a donation of storybooks for the younger children – so everyone in Green Hope received at least one book. For many, their first ever book.

“ ‘We’re so happy, we want to dance,’ Samira told us. And they did.” More.

“Green Hope Founders Samira, Kemal and a group of women had built the center themselves some 15 years ago. At night!

‘We built at night, because construction work wasn’t really acceptable for women. AND we all had to work to make a living during the day,’ Samira told us.

“The school is compact, but there’s space for separate classrooms for all of the grade levels. What there wasn’t was a chair for every student. Some kindergarteners sat on the floor. Other kids shared chairs. We knew we could do something about that.

“We called up a local furniture maker and he got to work building wooden and metal chairs – small ones for the younger kids and big chairs that would work for older students and for the adults who come to Green Hope for adult education and skills training.

“The kids had also asked us for some exercise materials, so we grabbed some soccer balls and jump ropes. And we had enough left over to buy a small stock of crayons and JUMBO coloring books for the two, three and four-year olds who accompany their older siblings to school – and sit so nicely, by the way – because their mothers are at work.

‘You may think that what you have done here is small, but it will make a big difference for our children,’ said Kemal. ‘Thank you for coming back to us down this bad road.’

More.

If you’re feeling down, you can sign up for the doing the doable newsletter or follow Alight on Facebook or Twitter @We_Are_Alight . Alight has earned the top rating at Charity Navigator.

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Photo: Christie’s
Alireza Hosseini, a refugee from Afghanistan, says of his 2019 painting “Embrace God”: “I was a man who did not know a god. I went to a sage and he told me to imagine two chairs: one for me, the other for God.” (Story at the
Guardian,)

It can be discouraging being a refugee if your new countrymen see you more as a concept than an individual. That is why a program in France, though struggling itself, has been determined to do something that opens minds.

PBS NewsHour‘s “Arts Canvas” recently posted a report by Jeffrey Brown on letting refugees tell their stories through their art.

“JEFFREY BROWN: Portraits of migration, the troubles faced along the way, the trauma of making a new home.

“ABDUL SABOOR: I’m from Afghanistan, but, sometimes, I say from nowhere.

“BROWN: Photographer Abdul Saboor experienced it himself. In Afghanistan, he says, he worked in transportation for the U.S. Army, but fled when the Taliban began threatening him and his family. During a harrowing two-year journey, part of it spent in an abandoned train station in Serbia, he began taking pictures with a donated camera.

“SABOOR: When I show to the people, I say, that’s not normal, how we lived there.

“BROWN: His photographs became a bridge to overcome language and other barriers and raise awareness about the plight of refugees, which he continues to do in Paris. … Saboor is one of some 200 refugee artists from more than 40 countries now getting support from the Agency of Artists in Exile.

“On our visit to its makeshift building off the Seine River, an Ethiopian man belted out a traditional song with accompaniment from this phone. Across the hall, a Yemeni woman used her vast trail of official asylum-seeking papers, accumulated over two years of navigating France’s legal process, to create an art installation. … And a Kurdish actor who fled Turkey practiced a monologue about his first days in Paris. …

“Judith Depaule is director of the studio, which opened in 2017 with funding from the French Ministry of Culture.

“JUDITH DEPAULE: In the beginning, you are, like, in the state of shock. … because nobody wants you there. It’s difficult. You have to do a lot of papers. … It’s like a panic. …

“BROWN: President Emmanuel Macron has sought to criminalize illegal border crossings, while tightening restrictions on asylum, even as far-right parties in the country call for more.

“But France also has a long tradition of being a sanctuary for artists, including Pablo Picasso and James Baldwin. The idea here was to give artists a place to connect with one another, to work on and exhibit their crafts, and to help with all the practical challenges of living as a refugee.

“ARAM TASTEKIN (through translator): First of all, they helped us find a place to live. Secondly, they helped us get a work visa, find a lawyer. Some people needed psychologists, things like that.

“BROWN: Kurdish actor and drama teacher Aram Tastekin fled Turkey in late 2017. So, why did you leave Turkey?

“TASTEKIN (through translator): Because it’s complicated living there. I’m a conscientious objector. I am anti-military. I’m an artist who tries to make art and theater in the Kurdish language, to protect the Kurdish language. But when we make Kurdish art or theater, they always say it is terrorist propaganda. And that really hurts. How can a language be terrorist propaganda?

“BROWN: In 2018, graffiti artist and painter Ahlam Jarban fled her native Yemen amid its years-long civil war. She says she faced added persecution for her family’s Somali and Ethiopian roots and for her wanting to be an artist as a woman. She left everyone and everything behind, and says she still doesn’t know if it was the right decision.

“AHLAM JARBAN: Because, all of us, we are we are without our families. So we feel lonely. We feel — there is a lot of problem. But when we are together, when we speak, when we share this story, it makes us a little less stressed, make us little — keep fighting. So it is good to have this place. …

“BROWN: To further make its case and showcase its artists, the agency recently presented its third annual month-long festival titled Visions of Exile. …

“JARBAN: When they see our artwork, they don’t see it as a refugee. This see it as artist, and artist make this thing. We do all this journey to be something. We have hope, and we are human before we come.” More here.

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Photo: Victoria Bouloubasis/The World
The Al-Khasrachi family lived on the Guilford College campus in North Carolina for months after arriving in the US as refugees. The father had received threats while working for a US military contractor in Iraq.

I know from my own experience as a volunteer in a refugee resettlement agency that there are few refugees coming through today although the need is greater than ever. Some agencies, like the amazing Alight (formerly the American Refugee Committee) have chosen to “do the doable” at refugee camps abroad. Other agencies and individuals give extra love to the few families still arriving — at the same time reaching out to other immigrants who live here. Today I have a story about people who welcome others with open hearts.

Victoria Bouloubasis reports for The World at at Public Radio International [PRI], “Growing up in Burundi, Blaise Pascal was fascinated with R&B music from the United States. … According to Pascal, studying those lyrics helped him become fluent in English with no formal training.

“Pascal, 31, never forgot this teen pastime. When he arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 2019, music helped him ease into his new life. It also helped that he was part of the Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR) program, an organization that provides housing and utilities for refugee families and individuals like Pascal. The organization was founded in 2015 at Guilford College and later spread to six other college campuses across the country. …

“Pascal also took advantage of the resources at his disposal at Guilford College, like the music room and soccer field. He met fellow musical minds, professors and students with whom he hosts regular jam sessions. He would also send videos of himself singing and playing guitar with his new friends to his older sister in Burundi over WhatsApp. …

“His sister raised him after their Congolese parents died when Pascal was still a young child. The siblings survived the civil war that their parents did not. Both have applied for refugee status; Pascal was resettled to the US while his sister waits. … Pascal [says] without his sister, it has left a ‘big, big darkness before me.’ …

“ ‘To go to zero is an enormous blow to the refugee resettlement program,’ says Diya Abdo, the English professor at Guilford College who created ECAR. …

“It’s also forcing resettlement agencies and supporting organizations like ECAR to rethink the future. Further cuts would be devastating to these organization, but there would be opportunities too, says Abdo — to re-focus efforts on refugee communities already in the US and finding ways to support them. …

“On a global level, the number of people seeking refuge and asylum is at 70.8 million — an all-time high — according to the UN Refugee Agency. But a mere 7% of those seeking refuge have been resettled. …

“ ‘This is about supporting human beings who are seeking security,’ [Abdo] says. ‘This should be framed always as hospitality and empathy, and it’s a way to diversify and enrich our communities.’ …

“In 2015, she asked Guilford’s president Jane Fernandes for permission to use a house on campus, framing the project against the backdrop of the college’s Quaker history.

The campus historically served much like a parish in supporting one another and the college was a site of refuge during the Underground Railroad. …

“Marwa Al-Khasrachi, her husband Ali and their three boys arrived in Greensboro from Baghdad on March 8, 2017. … The Al-Khasrachis were placed in the Guilford College house and given more than the allotted three months, since no one else was arriving. …

“The kids found immediate playmates within the community (which includes nearby housing for students who are also parents) that helped ease them into life in the US. …

“Marwa Al-Khasrachi and Abdo developed a friendship that has now withstood almost two years, one ECAR house and two apartments. Sharing an Arab heritage and rambunctious children close to the same age — Marwa is mom to three and Abdo to two — the mothers quickly became friends. … Marwa says she didn’t have continuity in friendships in Iraq, and they felt more circumstantial than cultivated.

” ‘I didn’t believe in friendship, but now I do,’ says Marwa, with Abdo translating for her. …

“The relationships built and shared experiences with Abdo give the Al-Khasrachis a sense of normalcy as they overcome the hurdle of survival and learning to flourish in a new place. Both Church World Service [CWS} Greensboro and ECAR will continue their work despite what the government may decide — by focusing on supporting communities already here.

“ ‘We have so many community members who support our work,’ says [Megan Shepard, director of Church World Service Greensboro]. ‘It couldn’t seem further than what that rhetoric is on a national level.’ ”

More at PRI, here.

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Photo: Alight
The former American Refugee Committee, now called Alight, focuses on “doing the doable.” Alight maintains that when things seem impossible, there is always something good that can be done.

For many years, I’ve been a fan of the American Refugee Committee, now called Alight. Since the nonprofit took the new name and began to focus on “doing the doable,” I’ve enjoyed periodic news about its Changemakers.

Here is the story of a teacher who wanted to understand things firsthand. I will just point out that the term “refugee” is ordinarily applied to those who come here officially, having been screened by our State Department and accepted in advance. Now that the US is accepting so few, those of us who work with migrants are seeing more climate “refugees” and economic “refugees” — some documented, some not. This is the story of a guy who wanted to help them.

“Howdy! My name is Bill Boegeman, and I’m a high school social studies teacher in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Some of my students are from Central America – refugees now living in the U.S., many of whom made the journey to the States alone.

“Their stories are amazing – spending hours in cramped semitrailer trucks and trunks of cars, hiding from the Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert. It’s difficult for me – and my other students – to imagine what these young people have been through, what hardships they have already endured, and the complexities they’re faced with now.

“So I wanted to go see for myself … and to try to make a difference, one day at a time.

“I traveled with Alight to the Rio Grande Valley, a vast area encompassing the southern border of Texas and parts of Mexico. In some ways, it feels a little bit like two countries living in one, cultures blended and economies interconnected. And now, Mexican-American communities are coming together with some incredible changemakers – Catholic Sisters, who Alight has recently partnered with – to serve the new waves of families who are searching for a better life.

“We began our work at La Posada Providencia, a migrant shelter just outside of San Benito, Texas. It’s a landing spot for many migrants released from detention centers with nowhere to go.

“Five years ago, Ángel was one of those migrants.

“After immigrating from Honduras and five months in detention, Ángel spent three months at La Posada where he was provided with a bed, regular meals, and mentoring services. Following a brief stint in Indianapolis, he returned to the shelter as a volunteer. Fast forward a few months and Ángel was converted into a full-fledged employee — the house cocinero — a position he still holds today.

“In addition to his cooking duties, Ángel helps to organize the shelter’s mochilas – to-go bags provided to clients who are ready to move on to their next destination. These bags include non-perishable food items, personal care products, a change of clothes, and other items that will help them along this next stage of their journey. It was here that we saw an opportunity.

“Over a lunch that Ángel prepared, La Posada’s current residents were able to provide us with ideas of items that would be useful to migrants in their mochilas as they depart the shelter for their next destinations. We landed on two primary items that we could provide: Spanish-to-English dictionaries and chapstick. While seemingly unrelated, these two things would be helpful to them in their future journeys (in the case of the chapstick, particularly those headed north). They were also absent from the supply closet on the La Posada premises.

“I asked Ángel what made La Posada Providencia such a special place. ‘It’s more than a shelter,’ he said, ‘It’s a house, a home, a family.’ ”

More at Alight, here.

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Photo: Mevan Babakar
Years ago, a 5-year-old Kurdish refugee received a bike from a kind man in the Netherlands. Recently, Mevan Babakar, now an adult, tracked down the man known only as Egbert to express her lasting gratitude.

As we break our hearts over what is happening to today’s Kurdish refugees, it may be time for a story about the beauty that can occur when refugees are treated with respect and compassion. The story is also about the good side of social media.

Megan Specia reported at the New York Times in August, “Memories of a brand new bicycle — and the mystery man who gave it to her when she was a 5-year-old in a Dutch refugee center — have played out as vignettes in Mevan Babakar’s mind for most of her life.

“Ms. Babakar, now 29, said the generous gift from a man whose name she couldn’t remember had shaped her childhood. On Tuesday, she suddenly found herself reunited with the man whose face had flickered through her memories for more than two decades.

“And it all began on Twitter.

“ ‘I was a refugee for 5 yrs in the 90s and this man, who worked at a refugee camp near Zwolle in the Netherlands, out of the kindness of his own heart bought me a bike. My five year old heart exploded with joy,’ Ms. Babakar wrote in a post on Twitter, before pleading with the internet to help her track him down.

“The photo she shared — a fading snapshot of the man that her mother had kept — was among a handful of belongings they had from that time. When he gave her the bike, she said, it made a lasting impact.

‘I remember feeling so special. I remember thinking that this is such a big thing to receive, am I even worthy of this big thing?’ Ms. Babakar said. ‘This feeling kind of became the basis of my self-worth growing up.’

“She and her parents fled Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown on the Kurdish population in the early 1990s, which included a gas attack on a village near their home. Their journey took them to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia — where her father stayed behind to work for the next four years — and eventually to the Netherlands. …

“Ms. Babakar took a sabbatical from her technology job in London this summer to retrace the journey, and visited Zwolle to spend a few days attempting to piece together her scattered impressions of her time there. … While there, she wrote a Twitter post that she described as a ‘last-ditch attempt’ to learn more about the man who had struck up a friendship with her and her mother, and gave her the bike.

“Within hours, Arjen van der Zee, who volunteers for a nonprofit news site in Zwolle, saw the photo and recognized the man.

“ ‘I looked at the picture and immediately knew this guy who I had worked with in my early twenties,’ said Mr. van der Zee. … Mr. van der Zee made contact with the man’s family on social media, and they put the two in touch.

“ ‘He started to tell me that he remembered Mevan and her mother,’ Mr. van der Zee said. ‘He said he always told his wife, if there were people he wanted to see again in his life it was Mevan and her mother.’

“They quickly scrambled to arrange a meeting with Ms. Babakar, who was due to travel back to London in the coming days. …

“ ‘He was, I guess, equally overwhelmed,’ Ms. Babakar said. ‘It was like seeing a family member that you hadn’t seen in a long time. It was really lovely.’ …

“Ms. Babakar was ‘incredibly humbled’ that her story had resonated with so many people around the world — both fellow refugees and those who just felt touched by the tale. … ‘I think it’s really easy for people to forget or to feel really powerless in the face of these big, abstract problems that we hear about all the time,’ she said. “It’s really a comfort to remember we are all very powerful in the way that we treat others. Especially in the small acts, we are powerful.’ ”

More here.

 

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Photo: Stitch Buffalo
Stitch Buffalo says it’s “advancing social justice for refugee women in Buffalo, NY, by creating opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and economic empowerment through the textile arts.”

Every individual and every community has its own way of responding to newcomers from other countries.

You would never know it from the headlines, but there are a lot of people who, being curious about foreign cultures or perhaps knowing what it was like for their forebears to be immigrants, feel friendly toward the latest arrivals. Maybe they just smile. Or maybe they work on some integrating initiative, like this charming one in Buffalo, New York.

Maura Christie reports at Spectrum News, “At first glance, it may not seem like much, ‘Embroidery floss, beads, scissors, fabrics, solid colored fabrics,’ said Dawne Hoeg, Stitch Buffalo’s executive director. But these common household items have quite literally bonded refugee women to [the city of Buffalo].

“Stitch Buffalo started as a project back in 2014 as a way to give those women a space of their own to learn and share ideas at different textile workshops.

“Now, five years and a storefront later, workshops are open to anyone in the community and many of the refugees have gone from being students to standing in front of workshops as teachers.

” ‘It’s an exciting opportunity for Buffalo people to come and have an authentic experience learning from a woman from Thailand or a woman from Burma, where she has learned this skill and is willing to share it with us,’ Hoeg said.

‘Some of their stitches are very different from the ones we do and it’s just a beautiful opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange.’

“Women also sell their one-of-a-kind, handmade items in the retail space, anything from pins to bracelets and ornaments. But every two months, that space gets transformed for Second Stitch. The nonprofit uses mainly donated materials, and anything they’re not able to use is sold to the community.

” ‘What we decided to do is to take those materials, sort them, measure them, organize them and turn them back over to the community at a reduced rate,’ Hoeg said. …

“No matter what project the women make next, or how much they sell it for, the love and support they receive from their adopted hometown is priceless.

” ‘It’s the making, but it’s also the selling,’ Hoeg said. ‘When you create something and you see that somebody else finds value in it enough to purchase it, that empowers you, that builds a confidence. That’s what I see happening with the women here is that they are empowered through the skill and the support they receive from the community.’ ”

Find some wonderful pictures at the Stitch Buffalo website, here, and at Spectrum, here.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day. Beautiful Day is a Providence-based welcoming initiative that teaches refugees and other immigrants basic job skills in the process of making a range of fantastic granola products. If you follow them, you will be alerted to new varieties you can buy, and you can read stories from around the country like the Stitch Buffalo story. I like to send their beautiful gift baskets to family members at holidays.

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Photo: The Providence Journal / David DelPoio
Refugee campers line up for lunch beneath a portrait of George Washington at Camp RYSE in Providence. The camp is specifically targeted to cater to refugee children.

I work with refugees and other immigrants as a volunteer in Providence, and I thought I knew about most of the refugee initiatives there. Then along came a Providence Journal article about a summer camp for refugee kids that reminded me I am still learning.

Kevin G Andrade reports, “If you sit down with Jetu Neema in the Highland Charter School cafeteria this summer, you are likely to get a quick and enthusiastic Swahili lesson.

” ‘Jena laka nani? [What is your name?]’ she asked the Journal reporter at Camp RYSE Tuesday afternoon, before teaching him how to respond. ‘Jena langu nina etwa … [My name is…]’

“Though energetic and friendly, as children tend to be, those at RYSE — an acronym for Refugee Youth Solidarity through Education — all have one thing in common. They are refugees from war, disaster or dictatorship all over the world. …

“Tanzania — which has had a relatively stable government compared with those of its neighbors such as Mozambique, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — has hosted many refugees over the years according to Bienfait Jaigado, a 14-year-old junior camp counselor whose family came to the U.S. after escaping unrest in Burundi about 5 years ago.

” ‘I was little, I did not know why we were coming,’ Jaigado said, a common story among campers who knew only that they and their parents had to leave their homes. … ‘I was getting bullied a lot in school [when I immigrated] because of my skin color and … basically because I was new and did not know the language.’ …

“Jaigado said that when he came to the camp as a camper, it was a cathartic experience that made him want to give other refugee children the same opportunity.

‘All I know from my first days in camp is that I felt welcome,’ he said. ‘In camp, people were respectful of my race and my traditions.’ …

“Beginning in 2011 as the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring Initiative, the RYSE program’s mission is two-fold, to provide a safe space for refugee children and to catch them up on education they may have missed out on due to the chaos of life. …

“The camp includes classes in the mornings that focus on improving literacy and mathematics skills to prepare the students for entering the next grade level. Yet the courses also make sure to incorporate folklore and history from the dozens of languages, cultures, and nations represented there. …

“RYSE also concentrated on hiring support staff from the communities where the children live to offer additional support to the campers and their families.

” ‘We work with translators from the community,’ said Donia Torabian, the camp’s director of family and community outreach. ‘We try to hire drivers from the community … It is exhausting, but it is work that fills your soul.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Good Chance Theatre
A group that was founded to dramatize the plight of refugees in Calais, France, is now performing internationally.

Theater can often bring out the empathetic and compassionate side of audience members and lead to positive change in the world. As Amelia Parenteau writes at American Theatre, a play called The Jungle that grew around a refugee camp in Calais, France, may be helping viewers to see asylum seekers as people like themselves — and motivating them to take action.

“Good Chance Theatre was started by two Brits, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, when, in 2015, they passed through Calais, France, on their way to Germany and they saw the makeshift refugee camp that had formed there.

“Many theatremakers might feel the need to share the refugees’ story with the world, but first Murphy and Robertson wanted folks in the camp to have ‘a platform to express themselves,’ explained Dina Mousawi, Good Chance’s creative producer.

“So they decided to construct a theatre there in the shape of a geodesic dome, which has since become Good Chance’s signature pop-up venue; they spent seven months there in total.

“Vincent Mangado, a Théâtre du Soleil company member who joined their effort, described that first dome as a place ‘where everything could be spoken, a place of peace, a nerve center of the jungle, where you can share stories or throw a party, not just a theatre.’

“Upon returning to the U.K., Murphy and Robertson were commissioned to write a play about their experience in Calais, which grew up into the international hit The Jungle (now at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 19). They traveled around the U.K., leading workshops with migrants and asylum seekers to continue gathering material. And cast members: The Jungle’s ensemble comprises of actors of 11 different nationalities, including some people Murphy and Robertson met in Calais who had since emigrated to Britain.

“The action of The Jungle is set in an Afghan restaurant that was built in Calais, and is staged with such an immersive aesthetic that audience members feel as though they are fellow diners at the restaurant. Along with the café, makeshift mosques, churches, shops, and other restaurants were constructed in Calais, despite extremely limited resources (just two water spigots and two porta-potties).

“Mousawi joined Good Chance in September 2018, though she had been doing similar work for years both on her own and with Complicité. In fact, she led the first Good Chance workshop in the dome in Calais with 35 Sudanese men in Arabic.

“Raised in Iraq, Mousawi left during the war to move to England, but returned to the Middle East during the height of the conflict in Syria, feeling called to help by making theatre. There she worked with Syrian women to produce work telling their stories, which only strengthened her conviction that theatre is for everybody, and should be radically inclusive. …

“ ‘Theatre can act as a tool for so many things, and one of the ways we use it is to encourage integration in areas where there might be tension.’ …

“To those audiences moved by The Jungle, Mousawi recommends reaching out to migrants recently arrived in your local community to see what you can do to make them feel welcome. ‘That’s what Good Chance is all about,’ she said. ‘Making people feel welcome, not alienated.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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Honduran Immigrant Detained By ICE Released After 6 Months In Custody

Photo: Getty Images
Two suburban moms learned that asylum seekers lack even the minimal protections of refugees and decided to do something to help them.

Although there are not many refugees coming through at the moment, those that do have official government status and a range of support services when they arrive. Asylum seekers have nothing, and if they don’t have someone to stay with until their case is heard, they are likely to be held in jail, unable to get working papers and start supporting themselves.

Two women in a Boston suburb decided they had to do something to help.

Betsy Levinson reported at the Concord Journal, “Helping asylum-seekers is a two-way street, say the two Concord women who founded a nonprofit in 2014 to offer housing and emotional support to a vulnerable population.

“ ‘Our guests have become our friends,’ said Sharon Carlson, who founded Dignity in Asylum (DIAS) with Andrea Hewitt. …

“The main mission of DIAS is to pay for transitional housing, since asylum-seekers are not eligible for any government support while they go through the lengthy and arduous process of gaining a work permit. …

“ ‘They are so vulnerable,’ said Carlson. ‘They fled persecution and had to escape to save their lives.’

“Without any contacts or resources in the area, they can wind up in homeless shelters or ‘sleeping in stairwells,’ Carlson said.

“Referrals to DIAS come from two sources — the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights and Political Asylum Immigration Representation. Once they get a referral, they send out an application for housing, followed by a meeting to assess the individual need.

“Though many are highly skilled professionals in their home countries, they usually end up in low-level jobs to earn enough to transition from DIAS-supported housing to independence. But [the DIAS founders have] never heard a word of complaint.

“ ‘There is such dignity, such gratitude, such optimism,’ said Hewitt. ‘We feel lucky and grateful. They are lovely people.’ …

“Guests stay free until they get on their feet, and stay connected to the organization after they become independent.

“The outpouring of support [has] been unexpected and overwhelming, the women say.

“ ‘The attitude is so welcoming,’ said Hewitt. ‘The business community has been so supportive.’ The organization has received grants from area churches and the community chest, among other funding sources. For more information, visit dignityinasylum.org.”

More at the Concord Journal, here. I have met these women. To me, they are glowing examples of both personal morality and how a truly civilized country could show compassion for people who take initiative against overwhelming danger. Asylum seekers, managing to get themselves here despite extraordinary obstacles, show the courage and spunk that is needed in society.

 

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Photo: Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press
A former refugee who founded the Nova Scotia chocolate company Peace by Chocolate has committed to hiring 50 refugees by 2022 and to mentor 10 refugee-run start-ups over the next few years.

Refugees that a country takes in are often the most grateful people on the planet. Most are highly motivated to succeed and not be a burden. Some start their own businesses, and then, as soon as they get established, look for ways to give back to others.

The Canadian Press reports on one example. “A one-time Syrian refugee who founded a thriving Nova Scotia chocolate company has announced plans to hire and mentor other refugees. Peace by Chocolate of Antigonish, N.S., has committed to hiring 50 refugees by 2022, and to mentor 10 refugee-run start-ups over the next few years.

“The now-famous company was founded by the Hadhad family, who fled their home in war-torn Damascus in 2012. They arrived in Nova Scotia with next to nothing in 2016. …

“Tareq Hadhad, CEO of the company, said Peace by Chocolate aims to give back to the country that welcomed his family when so many nations were closing their borders to the Syrian plight. Now he plans to expand on that vision by giving back to other refugees looking to start new lives — as Canadians did for his family when they needed it most. …

“Hadhad said in an interview, ‘Being a refugee is not a choice, it’s not a decision, it’s not a life goal. These people are fleeing their homes because of war, because of persecution.’ …

“Hadhad’s father, Assam, ran a chocolate business in Damascus for decades but it was destroyed in a 2012 bombing.”

Another article, by Fadila Chater at the National Post, notes that the “chocolate company founded by Syrian refugees has produced its first chocolate bar — and given it an Indigenous name. [Its] new milk chocolate and hazelnut bar is to be called Wantaqo’ti (pronounced Wan-tahk-oo-di), the Mi’kmaq word for peace. …

“Founder Tareq Hadhad said via email … it is his company’s mission to translate the family’s concept of peace to all Canadians, starting with the Mi’kmaq of his home province. … Other versions of the bar will be sold using the Arabic, French and Mandarin words for peace.

‘Peace is beautiful in every language,’ Hadhad said. …

“ ‘When we came here as newcomers to this country, we really wanted to support this country to grow and prosper,’ he said.”

The Peace by Chocolate bars are available online, here.

Read more at the National Post, here and at the Canadian Press, here.

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refugee-moo-paw-with-vegetables
Photo: Sean Powers
Karen refugee Moo Paw shows the vegetables she’s grown at the Neighbor’s Field in North Carolina.

I’m always interested in what Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) are doing as they adjust to new lives in the United States — especially as I know Mia, a Karen woman in one of the Rhode Island English classes where I volunteer.

At the radio show Living on Earth (LOE), there’s an interesting Karen farming story from producer Sean Powers of Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Bitter Southerner podcast.

“BOBBY BASCOMB [LOE managing producer]: The United States has long been a place for political refugees to seek safety and put down roots, in some cases literally. In Comer, Georgia, a community garden called the Neighbor’s Field is helping refugees work through their trauma by working the land. …

“POWERS: It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Comer, Georgia. Moo Paw is feeding her chickens, hens, goats, and ducks. There’s even a donkey. You could say they’re kind of like her babies. She is one of the many refugees at the Neighbor’s Field, who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. That’s the country formerly known as Burma. …

“She says Burmese soldiers kidnapped her father, and used him as a porter to carry food for them. After leaving Myanmar, Moo Paw lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the United States with her husband and children. They relocated to the Atlanta area, before settling here in Comer. Her son, Tahay Than, says moving to Comer was to satisfy Moo Paw’s green thumb.

“TAHAY: My mom, where she lived in Burma or Thailand, she always liked to plant. You know, working the farm. So, when she farms, that makes her feel like she is home or something, like in a home country, mother country or something. So that’s why she moved to Comer. …

“PAW: My garden. Here vegetables. Here grass. Me planted the cucumbers this year. Here sweet potato. Very beautiful.

“POWERS: It’s that beauty that takes Moo Paw back to memories of her family. She and her son Tahay say in Myanmar, farming for their family was a way of life.

“PAW: My grandmother planted rice, peanuts. Chili, corn.

“TAHAY: Most of the time, everybody who lived in Burma, they would plant in order to survive.

“POWERS: And that makes this garden all the more meaningful. The vegetables growing here, they don’t look like your typical produce that you would find at most supermarkets in the United States. That’s because the seeds come from Myanmar and Thailand. …

“POWERS: The flavors growing in Moo Paw’s soil are just a small part of the pie. There are two-dozen plots of land at the Neighbor’s Field that are being rented by refugees from Myanmar. For a large plot, it’s a hundred dollars a year. Rebecca Smith [who versees the day-to-day operations at the Neighbor’s Field], says it’s been incredible to see how working the farm helps build community. …

“SMITH: They’re just amazing foragers, they can figure out how to cook everything and make it taste good, and it’s just stuff that we think are weeds. Like sometimes people will be out here just butchering a pig for a celebration or Moo Paw’s out here feeding her chickens and people in the garden and you just feel like you’re in a different world, not Comer, Georgia.”

More at Living on Earth, here. In North Carolina, too, there are Karen refugees working on farms. Read this at Transplanting Traditions.

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Photo: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop
Grover from “Sesame Street” in a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. The Lego Foundation will provide $100 million over five years to the makers of “Sesame Street” and their partners for a program for refugee children.

Most of what we know about the situation of Rohingya refugees — expelled from Myanmar (Burma) for their Muslim beliefs — is pretty dire. But here and there we see positive efforts to lessen the pain of living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, especially for children. Read about this partnership among humanitarian relief organizations, Sesame Street, and Lego.

Karen Zraick writes at the New York Times, “Can play help refugee children heal from trauma?

“That’s the belief behind a new partnership formed by the Lego Foundation, Sesame Workshop and organizations working with Syrian and Rohingya refugees. In its first major humanitarian project, announced [in December], the foundation will provide $100 million over five years to the makers of ‘Sesame Street’ to deepen their work with the International Rescue Committee in the countries around Syria, and also to partner with the Bangladeshi relief organization BRAC.

“The aim is to create play-based learning programs for children up to age 6 in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Bangladesh. The programs will teach basics like the alphabet and numbers, but will also emphasize social and emotional development to counter the effects of stress and suffering. They will be offered both to displaced children and to some of their potential friends in host communities.

“Officials at the organizations involved said that helping children’s brains develop during their first years — when they are absorbing information like sponges — is crucial to helping them become healthy and successful later in life, and that play is an excellent way to do it.

“ ‘We know from child development research that the best way for children to learn is through exploring their world and play,’ said Sarah Smith, the senior director for education at the International Rescue Committee. …

“The families’ needs are great. In addition to basics like adequate food and shelter, children need to foster ties with nurturing caregivers to heal from what they have witnessed and endured, said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a director of Global TIES for Children, a research center at New York University that will conduct testing and evaluation for the program.

‘Part of the magic of human development is that very few experiences doom a child to ruin,’ Dr. Yoshikawa said. ‘But we have to address the risks early. This is particularly critical in these first years.’ …

“Erum Mariam, a program director for BRAC, said that many of the 240 play labs the organization has created for refugees were built by the children’s fathers and painted and decorated by mothers and children.

“ ‘We place a lot of emphasis on culture and on strengthening community engagement,’ she said. Within those centers, trained facilitators focus on providing enough structure to make children feel safe, while allowing for spontaneous joy.

“ ‘When a child enters the humanitarian play lab, we want the child to feel very happy and very connected to their culture and heritage,’ she said.” More here.

You may recall I wrote about Sesame Street helping Syrian refugee children, here.

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Photo: Barbara Crossette/PassBlue
Fathiah Zakham studied tuberculosis in Yemen until a bomb destroyed the university where she was working. Through the Scholar Rescue Fund, she received safe haven in Helsinki, Finland, to study.

Scholars and scholarship are generally endangered in authoritarian countries and in war zones. Fortunately, there are activists determined to keep the search for truth alive among all nationalities. The Scholar Rescue Fund was established to place refugee scholars in safe institutions where they can continue their work. Even in today’s isolationist America, refugee scholars are getting a future.

Deborah Amos reported on international placement efforts at National Public Radio (NPR) last fall.

“Around the globe, more scholars are now threatened and displaced than since World War II began. In response, U.S. universities have sponsored endangered scholars and recently created a consortium that offers a broader academic community to refugee scholars threatened by war and authoritarian governments.

” ‘There is a moral obligation to do something,’ said Arien Mack, a psychology professor at New York City’s New School for Social Research, who launched Endangered Scholars Worldwide in 2007 to draw attention to the threats facing academics. She now oversees the New University in Exile Consortium, which will bring exiled scholars together over the next two years for seminars, workshops and conferences. The New School has recruited 10 other universities to the consortium, and is urging more to join. …

” ‘We are trying to nurture intellectual capital, we are saving brains,’ Mack said at a Sept. 6 event in New York City to launch the project. ‘Even when [refugee scholars] are safe, what is painfully absent is that they don’t get integrated, they are isolated, they suffer from estrangement.’ …

“Syrian academic Mohammad Alahmad, a specialist in Arabic literature, had to negotiate with Islamist radicals to continue teaching at Al-Furat University’s campus in Raqqa. In 2014, the militants declared Raqqa the capital of the Islamic State. …

“He escaped the city with his family, smuggling them across a dangerous border into Turkey after ISIS shut down his university. He was awarded a fellowship by the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, an organization that helps arrange emergency placement and funds for academic figures at risk. He was matched with Georgetown University where he is now a lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. …

“The Scholar Rescue Fund, established in 2002, has helped more than 700 scholars find academic placements in 43 countries. About 40 percent have been placed in American educational institutions.

“Indian activist and academic Binalakshmi Nepram says her work advocating for gender rights and a women-led disarmament movement in her home state of Manipur, in northeast India, led to threats and intimidation. … Now she is a visiting scholar in residence at Connecticut College.

” ‘We have all left everything behind,’ she said. … Her placement in Connecticut is a lifeline. She has continued her activism, giving a recent lecture on how the women of Manipur state worked together to confront violence in a decades-old armed conflict between insurgents and the Indian military.

‘Before I got this job, [American] people told me I could be a bartender or a babysitter,’ she said. ‘Every job has its dignity, but we have our skills.’

More at NPR, here.

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