Tag Archives: Turkey

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

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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Oil addiction and US foreign policy

Late in life (sadly too late I fear) I’ve learned to question the conventional orthodoxy I was raised on by a western liberal education and western media. Yes, I certainly received an excellent education in Minnesota in the 1950s-1960s, and I was encouraged by family and mentors to think for myself. Only through travel and experiencing the “other” firsthand, however, did I really learn to question many preconceived notions that shaped my understanding of the “truth.”

One example.

If Americans care at all about the turmoils and regime changes that seem to plague the Middle East, we simplistically chalk it up to “their problems” – “their inability to support stable, democratic governments” – “their backwardness” – “their failures to promote progress despite all of our good intentions and interventions to help.”  (Sound familiar?)

I’m now convinced that the editors at the New York Times (Washington Post, etc.), the news managers at CNN (NBC, ABC, etc.), the Big Oil and Arms industry, AND OUR GOVERNMENT have deliberately fostered this skewed worldview among Americans to support (or at least not to oppose) their opportunistic foreign policy agendas.

Decade upon decade of complacency and our unquestioning allegiance to American exceptionalism has neutered the public’s ability to grasp what’s really going on in the Middle East. We remain oblivious to our peril.

We have a chance now to correct our misconceptions. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has written a thorough but digestible history of U.S. interventions and covert actions in the Middle East leading up to the current debacle in Syria.  Syria: Another Pipeline War, February 25, 2016 published online at Ecowatch. He connects the dots with names, dates, facts and resources to make this a MUST READ for Americans and anyone else who wishes to grasp the current realities on the ground today.

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Many people in the Middle East understand this history all too well, and they view current events through this lens. If Americans don’t wake up and grasp this reality, we’ll pay the price in lost lives, treasure and our own moral compass (to say nothing of the dead and wreckage we leave behind in these countries).

Please suspend your disbelief and read Robert F. Kennedy’s article. Then share it far and wide.

 

 

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Mavi Marmara – 4 years and counting

Imagine this.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declares Manhattan off limits to everyone.  No one can enter, no one can leave without his approval. Every shipment of food, clothes, medicines, textbooks, building supplies —- all of it —- must be approved by Cuomo before it’s allowed into Manhattan. By land, sea or air — the blockade is complete — nothing gets in or out.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

OK – I know this sounds far-fetched, but humor me.

You may agree with his decision to isolate the 1.6 million (2012) New Yorkers living in Manhattan, or not.  It doesn’t really matter. The reality is that Cuomo has maintained a suffocating siege on Manhattan for seven years and there is no end in sight, despite the pleas from the United Nations, many in the UK Parliament,  Australia and elsewhere.

A panel of five independent U.N. human rights experts says the siege violates international law, and is collective punishment in “flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Gaza superimposed on Manhattan, NY

Gaza superimposed on Manhattan

In May 2010, a flotilla of 6 boats from Baltimore tried to break the siege on Manhattan. The organizers announced their plans, there were no secrets or attempts to deceive anyone. They knew they ran the risk of irritating Cuomo and possibly encountering a violent response. When Cuomo heard of their plans, he warned them not to try to break the siege.

These activists knew in their hearts that they were on the right side, that the blockade was illegal under international law, and they felt a tremendous sense of solidarity with everyone living in Manhattan – “the largest open air prison in the world.”

Mavi Marmara

Mavi Marmara

Activists from 50 different countries in 6 boats decided to break Cuomo’s siege. They carried 10,000 tonnes of aid to Manhattan.  As the flotilla approached Manhattan, Cuomo’s commandos descended from a helicopter onto the Mavi Marmara.

There is a dispute about what happened next.  Cuomo claimed the activists attacked his commandos, and the activists claim that the commandos shot and killed 9 activists execution style.  (A 10th recently died of his wounds.) The Guardian reported:

What is certainly true is that shortly after the assault, all communications with the flotilla were blocked. Mobile phones, satellite phones and internet access all went down, making it all but impossible to glean any account from the passengers about what had happened, beyond the few minutes that were captured on film. Cuomo’s version of events became the only one available in any detail.

In the past 4 years, there have been fact-finding missions to piece together what really happened on the Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010.

Baltimore’s Mayor and Cuomo have attempted to reconcile and there have been discussions of Cuomo paying compensation to the families of the victims, but no agreement has been reached yet. Two years ago, a Baltimore court charged four of Cuomo’s men, and prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for their crimes. Earlier this week, the court issued arrest warrants for the four men.

Cuomo’s response?  He laughed it off and thinks the whole judicial process against his men is merely politics.

No respect for the rule of law —- in 2010 or today.

Check out video footage of the attack on the Mavi Marmara taken by one of the passengers.

 

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Finding the future in the most unlikely of places

What to make of these recent news items?  I’m scratching my head.

  • In early June, Edward Snowden disclosed the massive NSA surveillance program that has been tracking you, me and everyone else.
  • On Tuesday, June 11, Turkish police arrested at least 47 lawyers at the Hall of Justice in Istanbul.  According to the Progressive Lawyers Association of Turkey, the lawyers were in the process of issuing a press release relating to the protests when their arrests began.

  • On Friday, June 14, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $638 Billion defense budget which forbids President Obama from closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. About the same time, the Pentagon released a 15-page list of names — 166 men who are detained indefinitely at Guantanamo — no trial, no rights, no future.  Is Congress just consigning them to a deep, dark hole?
  • On Monday, June 17, Hamas announced it has deployed a 600-strong force to prevent rocket fire at Israel. 
  • And the Standing Man in Istanbul (Erdem Gunduz) stood silently for hours staring at a picture of Ataturk (Turkey’s founder) and inspired similar protests in other cities in Turkey and throughout the world — Milan, Stuttgart, Amsterdam, Times Square in NYC, and even Las Vegas, Nevada.
Standing in Amsterdam

Standing in Amsterdam

How do I connect these dots?

The path to a new world may not pass through the traditional halls of power.  They’ve become corrupted and I’m not sure they can be fixed.  The change we need and the future we hope for may be in the hands of some unlikely people — whistle blowers, lawyers taking personal and professional risks, people standing silently for hours, and even groups formally designated as terrorist organizations.

This feels like a momentous time.

 

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Mavi Marmara three years later

Istanbul has a very large waterfront, perhaps the city with the largest waterfront in the world.  (I don’t know, but I can’t think of another one.)

The city sits on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

This waterfront is both a blessing and a curse.

Historically it opened up the city to foreign trade and commerce.  As a result, Istanbul is truly a bustling, cosmopolitan city today.  Prime Minister Erdogan and President Obama mentioned last week in the press conference at the White House that they want to increase trade between our two countries.

Istanbul waterfront

Istanbul waterfront

But this waterfront also left the city vulnerable. Many battles were waged to gain control over this strategic spot highlighting the city’s violent history.  The great forts and thick walls are still visible today.

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A battle of another sort occurred three years ago (May 31, 2010) onboard a Turkish ship called the Mavi Marmara.  Along with 5 other ships, the passengers on the Mavi Marmara attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza to bring humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

The Mavi Marmara

The Mavi Marmara

Nine Turkish citizens (one with dual US citizenship) were killed that night by Israeli commandos who boarded the Mavi Marmara in international waters to prevent the ship from reaching Gaza.  [Under any other circumstances, their actions would have been considered an act of piracy!]

Midnight on the Mavi Marmara” edited by Moustafa Bayoumi, is a good resource for those interested in learning more.   And this video (one hour) is also a good resource.  The Israeli commandos board the ship about 35-40 minutes into the video.

Understandably, there was international outrage over Israel’s actions on the Mavi Marmara.  Turkey threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Israel and demanded an apology.

Three years later, after Secretary of State John Kerry expressed sympathy for the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara, comparing the violence on the Mavi Marmara with the violence at the Boston Marathon, he was criticized by Israeli politicians.

Asked about the recent thawing of relations between Israel and Turkey, Kerry said of the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, “I know it’s an emotional issue with some people. I particularly say to the families of people who were lost in the incident, we understand these tragedies completely and we sympathize with them. And nobody — I mean, I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence and something happens and you lose people that are near and dear to you. It affects a community, it affects a country. We’re very sensitive to that.”

On May 17th, Kerry met with Ahmet Doğan, whose son Furkan Doğan was one of the Mavi Marmara victims.  Reportedly, he handed a note to Kerry for President Obama.

I have no idea what this father might have written but I hope he asked Obama to do everything in his power to hold Israel accountable for the death of his son. So long as the Israeli Occupation Forces can act with impunity, no one is safe.

Furkan Doğan, Turkish-American citizen, was the youngest victim on the Mavi Marmara (May 31, 2010)

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