Christmas in Aleppo

Merry Christmas!

I wrote a year ago about the Christmas spirit, and how it lifts us all up. Ahh, that felt good. I also wrote about homeless people, and other downers like war and refugees. It’s almost become a recurring theme. 1 The connection is that doing good helps make us feel good, and for many people Christmas brings that to mind. Salvation Army kettles and all that. Besides, it is set in our national character that our country is a beacon of hope to the world; our greatness depends upon our goodness. I mentioned the fact that Colorado takes in about 2,000 refugees a year, and that the number was expected to increase. Then last month, on the subject of how many refugees are accepted into the US and how that number is determined, I mentioned in a footnote to the article that the number is set annually by the President.

The number is set annually by the President.

Some people, with reference to President-elect Trump, are cheering an anticipated curtailment of the number of humanitarian rescues we offer to the war-torn world. Dim that damn beacon! Hell, turn it off! Others, predictably, are not. Some of the members of the latter group are (at least figuratively) running for their lives. Bana Alabed home in East Aleppo

We’re hearing a lot about tweets in the news, mainly because of @realDonaldTrump, who has made tweeting into a medium of policy announcement and public amusement. Then there’s Bana Alabed, a little girl from Aleppo, Syria, whose mother, Fatemah, got her a Twitter account (@AlabedBana) to show the world what the war was like through her eyes. The video below is an interview after she was finally evacuated from her neighborhood…

… if you’ll take a moment to scroll through the past few months of her life in East Aleppo and see what it was like, you can do that on Twitter, here. Go down to before December 19, when she escaped. She is part of a generation of children raised in a city being reduced to rubble, in the continuing violence following from the “Arab Spring” that began almost-her-whole-lifetime ago.

In this season of celebrating Peace on Earth, what is one to do?

wrote about this last year, but I’ll repeat myself.

“Sing along with me now…

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel.

(Remember, fyoo-OOO-ell. Ha! Now to the ending.)

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

That thing about blessings coming back to those who give of themselves: I’m not sure we made a big point of that when we sang about good old King Pretzelsauce in grade school. It’s a thought, though. It should work for people who are not Christian men as well. For my Christian friends, it is good to remember that everything Jesus did in his ministry pointed toward peace. Peace is a concept held as an ideal. Christmas reminds us to address our cognitive dissonance, the difference between Peace on Earth and mercy mild and the realities of cold streets with homeless sleeping under cardboard; war refugees living in tents out in the snow; hardened hearts living in fear of terrorists. It is not only hope, but also deeds that sustain good — and peace — in the world.”


Skittles and Fish

Some things stay the same. I believe I’ve mentioned this before. Even though time does the only thing it can, never stopping, always marching on, some things stay the same. In March, I wrote about refugees having become such a hot issue in the furious clamor of our presidential campaign. We have since gone from a fractious and divisive campaign to… well, to… to now. Little has changed.

“… closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. “

In Bulgaria, near the Turkish border on the ragged fringe of the desperate struggle toward Europe, refugee camps are anything but peaceful or hopeful. “Police in Bulgaria have fired tear gas and water cannon at refugees protesting about restrictions on their movement after authorities barred them from leaving the area where they stay pending medical checks.” 1 The article goes on to say that “some 13,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, are currently trapped in the European Union’s poorest country.” Increasingly, Bulgarians are feeling threatened by the presence of refugees in their country. After the riots at the camp, the UN has urged Bulgaria to “improve living conditions… and establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers.” 2

In Germany and other Western European countries, after so famously accepting anyone and everyone for refuge, pressure and tensions are mounting, and accusations escalate. And here in America, in Minnesota, even after the US picks out the best bets by screening refugees while they live in refugee camps for years, some Somali refugee student, no, psychopath, no, radical terrorist, no, I don’t know, (damn, without a label how do I know what to believe about him?) swerves into a crowd and starts attacking people with a knife. The President-elect had an immediate answer, via Twitter, that the guy “should not have been in this country.”

GhotiA poisoned Skittle, that’s the argument. You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. An interesting Forbes article makes the case that, given a sufficiently large bowl, poisoned Skittles are safer than seafood. “The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk.” (Go ahead and read that article. I’ll wait… Oh, all right, here’s the recap. 16.8 billion seafood meals a year, making 589,310 people sick: each meal presents a 0.0035% chance of getting sick.) If you like seafood, you accept the risk. Same concept for traveling: the benefits, for most people, so far outweigh the risk that they travel without dwelling on all the things that could go wrong and result in the worst outcome, which is usually something involving a smoldering tangle of metal and billowing plumes of thick black smoke. I like to travel. Every conceivable action that offers a benefit carries a risk. What to do? We deal with it.

Deal with it. We deal with risk every day, for the good that comes from our decisions.

In Colorado alone, we accept 2,000 refugees a year. That’s more than the per-state average, since the U.S. has taken in about 70,000 a year since 2013 (more before then, with a peak of twice that in 1993). 3 If you don’t want to go to the article, there’s a recap down below in the footnotes. 4 I bring up Colorado because that’s where I live, and because I have a personal interest in the quality of life here. Remember now, these are people who are fleeing from war — real war — and it is with the spirit of the Statue of Liberty that we want to help them. That is the benefit: to be human, to live in consonance with high ideals and a spirit of charity and love (sometimes gratuitously called “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” ideals, charity and love). It’s the same reason we have charities and nonprofits, churches, veterans’ groups and government social services: to help those who need it. For a better quality of life for all.

I do a little work with refugees and asylum seekers in Denver. I have met people from Somalia, Rwanda, Burma, Nepal, Cuba, Congo-Kinshasa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and yes, Syria. These are people who fled with or without their families from terrorism, war, torture, bombs, gunfire, rocket attacks. Some were threatened with death, or had relatives killed, for cooperating with the U.S. Most have been stuck in refugee camps for two years or more, some as long as 18 years. In my mind I have run two scenarios for how they are treated and how it affects the way they will integrate into our society and contribute positively to it. One is to isolate them and keep them apart from the rest of us, in hopes that they will not be a danger to our schools and communities. Scowl at them in the grocery store, spray-paint messages on their doors, throw rocks. What the heck, tear gas and water cannons. The second way (you might guess) is to see that they learn our language and get job training so they can start working their way to a useful and rewarding life. I’ve thought about which way will make them better neighbors.

It’s kind of like being careful what fish you eat, and how they’re prepared. If I’m going to eat seafood, after all, I want it to be good.

I Am Alive

Two thousand miles across the breadth of Turkey from Bulgaria and neighboring Greece lies the small country of Armenia. Small now, but it used to be larger. I marveled, a few years ago in my Christmas letter, about the desperation that drove people to travel half that far, from Syria across Turkey toward Bulgaria and Greece as refugees, fleeing war and destruction.

When I first came to Bulgaria to work, and was living with a host family during training, I met someone in the weekly market who was from Armenia. I remarked to my host mother, Krasimira, that I didn’t know there were Armenians in Bulgaria. I learned two new words in her response: Armentcité sa vsiakadé. “The Armenians are everywhere.” She told me they had been chased out of their land, and many killed, during the time of the Ottoman Empire — though she called it, as all Bulgarians did from their historical viewpoint, the Turkish Slavery. Memories are long in that part of the world.

[Bulgaria] was throbbing with history, alternately a source of fierce pride and worn-out, tired, hopeless resignation. “Five hundred years under Turkish slavery” was something every Bulgarian would tell you about, even though it ended in 1878. It was as if it had gone on until yesterday, and until that moment had been a personal burden in everyday life. The fifty years under Soviet control were another burden, with old memories still haunting the land.
     — Breeze, p. 2

i am alive posterNow, up to date, I’ve been in rehearsals for a show. I’m singing in the chorus of a musical. It’s a dramatic musical, not the fluffy kind that comes to mind from my youth when musicals were things like Gene Kelly Singin’ in the Rain, or South Pacific with its Happy Talk and Nothin’ Like a Dame, and oh, Wouldn’t it Be Loverly. Everything loverly, just loverly. A Spoonful of Sugar! That too. Aww, Edelweiss. Songs so sweet and loverly they brought tears to people’s eyes. This one, the one I’m involved with, is a drama, or rather a dramatic musical. It brings tears too. It tells why “the Armenians are everywhere.”

The lyrics, by Emmy® Award winning composer Denise Gentilini and singer-songwriter Lisa Nemzo, pull no punches. Part of the story happens in a refugee camp in Greece after forced marches through Turkey, some through the Syrian desert, some by overcrowded boats across the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Imagine, refugees overwhelming Greece as a choke point, and spreading all over the world.

I mentioned the theme of the show to someone, and met a blank look. Genocide? Armenia? No, never heard about it. You mean genocide, like the Holocaust? Yes, like that. Genocide, the deliberate attempt to exterminate a defined group. From genus (Gr.) race or kind + cida, cidium (L.) killing. It’s a made-up word, a linguistic bastard forced together by an academic to describe what happened to the Jews. The word was exemplified, before it was invented, by what happened to the Armenians. In 1915 the world stood by with eyes averted, and let it happen. In 1939, on deciding he could get away with invading Poland and systematically killing its citizens without mercy, Adolph Hitler cited a precedent: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” No one would remember. He counted on it.

The performance in Denver is one night only, this Friday, April 29 2016. It is a significant piece of work, compelling, eye-opening, musically awe-inspiring. With much more to it than the grim underpinnings I’ve already told you, it’s a love story and a triumph of the spirit of those who survived. Tickets are $55 and $75 plus a service fee. Buy tickets here. Tell me you bought a ticket after reading this and I’ll pay your service fee. The next stop for the show is the big city — the production is heading to LA to go for the big time.

Someone has to remember.