NGO Report: Palestinian Children Kept in Outdoor Cages

Ramle Prison (photo: Nir Keidar)

Ramle Prison (photo: Nir Keidar)

Earlier this week, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) published a report that claimed children suspected of minor crimes were subjected to a variety of human rights abuses, including threats and acts of sexual violence and “public caging”, in which minors were held for extended periods of time in outdoor cages.

According to a group of public defenders making an official visit to Ramle prison, children were caged outside and exposed to severely cold weather during Israel’s recent winter storm. In a statement to the Israel Prison Service (IPS), the lawyers reported that “they spent several hours in the freezing cold and rain, until the transport arrived to take them to court around 6:00 am.”  The statement said that the practice had been going on for months, a fact “verified during other official visits and not denied by IPS.”

I read a number of news reports on the incident, and was particularly struck by this one from the Jerusalem Post (pay particular attention to the second paragraph):

The practice of placing the children in outdoor cages was halted when Justice Minister Tzipi Livni learned of it and immediately telephoned Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, telling him to end the practice…

It was unclear who within the Prisons Service initiated the practice, why it was initiated or who decided to continue it despite the adverse weather conditions, but the service responded that since it had received criticism the situation had been improved.

Livni’s attempts at fig-leaf PR notwithstanding, the issue of child detention issue far transcends this one particularly horrifying revelation. Last March, I reported on a UNICEF report that concluded the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children and found evidence of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

A Huffington Post feature on the report noted:

In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation centre tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”

Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.

In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.

During my recent visit to the West Bank, our delegation spoke with Gerard Horton (formerly of Defence of Children International – Palestine and currently founder/director of Military Court Watch), who described for us this process in shocking detail. Much of what he had to tell us can be found in his article on the subject here.

As a Jew and a human being of conscience, I am sickened by Israel’s practice of child detention. Please join me in contacting Tzipi Livni (zlivni@knesset.gov.il) to tell her you agree – to let her know this is not a problem that cannot be solved with one face-saving phone call.


Civil Disobedience in Chicago for Immigrant Justice!

Photo: Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

photo: Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

This evening it was my honor to participate in an act of civil disobedience in Chicago in support of immigrant justice – a cause I fervently believe is the civil rights issue of our time. One hundred and sixty strong, a large and diverse coalition of activists, faith leaders, politicians, labor leaders and undocumented immigrants sat down together in the busy intersection of Congress and Clark in the South Loop with two demands: that Speaker of the House John Boehner bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote, and that President Obama stop the oppressive deportations of undocumented immigrants (which have now grown to 2,000,000 under his administration.)

We gathered at 3:30 pm for a press conference, after which we filed off the sidewalk into the intersection and sat down around a banner reading “Stop Deportations – Give us a Vote.” On all four corners of the intersection, hundreds of supporters unfurled banners and held signs and chanted along with us. Eventually, after three warnings, Chicago police led each of us away one by one.

photo: Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

photo: Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

Our demonstration tonight was but one of a growing numbers of civil disobedience actions currently proflierating across the country. Last month, thousands rallied for immigration reform on the National Mall in Washington DC during the government shutdown – and 200 were led away by police.  A few days earlier, similar rallies were held in Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston and other cities as part of a “National Day of Immigrant Dignity and Respect.”

While politicians in post-shutdown Washington dither on this critical issue in Washington, citizens are literally taking to the streets to demand compassionate immigration reform. There is a very real movement building – trust me, as long our leaders refuse to act, you will be witnessing many more actions such as these in the coming weeks and months.

photo: Tina Escobar

photo: Tina Escobar

It was my honor to be among the speakers at  press conference before the demonstration (above). Here is the full text of my remarks (which was shortened due to time restraints):

My name is Brant Rosen – I’m the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston and I’m a member of this amazing, diverse and growing coalition of activists who are working for the cause of immigrant justice. I am part of the majority of Americans and 80% of Illinoisians who support compassionate immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.

And I am here to say it is time for our national leaders to lead. It is time for Speaker John Boehner and Republican leader Peter Roskam to give us a vote. It is time for President Barack Obama to end the daily deportatins that are now approaching 2,000,000 and has left 3,000,000 children orphaned.  This is not simply a political issue – and shame on any politician who treats immigration reform as “business as usual.”  Immigration reform is one of the most critical moral and human rights issues facing our country today.

As a Jew, my faith tradition teaches that societies will ultimately be judged by the way they treat their immigrants. My faith tradition teaches that when we label another human being as “illegal,” we diminish God’s presence in our world. When we incarcerate and deport those who come to this country seeking a better life, we diminish God’s presence in our world. And when we create and enforce laws that rip children away from their parents – and parents from their children – we most certainly diminish God’s presence in our world.

My faith tradition also teaches that God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same.  And make no mistake: our immigration system constitutes a very real form of oppression against families in our nation.  It is thus our sacred duty to stand here today, in front of US Immigration Customs and Enforcement headquarters, to say: this oppression must end.  The destruction of our families must end. The daily deportations of 1,100 human beings must end.  It is our sacred duty to bring it to an end.

John Boehner and Peter Roskam: It’s time to give us a vote on citizenship.  It’s time to end the oppression of our undocumented brothers and sisters.  President Obama: it’s time to keep your promise to the American people. 2,000,000 deportations is 2,000,000 too many. Stop deportations now!

If our national leaders refuse to lead, then it is time to take to the streets. And tonight, we will take to the streets. Our movement is the new civil rights movement growing in cities across the nation, rising up to demand compassionate immigration reform now. You will hear from us tonight in Chicago – and you will be hearing from us again and again until our oppressive immigration system is no more!

It has been my honor to stand together in this movement with so many people from so many different faiths and ethnicities and histories. It has been a particular honor to stand together with our undocumented sisters and brothers, whose steadfast courage and dignity are an inspiration to us all.

My own grandparents were immigrants to this nation. I know all too well that I am the beneficiary of their decision to come to this country, and of my country’s willingness to provide them with a path to citizenship. For those of us who enjoy the privileges of the courageous decisions of those who came before us, it would be a profound betrayal if we did not stand together here today.

We are here today. We will be here tomorrow. And we will stand together every day until compassionate immigration reform is finally a reality in our country.  Ken Yehi Ratzon – as it is God’s will, so my it be ours.

Amen and thank you all for coming out tonight.

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En Español (Gracias a Gonzalo Escobar):

Mi nombre es Brant Rosen – Soy el rabino de la Congregación Judía Reconstruccionista en Evanston y soy un miembro de esta increíble y diversa y creciente coalición de activistas que trabajan por la causa de la justicia para los inmigrantes. Yo soy parte de la mayoría de los estadounidenses y el 80 % de Illinoisians que apoyan la reforma migratoria compasiva que proporcione un camino a la ciudadanía.

Y yo estoy aquí para decir que es hora de que nuestros líderes nacionales para hagan su trabajo de legislar. Es hora de que los Representantes, John Boehner, y el líder republicano Peter Roskam nos den un voto. Es hora de que el presidente Barack Obama ponga fin a las deportaciones diarias que se están acercando a 2 millones y han dejado a 3 millones de niños y niñas huérfanos. Esto no es simplemente una cuestión política y es una vergüenza que un político trate la reforma migratoria como “como si no pasara nada”, la reforma de inmigración es uno de los temas de derechos humanos y morales más importantes que enfrenta nuestro país hoy en día.

Como judío, mi tradición de fe nos enseña que las sociedades en última instancia, serán juzgadas por la forma en que tratan a sus inmigrantes. Mi tradición de fe nos enseña que cuando etiquetamos a otro ser humano como “ilegal”, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Cuando encarcelamos y deportamos a los que vienen a este país en busca de una vida mejor, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Y cuando creamos y hacemos cumplir las leyes que separan a los niños de sus padres – y a los padres de sus hijos – ciertamente estamos disminuyendo la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo.

Mi tradición de fe también enseña que Dios está con los oprimidos y demanda que hagamos lo mismo. Y no nos engañemos: nuestro sistema de inmigración constituye una forma muy real de la opresión contra las familias en nuestro país. Por tanto, es nuestro deber sagrado de estar aquí hoy, frente a la sede de inmigración y aduanas de EE.UU. para decir: la opresión debe terminar. La destrucción de nuestras familias debe terminar. Las deportaciones diarias de 1.100 seres humanos deben terminar. Es nuestro sagrado deber de ponerle fin.

John Boehner y Peter Roskam : Es hora de que nos den un voto para la ciudadanía . Es hora de poner fin a la opresión de nuestros hermanos y hermanas indocumentados. Presidente Obama: es el momento de mantener su promesa al pueblo estadounidense. 2 millones de deportaciones y 2 millones es demasiado. ¡Detengan las deportaciones ahora!

Si nuestros líderes nacionales se niegan a legislar, entonces es el momento de salir a la calle. Y esta noche, vamos a salir a las calles. Nuestro movimiento es el nuevo movimiento de derechos civiles que crece en las ciudades de todo el país, para exigir una reforma migratoria compasiva ahora. Ustedes nos escucharán esta noche en Chicago -¡y ustedes nos escucharan a nosotros una y otra vez hasta que nuestro sistema de inmigración opresivo no exista más!

Ha sido un honor para mí estar juntos en este movimiento con tantas personas de tantas religiones y etnias e historias diferentes. Ha sido un gran honor particular, estar junto a nuestras hermanas y hermanos indocumentados, cuyo valor y dignidad inquebrantable son una inspiración para todos nosotros.

Mis abuelos eran inmigrantes de esta nación. Sé muy bien que soy el beneficiario de su decisión de venir a este país, y de la voluntad de mi país para proporcionarle un camino a la ciudadanía. Para aquellos de nosotros que disfrutamos de los privilegios de las decisiones valientes de los que vinieron antes que nosotros, sería una traición profunda si no nos mantenemos unidos hoy aquí.

Estamos aquí hoy. Vamos a estar aquí mañana. Y vamos a estar juntos todos los días hasta que la reforma migratoria compasiva sea finalmente una realidad en nuestro país. Como se dice en Hebreo “Ken Yehi Ratzon” – ya que es la voluntad de Dios, y será la nuestra.

Amén y gracias a todos por venir esta noche.


“Beautiful Resistance” in Aida Refugee Camp

Our trip is winding down, but I’m going to try and slip in a few more posts before I head stateside…

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Palestinian resistance takes many different forms. On Thursday, we received a profound tutorial in cultural resistance courtesy of the educational and theatre training center, Alrowwad.

Alrowwad (in Arabic: “Pioneers for Life”) is located in the Aida refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem and refers to its mission as “Beautiful Resistance.” As their vision statement eloquently articulates:

(We seek to create) an empowered Palestinian Society on educational and artistic level, free of violence, respectful of human rights and values, (with special focus on children and women) based on the spirit of social entrepreneurship and innovation in self-expression and respect of human values.

We spent the afternoon with Alrowwad’s founder and director, the inspiring and visionary Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour (below), who gave us a tour of the center and the Aida refugee camp itself.  Abdelfattah was born and raised in Aida, but went to Paris to study Biological and Medical Engineering at Nord University. While in France, he also nurtured a passion for theater and painting and he quickly became involved in the educational/cultural life of Paris. He told us that he could easily have “married a French woman” and lived a comfortable life in France, but he eventually felt compelled to return to Aida and utilize his cultural training in his home community.

Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour with the key to his family's home (it is a well-known custom for Palestinian families to keep the keys to the homes they lost during the Nakba as a sign of their hope for return.

Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour with the key to his family’s ancestral home (it is a well-known custom for Palestinian families to keep the keys to the homes they lost during the Nakba as a sign of their hope for return.)

Abdelfattah established Alrowwad in 1998, and it very quickly became an anchor in the Aida community.  It has also become a model of cultural resistance for Palestinian society at large. Their concept of “Beautiful Resistance” uses culture as a therapeutic method to encourage and promote creativity and non-violence, and to teach peace and respect for others.

Abdelfattah and Alrowwad has now introduced a future generation of Palestinian youth to this a new method of self-expression and resistance. They believe their work increases the spirit of collaboration between children as well as their sense of belonging in the community. Their hope is that given the chance to be creative and to set their own priorities, children can provide a bridge for a democratic and independent Palestinian society — to build a better future even amidst a dire present.

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In many ways, touring Alrowwad reminded me the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which I visited with my congregational delegation in 2010. Adelfattah told me that his center does indeed collaborate with the Freedom Theatre, as well as other similar Palestinian cultural projects throughout the West Bank. Adelfattah also travels abroad to promote his work – and this spring will be directing a performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in North Carolina!  Just another reminder that there is an extensive and powerful grassroots movement of Palestinian cultural resistance that is relatively unknown to the West, but is eminently worthy of our support.

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During our tour of Aida (above), Abdelfattah gave us a glimpse of the life of his community – explaining its history and illuminating life amidst the ever-present reality of military incursions, night raids, etc. At one point, our group actually witnessed this reality up close: near the gate to the camp, several IDF soldiers shot tear gas at some children who were a few meters in front of us. (We did not witness the incident that precipitated this violence.) Though we were not in the immediate vicinity of the tear gas clouds, it carried toward us downwind – and though it was only a vestige of the gas, several of us experienced its powerful, lingering sense of burning in our eyes and throats. (I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to sustain a direct hit.)

teargas

We continued our way down the streets of Aida, along the separation wall that butts up directly against Bethlehem. As we walked, a women called to Adelfattah from a third story window and invited us up for tea. We sat together on the roof of her home, sipping our tea and looking out over the wall toward the wide open spaces that led toward greater Jerusalem. Our hostess told us that she and Aida owes their very lives to Abdelfattah and it was an honor to have us in her home.

Please join us in supporting the work of Alrowwad through Friends of Alrowward USA. Our delegation can personally attest to the power of their “Beautiful Resistance.”


Mobilizing for Women at the Wall – Where is the Outrage for Simple Human Rights?

wow-liberating-wall

There is something sadly skewed with my community’s moral priorities.

I’m sure many of you have been following the growing uproar – in Israel and America – over the curtailment of women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall.  In protest, an Israeli group called the “Women of the Wall” has been holding monthly services there for the past twenty years, advocating for their “social and legal recognition of (their) right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” This right, of course, is denied by the Israeli foundation that essentially runs the site – widely considered holy by Jews the world over -  as the world’s most famous ultra-orthodox synagogue.

The cause of the Women at the Wall was recently re-galvanized when its chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and leading a service there. Since then protests have been spreading across the US – led by an organization called “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance” that has organized monthly solidarity services throughout the Jewish community.

At one such service yesterday, organizer Hallel Silverman commented:

This was hundreds of people with different beliefs coming together to fight for one thing they all have in common—Jewish equality.

Oh, would that the Jewish community might galvanize this level of moral outrage for the cause of simple human equality in the state of Israel.

Case in point: during the course of these recent protests, another news item passed far lower across the organized Jewish community’s ethical radar: UNICEF’s recently released report that concluded that the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children found evidence of practices it said were “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

From a recent HuffPo feature on the report:

In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”

Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.

In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.

UNICEF said it found no evidence of any detainees being “accompanied by a lawyer or family member during the interrogation” and they were “rarely informed of their rights.”

“The interrogation mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess,” it said, noting they were restrained during interrogation, sometimes for extended periods of time causing pain to their hands, back and legs.

“Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member,” it said.

Most children confess at the end of the interrogation, signing forms in Hebrew which they hardly understand.

It also found children had been held in solitary confinement for between two days and a month before being taken to court, or even after sentencing.

During court hearings, children were in leg chains and shackles, and in most cases, “the principal evidence against the child is the child’s own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation,” it found.

“Ultimately, almost all children plead guilty in order to reduce the length of their pretrial detention. Pleading guilty is the quickest way to be released. In short, the system does not allow children to defend themselves,” UNICEF concluded.

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I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in my community over this report?  While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with “Jewish rights” in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live in it.  Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “tolerant “among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance on behalf of those who are in our “tribe.”

A Ha’aretz article covering yesterday’s solidarity service in NYC reported:

People traveled to the event from as far away as Philadelphia. Similar gatherings took place around the U.S., including a demonstration outside Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, and solidarity prayer services in Cleveland, Chicago and at Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania, said service organizer Rabbi Iris Richman. A “sing in” is slated outside Israel’s consulate in San Francisco for Sunday.

In fairness, I’m sure many of the individuals involved in these actions have also advocated for human rights in Israel/Palestine. But the sad truth is that our community would never see fit to mobilize this scale of collective protest in support of Palestinian children. It is well within our comfort zone to protest at Israeli consulates on behalf of Jewish rights. For reasons I understand all too well, universal human rights are still well outside that comfort zone.


On the Killing of Children and the Price of Our Freedom

obama-newtown-speech

Last night Hallie and I watched President Obama’s eloquent and moving speech at the interfaith prayer vigil for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. About halfway through, when Obama discussed our nation’s collective responsibility to our children, a certain cognitive dissonance popped into my head – a pesky, but familiar distraction that remained with me for the rest of the speech.

Obama concluded by reciting the first name of each of the 20 children killed. When it was over we both sat silently looking at the screen. “Don’t say it, just don’t say it” I thought to myself.

“What did you think?” she finally asked me.

“Very moving” I said, “but..”

“But what?”

“What the hell,” I thought to myself, “go ahead and say it…”

“I don’t know, it’s hard for me to listen to Obama talk about our responsibility to keep our children safe knowing that he personally approves the drone strikes that kill hundreds of innocent children in other countries.”

Hallie rolled her eyes at me. But before she could say “Oh my God, can’t you give it a rest just this once?” I said it myself: “I know, I know, I can’t help it..”

Over the weekend, I thought of a certain moment in the Michael Moore documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” Toward the outset of the movie, Moore pointed out that the Columbine shooting took place during the largest one day bombing by the US in the Kosovo war.  He showed news footage from that day which showed the bloody aftermath of the bombing that killed numerous civilians, including those in a local hospital and primary school. The news footage also included President Clinton telling reporters that the US military was trying to “minimize harm to innocent people.”

Then Moore flashes the words “One Hour Later” and there’s Clinton again: “We all know there has been a terrible shooting at a high school in Littleton, Colorado.” Moore’s point was clear: there is an important connection to be made between our killing of Serbian civilians and the killing of students in Columbine.

So too, I believe there is a similar connection between the killing of innocent children in Newtown to the killing of innocent children in Pakistan.  Both are the product of a uniquely American culture of violence, insecurity and fear – and both are the consequences of a national penchant for manufacturing, selling and profiting from ever more sophisticated weapons of death.

Might it be that our Constitutional right to bear arms reflects a national sense of entitlement to create and sell weapons and to use them wherever and whenever we see fit?  And if so, might we be ready to limit this right for the sake of our children both here and around the world?

In this regard, I think the most telling moment in Obama’s speech was when he asked the rhetorical question:

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Would that our President would ask himself that very question before he approves his next drone strike.

(Please read this recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that determines over 160 children have been killed in seven years by US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.)


Coaxing Dignity Out of Despair

On Thursday we shifted our volunteer efforts to CHABHA (“Children Affected by HIV/AIDS), an international NGO that supports grassroots projects in Rwanda and Burundi that care for orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, CHABHA works with three neighborhood organizations: AMOHORO, which is located in in Kucyiru, Kigali, AGAPE, in Kicukiro, Kigali, and AJESOV in Nyamata (about an hour south of Kigali).

On Thursday morning we first met with the remarkable CHABHA staff: Executive Director David Loewenguth (above right), Coordinator of Associations Micheleine Umulisa (above left), and Patrick Nimubona, who coordinates the Bright Future Program for CHABHA. Bright Future International is an independent NGO that serves underprivileged children around the world. BFI partners with CHABHA, who provides the children for their programs in Rwanda. (Untangling the enormously complicated international NGO/local organization partnerships has been a popular subject of conversation on our bus rides…)

One of CHABHA’s most important functions is to accompany association workers on their regular home visits to the families they support. These visits help CHABHA and local association staff to track the status, needs and conditions of these households – on a deeper level, they clearly enable workers to establish deep and lasting relationships with those they are serving. In some ways it seemed to me that these regular connections provided nothing short of a spiritual life line to these families.

For our first series of home visits, we traveled to the AGAPE association in the Kicukiro district of Kigali and and accompanied CHABHA staff person Micheleine (above left), AGAPE administrative assistant Anna-Marie (middle) and AGAPE worker Grace (right). It’s hard to describe the emotional impact these home visits had upon us – and we’re still having a hard time sorting through the intensity of visiting these families, home after home.

On our first stop, we visited a single mother of four. Her home, like almost all the homes we visited, was made of mud brick. She welcomed us graciously and our group crowded in her small, very dark living area. Her home only had one other room – a smaller bedroom area separated from us by a curtain. Anna-Marie spoke with her and Micheleine interpreted for us.

The mother and her children were all HIV positive. For her regular job, she washed clothes for her neighbors, but at the moment she was too ill to work and as a result, she has no food to feed her children. (Malnutrition is a huge problem for individual with HIV/AIDS because the ARV medications do not work if they are not taken with food.) She also told us that she used to have some rabbits (that CHABHA supplies to be raised, bred and sold for food) but they were recently stolen.

We were overwhelmed with the enormity this mother’s despair. At the same time I couldn’t help but be struck by her innate sense of dignity. Though she was clearly feeling unwell, she was deeply gracious to us and obviously wanted us feel welcome in her home. At the end of our meeting, Anna-Marie said a prayer for her and her family in Kinyarwanda. I asked if I could say a short prayer for her in Hebrew; Anna-Marie said of course. After I concluded a Mishabeirach (Jewish prayer for healing), the mother then offered a prayer for us.

We five more homes before we finished. By the end, we were overcome by familial circumstances more dire than any of us could ever comprehend. While it sometimes felt as if the support offered was but a drop in the bucket of in terms of their sheer need, by the end we came to realize that NGOs such as CHABHA and local neighborhood associations such as AGAPE are the real front line heroes in addressing the scourge of extreme poverty. Anne-Marie, for instance, is far more than a neighborhood association worker – she is clearly is a spiritual matriarchal figure for the families of AGAPE.

There are many more similarly powerful stories I could tell about out myriad of CHABHA home visits that we made between Thursday and Saturday and I hope perhaps I’ll try to add one or two more before I’m through blogging our trip. (One postscript about our first visit: at the end of the day, we returned to the CHABHA office. When we told David about the mother’s situation. He said that in extreme cases like this – i.e., in which families were unable to feed themselves – CHABHA workers revisited immediately with emergency food provisions).

After lunch one of our groups visited an organic learning farm and agronomy class run by CHABHA in partnership with (yes, yet another international NGO), Gardens for Health. The garden and class were located at a school on the edge of Kigali. Getting to the site was an adventure in itself, bouncing up and down in a truck up and down a winding rutted road until we reached the school in the Bumbogo district.

We met with Samuel, the agronomy teacher, who showed us their learning garden (above), which was lined with rows of beets, cabbage and carrots. The ground was dry and rocky, but the crops appeared quite lush. Samuel (back row, middle) said that as part of their organic farming curriculum they raise local livestock and use the manure for composting. Though few of these children have much land to speak of at their homes, the intention is for them to take this knowledge and cultivate kitchen gardens for food and income generation in their communities.

We then went into the school yard with Samuel to sit in on the class. (It took some time getting there as school was just letting out and we were immediately engulfed by excited young students. By the time we got to the class, Samuel had just started the lesson, the subject of which was eggplant. (One student explained to us that there are two kinds of eggplant – and that in Rwanda they grow the smaller kind for local consumption and the larger purple kind for export.)

Samuel shared their very extensive agronomy curriculum with us, after which the students introduced themselves to us one by one. More than a few explained that they were taking this class to help their communities with their new-found skills. We were then asked to introduce ourselves to the class – and asked to mention our favorite vegetable. (Elaine: swiss chard, Rich: cabbage, Me: tomatoes).

During Q &A, Rich Katz, ever the passionate Middle School teacher, asked the students too divide up into four groups and decide among themselves what they thought were the most effective methods for retaining moisture in earth after watering. (One boy looked at me, smiled, and said “No problem!”) They came up with a variety of spot on answer: spreading leaves next to the crops, using plastic, using drip irrigation, etc. By far our favorite Q &A moment occurred when they were asking us questions. One boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen asked Liora if she was single. As you might expect, hilarity immediately ensued.

While we were in Mubogo, the other half of our group stayed at the CHABHA office, where they sat in on classes with Project Independence, CHABHA’s after school vocational training program. Another smaller group went back to Nyaconga, to put the finishing touches on the WE-ACTx jewelry coop space. There was, needless to say, much to share around the dinner table on Thursday night.

Friday morning, we’re visiting AJESOV, another CHABHA-supported association located in Nyamata. On the way we will be visiting two well-known genocide sites that are now maintained as memorials. More on this in my next post.


Our Final Day with WE-ACTx


On Wednesday we were back at the WE-ACTx office to finish assembling the new children’s library. The library itself was originally the brainchild of JRC member Katia Waxman, who created the idea for her Bat Mitzvah social action project last year.  Through her efforts, 450 books were donated, which she and her mother (trip coordinator Elaine Waxman) brought over from Chicago. (That’s Katia above, second from right, Sara Fox, far left, Brenda Feis, third from left, Seth Fox and Rachel Pinkelman).

When we arrived at the office Wednesday morning, we discovered that William had finished the mural (below) and the wall shelves had been finished and installed. We spent the morning sorting through the books and arranging them. When we finished, Katia’s project was finally complete – a wonderful legacy to leave to the children of WE-ACTx.

After lunch, we traveled to the WE-ACTx house for a very cool Rwandan dance lesson (Full disclosure, I sat this one  out and merely watched, sensing my moves wouldn’t have been a very pretty sight…)

Afterward, we split up into groups and visited the homes of three different Peer Parents, giving us the very special opportunity to get to know them and their families in a more personal setting. These visits completed our last full day with WE-ACTx, although five of our group will go back tomorrow to the jewelry cooperative to complete the work in their showroom.

A few words on this particular project: it began when a group of women met through a “Preventing Mother to Child Transmission Program” at WE-ACTx’s Nyacyonga clinic. The women (with us, below) decided to form a craft collective to generate income to buy baby formula as an alternative to breastfeeding in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies.  They initially produced woven plastic shopping bags, but eventually settled on craft jewelry – they are now a fully licensed cooperative that they named, “Ejo Hazaza” (“Tomorrow”).

Speaking of tomorrow – our volunteer efforts will focus on the work of CHABHA – another inspiring Rwandan NGO.


Rwandan Youth Ending Stigma

Our Sunday began with a visit with the leaders of the WE-ACTx “Peer Parent” program. Peer Parents were created in 2010 with the hope of creating youth leaders from within the ranks of WE-ACTx youth, creating constructed family units of children and young adults with HIV-AIDS who could provide bonding and support in nurturing group settings. There are currently 12 groups ranging in age from 10- 15 – there are also some groups for younger adults from 24-30 as well.

The Peer Parents themselves are clinic patients at WE-ACTx as well, which gives them the ability to serve as very real role models for the children: healthy, strong young adults who can can their trust, educate them on the importance of taking their ARV meds, and give them hope about their future. The Peer Parents are truly an impressive community unto themselves – smart, charismatic young people with remarkable leadership skills and sensitive understanding of how to live with a serious chronic illness with dignity and purpose.

Since it was Sunday, we meet with all the Peer Parents for their “Supervision Sunday” session, which they devoted wholly to a discussion with our group.  Each of them spoke with us openly and honestly about the challenges and joys of being a “parent” to their “families” – helping them to open up about issues such as stress, depression, family issues, drug abuse, and the importance of taking their meds regularly.

Our session ended with the Peer Parents leading us all in a group game similar to the one we did on the previous day. In my previous post, I referred to the “power of silly games.” I know now they were much more than that. These kinds of exercises built trust, skill, self esteem, and most of all, I think, as sense of safety in a group that becomes an important surrogate family for many of these children.

After lunch we visited Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, (one of the sites we visited four years ago) where WE-ACTx rents the extensive grounds for many of their ongoing youth programs. We brought along forty yoga mats that we brought from home, as WE-ACTx has recently began a successful youth yoga program, Project Air. Due to a shortage of mats, the younger children could only do standing poses – so our arrival with forty five mats occasioned no small excitement among the children.

They watched as we laid them down in rows; when we were done, they lept on them as if they were jumping into swimming pools. They then were led in a fabulous yoga session by Joseph (top clip) a Peer Parent and extremely talented youth yoga teacher, who clearly knew how to make yoga real and fun for young children.  It was almost as much fun for us to watch – especially knowing that many of the kids were clearly relishing the opportunity to show off their skills for their guests.

Immediately afterward, our group met with several of the Peer Parents who were part of self-created support/awareness group called YES (“Youth Ending Stigma”).  Because of their common experience of HIV/AIDS, these young people have experienced all too often the stigmas associated with this disease in Rwandan society. They formed YES in order to give support and strength to one another and to raise awareness as role models of healthy living with HIV.  They are also collaborating to write about their personal experiences in a narrative project in a work-in-progress book that they hope will demystify the issues around HIV-AIDS through personal testimony. (In the pic above: Peer Parent and YES  member Aime, who himself was once a part of the WE-ACTx youth program.)

I can’t say enough about these young leaders, possessed of formidable skills attained against all odds, now mentoring the children of their own community. As is sadly the case in so many communities throughout the US, I can only begin to imagine how far they’d go in applying their gifts if they lived a society that afforded them greater opportunities.  In the meantime, they’re making a very real and transformative difference, child, by child, here in Rwanda. And that in itself is truly an inspiration.

Below, two more amazing people who truly inspire us: WE-ACTX’s Mardge Cohen (Left) and Mary Fabri (right).



New Report on Israel’s Abuse of Palestinian Children

I strongly encourage you to read Guardian reporter Harriet Sherwood’s devastating new piece, which investigates allegations of human rights abuse of Palestinian children inside Israel’s Al Jalame prison.

I’m already anticipating the angry comments I invariably get when I share this kind of information. But what else should I do?  As an American Jew, what else am I supposed to do with the news that that Israel – the Jewish state, the “only democracy in the Middle East” and America’s “special ally” – is abducting, abusing and torturing Palestinian children?

I don’t know anything else to do but to bring this information into the light of day, urge you to share it, and encourage you to voice your outrage to your elected leaders.

Here’s the start of the article:

The room is barely wider than the thin, dirty mattress that covers the floor. Behind a low concrete wall is a squat toilet, the stench from which has no escape in the windowless room. The rough concrete walls deter idle leaning; the constant overhead light inhibits sleep. The delivery of food through a low slit in the door is the only way of marking time, dividing day from night.

This is Cell 36, deep within Al Jalame prison in northern Israel. It is one of a handful of cells where Palestinian children are locked in solitary confinement for days or even weeks. One 16-year-old claimed that he had been kept in Cell 36 for 65 days.

The only escape is to the interrogation room where children are shackled, by hands and feet, to a chair while being questioned, sometimes for hours.

Most are accused of throwing stones at soldiers or settlers; some, of flinging molotov cocktails; a few, of more serious offences such as links to militant organisations or using weapons. They are also pumped for information about the activities and sympathies of their classmates, relatives and neighbours.

At the beginning, nearly all deny the accusations. Most say they are threatened; some report physical violence. Verbal abuse – “You’re a dog, a son of a whore” – is common. Many are exhausted from sleep deprivation. Day after day they are fettered to the chair, then returned to solitary confinement. In the end, many sign confessions that they later say were coerced.

These claims and descriptions come from affidavits given by minors to an international human rights organisation and from interviews conducted by the Guardian. Other cells in Al Jalame and Petah Tikva prisons are also used for solitary confinement, but Cell 36 is the one cited most often in these testimonies.

Between 500 and 700 Palestinian children are arrested by Israeli soldiers each year, mostly accused of throwing stones. Since 2008, Defence for Children International (DCI) has collected sworn testimonies from 426 minors detained in Israel’s military justice system…

Human rights organisations say these patterns of treatment – which are corroborated by a separate study, No Minor Matter, conducted by an Israeli group, B’Tselem – violate the international convention on the rights of the child, which Israel has ratified, and the fourth Geneva convention.


Locking Our Children Away: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.

Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.

Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job, but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.

I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood were scared of his mother.

Read the rest of this entry »


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