2019

California fires raged
With thousands dispossessed.
Heroic firefighters gave
Their all to save the rest.

Notre Dame Cathedral burned
The spire flared and fell
Smoke and flames made heaven cry
But made them smile in hell.

737 Max
An aviation wonder
Until it twice dove to the ground
346 are under.

As shots rang out in churches,
People shrieked in pain.
In synagogues and mosques alike,
The anguish was the same.

At Walmart in El Paso,
Twenty-two are dead.
Then a dreary bar in Dayton,
Again the news we dread.

Mueller turned his homework in
But left indictments open.
No collusion proven here!
Just like old Trump was hopin’.

And then the Congress held debates
All cynical and jaded.
“He’s impeached!” the Speaker said
And then she sat and waited.

Nothing changes, nothing’s good
If news is all you’re knowing
And all the while the world goes by
With goodness overflowing.

So here’s a toast to old 19,
It put us to the test.
And here’s a hope for 20-new
That we will see the best.

Refugees

I have been writing about refugees since December 2013, when I first started reading that Syrians, escaping war and running for their lives, were overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union, a place where I feel a deep connection and affection. “Bulgaria is a thousand miles from Syria! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell…” That was part of my melancholy homage, that year, to the Christmas spirit. I continued hammering at the subject of refugees until late last year, when with a weary sigh I started picking at a few other themes to fill the space. About three years ago I decided to stop just figuratively wringing my hands about refugees and started volunteering at a refugee resettlement center. Doing something about something is so much better for the soul than complaining about it.

Photo from The Economist (2015)

In the time that I have been working at the African Community Center — don’t be misled by their legacy name; they handle refugees from all over the world — the world and I have both changed. I have become defensive on the subject of refugees, to the point of not writing or talking much about it. I have become tired of the arguments, and resigned to the cynicism and lack of compassion I see outside the small community of concern. I have had to accept that I can change my heart but no other. As for the rest of the world, the situation is dire and getting worse. For both those blissfully unaware of it all and for those feverishly working against the tide, the result is the same: apathy and futility have the same result.

Refugees are living displaced from their homes by the millions — millions! — in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. Lesser numbers, but still large, live in Uganda, Jordan, and Germany. Really, enumerating more countries hosting refugees is pointless; they are all over the world, mostly in poor countries nearest to the places besieged by war and terrorism. 1 Only a fraction live in refugee camps, although refugee camps recognized by the UNHCR 2 are the exclusive screening mechanism used by the United States for admittance of the few who are selected to be resettled here. Refugee families typically arrive on an airplane, bringing documentation and medical clearance papers. They also carry a note of indebtedness for their airfare that has to be paid back to the U.S. State Department as they become employable and get on their feet in their new country.

As for the United States, though, we’re not even talking about the refugees that have been my focus for so long. Unlike refugees, who flee their homes due to war or persecution, migrants choose to move for better economic opportunities or family reunification, or, as a separate but overlapping reason, for asylum. Still, the parallels are striking, starting with the lifeboat analogy and encompassing every kind of response from unalloyed and impractical mercy to vicious, blind hate speech. Why is this so hard?

What has consumed us since before the last election, when fear was weaponized as a political strategy, is the terrible mess at  our southern border not with refugees but with other kinds of migrants. Many of those are seeking asylum, as is their legal right if they can prove they would face danger of harm or death back at the homes they left. Our broken-down system of handling the process of granting asylum has choked on the volume, and is completely unable to sort out the legitimate asylum seekers from those that will not qualify. Worse, it cannot account for, let alone care for, either category.

I read an article in Time that reached into my heart, and expressed so much better than I could the reasons for my concern. It was written by a celebrity [groan] but one with a high degree of earned credibility on the subject. I recommend it for your consideration.

Angelina Jolie: The Crisis We Face at the Border Does Not Require Us to Choose Between Security and Humanity

TL;DR

“We all want our borders to be secure and our laws to be upheld, but it is not true that we face a choice between security and our humanity: between sealing our country off and turning our back to the world on the one hand, or having open borders on the other. The best way of protecting our security is by upholding our values and addressing the roots of this crisis. We can be fearless, generous and open-minded in seeking solutions.”

 

Pavlin

A Friend in BulgariaPavlin died.

He and Krassimira were our “host parents” during our Peace Corps training. We lived in their home, ate their food, learned their language, appreciated their practicality and humor, and became a part of their family more deeply than we ever could have hoped.

He was ten years younger than we were, and now he will never grow older. In my fondest memories he will always be 46, and it always gave us both a smile when I called him Dad. Another Bulgarian friend, meeting Pavlin over a weekend Peace Corps training session, remarked that he liked him. “He is a gentle man.”

Bulgaria

In the hills above Koprivshtitza. Pavlin sang us a few bars of the Bulgarian National Anthem.

I had not been able to get in touch with Pavlin by phone or message for a long time. He had drifted away from Facebook and other kinds of artificial social contact. Thinking of him one recent day, I texted his daughter, asking how he was. She told me he was no longer among the living. He had died a few days before. We shared text-message tears.

Stormy and I had learned that he was ill, dealing with chemo and the other grimly hopeful realities of cancer, when we last visited Bulgaria. When I wrote about that trip I didn’t intrude on his privacy by telling about his illness, saying only that amidst lots of good changes since we left, the lives of some we knew there had been “burdened beyond bearing.” He had moved back to the village where he grew up, to be cared for by his aging mother, not far from where we knew him and Krassimira.

Back when we were there with them, in addition to our daily schedule of classes and training activities, our family activities were regulated by his work schedule: 

Pavlin worked for the Bulgarian National Electric Company, twelve-hour shifts. His schedule was a four-day cycle: 7:00 AM start for a day shift, then the next day starting at 7:00 PM to work the night, two days off, and repeat. He commuted by motorcycle to a distribution substation a few kilometers outside of town. He was usually there by himself, unless a repair or emergency required another technician or engineer to come in. Rosen drove us there once for a visit when Pavlin was on a night shift. The isolation of the outpost was striking. It was a concrete building the size of a small barn, at the end of a long dark path. A single small bulb by the door welcomed us. The control room, in contrast, was brightly lit. Big pale-green consoles held buttons and levers and meters. A status board indicated the condition of different parts of the system with red and green lights. A green and white sign posted over the desk gave the reminder, “Work here.”

He gave us that sign, as a parting gift when we finished our training and were leaving the comfort and security of his home to go out and begin our work. The little souvenir carried a wistful message that brought a tear to his eye with our leaving, that he wished we could stay there with them rather than going off to Pazardjik. “Stay. Work here.”

Bulgarians at Bulgari

Our favorite Bulgari (Bulgarians) in front of the BVLGARI shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. They visited us in California in 2005.

I think of Pavlin sometimes when an adversity needs to be best met with a smile and a shrug. And more, then, to start on the solution without complaining. That was like my father in America, which might have been why his down-to-earth ways resonated with me.

I think of him when I taste rakiya, — Bulgaria’s national moonshine — the  strong drink that he taught us to enjoy and appreciate. I remember the warm starry night in the village where we joined him with his friend distilling it in a large copper and brass still, his friend stoking the wood fire as the constant rushing sound of cooling system water filled the room cascading into an open reservoir in the loop, and valves hissed, and we all visited and laughed together over sausages and cheeses until time seemed to collapse and it was very late, all done, time to go. Pavlin’s friend gave me a bottle of his own supply of matured rakiya that night, to give to my father in America on our upcoming visit.

I think of him at Easter. He taught us the Easter greeting that everyone uses for those three holy days, in homes and on the street, in shops and banks and drab gray government offices: Hristos voskrese, Christ is risen! And the response, Voistina voskrese, Truly risen! For the solemn seasons anticipating both Easter and Christmas, he did the Post, the fast, avoiding “all animal products except honey” as a sacred discipline. I think those sacrifices, and his kind and generous nature, must have earned him some blessed relief in entering his heavenly home.

I hope so.


Pictures of my friend Pavlin