7 April 2017

RISSE: The Refugee’s Story

The Refugee's Story: Classroom, RISSE refugee aid center, Albany, N.Y.

I spoke with Raffat Friday afternoon, some hours after American missiles struck the Syrian air force base believe to have housed the aircraft that dropped the poison gas believed to have killed two dozen Syrian children.

I knew his story and wanted to talk to him about the news.

Raffat , who is in his late 40's, came to America ago two months ago, before immigration from Syria to the United States was banned. He lives near Troy, N.Y., he buried two dead children before he left and his wife was buried in rubble from a bomb attack near the village of Aleppo, his wife's body was never found.

His house was destroyed, along with his office and his belongings.

His older son disappeared while walking to work, he believes he was taken by soldiers and is almost certainly dead. "No one who is taken returns," he said.

He was in a refugee camp for nearly two years before he was chosen by a United Nations screening group in a lottery to come to America. He was investigated and screened and is here legally.

He works in Schnectady, N.Y., he manages a grocery store and lives above it in a two-room apartment. In Syria, he was an orthopedist in a local hospital that was bombed by government planes. In January, the U.N. refugee program that saved him was shut down. No Syrian  refugees are coming to America now.

He works, pays taxes, is no drain on government or other services in the U.S. He is no threat to anyone.

He does not have the money or the strength to be certified here as  a doctor, it would take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

How, I asked him when we first talked, does he live with all of this? "Sometimes, my heart feels dead, empty," he said. "I only live to try to get my parents and cousins out. I feel like I am dead inside most of the time.  After my parents…." I don't know Raffat well, I hope to take his picture one day, his portrait would be powerful

Because his parents and cousins remain trapped in Syria, in their village and a refugee camp near the Turkish border, he politely declined to be photographed. He had been told, he said, that America was a country where he could speak freely and in safety, but he now believes that is  not true.

And he fears reprisals against his father and mother if his face was shown. In America, people have treated him courteously, he said, but nobody wants to get too close. Mostly, people avoid him. He is well-educated and well-spoken, his English is very strong

"I saw on the news that the missile attack happened because of the pictures and videos of the children who are dead. I could send them many more photographs of dead children, including my own." Raffat asked me to look at a Syrian human rights website that tracks the casualties from the civil war, and while he was on the phone, I went online and found the site. It is a heartbreaking site in so many ways.

The Syrian refugees go to it a hundred times a day, he said.

Human rights and United Nations workers report that 470,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war, 55,000 of them children.  Millions of Syrians languish in refugee campaigns, hoping to emigrate to Europe or American. All across the world, the doors are being closed to them.

it is a difficult thing to comprehend, and it is especially piercing when I see the faces of the refugee children at RISSE, the refugee immigrant and support center in Albany. RISSE's offices were destroyed in a fire set by arsonists last year, the tires on their vans were slashed. The building re-opened recently. The children feel safe in their classrooms here, resilient and at ease with one another,  far from madness and misery. Many have escaped horrors in Africa or Asia, but some of the worst slaughter of children has been in Syria.

"Our children have been dying for years now, in unimaginable numbers," he said, "why can't we try to save those that are still alive? As a father, it was my duty to protect my family. I failed them, I failed everyone,  there is no forgiveness for this."

Raffat says most of the adult casualties are men, breadwinners and heads of families, their wives and children are often helpless and unprotected, they flood the refugee camps in Turkey and the countries of Europe. "These are not terrorists," he said, "they are the victims of terrorists. They have nowhere to go."

He urged me to see a documentary called Children Of Syria, about four orphans from Aleppo made it to a new life in Germany. He has watched it 100 times, he imagines when he sees it that perhaps his son is alive, and also got out of Syria. "I know he is not one of them, but I just dream it," he says. And weeps.

Sometimes, he says he prays that he is dead, and died quickly. Then he is ashamed.

Raffat said if I wished, he could show me photographs of his dead and missing children. Maybe, he said, that will change things, since the poison gas photos did, that, he said, seemed to change things in Washington. I said I would love to see them. I will post them on my blog, I said, so that they can be seen and remembered.

I asked him about the missiles. "This is what politicians do," he said. "They can replace a few planes," he said, "this will not save a single child, or free one of them from horrible camps. Thousands more children die every week from bombs and bullets and disease and starvation than are killed by poison gas. No one cares about them, no one tries to stop it or punish anyone for it,  the children who die in so many other ways. There are thousands of pictures of dead and wounded children in Syria. They don't need gas to kill children, they know many ways to do it. The world has closed their hearts to them, America has closed its heart to them.  Are the missiles for the children? The children can't eat missiles or fill their bellies or be warm with them.  The bombs will still fall on them. We all know that by next week no one will be paying attention to the dying and dead children of Syria any more. I know. "

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In The Deep Woods, A Tree House

In The Deep Woods, A Tree House

In the deep woods, a tree house, once used by two children who lived in a big old farmhouse nearby. They often slept there, and hit out there when they needed a refuge. It is vacant now. We can hear the frogs, the peepers now. I imagine it was a magical place for children.

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Pirate Dog In The Woods

Pirate Dog In The Woods

The Pirate Dog loves the woods, she roams freely until she finds the right stick and then she rushes back to us and dares us to throw it. She believes in her own cleverness and is fearless, running through mud and water and bushes guarded by thorns. She will chase the stick to the ends of the earth.

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Being Crazy: You Get To Recover Every Day And Be Strong.

Recover Every Day

My friend Jane opened my eyes to my life in a way, we often talked on the phone and we met once in a while. We both suffered from mental illness – me from anxiety, her from depression – and we both joked often about being crazy. It kept us from going crazy.

When she lay dying from ovarian cancer, I went to see her, she said she wanted to say goodbye, and I sat with her awhile.  We were always honest with one another – there are few people who know how to be honest or can stand it. She looked over towards me just as I got up to leave, and she said, "you know, I envy you in many ways for being crazy."

"Really?," I  replied, "how so?"

Because, she said,  you get to recover every day, she said, leaving he rest of her sentence unfinished. And I get to die.

"We are all children who lose our parents," writes the author Moshin Hamid (Exit West),  "all us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this…it might be possible…to believe in humanity's potential to build a better world.."

Mental illness is at the core of my relationship with Maria, aside from the fact I have always thought she must be crazy to love me.

it brought us together in so many ways, and our understanding and support for one another sustains us and nourishes our love for one another. How curious that something I was so ashamed of for so long and hid for so long has brought me so much love and happiness and healing.

Being crazy shapes everything in my life – where I live, my writing, my friendships, my love, my politics, my photography, this blog, my connection to the animals. It is often the prism through which I see the world.

When I watch Donald Trump, I don't think of him as a politician to hate on the left or the right, I see a gifted and driven man who is ill in many of the ways in which I have been ill, the insecurity, rage, obsessions, cruelty and domination,  a man who cannot ask for help or acknowledge the true sources of his suffering.

He lacks the one thing mental illness teaches us and a President sorely needs – empathy, and thus he becomes frightening to so many people. One day I looked in the mirror and said, "I am crazy, I have suffered, I need help," and my world began to turn around, to heal, almost like one of those Disney movies where the prince or princess suddenly comes back to life.

I learned to stand in the shoes of other people, just as I desperately needed someone to stand in mine.

Our way of being political –  a very male way – promotes cruelty and argument, we are insecure, and cannot acknowledge the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge. Washington feels like a Monster Men's Locker Room to me, and I hope enough women get there to save it.

And empathy is important in a leader. If you deny it in yourself, how can you possibly see it in others and help them?

Maria and I see this so clearly in one another, and the India trip has brought all of this back home to us.

She agreed to go to India last summer, and neither of us realized how  difficult and exhausting and important a trip it would be for her, or how much it would trigger so many of the issues that have so challenged her in her life and me in mine – the abuse, fear and voicelessness she has worked so hard overcome.

She went to India for three weeks, but it turns out the trip was much longer than that, its shadows and echoes continue now. It has brought up a lot of the old fear and uncertainty, affected her sleep, her body, her sense of well-being.  She's had some rough weeks, we both have, the trip was a great thing for her to do, but it also brought her back, it was so intense, challenging and jarring.

I am seeing the trip was jarring for me too, in a number of ways I didn't expect. I experienced aloneness again, saw clearly the limits of what I can do on the farm by myself, it upended the careful equilibrium crazy people learn how to bring to their lives to stay grounded.

The crazy people do not ever quite heal, their suffering is embedded in their bodies and souls. It comes and goes, rises and falls, and what you hope for – what we have done – is to move ahead, get help when necessary, bring it into the open, do what we have learned to do to help ourselves. And yes, make sure to find people who are sympathetic and nourishing.

We know a lot about our illnesses now,  we have been working on them for years together, and I admire Maria for the forthright way in which she has seen these problems, acknowledged them, talked about them, and is getting help in the right places.

Her body began to hurt in new  ways after she got back – she is very hardy and healthy – and she went to see a healing chiropractor and yesterday, she went to see an acupuncturist in Vermont, she came home in a state of calm and exhaustion that was almost frightening, and slept for 12 hours.

Something, she said, was be released. She will talk to me, walk in the woods, do her yoga, meditate, some good PSTD books are on the way from Amazon, we will read them and talk about them. She will recover. Me too. We recover every day. She wrote about this experience today on her blog, "Finding My Way To The Expanded Me."

Her body was changed this morning, her spirit too.

She is calmer, it feels as if something in her body was discharged.

She is going back for more acupuncture next week. She has been researching and exploring the effects of PTSD, figuring out what belongs to the body and what to the mind, and how the trip has triggered the demons once more. Neither of us foresaw that this is often the consequence of a journey like the one to India.

Maria and I both suffer from PTSD, we talk often about its triggers and symptoms, red books and articles.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a disorder that develops in some people, it is triggered by an abuse or terrifying event or events, it causes flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety. It affects the mind and the body in separate and different ways.

For both of us, one of the hardest things is owning the abuse we have suffered in different ways and at different points in our lives. We just don't wish to see ourselves in that way, but if you don't see yourself that way and speak up about it, you cannot really heal.

I deal with this in my writing, Maria in her art. That is sometimes not enough.

We now know what we didn't know when we met. We can handle it.  We love our lives and our work and our time together.

We both know she will come to understand it and transcend this, that is what she does. For the mentally ill, every trauma is a gift, we are moved to heal and learn and return to life. We learn again and again not that we are weak and disturbed, but that we are strong and resilient.

That is what her and my life are really about in many ways.

Mental illness offers perspective, we shed drama and argument, and people who do not nourish and understand us.

We learn how to protect ourselves and  how to heal. I think I will call the acupuncturist myself, after watching Maria last night I see once again that it is impressive and for real.

The difference for Maria and I both is that we recover now, every day, just as my very good friend Jane predicted before she died. We don't have to die, at least not yet. That is perspective.

And that is also the gift of being crazy, and its unique virtue. Recovery is the gift that keeps on giving. Every day get we get better, we learn more, we know how to live peacefully and happily in the world.

There is help. And help helps.

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