Tag Archives: Helena Cobban

Commonsense on Syria

How do we know what we think we know about events happening in foreign lands faraway?

Americans searching for the truth (or those with a radical curiosity, as my friend Eric Maddox calls it) have several options: (1) the mainstream media, (2) the alternative media like Democracy Now, (3) reports from human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, (4) personal reports from people we trust, and (5) with our own eyes if we visit.

FSA in Cairo

FSA fighter with Lora in Cairo

What I know about the very complex situation in Syria comes from 1 thru 4 (I’ve never been to Syria) and also from a handful of Syrians who have managed to flee their country. I spoke with them through an interpreter in Cairo.

I’ve shared my thoughts about Syria from time to time on this blog; never shy about treading on topics I know little about.

So when I learned that Just World Educational was organizing a series of virtual seminars on Syria during this time of COVID-19 self-isolation, I was very interested.  Commonsense on Syria is a full agenda of experts and topics — all free. Check out the ten sessions planned through April 25th and register here

Helena Cobban, the Founder and President of Just World Educational, doesn’t shy away from controversy. During the second seminar, freelance journalist Vanessa Beeley, with extensive experience in Syria, and Professor Richard Falk, an expert on international law, sparred over their disagreements but it was respectful.  Ms. Cobban was blasted by some activists for even including Beeley on her program.

Personally, I’m pretty dismissive of Ms. Beeley. Reading her writing from afar, she strikes me as an apologist for Bashar Assad. Nothing she said during the seminar changed my opinion. The full video of that session is available here: bit.ly/COS-2-video

Max BlumenthalJournalist Max Blumenthal, on the other hand, has earned my respect even if I don’t agree with him on everything. His books — Goliath – Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) and The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015) — are critical resources for anyone with a “radical curiosity” about the Middle East. I’ve ordered his new book, “The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump” (2019).

In the third seminar, Helena and Max discussed how the commonly-accepted narrative in the West about Syria is all wrong.  They assert the mainstream media, the alternative media, and the human rights NGOs have all been duped into believing and propagating a “regime change narrative.” Helena and Max contend the “proxy war” in Syria to depose President Assad has played out predictably as the imperialist U.S. government and other outside forces have scripted. 

Max says he’s been shunned by some leftists in the Palestine solidarity community because of his views on Syria. I can believe that because I also have felt the cold shoulder from some solidarity activists. If you don’t tow their ideological line about Israel – Palestine, you’re dismissed from the cult.  Ironically, their black and white, binary thinking has taught me so much. (More about those lessons in a later blog post.)

Both Helena Cobban and Max Blumenthal are smart and well-informed analysts. They cite convincing arguments to support their position, some of which I can agree with —- such as the devastating impacts of U.S. sanctions on the Syrian people. But I can’t help but wonder about the frame of discourse they’ve adopted.

While their narrative of a “proxy war” competes with the opposing frame of those who oppose Assad — the only truth I’m convinced of is that the vast majority of Syrians have suffered at the hands of Assad and foreign actors, have been victimized by the U.S. sanctions, and continue to be largely forgotten by most Americans and the international community. 

Dead Syrian boyIt’s frustrating, but understandable, that we want to lay blame somewhere.  Some want to blame President Bashar Assad, others believe the blame falls squarely on the foreign actors who have been battling Assad’s military.  I suspect, however, that the young Syrian doctor I met in Cairo in January 2013, who fled for his life and succeeded in starting a new life in Europe, cares less about placing blame and more about helping his countrymen.  Lets not forget Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who washed up on the beach.

 

 

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#GazaUnlocked #HeartlandtoGaza

The American Friends Service Committee organized an expert panel of witnesses to provide testimony about the current situation in Gaza as part of its Gaza Unlocked campaign. Check out the campaign here.

The expert testimony was held in Indianapolis, Indiana on Saturday, April 21, 2018 in the format similar to a formal hearing in Congress. The delegation from Indiana was invited to attend, including Vice President Pence, but they didn’t show up. Representative Andre Carson was unable to attend, but one of his staff members was able to attend in his place and he sent his regrets.

I showed up and watched the livestream testimony and Q &A that followed from my perch in the library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

Gaza Unlocked

Jehad Abu Salim

The three experts were certainly very well qualified to speak about Gaza. Jehad Abu Salim is from Gaza and currently studying for his PhD at NYU.  Laila El-Haddad has lived in Gaza and written extensively about Gaza. She’s the author of Gaza Kitchen. Dr. Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies specializing in the Palestinian economy, Palestinian Islamism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They each spoke about the current conditions in Gaza as well as the political dynamics of Israel’s siege and long-term blockade on the Gaza Strip. The take-away message for me was that we must educate ourselves, our family, friends and communities, and especially our members of Congress.

Social media armchair activists are not making a difference if they stay within their bubbles and comfort zones behind the computer screens. We must get out into our communities and wake Americans up to the realities of the Israeli occupation. I hope a condensed and edited version of this testimony will be made available to help us educate others.

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شكرا اصحابي Thank you my friends

I’m spending Thanksgiving in Cairo this year, waiting for permission to enter Gaza through the Rafah border. It’s been a very long wait with no end in sight. I actively started my preparations for returning to Gaza 450 days ago.

The Egyptian government tells me “لا  لا” and the U.S. Embassy tells me “no no”. The Israelis are telling my friends who are trying to enter Gaza from the north through the Erez crossing “לא לא”. Why am I still trying?  Some tell me I should have given up a long time ago.

Along this journey to Gaza I’ve met many people and learned many things. One Egyptian friend gave me reading material about Islam, which I’ve been slowly making my way through. One thing I’ve learned, but not sure I really understand, is that Muslims have a belief in destiny — each person’s destiny is written by Allah — and this belief in their destiny (good and bad) helps them persevere through difficult times and crises. “Whatever will be, will be.”

I have to have faith that my return to Gaza is in Allah’s hands, even though the governments of Egypt, Israel and the U.S. might think they control my journey.  And I don’t control it either.

(OK, I just wrote that but I’m not sure what it means.)

Many friends around the world (America, Canada, France, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Egypt) have helped me on this journey.  A big “thank you” to each of you!

As the Christmas – Hanukkah holidays approach, many will be thinking about how to help others in need. Our common humanity has been sorely tested in 2015 and we want to reach out. I urge you to consider Palestinians in your gift-giving plans, and I’m sharing some suggestions and links to help.

#1 – Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah. This year he started Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy, [a 501(c)(3)].  Instead of focusing on political activism, Sam wants to branch out and engage in more economic activism, something that tends to get sidelined in the Palestine solidarity community. Sam frequently provides independent commentary on Palestine and serves as a policy adviser of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at www.epalestine.com

#2 – We Are Not Numbers is the brainchild of an American writer and solidarity activist, Pam Bailey, to connect aspiring Palestinian writers with experienced writers and editors to mentor them on an individual basis. Read about the genesis of this new project here. In a very short time, WANN has connected many mentors and mentees, and the project is giving a voice to the voiceless.

#3 – UNRWA-USA [a 501(c)(3)] is the American arm of the UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Lora finishes the #Gaza5K in 2015.

Lora finishes the #Gaza5K in 2015.

Needless to say, the challenges that UNRWA faces on the ground in Gaza are enormous, even more daunting following Israel’s 51-day assault in 2014. Each year, UNRWA-USA organizes #Gaza5K walk/runs in the US to raise $$. They also take donations year-round.

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Children are the primary beneficiaries of MECA’s work.

#4 – Middle East Children’s Alliance – has been doing good work on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza for 25 years.  Read about some of their great projects here. MECA has a proven track record of success.  I saw some of their good work at the Afaq Jadeeda Association in the in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, in Gaza in 2012

#5 – Just World Books – Give yourself, family and friends a gift from Just World Books. The publisher, Helena Cobban, has released some important new titles about Palestine, and many are written by Palestinians.  On the top of my list is Gaza UnSilenced edited by Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad.

Gaza Unsilenced

شكرا اصحابي Thank you my friends!

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Filed under Book Review, Gaza, People, Spiritual - Religion, Video

Day #35 – August 10, 2014 – Gaza Unsilenced!

Last summer we heard ad nauseam from Mark Regev, the Israeli spokesperson, on every mainstream television channel telling us the Israeli spiel about Operation Protective Edge.   Over and over and over again.

I wanted to hear from my friends in Gaza.

When electricity was restored (typically only a few hours each day) they would “appear” on Facebook and Twitter (al-hamdulillah). A few were even interviewed by international media via Skype.

Now their voices have been unleashed, thanks to Helena Cobban at Just World Books and the co-editors of a new book, Gaza Unsilenced. Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad have collected many strong writers from Gaza and beyond to share the reality of what happened last summer from the perspective of those living (surviving) there.

I found the book in Baltimore at Red Emma’s yesterday.  In future blog posts, I’ll be sharing thoughts about the stories I read in Gaza UnSilenced. You can buy your copy online for $21 here.  Spread the word . . . please spread their voices.  Israel wants to control the narrative, diminish the Palestinians’ right to fight back with their words, and we must not let that happen. Check out the Table of Contents below.

Gaza Unsilenced - Just World Books

Gaza Unsilenced – Just World Books

Introduction

  1.  Everyone Is a Target: The Human Toll

The Story of My Brother, Martyr Mohammed Alareer (Refaat Alareer)

The Boy Who Clung to the Paramedic: The Story Behind the Photo (Belal Dabour)

My Son Asks if We Are Going to Die Today (Ghadeer al Omari)

“Wake Up, My Son!” None of Gaza’s Murdered Children Are Just Numbers (Ali Abunimah)

Devastated Family Remembers Cheerful Boy Cut Down by Israeli Fire on Gaza Beach (Rami Almeghari)

Gaza: Israel Puts Paramedics in Its Crosshairs (Mohammed Suliman)

Losing a Good Friend (Mu’taz Hilal Muhammad al-‘Azayzeh)

In Gaza’s al-Shuja’iya: “I Just Survived a Massacre” (Mohammed Suliman)

An Eyewitness to Genocide: A Night in Khuza’a (Sarah Algherbawi)

Israeli Army Uses Gaza Children as Human Shields (Rania Khalek)

Psychological Damage of Gazan Children Will Have Long-term Consequences (Lynda Franken)

A Gaza Mother amid the Airstrikes (Eman Mohammed)

Gaza: A Human Tragedy (Sarah Ali)

2.   Destitute by Design: Making Gaza Unlivable

“The Tank Shells Fell Like Rain”: Survivors of the Attack on UNRWA School Report Scenes of Carnage and Destruction (Sharif Abdel Kouddous)

Poems of Mass Destruction at Gaza University (Refaat Alareer)

Israel Destroys al-Wafa Hospital as Staff Evacuates All Patients (Allison Deger)

Water Disaster Hits Every Single Person in Gaza (Ali Abunimah)

Farming in Gaza near the Buffer Zone (Rina Andolini)

Farming under Siege: Working the Land in Gaza (Tom Anderson and Therezia Cooper)

Gaza Olive Harvest Hit Hard by War (Rami Almeghari)

Farmers Forced to Stop Growing Strawberries in Gaza (Rami Almeghari)

Destroyed Factories in Gaza: An Attempt to Rise Again (Palestine Information Center)

Gaza Fishermen “in God’s Hands” (Patrick O. Strickland and Ezz Al Zanoon)

Gaza’s Economy Shattered by Israeli Siege (Rosa Schiano)

The Great Game in the Holy Land: How Gazan Natural Gas Became the Epicenter of an International Power Struggle (Michael Schwartz)

The Ancient Mosques of Gaza in Ruins: How Israel’s War Endangered  Palestine’s Cultural Heritage (Ahmad Nafi)

3.   Elsewhere in Palestine . . . 

Administrative Detainees on Hunger Strike Issue Their Will as They Stand “at the Edge of Death” (Shahd Abusalama)

Merciless Israeli Mobs Are Hunting Palestinians (Rania Khalek)

As Israel Bombs Gaza, It Kills Palestinians in the West Bank Too (Maureen Clare Murphy)

The Constant Presence of Death in the Lives of Palestinian Children (Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian)

Palestinian Civil Society in Israel Demands Urgent Action on Gaza (The Arab Association for Human Rights)

Israel Arrests Activist for Hosting Skype Chat with Resistance Icon Leila Khaled (Patrick O. Strickland)

Arrabeh’s Eid in Gaza’s Shadow (Hatim Kanaaneh)

Why Palestinian Citizens of Israel Are No Longer Safe (Ron Gerlitz)

4.  Gaza Burns, the World Responds: Analysis and Commentary

Something Rotten in the Operations Manual (Sharif S. Elmusa)

Institutionalised Disregard for Palestinian Life (Mouin Rabbani)

International Solidarity with Palestine Grows with Israeli Assault (Beth Staton)

Gaza Traces (Kim Jensen)

Controversial, Illegal, and Documented: Israeli Military Strategies in Gaza (Sami Kishawi)

Why Gaza Fought Back (Ramzy Baroud)

Blaming the Victims (Diana Buttu)

The Palestinians’ Right to Self-Defense (Chris Hedges)

No Exit from Gaza: A New War Crime? (Richard Falk)

Egypt’s Propagandists and the Gaza Massacre (Joseph Massad)

Collective Punishment in Gaza (Rashid Khalidi)

5.  The Pen, the Keyboard, and the F-16: Creative Resistance in the Digital Age

War on Gaza, Social Media and the Efficacy of Protest (Hatem Bazian)

Social Media: The Weapon of Choice in the Gaza-Israel Conflict (Yousef al-Helou)

In Asymmetric Twitter War over Gaza: Palestinians Are Winning (Belal Dabour)

Selection of Tweets, July 5 – August 26 (Farah Baker)

Tweets from a Doctor in Gaza, July 26 (Belal Dabour)

Palestine Unbound (Excerpt) (Steven Salaita)

Palestinian Artists Illustrate the Deadly Realities in Gaza (Mariam Elba)

Three Poems for Gaza (Nathalie Handal)

Palestine, Summer 2014 (Kim Jensen)

The UN Counted the Number of Our Dead (Samah Sabawi)

Ferguson and Gaza (Zeina Azzam)

From Dawn to Dusk (Lina H. Al-Sharif)

An Unjust World (Nour ElBorno)

Seafaring Nocturne (Lena Khalaf Tuffaha)

This Miraculous Terrorism (Omar J. Sakr)

6.   51 Days Later, and Counting: The Untenable Status Quo

How Israel Is Turning Gaza into a Super-Max Prison (Jonathan Cook)

Under Siege: Remembering Leningrad, Surviving Gaza (Ayah Bashir and Esther Rappaport)

Investigators: Israel Fired on Civilians Carrying White Flags (Charlotte Silver)

Revealed: Gaza Orphans Israel Trip Was Government-Backed PR Stunt (Ali Abunimah)

Uncovering the Truth in Khuza’a (Ruairi Henchy)

A Call From Gaza: Make Israel Accountable for Its Crimes in Gaza — Intensify BDS! (Gaza Civil Society Organizations)

One Thing They Can’t Bomb (Ned Rosch)

We Shall Live to Tell the Stories of War Crimes in Gaza (Hana Baalousha)

Who Benefits from Billions Pledged for Gaza Reconstruction? (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Editors’ Afterwords

Re-humanizing Gaza (Laila El-Haddad)

When Will We Go Back Home? (Refaat Alareer)

Names of the Dead

Notes

Bibliography

About the Contributors

Acknowledgments

About the Editors

 

 

 

 

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Writing is resistance

The Gaza Writes Back book tour began in Philadelphia but I caught up with them in New York City on Friday night, many miles ago. At each stop, the writers have shared their stories and answered good questions.

Rawan Yaghi and Refaat Alareer in Manhattan

Rawan Yaghi and Refaat Alareer in Manhattan

The book includes 23 short stories from young Palestinian writers responding to the 23 days of Israel’s bombardment on the civilians in the Gaza Strip in Dec.’08-Jan. ’09, called Operation Cast Lead. Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including many women and children. The most shocking and disturbing book I’ve ever read is the Goldstone Report from the U.N. fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict* and Operation Cast Lead.

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Gaza Writes Back should come with a warning message on the cover because it may be difficult for some to read as well.

Refaat Alareer, the Editor of the book, said he decided to ask his university students to try their hand at writing fiction because he knew the therapeutic value of writing. “Writing fiction transcends everything” and “brings us back to our humanity.” He also believes fiction is timeless — connecting the past, present and future.

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Rawan, Yousef, Helena, Refaat, Sarah

Refaat knew that his students could speak for themselves. So often the narratives we hear about Israel & Palestine in the mainstream media come from the colonizer’s perspective. It seems Americans can more easily identify with that perspective. Publishing his students’ stories would be a way for Palestinians to go global with their narrative about the horrific events of Operation Cast Lead.

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Rawan Yaghi, contributor “Gaza Writes Back”

Interestingly, 12 of the 15 contributors to the book are female, which demonstrates the importance of women and their voices in the culture. They wrote their short stories in English, not Arabic, to reach a larger audience and to educate people outside of Gaza.

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Refaat Alareer, Editor “Gaza Writes Back”

Ironically, or perhaps tragically, Gaza Writes Back is available all over the world, but not in Gaza. Refaat has received tweets from people who have read the book in Europe, South Africa, Uganda, Malaysia, Argentina, New Zealand, Jerusalem and the West Bank. Last month, Medea Benjamin (CodePink) was carrying 30 copies of Gaza Writes Back when she tried to reach Gaza, but Egyptian security officials detained her at the Cairo airport, broke her arm, and deported her the following day.

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Yousef Aljamal, contributor “Gaza Writes Back”

Despite what the foreign desk of the New York Times believes, the Gaza Strip is occupied 100% — by land, sea and air. Every Palestinian in Gaza has a family member, friend or colleague who was killed or injured during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

Refaat notes that the Israelis have been doing the same thing day-after-day, year-after-year, decade-after-decade …. killing, destroying and acts of humiliation targeting Palestinians, the young and old alike.

But Palestinians are very creative in ways of resistance. Writing is resistance. Sharing their narrative with audiences in the USA on this book tour is fighting back.

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Helena and Refaat on the road again

* How anyone can call the Israel-Palestine occupation, massacres and oppression — a “conflict” — is beyond me.  An employer & employee can have a conflict. A shopkeeper & customer can have a conflict. A parent & teenager can have a conflict. An oppressor & the oppressed do NOT have a conflict. They have a life of struggle and injustices.

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Where is Sarah Ali?

In January 2013, I shared a cab ride across the Sinai desert with a Palestinian professor. He taught English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza but was then working on his PhD at a university in Malaysia. We were headed from Cairo to the border crossing at Rafah, about 250 miles. It was a very long trip. He took a manuscript out of his briefcase and handed it to me.

Actually, this story begins in September 2012 when the publisher of Just World Books heard that I was traveling to Gaza. Helena Cobban contacted me and asked if I would carry some books that had been requested by friends into Gaza. I knew there was no FED EX or postal service into the Gaza Strip. Israel has essentially tightened the screws on 1.8 million people there, and the siege makes normal delivery impossible. So I agreed.

The professor’s manuscript turned out to be the first compilation of short stories written by his students at the Islamic University of Gaza. He was hoping to get them published and he was obviously very proud of his students and very excited about the project.

Low and behold, the publisher who brought his manuscript to life a year later was Helena Cobban of Just World Books. The title they chose was perfect — Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories by Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine.

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When I learned there was a book tour planned in the U.S.A. this Spring, I was very excited but also skeptical that the professor/editor or any of the contributors would be able to make it to America. Travel out of Gaza is nearly impossible for most Palestinians, and getting a U.S. Visa is an unfulfilled dream for many.

The publisher and the other sponsor of the book tour — the American Friends Service Committee — succeeded in helping Refaat Alareer (the professor/editor), Yousef Aljamal, Rawan Yaghi, and Sarah Ali (all contributors to the book) to obtain U.S. Visas for their travel. Alhamdulillah!

The logistics seemed to be working out. A month-long tour was planned from the East Coast to the West. Check it out here.

Gaza superimposed on Manhattan, NY

Gaza Strip superimposed on Manhattan, New York

Sadly, Israeli authorities screwed up the plans.

Sarah Ali received a permit from Israel to travel from Gaza to Jerusalem to apply and interview for her U.S. Visa. However, after she received her Visa, Israel would not allow her to travel out of Gaza to Jordan to join her colleagues on tour.

Refaat and Yousef were studying in Malaysia and had no trouble traveling. Rawan was studying in London at Oxford University. The Israeli authorities couldn’t stop her from traveling.

Sarah remains in Gaza, with only a cardboard cut out sitting on stage in her place.

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Israel did not allow Sarah Ali (far right) to join her colleagues on the book tour.

 

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#Gazawritesback hangs out

Watched a Google Hangout on Thursday at the Gilroy Library with contributors to Gaza Writes Back — a new book published by Just World Books.

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Helena Cobban, Publisher

There were participants from many different time zones which boggles the mind.  4:00 PM was a very convenient time for me, but that meant Nour was sitting up at 2:00 AM in Gaza to participate, and others in Malaysia were up at 8:00 PM (the next day I think).  There were participants from London and many other time zones as well.  Difficult for me to comprehend how technology can bring us all together.

Gilroy Library

Lora watching in Gilroy Library

For me, the best part of this hour with the contributors and editor of Gaza Writes Back was hearing their voices and watching them as they read passages from the book. I felt connected to them in a way that I never could have without this Google Hangout.

Refaat Alareer, Editor, in Malaysia

Refaat Alareer, Editor, in Malaysia

Refaat teaches at the Islamic University of Gaza. He explained why he invited his English students to write following Israel’s 23-day military operation against Gaza in Dec.’08 – Jan.’09 (Operation Cast Lead).

Nour El Borno, contributor, in Gaza

Nour El Borno, contributor, in Gaza

I think the title of the book is very clever. When I first heard it — Gaza Writes Back — I thought of two things.

Rawan Yaghi, contributor

Rawan Yaghi, contributor

(1) Writes Back sounds like Fights Back – this book represents the young people (contributors are university students in their 20s) taking up pens instead of swords to respond to the horrific onslaught unleashed by Israel which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead.

Yousef Aljamal

Yousef Aljamal, contributor

(2) There are many activists worldwide trying to bring attention in their countries to the injustices of the Israeli occupation, but Palestinians have their own voices, their own stories. This book is their “wake-up call” to the world, much more real and poignant than any international activist could share.

Jehan Alfarra, contributor

Jehan Alfarra, contributor

The book includes 23 short stories, and as one writer notes it is “the latest and most dangerous weapon revealed.

You can order the book here. I sent 3 copies (one each) to my U.S. Senators and Congresswoman. Maybe I should order a copy for President Obama.

If you missed the Google Hangout, you can catch it below.  Just over an hour-long and well worth the time to hear these contributors in their own words.

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