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Posts Tagged ‘syria’

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Photos: Local Council of Daraya City
This image from 2014 shows young people who rescued books for a secret library in besieged Daraya, Syria.

As much as I love stories about good things happening in bad times, I always wonder when I post them whether the oasis in Kabul or the library in Syria is still going. Was it there in July when a news outlet’s article was written? Was it there yesterday? Sometimes I search the internet to find a follow-up on, say, the multireligion soccer team that was never expected to win. Sometimes I leave it to you.

Despite the ambiguity of this July 2019 comment from VOA, a book on the heroic library started by Syrian teens is still worth talking about:

[Abdul] Basit and his team of volunteers were among those who had to flee Daraya to northern Syria, leaving the library behind. Unable to take the books, the members tried to conceal the library by blocking its entrance with pieces of shattered concrete. Despite their efforts, Syrian government forces were able to find the makeshift library. The fate of thousands of books remains unclear, according to Basit, who has been unable to return home.

At The New York Times, Dunya Mikhail reviews Mike Thomson’s book Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege.

“In a region that sways ‘on the palm of a genie,’ as the Arabic saying goes, where bullets and explosions are more familiar than bread, you would not expect people to read, let alone to risk their lives for the sake of books.

“Yet in 2013 a group of enthusiastic readers in Daraya, five miles southwest of Damascus, salvaged thousands of books from ruined homes, wrapping them in blankets just as they would victims of the war raging around them. They brought the books into the basement of a building whose upper floors had been wrecked by bombs and set up a library. As Mike Thomson recounts this unlikely story in Syria’s Secret Library, this underground book collection surrounded by sandbags functioned, as one user put it, as an ‘oasis of normality in this sea of destruction.’

“There, the self-appointed chief librarian, a 14-year-old named Amjad, would write down in a large file the names of people who borrowed the books, and then return to his seat to continue reading. He had all the books he could ever want, apart from ones on high shelves that he couldn’t reach. He told his friends: ‘You don’t have TV now anyway, so why not come here and educate yourself? It’s fun.’ The library hosted a weekly book club, as well as classes on English, math and world history, and debates over literature and religion.

“Advertising the library’s activities without compromising its security was a dilemma; patrons relied on word of mouth for fear that it would be targeted by the Syrian Army. By the time the library was founded, Daraya, a site of anti-government uprising and calls for reforms, had been under siege by the army for more than a year. Its 8,000 remaining residents — from a prewar population of about 80,000 — faced near-constant bombardment and shortages of food, water and power….

“Thomson, a radio and television reporter who covered the war in Syria for the BBC, dedicated months to interviewing the library’s founders and their friends via Skype and social media. When the internet went down in Daraya, his sources recorded comments on their phones as audio diaries they could send on to Thomson when the connection was restored. His book is a compassionate and inspiring portrait of a town where, one of the founders tells him, ‘fuel for our souls’ was an essential need.

“The books ‘help us understand the outside world better,’ another founder, a local dental student, said. Likewise, Thomson’s book may help the outside world better understand Syrians. …

“In the same spirit of piling books under Daraya’s shattered streets, local artists painted graffiti art on the walls of ruined buildings. In a moving image drawn by Abu Malik, a local artist nicknamed Banksy, a little girl stands on a pile of skulls writing the word ‘hope’ high above her head.” More.

Are you good at research? Maybe you could help me find out what has since happened to the library. I volunteer with displaced Syrians and others at a resettlement agency in Providence, and I feel a personal interest in this war-torn country.

The artist Abu Malik next to his mural amid the ruins of Daraya in 2014.

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Photo: Thomas Stanley
Hadi Jasim was an Iraqi translator for the US military. Now he’s a “global guide” at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

As you know, I’m a fan of immigration and of welcoming refugees to this immigrant-built country. It’s not usually easy for immigrants once they get here. They are required to find a way to support themselves within a few months, and, if language is a barrier, they must learn English as soon as possible.

Some immigrants start their own business. Some — even if they are highly skilled — take jobs that don’t need English. I know a Haitian immigrant who, for example, was a physician with years of experience who nevertheless took a kitchen job and was grateful to find work.

Once in a while I read a story like the following, in which some wise boss or institution finds a really creative way to employ an immigrant.

Emma Jacobs reports at Public Radio International (PRI), “At the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Moumena Saradar directs a group of visitors to a glass case containing an enormous gold headdress and beaded shirt — the burial garments of Queen Puabi, who died around 2550 BCE. They’re a highlight of the museum’s Middle East gallery, reopened in April after a $5 million renovation.

“ ‘Queen Puabi’s burial jewelry is one of my favorite objects in the gallery,’ says Saradar, who goes on to explain that in Syria today, people still save up for gold jewelry for their wedding. She shows pictures of packed jewelry shops in Damascus, walls glittering from floor to ceiling.

“Saradar is among the museum’s new tour guides — immigrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq who can make connections between the ancient artifacts and the present-day cultures.

“Saradar and her family arrived in Philadelphia as refugees in 2016, and she now works as a medical interpreter during the week and gives tours of at the gallery on weekends. …

“As a guide, Saradar went through intensive training to prepare her to give detailed historical tours and respond to visitors’ questions. She says she practiced on her five children.

“According to Kevin Schott, the Penn Museum’s education programs manager, Saradar and the other guides offer something local docents can’t.

“ ‘At some point in almost every tour somebody will say, “What about today? Do they still eat these things today?” Or, “Is this place still a place people go?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I can’t answer your question.” ‘

“These guides are expressly trained to weave their own personal stories and memories into their tours — things they would feel comfortable talking about over and over again.

“Another guide, Hadi Jasim, spent his summers as a child at his grandfather’s house in southern Iraq, near the source of many of the objects in the gallery: the ruins of the ancient city of Ur.

“ ‘Sometimes we used to take the soccer balls and play’ because it was an open area, Jasim says. ‘Sometimes we used to play like other games like seek and hide, you know, kids’ games.’ …

“Fresh out of college near the beginning of the Iraq War, Jasim became an interpreter for the US-led coalition forces in 2004. He went on to work for the UN in Iraq doing communications and anti-trafficking work. In 2017, he finally received permission to come to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis who worked with the US military.

“Now, Jasim has a job in food service at a local hospital. He says the museum work has become more than a second income.

“ ‘Sometimes, even if I don’t have tours here, I just show up to work, go through the Middle East gallery, go and see the clay tablets and see the carvings,’ he says. ‘It just brings my memories back.’ …

“ ‘Being close to your heritage is something that makes you feel like okay, now I’m back. You know, I don’t feel like I’m a stranger [any] more.’

“Jasim will have more colleagues joining him at the museum in the future. The Penn Museum plans to hire guides for all of its global galleries.” More at PRI, here.

I find many things to love about this story, but if I had to choose one thing, do you know what it would be? It would be the look on these two guides’ faces. A look of peace.

Photo: Idil Demirdag
Penn Museum global guide Moumena Saradar came to the US as a Syrian refugee two years ago.

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Photo: Daniella Cheslow/NPR
Jeff Britten stands in the doorway of the Baptist chapel in Haverfordwest, Wales, where he meets regularly with other members of his group sponsoring a refugee family. The name of the group is Croeso Hwlffordd, or Welcome Haverfordwest in Welsh.

What can I say? There are kind people everywhere. This story is about the efforts of residents of a small village in Wales to welcome refugee families from Syria. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do — there are so many differences in experience and culture. But these people knew it was the right thing to do.

Daniella Cheslow writes at National Public Radio, “Back in February, Jeff Britten sent a description of Haverfordwest, his town of 13,000 people in southwestern Wales, to a family of Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

” ‘I ran around town and took pictures of the castle, the best bits, the River Cleddau,’ Britten says. ‘I produced a map which showed the location of the house, and that everything was in walking distance, supermarkets, schools, a mosque. It was all there for them.’

“He hoped the family, whom he contacted with the help of the Home Office, which controls U.K. immigration, would come live in Wales. At that stage, he knew little about them, only that they were Syrians recognized as refugees by the United Nations.

“Britten is 71 and retired from the pharmaceutical industry. The idea to reach out to Syrian refugees came in late 2016, when he heard that two other Welsh villages had adopted refugees from the country, and he called a meeting in a Baptist chapel in his own town to inspire his neighbors to do the same. …

“The refugees have come to Wales as part of a community sponsorship program that began in the U.K. in 2016. A group of British citizens can commit to providing refugees help with housing, navigating schools and doctors, language and the job search.

“Twenty-five Syrian refugee families have arrived and been settled so far in the U.K. via community sponsorship; of those, six families went to Wales. …

“In Haverfordwest, about 30 residents answered Britten’s call and signed up to sponsor the newcomers. … Jenny Blackmore had worked with Syrian refugees in the nearby town of Narberth and noticed that housing was often a stumbling block to fulfilling the government’s conditions. Landlords had to keep their homes open while the Home Office processed the resettlement application, and the government paid a lower rental rate than the market could offer.

“Blackmore’s mother had recently died and left her an inheritance. She invested it in a three-bedroom, two-story rowhouse in the center of Haverfordwest, with the aim of housing a refugee family.

” ‘I decided it would be a sort of fitting legacy, really, to my mum and dad’s memory, to do something — yeah, it’s an investment for my family, but it’s also a kind of investment in people’s lives,’ she says.”

More here.

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Photo: Målerås
Glassworkers in the Målerås factory in Sweden. The company successfully brought on refugees when it was short-handed.

This story combines two of my great interests: Sweden and helping refugees. Erik’s homeland showed compassion by taking in 32,000 asylum seekers in 2015, but in a win-win scenario, some Swedish design companies have benefited.

Alicia Brunker writes at Architectural Digest, “Rather than fear that refugees will take jobs away from locals, the Nordic country views Syria’s tradition of handicraft skills as a way to smoothy integrate its people into their own design-centric society. This mindset is especially true for the design community in southern Sweden, also known as Småland, a vast region that family-run glass workshops and international heavyweights, such as IKEA, call home. …

“Five years ago, the Scandinavian design purveyor began working with the women’s co-operative [Yalla Trappan ] to offer marginalized groups opportunities for livelihood, including Syrian refugees who have settled in southern Sweden without employment. As a way to give them economic independence, IKEA hired 10 women to work at their Malmö store, offering sewing services. …

“Whether a local customer needs a quick repair to their Ektorp sofa cushion or requires custom embroidery, the women at IKEA’s Malmö store will take the order at their sewing atelier and stitch it off-site.

“Beyond in-store sewing services, IKEA has recently teamed up with the Jordan River Foundation, opening up a production center in Amman. … At the facility, the Jordanians and an IKEA designer collaborated on a new range of textiles — including pillows, rugs, and baskets — that meld both culture’s styles into a single object. …

“The Jordanians lay the yarn on the floor and weave by hand on their feet. However, with IKEA’s ultimate goal of making these women employable in the future, they plan to teach the refugees more modern stitching practices with machines for upcoming collections.

“Inadvertently, IKEA has also provided employment for refugees through their annual Art Event. This year, the design giant enlisted local glassworks company Målerås to work with international artists on a limited-edition series of contemporary glass figurines.

“During the production process, the factory was short-handed and decided to add a dozen new contractors, four of which were Syrian refugees, to their workforce. Though they didn’t have glass-making experience, the men were familiar with working with their hands. Through an eight-month training period, the refugees learned the various steps of production and they picked up on their new country’s language and culture. …

“Benny Hermansson, owner and CEO of Gemla Möbler, the country’s oldest furniture factory, says the practice of working with craftsmen from other regions dates back to the 19th-century. … One of the [Syrians] who joined Gemla worked at a furniture company back in Syria, crafting headboards and cabinets out of wood. …

” ‘There are fewer and fewer schools educating students in these fields,’ [Hermansson] says. ‘It has become difficult to recruit people with the right competence. We have a need, and so do these refugees.” More here.

This is reminding me of a Syrian carpenter that I helped out a bit last year. He was thrilled to find work in Rhode Island installing insulation. I wonder if he has gotten into woodworking since then.

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Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP
Characters from the Afghan Sesame Street. A MacArthur Foundation grant will enable the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee to roll out a version for Syrian refugee children.

Even if they make it to relative safety, children often suffer the most from wars and dislocation. In addition to the trauma, there is the problem of education, which is unavailable or spotty in refugee camps.

That is why people of goodwill are reaching out with programs that can both comfort and teach. Jason Beaubien reports on one example at National Public Radio.

“The MacArthur Foundation will give $100 million to Elmo, Big Bird and their buddies to massively scale up early childhood development programs for Syrian refugees.

“Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee won a global competition by the MacArthur Foundation seeking solutions to what the judges called ‘a critical problem of our time.’

” ‘The most important thing to remember is that the humanitarian system is designed to reach people’s immediate needs — to keep people alive, feed them, make sure that they have shelter,’ says Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC. The global humanitarian system, she says, isn’t very good at supporting displaced children. ‘And the fact is these children are likely to stay as refugees for their entire childhood.’ …

“The IRC and Sesame Workshop plan to launch what they’re describing as the ‘largest early childhood intervention program ever created in a humanitarian setting.’ …

“It will be distributed over traditional television channels, the internet and mobile phones. It will also serve as an educational curriculum for childcare centers, health clinics and outreach workers visiting the shelters where refugees live. The workers will deliver books to kids and caregivers.

“Sherrie Westin of Sesame Workshop says … ‘These Muppets will be created to reflect the children’s reality so that children can relate with them. … One of the Muppets may have had to leave home. She may live in a tent. She may become best friends with her new neighbors.’ …

” ‘We know that in their first years of life the trauma that children are experiencing has the greatest impact on them,’ Westin at Sesame Workshop says. ‘And yet they receive the least support.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Radio Lifeline for Syria


Photo: Amandas Ong
An Alwan radio producer in the station’s recording studio. The broadcast lifeline to Syria is located in an apartment complex in Turkey.

Where people struggle to carry on their lives in the midst of war, radio can provide comfort and hope. This is a story about Syrians in exile who broadcast news and normalcy to people back home.

Amandas Ong writes at Slate, “I push my way out of the metro station in southwestern Istanbul where Sami — not his real name — and I have agreed to meet. …

” ‘It’s not far from here,’ he says, directing me down an overhead bridge through a number of serpentine streets. …

“The hive of activity inside forms the Istanbul operations of Radio Alwan, (Alwan means ‘colors’ in Arabic) an independent Syrian news station broadcasting into that devastated country every day. Alwan provides much-needed news updates to information-starved Syrians and also runs popular entertainment programs and controversial discussions. …

“Three bedrooms have been converted into a meeting room, a recording studio, and an office. … Most of the staff had no prior training in radio journalism before joining Alwan. Sami describes himself as having ‘come from a regular, boring HR job in Dubai.’ …

“ ‘The point of Alwan,’ he had told me in a prior conversation over FaceTime, ‘is not just to report the news. Radio is also a form of activism, and through our programs, we try to do our part by encouraging people to engage with civic organizations within Syria, and to inform them on what’s really happening both around the country and outside of it.’ …

“A law student named Ahmad al-Qadour started Radio Alwan in 2014 in the northern Syrian city of Idlib. … They decided to relocate Alwan’s central office to Istanbul after a series of threats from Islamic radical groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which had been part of the Syrian wing of al-Qaida before splitting from the group in 2016. …

“A typical day at Alwan begins at 6 a.m. in the Istanbul office, where the team of about 15 staff members assembles for a variety of Syrian and international news segments, followed by talk shows and short radio skits, some educational, others comedic. …

“Sami is especially proud of Oh, Grandma, a program presented by a woman from Idlib who is identified by her initial, N. She has a day job as a teacher, but in her role at Alwan, she visits the houses of women in the city and interviews them about their lives, their daily struggles, and discusses salient issues with them, such as the legal age for marriage for Syrian women. …

“Maram, a 24-year-old in a slouchy sweater and jeans, comes to talk to me. She graduated from a media school in Damascus and decided to come to Turkey to seek better job opportunities, before stumbling upon an open position at Alwan. …

“I ask her what she likes most about Alwan, and she doesn’t hesitate: ‘I learn a lot every single day, but most of all, it’s taught me so much about how to deal with uncertainty.’ …

“Sami [has] a philosophical approach to the objective of radio itself.

“ ‘We have a program called Acute Angle,’ he says, ‘that encourages people to accept the idea that there is no such thing as true fact. In each segment, we talk about different personalities like Michael Jackson, Ataturk, and even Walt Disney, and how these people have been represented both positively and negatively. I want our listeners to know that there are no taboos, and also no perspective on any one issue or narrative that should be taken for granted.’ …

“[It’s staff member] Dima who has perhaps the most poetic vision of her work at Alwan. ‘What I’ve learned is that the people who listen to us aren’t just suffering day in and out. They want to live, love, dance, laugh. Sometimes we draw courage from them, other times they are comforted by us, hundreds of miles away,’ she says. ‘That’s the beauty of radio: It has soul.’ ”

More here.

Unhappy Update, Dec. 29, 2019, here.

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Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times.
Ali Shehadeh, a plant conservationist from Syria who fled the war in his country, at work in Terbol, Lebanon.

The harm that wars do seems endless. Every aspect of life is affected. And yet, against all odds, good people rise up to save or try to reconstruct what might be lost. In this post, everyday heroes protect a seed bank from the war in Syria.

Somini Sengupta has the story at the New York Times. “Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat.

“He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.

“Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their ‘wild relatives’ from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here.

“But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather, and war.

“The center, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. …

“By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya.

“Trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were stolen and killed for food. … And the center’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.

“But researchers there had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, the center had begun to send seed samples — ‘accessions’ as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the ‘doomsday vault,’ burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.

“War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, center scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa. …

“Mr. Shehadeh … is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. ‘They’re the good stock,’ he said.

“He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds — in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.”

The experts believe that the seeds from plants that thrive in this arid part of the world will be needed for feeding the planet as it warms.

Read the whole article here.

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I learned about Open Doors for Refugees from my friend Anne, who for many months helped me guest blog at the Providence Granola Project. I miss her so much. She died a couple weeks ago in a freak biking accident. From now on, whenever I post about refugees, I will think of Anne.

This refugee-outreach story comes from the Wisconsin State Journal. Samara Kalk Derby writes, “Raphael Al Rubaye left Iraq for Madison eight months ago with his wife and two young daughters and has found a welcoming community here.

“He served with the U.S. Army in Iraq for six years in the American-led war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. He was brought to this country by Lutheran Social Services and now works as a case manager for the organization, helping in the resettlement of other refugees.

“His life in Iraq was ‘fun, terrible, dangerous, scary, happy, worried, everything,’ he said. ‘Just like any life.’ …

“Al Rubaye and his daughters were among about 200 people who took part in a community celebration, picnic and fundraiser hosted by the local group Open Doors for Refugees held [August 7] at the Olin Park shelter. …

“Open Doors for Refugees, a group dedicated to supporting the resettlement of refugees in the Madison area and welcoming them into the community, was started by Israeli native Efrat Livny. …

“ ‘One of the best things that’s happened to us is that we’ve gotten to be friends with Syrian families, which as an Israeli has been a little touchy,’ Livny said about herself and husband, Ken Baun. ‘But, oh my God, it’s been incredible.’

“It all started when she got the book ‘Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate our Shared Humanity,’ and began making soup for her monthly lunches at [a business and community space she founded]. She would dedicate the meal to the welfare of Syrian refugees.

“She soon realized she needed to do more and began bringing in speakers and holding discussion circles. During those discussions, Livny asked people about their feelings. ‘How can we sit back when this is happening?’ she said.” More here.

People certainly bond over food. That is one reason the Providence Granola Project got into food as a way to give some refugees US workforce skills. I mentioned several refugee-based food businesses in a June post I wrote for the Providence Granola Project here.

Photo: Samara Kalk Derby
Parachute game at Sunday picnic hosted by Open Doors for Refugees in Olin Park, Madison, Wisconsin.

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A New York Times article that was widely shared yesterday detailed how eager many Canadians are to welcome refugees. Enthusiastic, sometimes a bit bossy, they are volunteering in droves to make a difference in the lives of anxious families who have been through the mill.

It reminded me of other welcome stories I’ve been collecting. Small towns, in particular, seem to feel they could benefit from welcoming refugees.

On Nagu, a remote island on the southwest tip of Finland, migrants have found open arms.

Giles Duley writes in the Guardian, “From the start, the people of Nagu made their guests feel welcome. A Facebook group was set up, activities suggested, volunteers came forward. ‘It was exciting,’ says Mona Hemmer, a bastion of Nagu life and one of the organisers of activities for the refugees. …

“Of course, for the refugees, being busy does not erase their past or the uncertainty of their future. … Many still find it hard to sleep, aware that until their asylum applications have been processed, they have not reached the end of their journey.

“However, the warm welcome of the Nagu people has made a difference. And despite their initial reservations, the islanders now feel that it is the refugees who have brought them something.”  More.

In this Al Jazeera story by Thomas Bruckner, refugees are reviving faded Italian villages.

“The village of Riace had seen its population drop from 2,500 to 400 since the 1990s, when people moved to northern Italy for better economic opportunities.

“Domenico Lucano, Mayor of Riace, saw the flow of refugees in Italy as an opportunity. ‘We have been welcoming refugees with open arms for the past 15 years. [They have] saved our village,’ Lucano explained.

“The resourceful mayor first acted on this opportunity in 1998, when a boat with 218 Kurdish refugees on their way to Greece got stranded on a beach in Riace. This is when Lucano first proposed that the refugees should stay in the village and take over the homes and apartments that had been left vacant by the migrating former residents of the town.

“The mayor helped to facilitate the integration by establishing a ‘refugees welcome’ project, which is now spreading through neighbouring towns.”

Here’s a PBS story by Jason M. Breslow about a small town in Germany that wants more population. “With Goslar’s population shrinking by around 2,000 people per year as young people flee to bigger cities and older residents die, [Mayor Oliver] Junk sees refugees as key to the town’s future.

“ ‘Europeans must welcome and integrate refugees, accepting that they are not a burden but a great opportunity,’ Junk wrote in an op-ed published last month in the policy journal Europe’s World.”

The mayor has also said, “Anyone who tells me Germany is full up, or that we can’t afford them, I say think of our past, and of the future. Of course we can afford them – we’re a rich country, and we have a duty to help those in need.’ ” More from PBS.

And here’s a story closer to home. Brian MacQuarrie writes at the Boston Globe about Rutland, Vermont, and its interest in refugees.

“Mayor Christopher Louras has unveiled a plan, developed in near-secrecy, to resettle 100 Syrian refugees who fled the onslaught of the Islamic State and are exiled in sprawling Jordanian camps. …

“Most residents appear ready to welcome the refugees, mindful of the harrowing images of Syrians desperately seeking refuge outside their ravaged country….

“ ‘The benefits, economically and culturally, that we will recognize is exactly what the community needs at this time,’ said Louras, the grandson of a Greek immigrant who fled the Ottoman Turks a century ago. ‘As much as I want to say it’s for compassionate reasons, I realize that there is not a vibrant, growing, successful community in the country right now that is not embracing new Americans.’ ” More at the Globe.

Photo: Giles Duley/UNCHR
Volunteers from Nagu, a small island in Finland, laugh with refugees during a New Year’s Eve concert put on by local musicians.

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I liked this story from the “People Making a Difference” series at the Christian Science Monitor. It’s about refugee musicians in Europe finding one another and bringing beauty and deeper understanding to their new countries.

Isabelle de Pommereau writes, “On a March evening in Berlin, bassist Raed Jazbeh and other musicians play the melancholic tones of ‘Sea Waves’ by Syrian composer MAias Alyamani. Mr. Alyamani wrote the song a decade ago after leaving his homeland, ‘to hold in my mind a piece from my country in my music.’

“Now, with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flooding Germany, ‘Sea Waves’ takes on new meaning.

“Mr. Jazbeh himself fled Syria three years ago, as war tore it apart. So did many of the other musicians – also Syrians – performing ‘Sea Waves.’ Some had risked their lives and lost their instruments crossing Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea and then trekking into Europe.

“Jazbeh is the one who brought these musicians together. Last fall, he created the world’s first philharmonic orchestra of Syrian musicians in exile, reuniting the violinists and harpists, percussionists and trumpet players …

“The Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) has been giving Syrians and Germans a chance to connect in a fresh way, around music. The ensemble is helping to shatter stereotypical images of refugees, instead offering a portrayal of them as hardworking, creative people who have much to contribute to society. …

“Jazbeh grew up in the city of Aleppo, in northern Syria, with music at the center of his life. … After he landed at a refugee center in Bremen, he played chamber music for friends and at community centers. [He also] began looking for friends from his days at the Damascus conservatory. ‘Facebook was so important,’ he notes.

“Gradually, he found them. In Italy. Sweden. The Netherlands. France. …

“In all, about 30 Syrian musicians came together for that first concert. ‘It was very emotional,’ Jazbeh remembers. …

“ ‘The music touched my heart,’ said concertgoer Abdulrhman Hamdan, fighting back tears. At home, in Damascus, he had had to stop his engineering studies. He arrived in Berlin last winter after a journey by foot, bus, and boat.

“ ‘It makes me feel sad and happy,’ he added. ‘On the one hand, the music [evoked the] war. On the other hand, it was hope that there is peace again.’ ”

Read how the concert changed the impressions of one German audience member here.

Photo: Isabelle de Pommereau
Raed Jazbeh, a Syrian refugee, had to play a borrowed instrument until an anonymous German donor sent him this double bass as a gift.

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Germans who open their homes to refugees don’t necessarily think of it as that big of a  deal.

Josie Le Blond writes for UNHCR Tracks, “Wael and Ibrahim sleep in their hosts’ home offices, while Homam and Samira are sharing an artist’s home studio. Mohamad has his own room, and Mecid’s large family has been given an entire house to call their own. …

“Ibrahim, a 29-year-old Syrian seeking asylum in Europe, has slotted easily into the lives of his German hosts, Maximilian and Carolin. The couple, both journalists, offered him their spare room when they heard he was having a hard time finding accommodations in Berlin.

“ ‘I met Max when he interviewed me for an article. He invited me to stay if I had any difficulties,’ says Ibrahim, who fled fighting last summer near his home in the Syrian port city of Latakia.

“After five months moving between emergency shelters in Germany, Ibrahim was told he had to find a hostel. But an administrative problem meant he quickly found himself without a roof over his head. Ibrahim remembered Maximilian’s offer.

“What we’re doing is the least we could do.”

“ ‘It’s unbelievable, really. If it weren’t for volunteers offering their places, many people might be out on the streets,’ says Maximilian, 29. ‘What we’re doing is the least we could do. We have a three room apartment – it’s easy.’ …

“Weeks later, Maximilian and Carolin now view Ibrahim just like any other lodger. ‘At this point I don’t see Ibrahim as a refugee that is staying at our place,’ says Maximilian. ‘He’s more like a flatmate who joins us for football every Monday.’ ”

More here.

Photo: UNHCR/Ivor Prickett
Max and Carolin offered their spare room to Ibrahim, an asylum-seeker from Syria, after he struggled to find somewhere to stay in Berlin.

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A US student studying in Hungary was stunned by the refugee crisis at his doorstep and felt compelled to do something.

David Karas wrote in early November at the Christian Science Monitor, “Among those struck by the extreme hardships confronting the refugees is a graduate student from Mobile, Ala., who had been traveling in Europe. Motivated to find a way to help, he used his background in information technology and software to help provide something in high demand but extremely scarce: information.

“David Altmayer has launched the Refugee Help Map – an interactive mapping platform using Google tools that provides details on where refugees are traveling and what needs they have – to assist volunteers in best providing aid.

“ ‘At the beginning, it was just to get more information out there,’ Mr. Altmayer says. ‘I started helping in the first place because I couldn’t just sit by and not help. And then I just tried to find ways that I could best use my skill set to help.’

“Altmayer had worked in Seattle on IT and software projects, and is currently pursuing an MBA and master’s degree in global management through the Thunderbird Graduate School of Global Management and the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In order to finish his degree, he had to select a couple of courses that would be held abroad. …

“ ‘I live about one kilometer [0.6 miles] from the main railway station here in Budapest,’ he says, By mid-August, migrants had begun to flock to the station to take shelter. ‘Every day there were more and more people basically living there – camping, setting up tents, sleeping on cardboard,’ he says.

“Some of Altmayer’s friends had been providing support to refugees, mainly by bringing them meals. Altmayer noticed other volunteer groups were providing assistance. Wanting to learn more, he began to explore online – only to discover a need that he and his computer-literate colleagues could help to address.

“ ‘More and more people had been asking where they could get information in English,’ he says. Most efforts to provide information were in Hungarian. Before he knew it, he had become part of a group that launched an English website, making details about locations and needs accessible to English-speaking refugees and volunteers. …

“In the first six weeks the map was online, it received more than 80,000 views. It is constantly updated with markers indicating the location and urgency of needs, as well as comments about conditions facing refugees.

“ ‘There are so many people using it and counting on it,’ Altmayer says.”

More here. I do love stories about people working to solve a problem by offering the skills they have.

Photo: Andrea Giuliano
US college student David Altmayer created the online Refugee Help Map while living in Budapest, Hungary. Here he is shopping for supplies to help  migrants in Serbia.

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In a recent NY Times article, art critic Holland Cotter expressed skepticism that a show of new artists lumped together as “Arab” could work. (Some artists declined to participate for the same  reason.)  The artists in the New Museum exhibit are from “Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention Europe and the United States.”

But in the end, he was thrilled with the opportunity to see the new works.

“It’s a big show, intricately pieced together on all five floors of the museum, and starts on the street-level facade with a large-scale photograph of an ultra-plush Abu Dhabi hotel. The image was installed by the cosmopolitan collective called GCC, made up of eight artists scattered from Dubai to London and New York who make it their business to focus on the preposterous wealth concentrated in a few hands in a few oil-rich countries on the Persian Gulf.”

Cotter goes on to describe many of the pieces in detail, here, and concludes with some advice for visitors.

“To appreciate this show fully, a little homework can’t hurt. But really all you need to do is be willing to linger, read labels and let not-knowing be a form of bliss. In return, you’ll get wonderful artists, deep ideas, fabulous stories and the chance, still too seldom offered by our museums, to be a global citizen. Don’t pass it up.”

The show will be up until September 28.

Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“Here and Elsewhere” show at the New Museum

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A Syrian actor who visited a refugee camp, felt compassion for the children, and returned to help them put on a play decided to start at the top. Only the best playwright would do.

From the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, NY Times reporter Ben Hubbard describes the scene: “On a rocky patch of earth in this sprawling city of tents and prefab trailers, the king, dressed in dirty jeans and a homemade cape, raised his wooden scepter and announced his intention to divide his kingdom. His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewelry, showered him with false praise, while the youngest spoke truthfully and lost her inheritance.

“So began a recent adaptation here of King Lear. For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy. All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. …

“ ‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,’ said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor known at home for his role in ‘Bab al-Hara,’ an enormously popular historical drama that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.

“Last year, he and his French wife moved to Jordan, where friends invited him to help distribute aid in Zaatari. …

“Children he met in the camp made him promise to return, and he did — with a plan to show the world that the least fortunate Syrian refugees could produce the loftiest theater. …

“The mere fact that the play was performed was enough for the few hundred spectators. Families living in nearby tents brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders so they could see. …

“The crowd burst into applause, and a number of the leading girls broke into tears. Mr. Bulbul said they were overwhelmed because it was the first time anyone had clapped for them.”

More here, at the NY Times, where you can also see a slide show and watch a video about the refugee-camp theater initiative.

Photo: Warrick Page for The New York Times

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Did you ever have a secret language?

I spoke a lot of Goose Latin when I was about 10. (How-fow do-foo you-foo spee-feak goo-foose La-fa-ti-fin? Tha-fat i-fis my-fi se-fee-cre-fet.) I don’t think my mother had much trouble cracking the code.

I have always been interested in how people disguise what they are really thinking when they speak, and I once made a video about having an extremely polite tea with someone I didn’t like, using a voiceover for my true thoughts.

A more serious reason for speaking in code was described in a Boston Globe article by Joshua J. Friedman last month.

“To communicate while living under an authoritarian regime requires a special sort of linguistic creativity. As a new paper by Nassima Neggaz in the journal Language, Discourse & Society reports, one solution that Syrians have found is to speak in codes. …

“Neggaz interviewed approximately 20 members of several close groups of relatives and university friends in Homs, Hama, and Damascus about the codes they used between 1980 and 2011. She found that members of one group, to speak of someone who was hiding from the regime, would say that the person was ‘sick,’ mardan. Members of another group would say that he was ‘studying’ (‘am yadruss) or that he was ‘taking exams’ (‘andu fhussat).

“To describe someone who was being detained or who was in jail, it was common to say that this person was ‘at his aunt’s house’ (huwa fi bayt khaltu). To suggest that a person was an informer, some speakers would say khattu heluw: ‘His handwriting is beautiful.’ ” More here.

Image: Christoph Niemann for Time, content.time.co

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