Category Archives: Poverty

From Joy to Sorrow and Back Again

Thte first part of our day was spent at the WE-ACTx Nyaconga center outside Kigali. Among other things, this site is used for a new peer youth program called “Peer Parenting” in which older children work with the younger children of the area – almost all of the orphans and either infected or affected by HIV-AIDS.

Mary Fabri told me that before WE-ACTx started working with the kids of Nyaconga, the children were obviously listless and outwardly depressed. This description certainly did not square with our experience of them yesterday. We spent the better part of the morning with them playing organized group games led by two youth teens – amazingly charismatic and talented team leader “peer parents.” One of the games seemed to be a Rwandan version of “Duck, Duck Goose.” Another bore a striking resemblance to the Israeli folk dance “”Yesh Lanu Tayesh.”

By the end, we were fairly exhausted (the adults anyways) but thoroughly enjoying each others’ company. (See pic above).  I’ll never again underestimate the power of silly fun to bond people t0gether instantaneously. More importantly,  I think it was an important testimony to the power of medicine (in this case, life-saving ARVs) along with community/leadership development to realize a more holistic vision of healing.

Another unexpected treat of the visit: we got to see a lovely mosaic at the center created by girls who participated in a WE-ACTx exchange project that brought teenagers from Rwanda to Chicago and girls from Chicago Freedom School to Rwanda. This mosaic (see detail above) was one of their joint projects. Note the Chicago skyline on the bottom left corner!

After lunch we made a return visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (above), which serves as Rwanda’s national genocide museum and memorial. Like my last visit, I found it to be one of the most powerful museums of its kind. It doesn’t have the technical bells and whistles of more contemporary museums, but simply tells the story with straightforward simplicity, punctuated by video testimonies of survivors. I’ve always been moved and impressed that it contains one entire floor dedicated to other genocides throughout human history – a necessary statement that no one’s pain is disconnected from another.

The Centre is also the site of a mass grave of 250,000 who were slain during the genocide which, of course, makes it much more that a simple museum – it is truly sacred ground. It was the first real connection to the genocide for our group on the trip – needless to say, an enormously difficult – if important – part of our visit.

But as is often the case in Rwanda, we went from joy to sorrow, and back to joy again.  After the Centre visit, we decided to swing by the art studio of William, the young man who directed the mural project at the WE-ACTx offices yesterday. He had told us if we had time, he’d love to show us his work.

While we expected a modest one-man art studio, we were delighted, upon arrival, to discover that William was part of the Ivuka Arts Center – a collective of seventeen artists that provides a home for work and sponsors art and dance workshop for Rwandan youth in the community.

While we were at Ivuka, we had the opportunity to see several of the artists in action and viewed much of their work.  Coming here directly from the genocide center, I was particularly struck that none of the art directly evoked the pain of Rwanda’s recent history. Rather, there was an obvious pride and joy in Rwandan identity and culture. Given the high quality of the art, were particularly amazed to learn that these artists are largely self taught.  Clearly, this is much more than an artists collective. Quite by chance, we happened upon another inspiring Rwandan community development project!

From the Ivuka website:

Since its inception in 2007, Ivuka has become the face of Rwandan art to both the national and international communities alike. In the last 2 years Ivuka has become the most sought-after fine arts destination for expatriates and diplomats in Rwanda. Yet despite this incredible success, Ivuka Arts Founder and Director Collin Sekajugo still envisions the studio primarily as a place where art is used to change lives.

Through Ivuka’s mentoring program, artists who formerly struggled to make a living are honing their skills, finding platforms for exposure, and gaining name recognition. Children who formerly begged on the streets are finding hope and educational opportunities through RwaMakondera, Ivuka’s traditional dance troupe.

In a very real sense, Ivuka has become more than “The Rebirth of Contemporary Rwandan Art”.  It has become the start of a bright new life for each person it touches.

We spend a wonderful few hours at Ivuka, which also included significant art purchases and extended playing with Rwandan children who had been attending a workshop. Below is a picture  of our friend William (white shirt, fifth from right) and Emanuel (black shirt, left), who is a central leader of Ivuka and its programs.

Sometimes, the most remarkable experiences on your journey are the ones that aren’t on the itinerary…

Back in Kigali with WE-ACTx

Our first full day in Rwanda was spent at the offices of our good friends at WE-ACTx in Kigali. I’ve written extensively about this amazing organization and it’s been wonderful to see the growth and success that they’ve accomplished in the past four years since we’ve been here.

The overall AIDS rate in Rwanda is currently at 3% – with lower numbers in rural areas and higher levels in urban centers.  Generally the emphasis is shifting from direct treatment to maintenance (health workers making  sure folks are taking their meds) and AIDS education and awareness, trauma treatment, and an expanded youth program.  WE-ACT-x has grown to the point now that former youth participants are no working as counselors and a new youth yoga program is meeting with great success. (Among the things we brought over with us from Chicago: 30+ yoga mats…)

We spent the day at the WE-ACTx office volunteering: sorting meds (that’s out teenage contingent above showing off their handiwork) and helping to paint a colorful mural in a new youth library (next down) Also engaged in some very interesting conversations with workers and locals about the complex realities of Rwanda post-genocide. More on that later.

Today, more quality time with WE-ACTx and a return visit to the Kigali genocide museum. Stay tuned.

Coming Soon: Return to Rwanda

With fellow delegation particiant Hannah Gelder and the children of the Amahoro youth program (supported by CHABHA)

For the next two weeks I’ll be blogging from Rwanda where, I will be joining fifteen other participants in JRC’s third service delegation to Africa.  We’re returning to visit and volunteer with our good friends at WE-ACTx, a visionary NGO that works to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, support, education and training throughout Rwanda. We’ll also spend time with CHABHA, another important NGO that funds and supports orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS in Rwanda and Burundi.

You may remember that our last trip included a visit to an infamous massacre site as well as conversations with individuals who briefed us on the latest efforts to heal Rwandan society in the wake of the devastating 1994 genocide.  While it has not been a straight path (nor has it ever been) I do believe that the Rwandan example has much to teach the world about how to move past tribal enmity and the tragic legacy of colonialism.

I’m particularly thrilled that this time around our group will include six teenagers, who will be spending significant time with Rwanda youth programs supported by WE-ACTx and CHABHA. As a father of a teenager who attended our last African delegation, I can personally attest that these kinds of service trips can be genuinely life-changing experiences for young people.

As before, I’ll be posting regularly about our experiences If you’d like to read my posts from our last delegation, go to the Categories drop-down menu on the right and click on “JRC Africa Trip 2008.” Reading through these posts brought back some powerful memories for me and I’m eager to create new ones on our most current trip.

Stay tuned!

A Religious Defense of Big Government: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5772

Source: Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America 2011

Three years ago, I traveled with several JRC members and nearly 1,500 others to Postville, Iowa. We went to show our solidarity with 400 immigrant workers of the Agriprocessor kosher meat packing plant who had recently been arrested and imprisoned. It was, at the time, the largest single-site workplace raid in US history.

After participating in an interfaith service, we marched through the streets of Postville. As we reached the downtown area, we met up with angry counter-protestors, many of whom were holding signs condemning the invasion of “illegal immigrants” into their communities. One woman held a large sign that still sticks in my mind – it read: “What Would Jesus Do? Obey the Law.” I distinctly remember pointing out the irony of this sign to a fellow marcher, considering Jesus is actually considered to be one of the earliest practitioners of civil disobedience.

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How to Support Relief Efforts in Somalia

From the NY Times:

Much of the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, has been struck this summer by one of the worst droughts in 60 years. But two Shabab-controlled parts of southern Somalia are the only areas where the United Nations has declared a famine, using scientific criteria of death and malnutrition rates.

I commend to you this report from Charity Navigator, which includes essential information about this tragic, urgent crisis along with the highest rated orgs currently doing relief work in the region.

Israel Economic Protests: What Game is Being Changed?

This past April, the Forward reported:

(The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has reported that poverty is almost twice as widespread in Israel, 19.9% of the population, compared to the OECD average, 10.9%. The gap between the overall standard of living in Israel and that of the lowest tenth of the population was three times higher than the OECD average. In its latest release of data, made public April 12, the OECD reported that 39% of Israelis find it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current incomes, well above the OECD average of 24%.

Those stats might explain this more recent news out of Israel:

More than 150,000 protesters took to the streets in 12 Israeli cities, calling for a change in the division of wealth and the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Tel Aviv, an estimated 100,000 protesters marched from Habima Square to the Tel Aviv Museum. “We are happy to see the people of Israel taking to the streets, each in their own city, each with their own troubles, but many troubles that are common to all of us,” said one of the organizers, Yonatan Levy.

This one is a game changer, no question, but the jury is still out on how much it might eventually change, or what the game even is. Indeed, as Dahlia Scheindlin and Joseph Dana have just reported in +972:

Every grievance is coming out: there are slogans against the huge concentration of the country’s wealth into the hands of a very few, slogans raging against enormous economic gaps between rich and poor in Israel, lists of demands for just resource distribution and for various elements of a welfare state, salary hikes and lower costs, better education conditions and health care; against the national housing committees law, against the government, for Tahrir. At 10pm on Friday night, when a song group spontaneously burst into chants of “The people! Want! Social Justice!” one young woman sang out beatifically, “The people! Want! All Sorts of Things!”

It’s also notable that one critical cause of this economic disparity is glaringly absent from the protesters’ concern, as Aziz Abu Sarah noted last week:

What amazes me is many Israelis’ inability to make the connection between the continuation of the occupation and the domestic problems Israel faces today; Israel is building constantly in the West Bank but it is failing to provide housing to its citizens within Israel proper. The current Israeli government’s focus on improving living standards in settlements while failing to do the same for the rest of the country is a moral failure.

According to a Peace Now report published on July 20, settlers in the West Bank receive 69 percent discount on the value of the land (so that buyers have to pay only 31 percent of the price of the land) and 50 percent funding of the development costs of the building project. In 2009 Israel investment of settlements public building (excluding East Jerusalem) was 431 million shekels, which was 15.36 percent of all public investment in construction for housing that year, despite the fact that they compose only 4 percent of the residents of Israel.

Scheindlin/Dana drive this critical point home in their article as well:

On Friday, some protesters hassled other Palestinian protesters, citizens suffering from housing crises. It came to scuffles. The diminutive Palestinian flags they hung were removed. Joseph recalls the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow south. Can we imagine the ruling classes there demanding “social justice” without addressing their gravest internal injustices? What does the term “social justice” mean if so many who don’t have it are left out? Sure, let’s protest exorbitant housing costs – but why call it “social justice” if the very crux of social justice, namely equality, is not addressed? Can Israelis have a social justice revolution without speaking about the rights of people they control and occupy?

The remarkable power of these grassroots protests is undeniable – but just how far it goes in shifting power still remains to be seen.

(While we wait, however, at least we can enjoy this great mix by Israeli viral video satirist Noy Alooshe – see above…)

TV Writer David Simon On Jewish Communal Priorities (He’s Right…)

One of the bravest, most astute critiques of the priorities of the American Jewish community has come, from all people, David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme.”

Simon, who is the son of a national public relations director for B’nai B’rith, was asked to speak at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in New Orleans last November to speak about the good work the Federation is doing in post-Katrina NOLA (where “Treme” is filmed.) To the surprise of his audience, he took the Jewish community to task for not doing nearly enough to help non-Jewish residents there.

Simon was recently interviewed for Tablet, where he elaborated at length on his criticisms.  Here are a few choice quotes (to which I can only add a hearty “right on!!”):

– Upon hearing that most of the $28 million raised by the Federation to help post-Katrina New Orleans was spent on restoring and rebuilding the city’s Jewish community:

At the point when they were doing that, tens of thousands of New Orleanians were still living elsewhere and couldn’t get home…The average income of a Jewish family in New Orleans was $180,000 a year. The average income in New Orleans, $30,000 a year. And you’re subsidizing the Jews? That hyper-segregation of the Jewish community from the problems in the world, that alienation from tragedy that isn’t tribal is one of the most disappointing things to me as a Jew.

– On the response of Jewish leaders when he would raise this issue with them:

…They go to the anecdotal. I’m like, “Listen, I’m talking systemically. Don’t give me your anecdotal bullshit that you went and sang with some Baptist choir or you had some Baptist choir come to your synagogue. Or that you guys had a day where you took canned food down. Come on. There are lives in the balance down there. This is the community where the people are the most vulnerable, where the desperation is profound.”

– On the Jewish Federations’ concern about “Jewish continuity:”

The preservation of the Jewish faith and people-hood, while an essential task, says nothing to any other nation beyond our own, especially if we preserve ourselves for no purpose other than the perpetuation of one branch of monotheistic thought. Surely, the world needs the Jewish mind and spirit for something more fundamental than that.

Until there is a hard moment of real self-reflection here, younger and more secular Jews like myself—who were raised in the tradition and who still are proud of their Jewishness—are going to be increasingly abandoning organized Jewish giving and going directly at the actual problems.

– On his controversial comment at the GA that the black urban poor are victims of  “a Holocaust in slow motion:”

No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?

Right on.