Friday, October 31, 2008

A Thought

i thought, just now,
i want to go home.
How lucky, i cried,
to have a choice.

Art as Life

I was first introduced to Mohamed Ghani's work when i was in Baghdad before the invasion. A new piece was being completed in the plaza on Abu Nuwas street by the Palestine Hotel. It was cast in bronze and was called "Magic Carpet". After years of sanctions and the threat of a new war looming on the horizon, the piece evoked different possibilities for the people of Iraq. Taking the theme from the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, it depicted Aladdin and Jasmine soaring skyward. The sculpture has survived the shock and awe campaign and the years of occupation. It remains a beacon of possibilities not yet realized for the children of Iraq.

As we wander through Mohamed Ghani's small studio he talks of the bronze pieces representing the losses felt since the invasion in 2003. He speaks of his son who was in Sweden for eleven months trying to secure passports for his wife and children, in the end to no avail. He speaks of the pain of Iraqi families who are now separated with family members in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and others resettled around the world. This alone is deeply traumatic for a culture that treasures family and where many extended families live in the same home.

As we talk he gently kneads a small ball of clay between his fingers. He stands next to a piece carved in stone and says he has a dream to create it one day in Baghdad. The piece depicts a column, cracked and falling and a man with five arms struggling to hold it upright. Mohamed explains that the column represents the culture of Iraq. The column is falling and if it does, all will be destroyed. The man with the five arms represents the Iraqi people who are protecting the culture. The five arms each represent one of the arts: theater, plastic arts (sculpture), poetry & literature, painting and film. The piece is a symbol for people to remember what happened during occupation.

As the occupation forces entered Baghdad after days of intense bombing, they permitted the looting of priceless pieces of Iraqi history and culture. Mohamed Ghani lost 150 pieces at the Museum of Modern Art. The sculptures that were too heavy to steal were smashed to bits on the museum floor. When he confronted an American soldier and asked how this was allowed to happen, he was told by the young soldier that "it isn't my job". Mohamed Ghani looks at me with disbelief in his eyes, and with deep sadness says, "This is what he said to me, it isn't my job."

"I have many dreams", he says, "I want to do a testimony of all that has happened in Iraq. I dream of doing many pieces. One will be a man with a kaffieh sprawled on the ground with a US soldier's foot holding his head to the ground. Offending him in front of his whole family, his wife, his children. I saw this with my own eyes. Another would be an Iraqi woman searched by a male US soldier. His hands were all over her. In our culture unfamiliar men do not touch women. It simply is not done. Couldn't a female soldier search her? Why humiliate her in front of her husband? She was crying, she couldn't do anything. I want to document this. Create symbols for people to remember. Yes I have many dreams." As with any great artist, Mohamed Ghani's art transcends the personal and speaks of an entire cultures suffering.

Sitting opposite us, Mohamed speaks animatedly, waving his arms to emphasize his points. "I don't like politics. I don't like to be a politic man. Never in my life have I been a politic man. You have to be a big, big liar. And what about your President? He says God told him to go to war. In this age? Is this possible? Which God? The God I worship loves, he does not hate. Can it be God told him this? How?"

Asked what he would say to an American audience, he said he would ask a simple question, "Why did you destroy our country? You could have had everything. You could take the petrol. You could have taken Saddam- you put him there, why couldn't you just take him away and put someone else there? Without all the killing, without all the bombs. Why the bombs, bombs, bombs? Why? I lost a daughter after the bombing. The doctors couldn't identify her illness, they said they had not seen it before."

"I am not a politic man. I am an Iraqi man and I feel what has happened and I say what I feel. An American general knows nothing about Iraq. We love to sing and dance and make music. This is true throughout our history. We have a culture. Iraq can not be destroyed. Like the grass, the more you cut it down, the stronger it grows. As he says this Mohamed Ghani looks tired. We have taken enough of his time- he has dreams to realize.


As i write this it is late afternoon at a small art foundation in Amman. I sit in the garden with a small fountain in the center and the last of the jasmine cascading down a wall. A butterfly stands immobile on a flower. I look closer to see if it is alive it opens its wings once, and then remains still. I sit at a small stone table directly outside a building that houses and art installation by Jane Frere called "Return of the Soul". Ms. Frere was moved to examine the Palestinian Nakba after visiting Nazi concentration camps. The "Return of the Soul" focuses on the act of remembering. As part of the installation Ms. Frere recorded interviews with Palestinians who were recalling their exodus from Palestine in 1948. Their voices echo throughout the room and escape out into the garden where i sit. As the sun sinks to the horizon a cool breeze stirs. Sitting in the peaceful garden i am slowly surrounded by ghosts of other peoples uprooted from their home and forced into exile.

I reflect for a moment on all the technological advances over the last two dozen years, the tracing of the human genome, computer technology, cell phones, satellite technology and the internet. The huge advances we have made in medicine and science and the backwards steps we have taken in warfare. Smart bombs, drones, depleted uranium munitions.

Then the Palestinian ghosts remind me, "I fled barefoot with my three year old sister on my shoulders." "We ran from the house with nothing, I thought we would return home in a matter of days." "They rounded up my brother and uncles, we never saw them again." "We walked for eighteen hours, until we dropped from exhaustion." They are joined by the ghosts of Vietnam. "My daughter was covered in napalm, she died an agonizing death." "The helicopters circled the village, killing anything that moved." "Our village was burned to the ground, nothing survived." "We fled barefoot, through the night." The ghosts of World War II chimed in. Talking of the cattle cars and suffocation, the round ups, woman pulled from their children, the mass graves, the hissing gas filling the chamber as woman cried out in anguish. Then the voices of millions of Africans joined in. Until today they are on the move, searching for food and security and an end to violence. Voices from "good" wars and "bad" wars all cried out, a chorus of pain and fear.

But their song was not empty or hopeless. Their song was a song of remembrance, dedicated to those who remain and strive to end war as a tool of governments. A song of remembrance dedicated to those who strive to end the production of more powerful weapons of destruction and dislocation. A song of remembrance sung to those who would shift their minds from living lives in fear of scarcity and selling this delusion to the world along with our bombs, bullets, and guns.

Then i thought i was dreaming because i imagined for a moment that we immediately and unconditionally ended our cold hearted occupation of Iraq and spent the 1.3 billion dollars (or whatever this weeks absurd tally amounts to) per week on peace- On clean water, food, electricity, education and rebuilding all we have destroyed. What then? Forgive me, for now i am delving into fantasy. But perhaps for a moment we could allow the ghosts of war a moment of peace. And what if this crazy idea took hold around the world and human beings could focus just for one moment on providing instead of destroying? The one thing life affords us free of charge and in abundance is love. All the sages speak of it, honor it, and develop a capacity to nurture it. It is not necessary to deprive one single sentient being in order to obtain it. Love's supply is limitless and not a single being needs to change in order for you to express it. It's benefits are immediately apparent to anyone who is willing to share it.

I hear a child laugh out loud. Startled, I look up. The voices are silenced. A breeze rustles through the jasmine as night falls. A man gestures to me that it is time to go. I step out into the busy street as a gentle rain begins to fall.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Youth Trapped in Jordan

Of all the refugees in Jordan, perhaps the most forgotten are the young men aged 18-35 who are here without family. As teenagers and young men they left home to escape the madness that had overtaken their neighborhoods. Many have had family members attacked, many have been threatened. There entire lives have been of conflict and war. They lived in Iraq as children growing up during sanctions and young adults through the invasion and occupation of their country. They watched as the social fabric of their communities collapsed and militias took over their neighborhoods. Many entered Jordan illegally and have no passport, no papers, no documents whatsoever. Since they arrived they have been targeted by police and taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers.

They are last in consideration for resettlement as they are not considered an “at risk” population like single women or families with children. They are not the face of “refugees” that we in the West feel personal gratification for helping. Rather, in the eye of many westerners they are associated with those we call “terrorist”. They are trapped between a rock and a very hard place.

Many had been here for several years before the UNHCR would grant them the paper declaring they are asylum seekers. This gives them some protections against being deported back to Iraq. When I asked them what they did while waiting, they said they have been hiding. When I asked how they survived, they said they can occasionally find part time work, but being in the country illegally they were paid minimally when they were paid at all. Several recounted scenes where after working, the manager merely told them to leave. If they wanted payment they could report him to the authorities. Having worked with immigrant populations in the US, this was a familiar story to me.

Now work is very hard to find and many of these young men haven't worked in weeks. It is illegal for Iraqis to work in Jordan without residency papaers. People in Jordan tend to look at young single men as dangerous, perhaps even more so if they are from Iraq. This poses a huge problem for Jordan, yet it is a problem that no one is willing to look at. A self fulfilling prophecy is being created. There is a breaking point for any human being, when self respect has been destroyed, when one is not allowed to work in order to feed oneself and no aid or support is forthcoming from the community. What possibility remains?

I had an opportunity to sit with 9 of these young men and listen to their stories. Several requested that we not record their personal circumstances. The situation has become so hopeless that one young man said they have been considering turning themselves in to the police so that they would be deported back to Iraq (they can’t afford the return trip on their own), where, invariably, they have been targeted for death. Another young man who did not want his story told said that they all held many things inside that they could not or would not share, that life was very difficult. As with young men the world over, no one said they were afraid.

Hitham, 26 yrs old
Entered Jordan illegally in May 2004 when he was 22 yrs old without any family. His mother and brother tried to enter Jordan at a later date but were denied. His family is in a very difficult situation in Iraq. Grandfather and father were arrested under Saddam’s regime, both have since passed away. His uncle and brother joined the Baath party under duress. When the regime fell militias targeted his family. His home was destroyed, his mother was shot, and his brother was beaten so severely that he can no longer walk. His mother and brother are now with family friends in a different village. The people responsible for bombing his house are now part of the government and if he returns he will be targeted for death. Applied in 2007 to the UNHCR, no specific interview was scheduled to date. Not receiving any allowance. Lives with 5 other single men in very difficult situation. Refugee status still pending.

Atheer, 22 yrs old
Entered Jordan in May 2004 when he was 18 years old without any family. His family remains in Iraq. Father was working in Baath party and once the regime fell his family was targeted by militias. He arrived without passport but with ID from American forces. He received the UNHCR paper seeking refugee status in Sep 2007. He has not received an interview and cannot get through on the phone to speak with anyone. He is receiving an allowance of 40 JDs (about $53) per month as of September. He lives with 5 other young men in very difficult circumstances.

Sabah, 28 yrs old
Entered Jordan in April 2004 when he was 24 years old without any family. His father, mother, 1 brother and 2 sisters remain in Iraq. He received the UNHCR paper seeking refugee status in May 2007. He has not received an interview. Protection unit promised resettlement at that time but they have not contacted him since. He came to escape the violence that had overtaken his neighborhood. He saw many people who had participated in the Baath party killed by militias. He is not receiving an allowance at this time. He lives in a house with 5 others in difficult circumstances.

Saad, 21 years old
Entered Jordan in July 2004 when he was 17 without any family. His mother and 2 sisters remain in Iraq. His father was a member of the army and was shot by the militia. Saad was targeted and threatened as well. His father was refused entry into Jordan and is now in Syria. The family has lost contact with him. Saad received the UNHCR paper seeking refugee status in Oct 2008. He has not received an interview. He can not return to Jordan as his life is threatened. He is not receiving an allowance at this time. He lives in a house with 5 others in difficult circumstances.

As we prepared to leave, one of the young men said with a smile, “Please tell the UNHCR that if they do not help us, we will kill ourselves.” Several of the other young men laughed. I grimaced and hoped against hope that the last laugh was not on them. It seems these young men are only seeking an opportunity to support themselves and their families. They are searching for an opportunity to live with dignity and respect in a world that seen through young Iraqi eyes has a huge deficit in both.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Abu Ra'ad and family

Abu Ra’ads luck was changing. After two and a half years his families bags were packed, his furniture sold, his lease broken. He was scheduled for a September 9th flight to Salt Lake City where his cousin had rented him a home, enrolled his children in school and found him a job translating for other Iraqis resettled in the city. Quietly he was saying goodbye to friends and family. On September 4th he received a phone call. It was from the IOM (International Organization for Migration). The caller did not identify themselves. He informed Abu Ra’ad that their departure was cancelled. They gave no explanation or time frame for rescheduling and abruptly hung up.

Abu Ra’ad nearly had a heart attack. He called the IOM back and finally was told the cancellation was due to the fact his security clearance had expired. Again, the person on the phone didn’t identify himself. He didn't tell him how long the clearance would take; he told him they would call back. Um Ra’ad, Abu Ra’ads wife, became ill. His daughter was taken to the hospital for anxiety, the stress too much to bear for the young woman.

Abu Ra’ad was working as a translator for the UN and a subcontractor with the coalition forces when he was kidnapped at gunpoint from a street in Baghdad. He was asked if he was the "UN Man". His captors beat him viciously, they degraded and humiliated him. They taunted him, saying, "You are a Christian, you don't need anymore children." He was being held for $50,000 and a list of all the people he worked with at the UN and with the coalition forces.

Abu Ra’ad negotiated with his captors, explaining that his wife would not be able to get all of the money and he needed to access his computer to get the list of names. His wife sold family jewelry and other precious items and $10,000 was delivered to the kidnappers. After 4 days Abu Ra’ad was released and told to get the rest of the money. Two days later gunmen arrived at his home. He stalled and the gunmen said if they returned and he could not pay, they would execute his son 8 year old son in front of him and his wife. Early the next morning Abu Ra’ad, his wife and three children packed and fled to his sister-in-laws home near the airport. They escaped to Jordan in February 2006.

Once in Jordan he immediately applied to the UNHCR seeking refugee status. He seemed a likely candidate for quick approval. He had worked for the coalition forces and the UN. He had been kidnapped, tortured, and his son's life was threatened. After one year, the UNHCR recognized him and his family as refugees and transferred his file to the IOM (International Organization for Migration) in May of 2007. He and his family attended all meetings and interviews and the medical testing was completed. Yet when he received the reply to his application in October of 2007, the decision was marked "Deferred". He understood that the sticking point was the ransom that his family paid for his release. And on that point he seemed luckier than most. In his last interview his inquisitor had questioned why a ransom was paid. Why had the family supported terrorism? This is a standard question asked of anyone who had paid a ransom to have a loved one released. Many Iraqis are denied their applications for "Credibility Issues" due to the answer given to these 2 questions. Why did you pay a ransom? Why? Why did you support terrorism? Why? Can you imagine? Kafka at his best couldn't come up with this scenario. Abu Ra’ad laughs when he sees the astonishment on my face. His wife cries. "It's true!" he exclaims, and I laugh too.

It is guessed that his application was not denied outright because of his many years of service to the UN, the very organization who deferred his application. It is a guess because no one at the agency will tell give him an explanation.

Finally, in July 2008 the IOM notified him that his family was granted refugee status in the U.S.A. and his file was reactivated with IOM where additional interviews and meetings were necessary. He was told in August of 2008 that a new medical clearance was necessary as the old clearance expired. He asked about the security clearance and was assured it was in order. As Abu Ra’ad and his family completed the final meetings with IOM their excitement was building. For the first time in years they allowed their imaginations to take flight. Finally, they could get on with there lives. Finally, he could return to work and provide for his family. Finally an opportunity was only weeks away.

As Abu Ra’ad retold his story we sat on the furniture he had to buy back at a premium. He negotiated a new lease with the landlord, paying an additional $50.00 per month once he convinced the landlord to allow him to stay. The stress and frustration are palpable. He says, "Everything has returned to the zero point, I have no hope." He can no longer obtain his blood pressure medication. A new highly touted program claims Iraqi refugees can get the same health coverage as any uninsured Jordanian. The only glitch is the clinic insists you go to the local police station to receive a stamp that proves you live in the neighborhood. Few Iraqis will do this because most have overstayed their visas and they "will be dumped at the border" if they go to the police station. So now he rations his remaining medicines.

The last time he called IOM asking for additional information, Abu Ra’ad was told not to call anymore. He was told to just shut up and wait. So he waits. He says, "This is not for me. I am fifty. I only want to get back to work to provide a chance for my children. Who will give me back these last two years?"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What are you doing here?

The night before last i was introduced to the regional director of a large international NGO in the region tasked to assist Iraqi refugees. She was dedicated, smart, to the point, and just cynical enough (forgive me, i assume) to protect her heart from breaking.

She challenged what i was doing here in Amman. Not in a negative way, but as an opportunity for discussion. Her approach in her work is a pragmatic one. She removes emotion and explains the benefits and positive outcomes that can be obtained by a specific course of action and she gets results. She felt what i was doing was the opposite of this. She felt that somehow i was sentimentalizing people's stories to make my audience feel guilty. She didn’t think positive change results from guilt, and I readily agreed.

She asked me how hearing people's stories would help. She was concerned with the Iraqis themselves. She wanted the Iraqi people she was working with to find the strength to move forward and felt that repeating their stories inhibited this. She felt that people repeating their stories would ingrain a sense of victimhood not only individually but collectively on the Iraqi psyche. Of course, as i continue to question the value of the work i am doing, this gave me pause. I explained i wanted the numbers and percentages we read about in the United States transformed into human beings. I think that statistics and pragmatism will not connect with everyday people who have had little contact with the refugee situation. If people don’t feel a connection, they don’t care.

As i slept on this it occurred to me that this is really an aside to what i am doing here. What i am experiencing here is really about one thing, relationship. I can sit at home and my relationship with the occupation of Iraq and Iraqi refugees is one thing. When i come here and actually sit with refugees and share tea with them and listen to their stories i am in a completely different relationship. As people tell their stories, they reveal themselves. i listen, a conduit for their expression. Whether they are expressing sadness, joy, guilt or hatred, it is pure. You can count on it. We don't always agree, but i can drop my opinion altogether, something usually very difficult for me. Being together in this way means something. Rather than seeing enemies or divisions, rifts and misunderstandings can be clarified. We see each other differently. We recognize our humanity. As i write, i try to convey this to a wider population. If i am lucky, people connect. Hopefully, rather than indulging victimhood in some small way these meetings encourage reconciliation.

Rada and her friends

Rada arrived in Amman along with two sisters, and her brother and his wife shortly after the regime fell. Her mother was killed from shrapnel from a bomb during the invasion. She left behind her father, a second brother and her eldest sister. Though they continue to be threatened they refuse to leave Baghdad. Since her arrival in Amman her two sisters have been resettled to the United States and her brother has returned to Iraq with his wife. She remains alone in Jordan.

Single woman are a particularly vulnerable population in the refugee community here. Rada left Amman and rented an apartment in a small village in the south where she felt safer in a quiet, less hectic neighborhood. She met Wafa and her daughter Eiman shortly afterwards. Wafa’s husband had returned to Mosul because of family members left behind, including his mother and two daughters from a prior marriage. They had fled Mosul four years ago. The family felt more and more threatened as various factions raided their home and fighting in the streets intensified. Their home had been bombed when Islamic militias attacked a liquor store in the neighborhood. Wafa said she could never return as long as the threat of violence remained. She couldn’t bear to see any more death and she couldn’t risk harm coming to her daughter.

One and a half years ago Rada began the process for resettlement. She has been approved for resettlement to the United States, though she has not received word regarding her security clearance. She yearns to be reunited with her sisters. Wafa has discontinued the resettlement process until she is reunited with her husband. He promised to return to Jordan, though it remains to be seen whether he can get back in.

The women are not receiving any aid. Because they are not in Amman it is very difficult to visit the UNHCR to find out what has happened to their assistance. They had been meeting with a representative near where they are living, but every time he sees them, he promises payment but nothing ever happens. Calls to the UNHCR go unanswered. The women have exhausted their savings and are uncertain how they will continue. Currently they help support themselves with a little sewing business they created. Recognizing they are alone, the community has also looked out for them by providing some food staples such as rice and sugar. They have done work to make the apartment livable and now the landlord comes by saying he would like to have it back. They are certain the rent will be increasing shortly. As winter approaches they do not know how they can afford oil for the small space heater they share.

“Our lives have stopped.” Rada explains, “Since the invasion, everything has just stopped. I was twenty-five then. Now i am thirty and alone. Everything stopped, even love between a man and a woman, because nothing is certain. Since then we eat and sleep and survive that is all.” “You don’t understand. Iraq is finished. Baghdad is dead. My home is finished. Even if i go back one day, it is not to what I knew. Baghdad can never be the same. “I can’t believe it still”, says Wafa. “I remember the minister of information, Mohammad Said Sahaf was on TV saying we have repelled the Americans, Baghdad is secure- even as the American tanks were arriving in the streets behind him. Now he lives in luxury somewhere, and what about us?”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Abu Diah and family

I find myself sitting in an internet café trying to get down some thoughts on a beautiful Iraqi family i met last night, all the while trying to tune out Fifty Cent singing about niggers and whores and what he needs to be satisfied. It can be disconcerting in the Middle East. The things I find most depressing about American culture are readily available here and do little to encourage understanding, co-existence and love. The rap music, the violent TV shows, the advocates of a consumer culture. It's all here. Yet people still have an image of America as a land of possibilities. And for people with nothing, America still holds hope, something the exiles from Iraq are in desperate need of.

Abu Diah, his wife and 6 children live in a 3 room flat in a poor section of Amman. They spend their days waiting. They have been approved for resettlement to the United States in March 2008. As spring has changed to summer and summer to fall, no final word has come as to when they will be told to leave, or where exactly they are going. Abu Diah has heard mention of Kentucky, Oregon or perhaps Miami. As far as the family knows, the delays are due to security issues, though they have no definitive information. Um Diah is concerned about the move, she asks, can her youngest boy play and make noise? She has been told that children in the US must be quiet. Abu Diah asks if we think they will be all right in America. I want to reassure them, but i don’t know what to say. i try to imagine what it must be like to be going to such an unfathomable place. Cathy, who i am working with in Amman, speaks of Abu Diah’s internal strength and tells them the love of their family will sustain them. i say that so much is dependant on where they go. They will face many challenges.

i imagine them dropped in Kentucky without a network of family and neighbors they can count on. You see, Abu Diah lost the sight in both eyes during the Iran Iraq war twenty years ago. His oldest son, seventeen year old Diah (i am told Diah means "light" in Arabic and the beauty and poetry of a man blinded by war naming his oldest child "light" does not escape me), has a 3rd grade education. The family is a traditional family- the women all wear the hijab. No one in the family is fluent in English. Imagine yourself for a moment in their circumstances. They were forced to flee Baghdad with little or no possessions. When they are finally notified, they will leave Jordan quietly and quickly with only 2 suitcases each and be relocated somewhere in the US with no family, no connections. What awaits them? Rumors and misinformation abounds. Imagine the uncertainty, the daily stress of not knowing when or where they are going, or how they will manage when they arrive. Every aspect of their living is tenuous. They have lost all control over their lives. How would you cope if you and your family were uprooted and dropped with nothing in a completely alien environment? As i photographed them i was moved to see their smiles, their joy, and their love for each other.

Um Diah tells us her elderly mother is not well. She has lost two sons to the violence and misses her daughter. Um Diah's only wish is to see her mother before she leaves, yet this simple wish will not come to pass. She cannot go back to visit her ailing mother before they leave. If she were to go back to Baghdad the Jordanian authorities would not allow her to return to Amman even though her family has been approved for resettlement.

When asked about the possibility of remaining in Jordan, where there is at least the common culture and the common language, Abu Diah is firm in his response. They must leave. They are not welcome in Jordan. As Iraqis, they are not permitted to work, they depend on monthly cash disbursements from the UNHRC that barely cover their expenses. The children, especially the boys, face discrimination from the administration and harassment from the other students at school. The present is full of uncertainty and the future in Jordan holds no possibilities. The United States, though alien, rekindles dreams and the hope of a brighter future. As i take my leave, i give them my phone number- perhaps when they land i can at least get them in contact with someone they could call "friend". i have an uneasy sleep considering the possibilities.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bailout Bewilderment

The bailout plan has me bewildered. Do you remember back to last January there was a big debate about adding poor children to State Children's Health Insurance Program. Though it passed the House and Senate (don't forget, Democratically controlled), they couldn't muster enough votes to overcome George Bush's veto--- $12 billion dollars over 5 years was just too dang expensive to insure that kids could get to a doctor. (Never mind that "our representatives” and their families get full, free health coverage for their entire lives.) For years our public school teachers have paid out of their own pockets to provide supplies for their classrooms. Have you noticed- the poorer the neighborhoods, the more decrepit the schoolroom? i wonder why that is? Single mothers are told to "get a job" or go hungry- get off the dole we can’t afford to feed you. Old folks can't afford their medicine. Bridges are collapsing into the rivers of this country. Katrina refugees are placed in toxic trailers and left to fend for themselves. Yet when Wall Street banks face collapse due to their own greed, collusion, and immorality, hundreds of billions of dollars become available over night to shore up the financial system. Some decide to change the words- it’s not a bailout, it’s a rescue, but the actions remain the same. The bankers come to Capitol Hill in their limos and their thousand dollar suits, hand out and demanding the government you remember when that kid (Graeme Frost) testified on the hill regarding the health insurance plan and our disgraceful leaders and members of the media claimed the kid wasn't poor at all- and his family was taking advantage of the system? Remind me- was he wearing a thousand dollar suit?

Why not rescue hungry kids, or rescue the homeless or keep people in their homes.... Over the last years we have created many first time homebuyers. Granted, the mortgages that were sold to them were faulty. Many were designed to fail. Millions of dollars of equity has been squeezed out of poor and middle class neighborhoods throughout America- another Katrina for certain- and the very folks we are now bailing out are the ones who benefited from this theft. But why not rescue the homeowners? After all, they believed in the American dream- were they merely rubes for the bankers and lenders?

And now the Presidential candidates are proclaiming they are going to "balance the budget" and "hard times are ahead"- code words to inform you and i that there will be even less money for your most urgent needs. i got news for them, hard times have been here for the majority of people in this country.... i'm just wondering when hard times will come to the Pentagon and the Defense Department- if the streets of NYC looked like Somalia do you think "our representatives” would feed us, or would they continue building bombs to protect the "American way of life"? When does freedom and the pursuit of happiness include all Americans- better yet, when does freedom and the pursuit of happiness include all beings? And why does the ”Love it or leave it crowd” so readily defend the swindlers and liars? And the major party candidates go on and on about who has your best interests in mind, desperately trying to convey they give a damn when all their actions prove otherwise.

So what to do? How does one confront the mendacity of our leaders and participate in our community in meaningful ways? It is quite easy to point out the hypocrisy of others because i divert my mind from the fact that we are partners in this dance. So i see the trap, i call it out, i fall in it anyway. It's like this- Each of us needs to stand up. Fear manifests in uncertainty and doubt. i stop. i acquiesce to the status quo- because it seems easier, and i like comfort, and spending beyond my means seems almost a necessity... Can i really drop out of the system that perpetuates the inequalities- or can i only talk about it? Standing up shifts everything- when i say "i can't do that"....where does it stop? i see it- but can i live it? Have i got the courage? i'm reminded of Mary Oliver's poem called "The Journey":

"One day you finally knew
what you had to do,
and began though
the voices around you
kept shouting their bad advice..."

These voices are my voices, and still they stop me. There is a zen koan, “How will you step forward from the top of a hundred foot pole?” i haven't yet stepped forward, though it beckons, no- it cries out, and i turn and fall back in the trap. Pressure builds as dissonance is swallowed. In this season, where the talk of hope and change is all the rage, let’s not forget that change only comes from within. And it begins with that first step.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Letter to Friends

Oct 1, 2008

Dear Friends,

As some of you know, i will be returning to the Middle East from Oct 18th- Nov 25th. i will be based in Jordan and will work with displaced Iraqi populations in both Jordan and Syria. i am hoping to do a documentary project, photographing families who have been displaced because of the violence in their country. As the economic crisis has widened in our country and presidential politics have become the daily staple of our news, we receive very little information about Iraq. The debate swirls around whether the surge has worked or not, and whether we can “win the war”. The candidates talk of American soldiers returning home with dignity, but there is no mention of the millions of Iraqi refugees forced from their homes and left destitute in camps throughout the Middle East. i hope to be a conduit for information so people may have a broader understanding of the results of our actions on the lives of the Iraqi people.

My friend Cathy, who has been working with the Iraqi people since before the invasion began, has been in Amman now for several months. Before she departed she asked friends, family, and supporters to raise money for the individual families she would visit in order to help them pay rent, buy food and basic necessities and in some small way, directly help the people she was involved with. Along with any contributions, she asked that they write a short note that she could deliver to the families so they would recognize the gift not as charity but an act of solidarity. i wish to continue this practice. It is my understanding that many refugee families have completely exhausted their finances. They are denied the opportunity to work by their host countries and have become increasing desperate to feed their families. Many are returning to Iraq not because the security situation has improved but because they have run out of options.

As always, i am also traveling on a very low budget. If you would be interested in supporting my work, that would also be graciously accepted.

Many of you have received similar requests from me in previous years, when our own economic situation may have seemed brighter. You have been generous in both words and action. Your gifts and prayers have been a huge support and allowed me to continue this work. I am grateful. In these difficult and uncertain times i hope this request can be viewed as an opportunity and not an imposition.

Thanks and peace, Johnny

Johnny Barber
PO Box 880043
Boca Raton, FL 33488-0043