2 August 2017

“We Refugees”

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt's "We Refugees" was written in 1943, after Arendt, one of the world's greatest moral philosophers, was driven from Nazi Germany. Her essay is considered one of the classic writings about being a refugee or an immigrant, and today, I was drawn to go back and re-read it as America considers re-defining what an immigrant is.

It is just as powerful to me as it was when I first read it some years ago. And as I meet more refugees and immigrants, I also see how timely it is for me.

I consider myself a refugee, which is strange for someone who was born here and was never persecuted by anyone outside of my family. I come from refugees. was raised by refugees and English teachers, I grew up around refugees, I have struggled with identity and place my whole life, which I have been told is common among children from  refugee families. I was close enough to breath it and touch it – the fear, the disconnection, the struggle to adjust to an impossible and often brutal reality.

In a curious sense, I re-defined myself as a refugee when I moved from the city to the country, once again, I experienced the feeling of belonging nowhere, and I feel it still. I will never have a natural home again, I will always be an outsider, I can never go back or be fully accepted here or anywhere. In the city, it was worse.

It is this sense of estrangement and wandering and a forever cloudy identity that defines a refugee. We all need to belong to something, and when everything we have known or loved is torn away from us, we are adrift, like a meteor sailing through space.

I was thinking about this all day after I heard the news about the new plan to cut immigration in half and close the door on people who don't speak English, or who are poor and "unskilled."

Our common values are shattered, Arendt wrote, when we allow our weakest members to be excluded and persecuted, when we slam our doors on the neediest and most vulnerable. As a refugee, I have always loved America for aspiring to something great, even if it often failed.

This, wrote Arendt, is "a message that projects a long arm into the present and can be read in the current global context that sees indifference and outright hostility to refugees, a political and social attitude that can come only at the price of exacerbating tensions and rupturing the moral fabric of the perpetrators of such indifference and hostility."

I never take the news personally, but I am not sure how I am supposed to feel about a country that would no let me or my people in or want them here. I guess that makes me undesirable.

None of my refugee forebears spoke English or had a dime when they came here, none of their "skills" were of any use here. But they never took a penny from anyone else, and never had a vacation in their 60 years of work.

A refugee, wrote Arendt, used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Now, she wrote "refugees" are those of us who have been unfortunate enough to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees. A refugee can be anyone, anytime, anywhere, in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are 65 million refugees in the world now, estimates the United Nations. We don't want any of them here, it seems.

When I meet and speak with the refugees I have been writing about, I keep thinking about loss, as I did when I thought of my own family, and sometimes, of me. They have lost their language, which means they have lost the familiar cues, the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the confidence of understanding, the unaffected expression of  feelings. Most have lost all of their friends and many family members, their private lives and social networks have been rupture or  destroyed, their flesh and blood abandoned, if they are alive at all.

Some have experienced the deepest traumas and horrors. We call it post-traumatic stress, they have no name for it and do not expect to heal from it. The angry men on television arguing for new laws are devoid of empathy, and of heart. I fear for their children.

Even among themselves, the refugees never speak of the past unless asked, and their wish is that no one asks them about their memories. Their way of mastering a frightening and uncertain future, I think,  is to plan and work and wish and hope. They are masters of looking ahead.

No one who is not one of them can ever really understand them, or what they are feeling, yet the lives and futures of their children depend almost entirely on strangers outside of their experience.

Their happiest times are past, and they know it. They pray only for safe and peaceful times, and good lives for their children. That is, after all, why they came here. "Sometimes," wrote Arendt, "Imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved."

We learn to always be optimistic one refugee mother told me recently, "we use all sorts of magical tricks to conjure up the spirits of the future."

Although "death lost its horror for us," wrote Arendt, "we refugees have gotten  used to wishing death to friends or relatives; if somebody dies, we imagine all of the trouble he has been saved. Many of us end by wishing that we, too, could be saved some trouble, and act accordingly."

When she is saved she felt humiliated, she wrote, and if she is helped she feels degraded.

When we exclude and persecute the most vulnerable, or turn away while others persecute the weakest among us, said Arendt, then our common understanding of good and morality is shattered. The poor refugees might suffer horribly, but we will suffer as well for turning them away, something good that bound us irrevocably broken.

Watching the news today, I had a simple response to this. I am going to help these people. I am going to help raise this money for Devota, and get some carving tools for Mawulidi, the wood-carver who lost his tools. And buy new uniforms for the RISSE soccer team and make sure that no elderly resident of the Mansion spends another day or night sweltering from the summer sun.

Posted in General

Give Me Your Fat And Skilled, Yearning To Be Rich

If The New Laws Pass:

Give Me Your Fat And Your Happy, The Prosperous Gleanings Of Your Distant Shore,  The Bankers And The Programmers, Yearning To Be Rich, To Come To Wall Street, and Palo Alto, And  Make Us Richer.

We may be carving a new poem on that statue, we used to call her Lady Liberty.

Today, officials of the new administration proposed radical new laws that would re-define what a refugee or immigrant is in America. These officials propose that the number of immigrants be reduced by half, and that all new immigrants be required to speak English and also to have marketable skills. In addition, they must be prosperous and show they can afford to live in American without assistance.

This, they said, would protect American workers and their jobs.

I read this news with a heavy heart and felt a lot of sorrow. I immediately thought of the wonderful people – refugees and immigrants – that I have been meeting and writing about: the RISSE soccer team, Francis Sengabo, Devota, Ali, Sakler Moo, Mukwe,  and tomorrow,  Mawulidi the carver.

None of them would be here under these new laws, and many of them would not be alive.

My grandmother and grandfather would not have been here, either. Neither would my father and mother, and most of the members of my family who did get here would be been slaughtered in their countries of birth.

And of course, I would not be alive. Neither would Maria. The very nature of life her would change.

My grandmother spoke no English. She lived here for 60 years with my grandfather, they worked every day, paid taxes, hired people, ran a business, fed their neighbors, prayed every morning,  obeyed the law, became citizens. No judge every turned them away because they didn't speak fluent English.

Devota Nyiranaza, who I have been writing about all week, walked more than 2,400 miles across Africa to come to America, fleeing the Rwandan genocide that took more than 800,000 lives. She spoke no English, only the Rwandan language called Kinyarwanda. She had no money, no jobs.

She has two jobs here, and has worked every single day that she has been in America. She speaks English now, and is hoping to go to school herself.

The Army Of Good is seeking to help her repay a $10,000 loan she mistakenly thought was a financial aid package for her college-bound son. She has raised four children, all of them the result of rapes and sexual assaults that happened on her walk and her years in horrific refugee camps.

Tomorrow, I am meeting Mawulidi, the carver who lost his tools in Africa. Devota is a U. S. citizen not yet fluent in English. Mawulidi has been here only two years.

As of today, I have raised more than $3,500 towards Devota's bank loan, which she is paying off at the rate of $125 a month. I would love to pay all of it off, but whatever we raise will be precious to here. I hope to see her again soon, to visit her in her new apartment and hand her the money personally.

If you wish, you can contribute to this Devota Fund by sending a check to Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, ID: jon@bedlamfarm.com. And thanks. Please make the donation or check out to Jon Katz and mark it "for Devota."

Tomorrow I hope to also find out if it is possible to replace Mawilidi's carving tools.

Posted in General

You Can Now Pre-Order Copies Of “Tales Of The Mansion”

The Mansion Book

Very good news, I talked with Connie Brooks of Battenkill Books in Cambridge, one of the most wonderful independent bookstores in the world, and she said she is now accepting pre-orders for the new book "Tales Of The Mansion," 15 short stories from the Mansion residents.

The book has 10 photographs of the writers by me and costs $10 (plus shipping). I'm order a first printing of 200 copies, and each of the residents and their family members will get one free. The rest will be sold by Battenkill Books you can pre-order as of now.)

Battenkill Books takes Paypal and all major credit cards and ships anywhere in the world. You can call them at 518 677-2515 or visit their website, www.battenkillbooks.com. Connie will put up a special page for the book this week, but you can call and pre-order anytime.

All of the proceeds from the book – every penny – will go towards paying for outings for the residents – to parks, lakes, cultural events and historical sites. You already provided the van,  I am providing the ice cream.

When I first mentioned the idea of telling their stories, two of the residents laughed, and said, "who wants to hear our stories?" I told them their stories were important, and needed to be told and would be heard. You are your stories are told them, and your stories are important.

I was impressed, and a bit surprised when I saw the outpouring of stories from the residents, it was a hard struggle for some of them. But they really wanted to do it.

When the books come out, we will have a reading at the Mansion, it will be open to the public. I realize that most of you live too far away to come, but I will be there to take photos, etc. No date has yet been chosen.

I hope this is the first Mansion book, and not the last. Stories are sacred to me.  (Please don't forget to send photos of your favorite animals, yours or anybody else's to 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y.. 12816. Three winners will be chosen, there will be prizes, perhaps a gift certificate to Battenkill Books. The residents want to give something back, deadline is  August 31.

I'm getting the final page proofs this week and once we look them over, we'll go ahead and order the printing through CreateSpace, an online self-publishing site. There will not be a lot of books for sale, although we can order more if there's a demand. Frankly, we are not looking for huge sales.

Thanks for your support for this project, the Army Of Good is very inspiring to me and many others.

I wanted to cry when I got the message below today, on my new blog comments, already a safe and comforting space. I got one snarky message out of many, and was delighted to send it to the trash. I hope every member of the Army gets to read this message:

From Bev, on the west coast of Canada: "Greetings! You and your Army of Good were mentioned recently at an inspirational Gospel Music concert. I look forward to your posts and have had occasion to share your site with others. Such timely topics, I often find myself nodding in agreement and challenging myself to live out my truth as situations arise. My guiding principle is to love God and love others.Thanks for your honesty and humility."

Thanks for your love and generosity, Bev. Think of it, the AOG mentioned at an inspirational Gospel music concert far away. Oh, I so wish I could have been there, I love gospel music. I very much connect with the idea of living my truth as life requires. My guiding principle is to do good rather than argue about good.

The mystics wrote that God contemplated the good deeds of the righteous, and then drew light from within himself, and thus, the power to create was born. That is how I feel about the Army Of Good and its righteous deeds. The world, said the prophets, could only be created by virtue of the actions of the righteous.

Posted in General

Red’s Grace: Accepting Gus

Red's Grace

Red is what I call a "propinquity" dog, he shows affection by being close, rather than by being demonstrative. He has never licked me but once a day he comes and puts his head on my knee. Otherwise, we are just always near one another.

Red has paid little or no attention to Gus. He tolerates him and doesn't bother him in any, but he never even lets on that he sees him. Red does not play, which frustrates Gus, but then he and Fate play half the day.

I've never really seen Red and Gus together, they seem to always stay out of one another's way.

Last night, a first. Gus was sleeping on his bed in my study and Red came in, lay down next to him and put his head next to Gus. Gus put his head up and licked Red on the nose several times, and then went back to sleep. it was a touching scene for me, Red showing his love for Gus in the way that he does, and Gus, sensing it, sleeping so peacefully right next to him.

I was grateful to have the camera nearby, it was an important moment somehow, Gus keeps bringing himself directly into the center of our family and our lives. Red is a remarkable animal, he loves with the greatest dignity and grace.

Posted in General

Gus: Making Friends With Minnie

Making Friends With Minnie

Gus seems to have made it his business to charm all the living things on the farm. Flo, our imperious barn cat is the only creature to have resisted him so far. Minnie succumbed this morning. He licked her on the nose, and they touched heads.

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