21 May 2017

Bringing Home The Bacon (Er…Bread)

(Er, The Bread)

If you live with Maria for any length of time, or go out to dinner with her, you will notice right away that she always orders bread, but rarely, if ever, eats any. I understand this odd habit now, I see her collect the bread carefully at the end of the meal, wrap it in a paper napkin, but put it in one of her coat or jacket pockets, or sometimes, the purse she carries.

The bread, I now know, is for the animals. When she gets back to the farm, she goes outside and unwraps the bread and gives it out in little pieces to the sheep and the donkeys, who gather around her and wait – usually patiently – for their turn. If they get too boisterous, Red will move in and organize things.

He does not permit sheep to crowd me or Maria, ever.

Sometimes – often actually – Maria, whose mind is always sparkling with her art, will forget the bread, and it is a rare week she doesn't pull some rock hard old and very stale bread out of her pocket, usually adding, "oh, this is the bread from the Round House, I got it in December."

This is no longer and unusual or surprising event in our loves. Maria has a great huge heart, and she is always thinking of the animals. Even if the bread is stale or months old – the record is about two years, fossilized wheat bread in a winter jacket – she will not throw it out, but break it up and find a way to give it to the chickens. No food is wasted or tossed out in our home.

I came across a bread gathering yesterday and I was almost overcome with love for this person, whose generosity and empathy are truly boundless, for all of the living things on the earth, including me.

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Portrait, Meung. A Hundred Grandchildren

A Hundred Grandchildren

Maung is a young student in the RISSE day care program. He is from Burma I am helping him to be able to stay enrolled during the summer months and with some other projects. We have clicked, I'm not sure how or why. We seem to get one another.

When Maria and I showed up at the soccer game, Meung came running all across the very wide field to greet me and give me a big hug, something that happens often when I visit these kids. I know he has had a difficult time.

I've asked Ali and others about it, and they tell me that in other cultures – the Middle East, Africa, Asia – the elderly are revered and treated with respect and affection. This is a bit of a shock to me, because I often feel that the elderly in America are ignored and discarded.

They certainly are not revered.

When I began working with these children, several people in the program told me that it would be like having 100 grandchildren, and I found the idea strange and hard to fathom. But it is true. I feel like I have 100 grandchildren and I have a growing love for them, and feel love in return.

In America, children are often taught to fear strangers, especially older ones. In the refugee cultures, they are taught to listen to them and respect, even love, them. It is a curious gift for me, and another bright spot that comes from sometimes troubling times.  I got a bunch of hugs today.

I have a grandchild of my own, and love her very much, but I don't expect to have any other grandchildren. But I think I do now. That is a gratifying and rewarding gift all of its own. It is a sacred thing to give, and to love, and a sacred gift to be loved. I look forward to getting to know Maung better and helping him in any way I can. I know there are a lot of struggles in his life, and perhaps I can be of some use.

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Portrait: Heiku, RISSE Goaltender

The Determined Goaltender

Heiku was the RISSE Goaltender, and while I know nothing about soccer, I know something about grit and determination. Heiku was all over the goal, blocking kicks and diving after the ball. He was limping  for much of the game, but managed to hide it. He was defiant and impressive.

It's interesting about the refugee children, they process trouble and disappointment differently than many kids I have seen in America. They have a different perspective on life and accept hardship and suffering as something that is inevitable, not shocking. Many have been through a great deal an are grateful for their lives and for the chance to learn.

Heiku is from Thailand and I loved his pose when I asked if I could photograph him.

Ali shouted out praise of Heiku a hundred times. He kept the game close for almost all of it.

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At Halftime, A Pep Talk For The RISSE Soccer Team

The RISSE Soccer Team

I was standing next to Ali when I heard him mutter "oh, no, they are giving the whole team a rest," and he saw the entire opposing team come off of the field to rest and be replaced with fresh players. "My God," he said, "how many players do they have?"
Ali did not have any replacement players, the team on the field was it and they had to keep going, and they did, without complaint. He was up against wealthy suburban America, where they take their athletics seriously.

At half-time, Ali sat the team down and pointed out their strengths and weaknesses, moved some players around, demonstrated to moves to disrupt the opposition. Nobody talked or laughed or moved, they soaked up every word and went right out and scored three goals in the second half.

Not enough to win, but enough to feel proud and committed.

Then, back into the RISSE van for the trip back to Albany. Next time I'm bringing Red, he inspires people.

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The RISSE Soccer Team Goes To Williams College

Bloody But Unbowed

The RISSE Soccer Team Of Albany played two games valiantly Sunday, and lost both of them. Maria and I joined them for the 5 p.m. game held against a local team at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

I know nothing about soccer other than that the teams raced back and forth feverishly and kick, butt and maneuver the soccer ball. I was struck by Ali's (Amjad Abdullah Mohammed) serious and vigilant coaching. He was clear and demanding.

When two of the players on the sidelines began to wrestle, he sent the instigator to run six laps along the side of the field. I could not help notice how the local team differed from the RISSE team. There were  twice as many players (they all got to rest several times during the game, the RISSE kids got only the half-time break, they ran all hour) they had friends and family cheering for them (RISSE had Ali and me and Maria), and the other team had a lot of sporty clothes and equipment.

The refugee kids worked hard and were valiant. But they got worn down. They never quit, but they tired. And it was their second game of the day.

Maria and I brought bags of games and puzzles to surprise the kids after the game (there was a half-eaten box of Domino pizza on the van seat.) I met the team's only female player, Mya Noe Aung.

Williamstown is a wealthy Berkshires town, the home of Williams College, one of the richest and most exclusive colleges in America. It felt like that on this beautiful day and on this beautiful and scrupulously maintained field.  I could see, in a way, the long climb these kids will have as they adjust to America. Their parents were too busy working to come to most of their games, and few of them have cars.

The team has to scrounge for every piece of equipment. The contrast between them and their opponents were quite visible, the other team players were much bigger. They had an enthusiastic cheering section. But the kids were impressive. They were determined and motivated. They ran hard.

If this bothered anyone, no one said a word about it. These children are used to much worse hardship, I never hear them complain or express any sense of victimization.

Ali is very clearly a father figure to them, they revere him and listen to him. He cares about them.  They work very hard for him.

Ali understands well what kinds of character will be required for them to assimilate with and advance through the American system, and he demands hard work and concentration. There was no messing around or lagging of any kind on the team.

He spent hours picking each team member up, driving them to their games, driving each one home. Williamstown is about an hour-and-a-half from Albany.

He is loving but vigilant, he puts up with no nonsense or immaturity, and the kids respect him for that. The more I see of this man, the more I respect him. He wants me to go to Egypt and the Sudan next year when he goes to visit his family. We'll see. I'm tempted.

Ali watched every play and called in encouragement and challenge. I was glad to be there, next time I'll bring Red along, everyone was asking for him. He will help give the team a lift.

The team has raised enough money to pay the surprisingly expensive fees for games in their league. They have the uniforms they need, and a shoe store donated their sneakers. They have been practicing faithfully.

I think the best thing I can bring is some encouragement and cheerleading. Some help is necessary. The only thing they have asked for his help on Saturday excursions in the summer and some funding for birthday parties.

This help is welcome, if you wish to contribute you can send money to me c/o Bedlam Farm, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816 or to Paypal (friends and family) to me, my ID is jon@bedlamfarm.com. Please mark it "RISSE Soccer" so I can keep track of it and keep the books in order. We have already raised about half of the $780 necessary to fund the summer excursions, the only organized activity man of these children have this summer in the city).

In the next weeks, RISSE is launching two new Paypal accounts so people can contribute directly to the team or to RISSE. The refugee and immigration center of the Emmaus Methodist Church in Albany, N.Y. In the meantime, it's me.

This is the group that is coming to the farm next Saturday or the following Saturday. I'll know tomorrow. We're  excited about it and about 100 more are following them in visits running through July and August.

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