Forensic journalism – a new tool in the battle for truth?

fo·ren·sic
fəˈrenzik,fəˈrensik/
adjective
  1. 1.
    of, relating to, or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime.
    “forensic evidence”
noun
  1. 2.
    scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime.

We’ve all heard of forensic medicine.  Patricia Cornwell’s crime series about the forensic pathologist and Medical Examiner from Richmond, Virginia is one of my favorite chill-out books. She knows how to weave a tale applying medical knowledge to the investigation of a crime, particularly in establishing the cause of some gruesome and mysterious death.

Of course, forensic medicine is not just the stuff of fiction, but a recognized science accepted in many courtrooms as evidence to establish or disprove a crime.

I’ve learned about forensic architecture in recent years, after viewing a video of the digital re-creation of Israel’s bombardment of Rafah in 2014 — known as Black Friday because of its ferocity and lethal consequences in the very dense urban community in the southern Gaza Strip.

Now that we’ve entered a new era of killing (forget your outdated notions of the infantry in WWII) with drones, and hi-tech “smart” bombs, and the theatre of combat has shifted to neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and mosques, I suspect the need for forensic architecture is going to grow rapidly.

Forensic Architecture is a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London.  It includes a team of architects, scholars, filmmakers, designers, lawyers and scientists to undertake research that gathers and presents spatial analysis in legal and political forums.

We provide evidence for international prosecution teams, political organisations, NGOs, and the United Nations in various processes worldwide.  Additionally, the agency undertakes historical and theoretical examinations of the history and present status of forensic practices in articulating notions of public truth.

Well, I have an idea.

Maybe we need forensic journalism to use scientific methods to analyze the media (in all venues – print, video, TV, radio, including social media) leading up to military operations.

Forensic journalists would catalogue how the major actors and events leading up to the military assault were portrayed in the media (or more accurately how the media was used and manipulated) to create the conditions necessary to justify the initiation of military operations. Leaders can’t go to war without convincing their people of the righteousness of their decision to put their young men and women in harms’ way. The media is their unwitting accomplices. And the digital tracks remain for all to see and analyze months and years afterwards. The evidence doesn’t disintegrate like it probably does in forensic medicine/pathology.

Think of President George W. Bush and the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Now think of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the weeks leading up to Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when Israel slaughtered (yes, “slaughter” is the correct term when the vast majority of the victims are unarmed civilians taking shelter in hospitals, schools, homes and UN facilities) — 2,256 Palestinians in 51 days in Gaza.

Forensic journalists would probably begin their examination with the abduction of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas without providing any evidence but the media didn’t mind. Then he launched an extensive search and crackdown in the West Bank, ostensibly looking for the three teens. Remember the #BringBackOurBoys campaign on social media? I think I recall that the mothers of the three teenagers even went to the United Nations looking for help in finding their sons.

bringbackourboys2

There would be alot of evidence for the forensic journalists to sift through because the local and international media covered these events daily for weeks.  Few in the West know about Israel’s gag law that prevents journalists from disclosing information that the government tells them they can’t.

Sadly, Netanyahu and his military chiefs knew from the first day that these boys were very likely dead because one teen had managed to dial for help on his cellphone when the gunshots rang out. But the media played along with Netanyahu’s pretext, whipping up public furor against Hamas and in favor of launching a military operation in Gaza.

Weeks later, the truth would come out. Even the New York Times (which rarely deviates from Israel’s party line) had to admit that the evidence didn’t support Netanyahu’s assertions. That was OK, Netanyahu must have been thinking, because by that time Operation Protective Edge was well underway and public opinion supported the government use of force.

Journalists on both sides of the Atlantic played into Netanyahu’s carefully crafted messaging, however faulty and distorted it might be.

In hindsight, can forensic journalists now map the digital path that led up to the horrors perpetrated on thousands of innocent men, women and children in Gaza that summer?

More importantly, can a pattern and practice of media manipulation be documented in order to identify future transgressions before they happen?

Shouldn’t the unsubstantiated “news” stories flying around the planet at break-neck speed this past week about the alleged Hamas use of humanitarian donations from World Vision, UNDP and others be a signal that Netanyahu may be laying the groundwork to justify another military operation in Gaza? Nearly every major media outlet is accepting Netanyahu’s assertions without question. At least the Seattle Times included a voice of reason in their version of the story.

“I think the world should be very skeptical about his (el-Halabi’s) arrest and suspect of Israel claims,” said John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for Western Washington who spent two years in the West Bank while serving in a U.S.-sponsored rule-of-law program.   McKay said the Israeli government has  sometimes denied legal rights to detained Palestinians, with charges not always supported by evidence. He  also said there has long been friction between the Israeli government and international aid agencies that seek to act  independently in Gaza.

And what should we make of Netanyahu’s attempt to rebrand himself as the loving father-figure for the Palestinians?  Is this relevant information in a forensic examination?

Until we have a better grasp of how journalists are strategically manipulated by the government in a very deliberate fashion to support the use of military force, we’ll have no chance of calling their bluff when they try to do it to us again … and again … and again.

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Filed under Gaza, Hamas, Israel, Media, People, Uncategorized, Video

Can our brains evolve in time?

I seem incapable of coating my thoughts and opinions on this blog and Facebook with a sheen of political correctness.

Who have I disturbed with my writings?

  • Jews of all persuasions (but primarily Zionists).
  • Palestinians who object to the mirror I hold up.
  • Democratic Party bosses who find me “disgusting” for my opposition to Hillary’s candidacy.
  • Democratic Party loyalists who find me misguided.
  • Republicans, Libertarians and probably every political party could take exception to what I have written at one time or another.
  • Family members have taken offense, labeling me anti-Semitic in one case, and insensitive in another.
  • Long-time friends in “real life” have scolded me for the opinions I have shared on Facebook.
  • Professional colleagues have shunned me for my advocacy on the Israel/Palestine issue.
  • Palestinian activists have “unfriended” me for failing to follow the party line in their version of “standing in solidarity” with Palestinians.

When did “unfriend” become a verb? When did I stop caring?

In every case, it came down to a disagreement over our different worldviews. I touched a nerve and disagreed with their position, whether it was politics, religion or something else. (Except in one case that I can recall where my criticisms of the American lifestyle was taken as a personal criticism.)

BUSH

The predicament we humans find ourselves in at this stage of our evolution might be summed up in George W. Bush’s infamous words.

We want to see a world where reality is black and white. We are right, the “other” is wrong. We are good. They are bad.

Our human brains are hardwired to see the world this way. The evolution of human thinking has failed to keep up with the complex challenges we are facing today, many of our own making, which demand more complex thinking.

Survival skills are no longer limited to building a fire for warmth in the cave, hunting and gathering food for our family’s sustenance, and protecting ourselves from those who wish to do us harm, although each remains vitally important.

Today, survival requires that we understand and empathize with the “other.” Why is this different from centuries past?  Three reasons come to mind.

  • There are many more people bumping into each other on this planet today, competing for a finite and diminishing resource base.  Eons ago when our brains were learning and adapting, we had plenty of space to call our own and everyone else had their space. We could easily avoid each other if we chose.
  • Technology has overtaken us in many cases. We can create, design and build amazing things but we don’t have the brains to adjust to the new reality we’ve created with this technology.
  • The physical challenges confronting us today, primarily as a result of climate change, are not limited to discrete parts of the planet, but are impacting us all wherever we might call home. There’s no escape.

sinking boat

Let me explain how our brains are not working consistent with today’s reality.

There are countless examples, but I’ll begin with the Muslim Brotherhood. I’ve talked with many Egyptians over the past five years about the Muslim Brotherhood. These Egyptians come from all walks of life — urban, rural, formally educated, uneducated, professionals, laborers, women and men, young and old. One even acknowledged that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood!

Unsurprisingly, there is a considerable diversity of opinion.

On the one hand, some believe the Muslim Brotherhood are peace-loving people who have been persecuted for many, many years, and imprisoned and killed for their beliefs.

On the other hand, others believe the Muslim Brotherhood has been a cancer on Arab society since its founding in 1928. They must be excised from the body politic before they create chaos and harm in the country.

Some Egyptians believe President El-Sisi’s government (which overthrew President Morsi – a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) is illegitimate. El-Sisi is rounding up 1000s of Egyptians from the universities, their homes and off the streets, and torturing them and “disappearing” many. Their families will never know what happened to them. Other Egyptians support El-Sisi and believe he is taking necessary measures to safeguard the nation, and it will take time.

Where is the truth?

Maybe the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t as evil and as dangerous as some think, but neither perhaps are they the innocent victims of persecution as others assert. I don’t know, and I’m in no position to know, but my point is that we must suspend our disbelief and our certainty to allow a more complex picture to emerge.

The human brain doesn’t seem capable of doing that.

These two very different discriptions of the Muslim Brotherhood are as true to the believers as the sun rising in the East is true to you and me. These two versions of the truth about the Muslim Brotherhood are mutually exclusive and can’t coexist, and so it’s unlikely that the people who hold these different versions of the truth can coexist, at least not easily, without conflict, tension or fear of the other.

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Permanent art exhibits at the Library of Alexandria

Another example.  Hamas.

If you’re a consumer of the mainstream Western media, you likely share the official line that Hamas is a foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. government formally designated it as such in October 1997. Israel’s Netanyahu takes every opportunity to remind us of this “fact.”

On the other hand, if you talk with some Palestinians themselves and with some pro-Palestinian activists, you’ll hear that Hamas is a legitimate resistance and political organization duly elected by the Palestinians 10+ years ago. They are using every means available, including weapons, to resist an internationally-recognized illegal occupation. Some people seem to believe that Hamas can do no wrong.

Where is the reality? Is Hamas evil and the embodiment of the devil himself? Or is Hamas wearing the white hat of a noble resistance movement? Or maybe it’s not as simple as that. If our response and actions towards Hamas are based on a flawed analysis, shouldn’t we expect the results of our actions and responses to Hamas to be flawed as well? Of course, we should.

Most people seem incapable of holding contradictory notions in their minds at the same time. It’s either black or white, no shades of gray.

Brain

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

There’s alot of color in this world — beautiful people sharing all sorts of ideas and holding many different beliefs that make this an amazing time to be alive on planet Earth.

I’m not suggesting that we all must agree with one another, but we must be willing to suspend our disbelief, listen to the “other” with an open mind and an open heart, and process all of the information we receive respectfully. We must challenge ourselves and each other to “think outside of the box” and to question, question question all assumptions.

Our future survival as a species on this planet really depends on it.

Returning full circle to my original point — that I’ve disturbed many people with my writing on Facebook and this blog. My intention is to challenge belief systems, and to question assumptions and the “common wisdom.” Yours and mine.

This may be disturbing but it should always be respectful.  If my writing crosses the line into disrespect and demagoguery, I want to hear about it. If my writing challenges your comfort zone and makes you feel uncomfortable, well, that’s the goal.

A friend shared the following poem with me. It speaks to me, maybe it will speak to you.

We and They
Rudyard Kipling
FATHER, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But – would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They !We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
And They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They !

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Peaceful, Uncategorized

Having a meltdown!

I’m sitting in Cairo in the midst of a meltdown. Yes! It’s damn hot and humid, but the bigger issue seems to be the political meltdown at home in the USA, across the Mediterranean in Turkey and Greece, and on the other side of the planet in Venezuela.

The whole world seems to be falling apart; instability is wrecking the lives of millions.

Maybe the heat is effecting my brain and I can’t think straight. Things used to be so much simpler, so much clearer, so black and white.

Now I really don’t know what to make of it all.

  • The U.S. election in November appears to be shaping up as a contest between an egomaniac, fascist, misogynist dolt on the one hand, and a smart cookie beholden to the corporatocracy and Wall Street interests (aka the 1%), and the military industrial complex that has brought ruin to every corner of the planet. What appears clear is that voters in the U.S. have been shoehorned into making a decision in November which won’t turn this ship of state around. No real democracy there.
  • The failed coup attempt in Turkey this week has generated so many conspiracy theories that my head is spinning. Did Erdogan stage the coup? Did the US/Israel/Saudi have a hand in fomenting the coup? Did a Muslim cleric residing in the U.S. orchestrate the coup? Or did the military simply say “enough is enough” and take things into their own hands, albeit rather clumsily? Social media is abuzz with innuendo supporting all of the above. What appears clear is Erdogan is now taking advantage of the failed coup to round up (execute?) thousands of his opponents. No real democracy there.
  • Venezuelans are running to the border with Colombia to buy food!  No food or medicines on the shelves in Caracas, no money in the state treasury, oil prices plummeting. It appears clear that the bus driver turned President Maduro has no support and no options for turning his failed state around. No real democracy there.
  • The refugees I met in Greece are stuck in limbo, a world not of their making or desire, but trapped nevertheless because life in a wretched camp is preferable over death at home. What appears clear is that their future depends on the generosity and empathy of nations willing to accept the refugees, but now the borders seem to be closing. No democracy there.
  • Egypt. Well all of my notions about democracy flew out the window in July 2013 when the military coup ousted President Morsi. Some Egyptians try to justify the coup by pointing to Morsi’s mistakes. No doubt, he made many, but in a true democracy, the voters can oust the fools from office at the ballotbox, not with guns on the streets. What appears clear is that thousands of Egyptians are “disappearing” into the prisons and cemeteries while the streets remain calm. No democracy there.
  • The hopes and dreams == the very lives == of many friends in Gaza are being squeezed out of them, day after day, by the deliberate actions of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the U.S.  A friend in Gaza told me “I want a new world, a new life.” I’m ashamed of my country. I’m ashamed of the apparent Democratic nominee for President and her “democratic values”, and I’m ashamed of our complicity in all of these wretched meltdowns. What appears clear is democracy is a term of art with no substance.

WeAreOne-Med

Democracy has about as much meaning as the term “terrorist” — overused to the point of nonsense. Truly Orwellian.

FUCK Democracy!  The experiment failed. Time to admit it and create something new. Seriously!

 

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Filed under Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Politics, Uncategorized, US Policy

Knowledge is power!

Following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, I traveled from Greece to Egypt this month (July 2016) and visited the magnificent library in Alexandria, the city which he founded.  More than 2300 years ago, the ancient library on this site was the world’s largest repository of ancient knowledge. By 400 A.D. the library had vanished. The new library opened in 2002.

The idea of a universal library, like that of Alexandria, arose only after the Greek mind had begun to envisage and encompass a larger worldview. The Greeks were impressed by the achievements of their neighbours, and many Greek intellectuals sought to explore the resources of “Oriental” knowledge.

The cruise ships have stopped coming to Alexandria, citing concerns about violence, and so I suspect that this port city is suffering under the same economic woes as Cairo and the Red Sea resorts from the lack of tourism. There were many Egyptians visiting the library on the day I was there, but I saw only a handful of foreigners.

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Egyptians taking their selfies in front of the Library of Alexandria

Knowledge is power; making knowledge univerally accessible to anyone with a computer is a powerful act of generosity and love.

I learned from our tour guide that the Library of Alexandria is part of the World Digital Library started by the US Library of Congress. The library has a very active project to digitize resources from many countries, and our guide asked us which country we would like to search in the library’s database as an example. I said “Palestine.” She smiled and typed in Palestine, and up came the list of books and manuscripts that have been digitized to date.

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Permanent art exhibits at the Library of Alexandria

Libraries and librarians have always been special in my heart, and that might explain why I think the CPDS Library in Gaza is so extraordinarily important. Israel can stop the flow of people, concrete and sugar, but it can’t stop the flow of information. Israel’s 20th century strategies — occupation, siege, blockade and humiliation — will backfire in the 21st century.  Now anyone in Gaza connected to the Internet will be able to access:

The Digital Assets Repository, the Wellcome Arabic Manuscripts Online, the Institut du Monde Arabe Book Collection, the Digital Library of Inscriptions and Calligraphies, the President Mohamed Naguib Digital Archives, the President Gamal Abdel Nasser Digital Archives, the Science Supercourse Project, the Encyclopedia of Life, the Universal Networking Language Project (my favorite), and much more.

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World’s largest public reading room.

I can imagine space aliens from the future uncovering this library in Alexandria one day, very much as we’ve uncovered the archaeological treasures from the past, and thinking “a society that valued books and knowledge must have been very enlightened.”

Unfortunately, Israel’s occupation and siege of the Gaza Strip prove otherwise. An enlightened society does not treat Palestinians as inhumanely as Israel does. Israel is building a legacy of a very different sort.

I bought a postcard at the library’s gift store, addressed it to the orphanage in Gaza, and then stepped outside into the blazing heat of the afternoon sun to mail it. Maybe Israel will allow my postcard to enter Gaza, maybe not, but that won’t stop the Postcard Brigade.

 

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Filed under Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Peaceful, Uncategorized

Obfuscating “occupation”

The Democratic Party bosses don’t want to include any mention of Israel’s occupation of Palestine in the party’s platform. Why?

Isn’t the occupation a well-established fact, just as climate change is today?

Unfortunately, there are climate change deniers and occupation deniers. Facts mean little to either.

The State of Israel has a very clear strategy to obfuscate their occupation of Palestine in order to escape legal responsibilities as the occupier, and to shift the burden of the plight of the Palestinians onto the Palestinians themselves and the international community. Attorney Noura Erakat educated me about Israel’s legal strategy in her law review piece that I summarized here.

The New York Times, in this respect, is Israel’s handmaiden by deliberately avoiding the term “occupation” in the context of Gaza, as I wrote about here.

Most members of Congress have sipped AIPAC’s koolaid and refuse to touch anything with the term “occupation” attached. Thankfully, 20 members had the courage last month to call it what it is.  See here.

The lawmakers sent the president a letter on June 20, urging him to appoint a “special envoy for Palestinian youth” in order to monitor the Israeli government’s violation of Palestinian children’s human rights.

The letter notes that Palestinian children are “growing up under military occupation with very few opportunities to improve their lives.”

The letter describes the occupation as “an unimaginably difficult and at times hopeless environment,” where children “live under the constant fear of arrest detention and violence at the hands of the Israeli military.”

Even pro-Palestine activists are confused about the term. Some label the creation of Israel and the ensuing Nakba that displaced thousands of Palestinians from their homes, businesses and villages as an occupation dating back to 1947. I completely understand their feelings, but wish we could use the term precisely and correctly. Activists only play into Israel’s strategy when they throw the term “occupation” around; just as unhelpful as politicians indiscriminately labeling everyone a terrorist.

We should be absolutely clear about the term “occupation” and use it correctly. Under international law, Israel has occupied portions of Palestine since 1967 and must be held accountable as the occupier. That doesn’t mean Israel shouldn’t be held accountable for the Nakba, but the Nakba does not equal “occupation“……not legally.

And the Democratic Party bosses must wake up and smell the coffee. “It’s an occupation, stupid.”

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Filed under Israel, Occupation, People, Politics, Uncategorized, Video

Refugees deserve dignity!

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News on local TV channel in Greece

They’re stripped of their country, their livelihoods, their homes, possessions and often their families, but they shouldn’t have their dignity stripped from them too.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimates that as of 2015, there are approximately 21.3 million refugees worldwide, more than half of them under the age of 18. UNHCR’s database is a sobering reflection of the magnitude of the refugee crisis now, as well as over time.

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Afghan refugee in a camp on the mainland of Greece

I abhor the notion of disaster tourism, and had to think long and hard about my motivation for traveling to Greece to witness this unfolding tragedy. When the opportunity came to join a small group (Operation Refugee Child) that was distributing donations from the U.S., I decided to join them, not to gawk and snap a ton of photos, but to learn about the realities of this crisis and share what I learned with others. Maybe together, we can all make a difference. (Read my ideas for making a difference at the end.)

There are approximately 45+ official refugee camps across Greece, and likely many unofficial encampments. I visited 5 very different camps on the mainland. The common denominator among each was the large number of children.

An alarming number of children are traveling alone. If they survive their harrowing journey, most will miss at least 2 years of school, maybe more, which will have serious long-term impacts on this generation.

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Each refugee has a story to share and most want to share and be heard.

The NGO organizers in one camp we visited are hoping to bus the children to the community schools in September to help them learn Greek and get acclimated with Greek children and the Greek educational system. In 2017, their goal is for these children to attend school full-time. I suspect this particular camp sets the gold standard in planning for the children’s educational needs. Although education is a basic right, most refugee children will not be so fortunate.

Some camps appeared more organized than others, even conducting elections for representatives to the “Resident Council” – a sort of democracy under a dictatorship one person explained, but all of the camps are a work-in-progress. Most have just opened in recent months, and there was a definite feeling that each is struggling with growing pains. I learned that there are international standards for the construction of refugee camps, but I have no idea how these camps in Greece measured up against those standards.

One camp was located on acres and acres of concrete without a tree or any vegetation in sight. Hundreds of shipping containers were lined up row after row, and the refugees were queuing to await the distribution of food boxes, very near to a huge pile of food scraps. The place was filthy and many people (old and young) had skin rashes. Refugees have reported problems with mosquitos and snakes. A refugee told me the care at the clinic onsite was very poor. A Syrian dentist said he would like to help but he needs basic dental equipment.

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A smaller refugee camp was spread out beneath the shade of trees with tents self-organized into smaller blocks of “neighborhoods.”  As we arrived, a truck was delivering porta-showers and porta-potties. A big improvement over the situation in the early days of the refugee crisis last year when thousands of refugees arriving on Lesvos Island had no facilities and were living, eating and defecating on the streets in Mytilene. The Greek government was very slow to respond. A local resident told me that the international NGOS and volunteers were the best first-responders to the crisis.

Many of the refugees have spent months in little tents and I wonder how the loss of privacy and stability has impacted them. I sat with one family whose newborn (only 45 days old) was laying on a blanket on the floor next to a small fan. The mother gestured around to the disheveled contents strewn on the floor gently chewing out her husband for bringing strangers to their tent under these conditions.

The controversial EU-Turkey deal signed on March 20 has slowed the number of refugees arriving in Greece, but they’re still coming and the needs remain as urgent as ever.

On MARCH 20th the European Union signed a deal with Turkey which was meant to help stem the flow of refugees making their way to Europe. As part of the agreement, any “new irregular migrants” who arrived in Greece after that date would be sent back to Turkey. In return EU member states will accept one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every one sent back, and speed up visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals.

I heard some animosity about the EU-Turkey agreement from refugees, volunteers and even Greek citizens. It’s certainly not popular. I met a young man from Pakistan who said his brother had been returned to Turkey and is now sitting in a jail there.

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Charging cell phones is a 21st century necessity.

Who is in control?  That’s the question I tried unsuccessfully to answer during my short visit to Greece. We entered a couple of refugee camps and found no one in charge, although the UNHCR signs were visible. The Greek military was ostensibly in charge at one camp, sitting lethargically in a military jeep observing the food distribution line, but it was difficult to rouse them to respond to a riot breaking out on the other side of the camp.

At another camp, there were some Greeks wearing official-looking vests sitting around smoking, but a refugee came up and told us that if we handed over our supplies to the Greeks, the refugees would never see the donations. Corruption, at least at that camp, was a problem.

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An American woman, Director of Operations for DoYourPart.org, is the matriarch of one of the smaller camps we visited. She stressed that Colonel “SomeoneorOther” was actually in charge but the residents (not called “refugees”) in the camp were like her family. She clearly was a professional and knew what was needed and how to get it done. If she could be cloned and sent to every camp in Greece, I suspect many of the problems we saw would be remedied.

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In my last couple of hours on Lesvos Island, I ducked into a neighborhood bar-cafe to escape the brutal sun. Four young men in the corner were also cooling off and recharging their cell phones. I walked over and asked if anyone spoke English. They all nodded, and I asked if I could sit down and talk with them. They’re from Pakistan but only met each other on Lesvos Island. They shared their treacherous journey from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey and finally to Lesbos. One man said he only ate 4 of the 21 days of his journey. They showed me pictures on their cell phone of people crammed into the trunk of a car. Now they’re waiting for their papers so they can move on.

I walked to the Port and boarded my ferry back to the mainland.  I watched as the security personnel checked every vehicle, underneath, on top and inside, for stowaways. They caught four refugees, handcuffed them and put them into a paddy wagon before being deported. I’ve learned about the harrowing risks that many refugees take, and I’m outraged about how our refugee system is failing the most vulnerable when they need our help the most.

What can Americans do? 

Many of us want to help but the magnitude of the crisis might seem overwhelming, and whatever we might be able to do is but a drop in the ocean. But remember what Mother Teresa said: “It’s a drop in the ocean, but after this drop the ocean will never be the same again.”

I put that question to a bookstore owner on Lesvos. When she saw the flood of refugees on the streets of Mytilene, she wanted to do something for the children. She set up a Facebook page asking for donations of toys, and soon had boxes and boxes of toys from all over the world arriving at her doorstep. She and a couple of friends distributed the toys directly to the children, and received tons of smiles in return.

She had to pause and think. What can Americans do to help? Then she told me that Americans should be pressuring their government to end the wars in the Middle East. We need to look at the root cause of the problem. What’s driving millions of people to flee their homes and risk death?

  1. Educate ourselves about the refugee crisis and the root causes; then educate others, and then urge Congress and the President to end America’s involvement and support for wars in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. We should also be pressuring the U.S. government to accept a greater number of refugees seeking asylum.
  2. Support others who are working on the ground in the hotspots like Lesvos Island and in the camps on mainland Greece. One such organization is DoYourPart.org. Another is Operation Refugee Child. Be careful. Not all NGOs are created equal.
  3. Volunteer your time and talents on-site. Review this orientation document prepared for people who are thinking about volunteering. Check this list for specific tasks and experience needed. If you’re a lawyer/advocate, consider volunteering your services to the refugees seeking asylum. Check out Advocates Abroad.
  4. Pray or meditate in whatever tradition works for you. Keeping these refugees, especially the children, in our hearts and minds will help focus energy and goodwill on this crisis. (I know this sounds crazy to some but I believe there’s power in our hearts if we’d only learn how to tap into it.)

An American architect has designed and presented a plan to the United Nations and the Greek government to build sustainable, short-term housing for the refugees.  I saw his presentation at a conference in Rome in June.

An innovative project to help manage the refugee crisis has recently been proposed by Richard M. Economakis, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, and is now under consideration by officials of the United Nations, the European Union and the Greek government.

Economakis proposes the creation of temporary refugee villages on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos and other Mediterranean sites where refugees first arrive in Europe. The buildings would be constructed of sun-dried brick — or adobe — which is inexpensive, locally available and easily and quickly produced and assembled. A typical village, arranged in pinwheel fashion around a central square, would include 800 housing units, each accommodating up to 10 people, making for a total population of some 8,000, approximately equivalent to the number of refugees now arriving on Greek islands daily.

Refugee Brochure, English - Adjusted

We can each make a difference. We must try!

 

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The Virtual Iftar Project

The most insightful and meaningful conversations I’ve had with strangers have usually occurred over a meal. Some of the most memorable include:

  • The Russians I met in the Trans-Siberian Railway’s dining car.
  • The Cubans I met in a restaurant in Pinar del Rio.
  • The Israelis I met in the Kibbutz’s dining hall.
  • The Palestinians I met in their homes who always treated me to a delicious meal.
  • The Germans I shared a “second breakfast” with on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.
  • The Egyptians in Cairo with whom I shared my Thanksgiving tradition last November.

The list is endless, but what stands out in my memory are the conversations we had on each occasion. While breaking bread together, we shared, we listened, and we learned from each other.

In this cynical and highly polarized world, I believe there’s a critical need for people-to-people communication and understanding. Eric Maddox, an American I first met in 2012 over a meal at Cafe Riche in downtown Cairo has set the gold standard for how to make this happen with his Virtual Dinner Guest Project.

VDG project Gaza

Palestinians in Gaza share a meal and conversation with Native Americans in Oakland in 2013.

In 2013, I watched Eric connect Palestinians in Gaza with Native Americans in Oakland by using 21st century technology to recreate an ancient tradition of sharing a meal and conversation with members of our tribe. Now we can share with the “other” on the other side of the planet. Not just a Skype chat but a structured conversation over a meal with the goal of learning about each other directly, not through the mainstream media or social media that often do a better job of playing to our fears and superstition about the “other.” Imagine the possibilities!

Eric explains his latest project.

The Virtual Iftar Project Episode 4: Gaza-Amsterdam

In our final episode we connected youth in Amsterdam and the Gaza Strip for an online dialogue over Iftar (July, 2015) and a collaborative film project between their two communities.

Each vox pop film address a question that each side asked of the other. For the Amsterdam film, our Dutch team seeks an answer to Gaza’s question: “What would you do if you found your community under military occupation?” While the Palestinian side posed the following question to the people of Gaza: “How can the international community best support the people of Gaza?”

The views expressed in each film represent the unfiltered opinions from the streets of each community, and do not necessarily represent the views of our producers. We are a nonpartisan and nonsectarian initiative focussed on breaking facile media and political narratives with truly grassroots collaborative media projects.

The Virtual Iftar Project Gaza-Amsterdam is the last of 4 episodes documenting our road trip across the Balkan Routes and central Europe during Ramadan 2015. Filmmaker Katie Cook, and Producer and project founder Eric Maddox, embarked up this #RamadanRoadtrip, just as the EU refugee crisis was beginning in early summer in order to connect Europeans with young people in Muslim-majority countries for focussed online discussions and collaborative film projects. The aim of the project is to demystify the distorted or sensationalized image of “other” that is so often presented in media narratives and political rhetoric around the world.

Participants on both sides connected for a videoconference call, a discussion of thematic topics, and then parted with one final question posed to each side. And that’s where these films begin.

Watch our previous videos featuring Kosovo, Palestine (Gaza), Germany, and Pakistan on our Facebook page, and please share and support our community-funded project today!

facebook.com/virtualiftarproject/

Please watch, listen, and feel the message that young people from Gaza and Amsterdam are sharing with each other and with us. THIS GIVES ME HOPE! And after watching, if you believe this project can make a global shift in how we view the “other” and want to become involved, check it out here.

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Filed under Gaza, Media, Peaceful, People, Uncategorized, Video