17 May 2017

American Portrait: Ali And Rena

Ali And Rena

Ali (Amjad Abdullah Mohammed) told me he wanted to meet Rena, an immigrant from Yemen. When she saw him, she threw herself into his arms and the love between them both shined brightly. Ali is committed to these children, and they sense it. They are especially loving, a bunch even came over to hug me.

I feel like Ali is a brother, we just connect and talk so easily to one another, we yak on the phone several times a day. We get each other. These children are radiant, they have very powerful spirits, despite their struggles. I am glad Ali will be visiting the farm twice a week through July and August, bringing his small army of children to get out into the country.

To me, this is a very American portrait.

A great use of the farm.

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Success! It Took Awhile, But 100 Refugee Kids Are Coming To Bedlam.

Coming To Bedlam: Brother Francis

I met for several  hours in Albany today with Brother Francis Rengabo, he spent 11 years in a Ugandan refugee camp before the United Nations helped him get to America. He is the director of operations at RISSE, the refugee and immigration support center for New York's Capital Region.

We formalized an ongoing relationship with Bedlam Farm that will begin with bringing 100 refugee children – the entire after school and day care class at RISSE to Bedlam Farm over the summer. Starting in July, 14 kids and teachers will come to the farm every Tuesday and Thursday.

The children and their teachers will come in groups of 10 to 14, we have to get all of them here over a six or seven week period.

They will watch Red and Fate work, meet the donkeys, learn about sheep, meet some farmers, get some pizza from the Round House Cafe, see Ed Gulley's amazing dairy farm. Maria and I pleaded for this opportunity, we are eager  to meet them and show them our world. Many of these children have grown up in refugee camps, sometimes for their whole lives, and they have seen some awful things.

We are excited to be hosting them in different groups, Ali will be driving them on their Tuesday and Thursday visits. We are not charging them and RISSE will pay for their transportation costs. We will work out some deal with the Round House for the pizza – many of these kids have never had pizza or seen one.

I will walk about writing, Maria will talk about her art, and we will invite some of the talented people in our town to come and talka about their work. I might bring some of them to the Mansion.

I was telling them about sheepherding and they were mystified, several of the children confided in me that they eat dogs where they came from and hope my dogs will not be eaten after the demonstrations. I promised them that would not happen. There are very few countries in the world where people could or would spend thousands of dollars on dogs and their health.

Brother Francis agreed to arrange interviews and photographs and home visits for some of the refugees – I met my first Syrian children today, their stories are harrowing – so I can try to tell the truth about them and the refugee and immigrant experience.

I agreed to help them with some fund raising projects. They want to put on an end-of-school carnival for the summer school, they hope to rent some jumping and bouncing equipment. I said I would try to help. Brother Francis said RISSE will be setting up two special Paypal accounts – one for the soccer team and the other for RISSE itself.

Hundreds of you have messaged or mailed me asking how you can help these refugees and this way, you can donate money directly to them without passing it through me, and I will be glad not to have to keep track of it all. I will keep you posted on what is needed, you can follow that on the blog.

You can choose the projects you care to support, or not support any at all. Your support has already made a difference. I have been raising money for the Saturday Soccer Team trips to the beach and state parks. Thanks for helping, we are halfway there.

RISSE is struggling, they need a lot of help, and they do an astounding amount of good. I am committed to doing all I can to help them, especially the children, including finding private tutors for them and doing some teaching myself.

Ali (Amjad Abdullah Mohammed)  will be driving them. The visits to Bedlam Farm connect us to the refugee experience in very direct ways, and I have been working hard to make this connection. I will honor it and try to do some good. Ali wants to take me home to Egypt with him later this year to meet his fiance and family, I'm not sure that will work. I'd love to go.

it will take a few days to set up the Paypal accounts, but you can always donate through the website if you wish. I thank the dozens of people who send Ali messages after his car crash, he was shocked and delighted. He said he thinks I am a wizard of some kind. He is one of the most loving and empathetic man I have ever known, his devotion to his kids is remarkable.

Connecting with the refugees is the longest negotiation I have had in my long life,  I have been working on it since November. there is great fear and caution surrounding the refugees, I was asked to reassure a lot of people about my intentions.  One teacher wanted to read my blog for a month before she was sure I was okay. (She loves Red and Maria).

I can photograph anyone I wish with their permission.  I am touched to meet all of the volunteers who are helping at RISSE.

I am also going to focus on the soccer team, a loving and impressive group of young men. They don't need much, just some occasional birthday gifts and cake and hot dogs. They need encouragement and support, I am going to see them in Williamstown, Mass. this coming weekend for one of their first games.

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Refugee Portrait: Regina, Who Walked Across Africa To Be Free


I met Regina this afternoon, and began to hear her story. Her beautiful smile and easy manner did not prepare me for what i heard. Regina walked from the South Sudan to Uganda to escape violence  and genocide, it took her three months and her son died along the way.

She was in a refugee camp for some years, and managed to get to America legally, her four surviving children are here, and she is taking classes so she can work to support her family. I am undertaking a portrait series on the refugees of RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center in Albany.

She is grateful to be in America, where she is free and can live free of fear for herself and the lives of her children.She is working seven days a week to put her shattered life together, with grace and kindness and without complaint. She is as gentle as she seems, she has not come here to harm us, take our jobs, or kill us.

She has the most radiant smile. I could not smile while I heard it.

I feel a powerful connection with the refugees at RISSE, because I come from a refugee family, and there but for the grace of God, go I, and so many others. I will never forget the refugees, as my family was not forgotten.

The staff at RISSE has  met with me a number of times and given me permission to meet the refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East and photograph them and talk to them as well as visit their homes. I look forward to this in the coming months, this is important work and I am privileged to share it with you.

Regina is not seeking any money or other financial support, she is self-sufficient and independent and is just happy to be alive and in America, she risked her life and sacrificed a child to get here. Her husband was left behind. Donations to RISSE, which provides classes, day care and counseling would be welcome.

I hope there are ways that I can help her. She wants to visit the farm and see animals again.

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Mansion And Cat Update, We Got The Money. And Exercise Time With Red

Exercise Time

People care about animals, and cat lovers are an intensely loyal group. I especially loved this fund-raising effort to pay for Summer's vet bill this weekend as she is spayed and given blood tests to make sure she is healthy. The money came in very quickly, and one of the sweetest things about it was that most of it can in small amounts – $5, $10, and just a few minutes ago, some $2 contributions.

For some reason, those mean a great deal. We will go over the $200 requested, and that is almost surely a good thing, because that is an estimate, and it could easily go higher, and if my own experience is any indicator, it will. I discussed this with Morgan at the Mansion today and she requested that any overage go into a Summer credit account at the vet, so that her future care will be covered.

This is, I think, one of the very good things about this kind of support. If a lot of people give small amounts, we get there quickly. It is the most  democratic form of community building I have ever seen. It is a gift to be a part of it.

I'll bring a check to the Mansion tomorrow. It's not absolutely clear where Summer will end up, but this vet care will go a long way towards insuring that she is healthy if she comes, and spayed as well. One resident has some health concerns, but the staff is talking with doctors about it and they will do what is best for all concerned. Summer has a great home to go if necessary.

My guess is she will stay there, she has already connected with a number of the residents, slept in bed (on the sly) with a couple and keeps people company when they sit on the porch.

I loved this story and this fund-raising effort, the Army Of Good has racked up another win for compassion and empathy, and this one seemed filled with joy. I loved reading the messages that came in with your donations. This afternoon, I went to Albany to talk to RISSE (refugee and immigration support) staffers about helping some of the individual students who are interested in art or special studies. I think I have found some teachers who will tutor them for free.

I also brought Red in to visit the exercise class quickly, he did a quick circuit around the room. Peggie was very relieved to see him, we visited Connie in her cool and comfortable air-conditioned room, she is cranking out caps for dialysis patients at local hospitals.

A good day for the Mansion, I think, and your letters and messages continue to come in, which is wonderful. Those do as much as any other kind of gift. Thanks much for helping Summer, I think you have brightened some lives once more.

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Need Some Help To Bring The Mansion Cat Inside. Her Name Is Summer.

Help For The Mansion Cat From The Army Of Good.

She has a name – Summer – and she wants to live in the Mansion, an assisted care facility in the town of Cambridge, N.Y. The Mansion residents want to her to live there, and I have agreed to help. This should be a pleasant task for the Army Of Good.

I wrote the other day about this as yet unnamed female stray that has adopted the Mansion, crept in at night to sleep on Connie's bed, charmed the residents and the staff, and touched off the usual Internet firestorm. Sometimes, she appears on a sofa where the residents are sitting, or on a porch chair outside.

After I posted the story on the blog, all sorts of people contacted the Mansion from everywhere, offering plentiful advice and concern,  including the man who took her in before she ended up at the Mansion.

It's a long story, but  the staff has figured out her entire history.

A local man found her on the street, took her in and he realized she had kittens beneath his porch. He was driving her to the vet and stopped for coffee,  she got out of his car and made her way to the Mansion, a mile away. She is very happy there, she roams the grounds in the day time and slithers in when she can.

The very nice man says he is keeping the kitten but he can't keep her.

We have temporarily named the cat Summer (Connie did, that is.)

Connie, Queen of the Mansion,  would like her to stay. Many people from all over have called or e-mailed to check on her, she is very sweet and social. Legally, the Mansion can take her in, but there is one issue: one of the residents has cat allergies.

The doctors all say it would be safe if they vacuumed and brushed her, and have given the okay to adopting her, but the resident has to agree. He is thinking about it. Obviously, the Mansion will not take any risks with the health of the residents. I imagine he might be persuaded.

Saturday, the staff is chipping in to get Summer to the vet in nearby Hoosick Falls to be spayed and get her blood work and shots. It will cost them $200 if there are no problems. They don't make much money working at the Mansion, and I'd love to pick up the vet costs.

If I can raise $200 from the Army Of Good, the staff and I will make up the rest.

Summer has a very good chance of staying at the Mansion, the staff is already plotting how to brush her, keep the place clean, and keep her a way from the allergic resident, who is in a room away from the main floor.

I think it can happen if she gets a clean bill of health. If that doesn't work out, the Mansion staff – Morgan and Mandi in particular – have found someone who will take Summer in and give her a good and safe home.

But I believe she belongs there. She's a doll and they love her. This is a practical decision, and the Mansion administrators will have to make it with the best interests of the patients in mind. I am content to leave them to make that decision, I know they will make the right one.

Summer crept into Connie's room one night and slept on the bed with her. She has regular residents she visits and she often hangs out on the porch. No one can figure out how she gets inside or sees her come and go. Having been through this with barn cats, we all know if she wants to get in, she will find a way.

So if you wish to help, you can send a check to Summer Fund, c/o Bedlam Farm, 2502 State Route 22, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816 or to Paypal via Friends And Family (my ID is jon@bedlamfarm.com). I think some small amounts ought to do it, the Army of Good is growing bigger by the day. Please note the money is for the Summer Cat Fund. And thanks. This is truly fun, it always feels better to do good than to argue about doing good.

(My next project for the Mansion is to help them purchase six outdoor plastic chairs and a light table so they can have picnics and activities outside. It is hot in there. But that's after the cat.)

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