Tag Archives: Advocates Abroad

Turn ‘Black Friday’ into Golden Generosity

“Black Friday” represents good shopping deals to some, and the cash register ringing for retailers when their bottom line goes from red to black, but for me it’s become a day symbolizing what’s rotten about the USA and I can’t pretend to hide my scorn.

Few realize the origin of “Black Friday” —

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The modern version spells bad news for the climate, the economy and the human spirit. But rather than itemize the doom and gloom of crass consumerism and why it’s so bad for our souls and the planet, I’m sharing some tips for alternative “shopping” if people have greenbacks in their wallets. Avoid your credit cards. If you don’t have the cash in hand, you shouldn’t be caught up in holiday shopping of any kind. Sit down, stretch your imagination and make your gifts.

Two years ago, I blogged about gift ideas from my perch in Cairo, see here.

Idea #1 – Remember the refugees.

More than 20 million refugees have fled their homes. Most are living in dire circumstances today, caught between violence, disease, lack of security and respect, and an uncertain future. Treat yourself and family to Ai WeiWei’s documentary ‘Human Flow’ perhaps playing at a theatre near you.  The filmmaker suggests some actions we can take, check it here.  (My sister has been making microloans with Kiva for years. I’m going to follow her example.)

A store is opening in London, the first of its kind, where shoppers can stop by and purchase gifts for refugees. The retail space has been donated by a real estate investment trust. The organization, Help Refugees, will get the gifts into the hands of refugees and an online store is planned soon. If you’re not in London, you can donate here.

Friends in Washington, DC can purchase a Palestinian falafel sandwich for $3 and a portion of each dollar will be sent to help feed refugees worldwide. Check it out here.

Give a gift to a Palestine refugee through UNRWA-USA, the agency that’s been working closely with refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Check out the button on the top right corner here.

If you have the time, flexibility and desire to help refugees directly, there are many opportunities. I recommend Advocates Abroad currently operating in Greece.

Idea #2 – Double the impact.

Good journalism requires eyeballs and subscribers. Give holiday subscriptions to family and friends. You’ll be supporting the journalism you appreciate and sending a subtle message to the gift recipients where their attention should be focused.  Of course, a digital subscription is preferable.

My favorite recommendations include:

Yes! Magazine — “YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions.”

The Nation and the Christian Science Monitor are my two picks for keeping informed on international and local news.

Idea #3 – The children in your life.

This might be the toughest part of holiday giving, at least for me. I remember my own childhood and unwrapping tons of gifts Santa had spread under the tree. I want children today to feel the same anticipation and excitement.

Olive harvest and children

Children in Gaza – 2013

Children everywhere need security, love, education, a planet that can sustain them, and adults who respect their needs today and in the future. If the TV commercials would only drum that message into consumers’ heads rather than the latest iPhone 10 and electronic gadgets.

Books are a good gift for any age, and if you can find them at your local independent bookstore, that’s even better.

P for Palestine

P is for Palestine – A Palestine Alphabet Book sold out within days of its launch in November 2017 but you can preorder your copy of the second edition for delivery in Spring 2018 here.

Other titles to consider:

White and Black – Political Cartoons from Palestine by Mohammad Sabaaneh (2017) for teens and adults.

The Last Earth – A Palestinian Story by Ramzy Baroud (2017) has not been released yet but can be pre-ordered here.

The Anteater and the Jaguar by Rayek R. Rizek (2017) is another book I’m ordering. It’s available on Amazon.

In addition to books, give your time to the children in your life. Itemize your talents (cooking, drawing, story-telling, sewing, knitting, hiking, writing, photography, fishing, etc.) and prepare a home-made gift certificate with a promise to share your talent with your child in a real and meaningful way.

Family photo album with names, dates and stories about family members is a gift I wish I’d received as a child, and I wish I’d given to my own. My family photos are scattered in boxes in storage now.

Time with the children is the best gift any parent can give any child of any age. Their time is priceless because many parents are working two jobs just to put food on the table. Carving out a day, a weekend, or an hour every evening just for your child may be challenging, but the effort will reap rewards for everyone. (This goes for Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, and everyone else.)

hiking

Photo Credit: Michelle Lake 

Idea #4 – Put your money where your heart is.

I don’t believe our hearts reside in Wal Mart #1 retailer, Costco #2 retailer, or Kroger #3 retailer in the U.S.  Shop with thoughtful intention during this holiday season and every day.

Chain store proliferation has weakened local economies, eroded community character, and impoverished civic and cultural life. Moreover, consolidation has reduced competition and may harm consumers over the long-term. See here and here.

Remember, you’re the role model for your family and friends. Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

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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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