Refugees And Women
Writing online for nearly 30 years, I have become quite accustomed to getting cruel, and snarky messages from strangers.
From my perspective, these new forms of communication, while miraculous in some ways, seem to be teaching people how not to communicate with other human beings in a rational or decent way.
I often write about these kinds of messages, one of my long and futile crusades has been to challenge the angrh people who write them and work for a civil kind of communications online.
I do not permit comments on my blog, and I ban anyone on social media who attacks me or anyone else in a personal way. I've driven most of the nasties off of my Facebook Page, but you can't catch them all, this is America. It's how we do it now.
There is a fine line, of course, between a valid question and an offensive one.
I follow my instincts on this, if someone makes me feel uncomfortable I challenge them to stop, or failing that, remove them. Yesterday I got a message on Facebook from Angeline S.
I was hurt and insulted by her message, but in all fairness I have to admit she raised a a fair question, and others have raised it also, although perhaps more politely. It deserves an answer, which is easy enough. I am nothing here if not transparent, I believe in an open life.
I was writing about issues relating to small dogs, stereotypes and sexism around Gus, our new Boston Terrier puppy, and how men can and should reconsider language when it is offensive to women, including terms like "chick magnet."
I do notice that many people, including many women who are justly concerned about this issue, have no trouble speaking offensively to me. Real change comes slowly.
"And yet we've seen you shrug off the idea of sexism in the way you interact with RISSE," wrote Angeline. "No girls have received scholarships, none came to the retreat, none came to the farm, maybe one at the Great Escape, and, yes, a single one of the soccer team. It's great to hear you consider how you label girls and women. Real progress would be to acknowledge you've set up a program to benefit refugee boys (and name it as such) or truly incorporate the girls equally. It matters."
The idea that I shrug off sexism is especially hurtful to me, as is the pompous suggestion that I need to make "real progress" and stop being a hypocrite indifferent to woman's rights. I consider the message nasty, although I've seen a lot worse, but that does not mean Angeline and others don't deserve an answer. Her manners are her problem, not mine.
I answered her on Facebook, in some detail and I think it's appropriate to do the same thing here. I thought it was obvious that women would – have been – intrinsically involved in my writing about the refugees from the beginning. But perhaps it wasn't. It is also true that for the past two months, the redoubtable soccer team were the only refugees and immigrants I had ready or full access to.
They were my gateway – and a very successful one – into this refugee world. They have already earned the love and support of many of you reading this, that is good news for RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center based in Albany.
By earning the trust of Ali, the kids (male and female) and their parents, I am finally able to pursue my goal of writing truthfully about these people and hopefully shattering some of the awful stereotypes about them.
Angeline had no regrets about her message and suggested the fault was mine for not making myself clear enough about what I am doing. Fair enough.
This is hard and painstaking work for me, and I know Angeline doesn't care, but I am also deeply involved in my farm, my books, my photography and also working with the residents of the Mansion Assisted Care Facility, almost all of whom are women.
I don't run RISSE and it's programs, I don't choose who goes where, I can't incorporate any "values" into their programs, it would be presumptuous and arrogant. And their values are quite wonderful.
As always, I am supporting the team, but not on the team.
RISSE doesn't need any lectures on equality for women, from me or from Angeline. it is a cornerstone of their program. I don't care much for lectures either. I asked Angeline just what she has done for refugees in America, male or female, other than write messages to me on Facebook, but she seemed to disappear after that.
The women in my life can speak to my views on women and their rights more than I can, and more credibly. I believe every one close to me will support my values. But I don't like to see any falsehoods to make their way around the Internet and hurt RISSE. They have enough troubles, and they do righteous and holy work. On the Internet, lies have many mothers and fathers, but facts and truth are orphans.
First of all, two of women coming to the retreat got sick and one was uncomfortable spending time overnight with men. They were not only invited, they planned to attend.
Many women from RISSE, young and old have come to Bedlam Farm to meet us and see the animals. At least a half-dozen trips to the farm are scheduled for the summer, all involve young women and men, I am no longer limited to the soccer team.
Some wished to be photographed here and were, many were not easy being photographed at that point, it was the height of the new administration's xenophobic labeling of refugees and immigrants as criminals, rapists and parasites, job-stealers and eroders of white and "Christian" American values.
Lots of people were – are – afraid to expose themselves in public. I have been and will continue to be sensitive about that, the women in this photo were eager to be photographed and I am grateful for them. I will certainly be writing about them if they agree.
It is true that few women have appeared in my writing about the refugees recently, although I photographed and talked to many when I first arrived at RISSE a couple of months ago.
Here's what is actually going on, despite some people's vague "impressions."
Getting access to the refugees – especially children and especially female children – has been a long and fraught process for me. You don't just show up and order up some women because someone demands that you appear balanced and equal.
People like me, armed with big blogs and cameras, are especially fearsome to refugee groups for all kinds of reasons – cultural, religious, security, political. They can't really trust me until they get to know me. That takes time. I am proud of myself for taking it. When I first showed up at RISSE, they nearly threw me out, Maria, who was with me, assured me they didn't want me there. I persevered, and am proud of myself for that.
You don't get handed trust, you have to work at it, and since I live some hours away from the refugees, the opportunities to do so are few and sometimes far apart. Nobody there knew me, or understood why people like me would take the time to come around and talk to them and take their photos. Nobody had. They just didn't understand it. Through the writing about the soccer team, they can see what I have in mind, and they are now very supportive of my being there.
I should say that among the refugees there are also numerous cultural and religious obstacles to women doing physical and other activities around men who are not related to them.That includes bus rides, retreats and soccer teams.
Some women in the program have gotten past that, some haven't. At RISSE, whose programs are overwhelmingly female, there are no blocks or obstacles to women of any age doing whatever they wish. The program is committed to equal access to education, sports , work and life.
Two months ago, with RISSE and the refugees and immigrants there came when my friend Ali (Amjad Abdalla Mohammed) paved the way for me to gain access to the mostly male (the goalie is a woman) soccer team. Finally, a way in.
Ali and I became friends, we love one another like brothers. He understands the value of being open, and he knew this exposure would benefit the kids on his soccer team, and it has. My hope is to do more of this work, for as many of the 90 young men and women as I can. I had to start somewhere, it was a great place to start.
I am forever grateful to Ali and will continue my work with him. I won't abandon the soccer kids either.
I knew I would not be able to meet and photograph more of the refugees and immigrants until the program administrators and I met on the procedures and policies of RISSE and until mid-July – now – when summer adult and children's classes fully resumed.
This Thursday, I have an interview with a women I photographed before (she was on my blog) who walked across two countries in Africa and lost some of her children on the way to freedom and America. She has agreed to meet with me and be photographed, I requested this meeting months ago, she has a wonderful story to tell, and I am fortunate to be able to tell it. Why on earth would I refuse to hear it?
I am hoping to offer her a scholarship in our program, if the administrators agree: $200 to support her life and her interests, whatever they are.
There will be plenty of women in my photos and stories, just look at my blog, for God's sake. I love to photograph women, they are often extraordinarily articulate about their stories, it would be idiotic to avoid them, and for me, stupidity is as bad as sexism. So is self-righteous and arrogance.
But I will never pressure a young or adult women to abandon her religious or cultural values because if fits the political agenda of one of my blog readers. That is not my purpose or my right.
I am sorry if I wasn't clear enough, and sorrier even more to read a message like that directed at me. But we live in a world where people no longer know how to simply talk to one another. And where Truth weeps every day.
Snarky comments on Facebook are easy and free, and without consequence. They contribute to the sorry reality that nobody trusts anybody or believes anything they read or hear.
But I thank Angeline for prompting me to explain this more clearly, and my wish for you is that you don't write things that are false on social media without thinking about them or trying to ascertain truth and facts. They can do a lot of harm, very few people pursue the truth anymore. I hope I am one of them, to my last breath.
I'm glad equality for women matters to her, it is a righteous cause, but I didn't really need Angeline to tell me stuff like that. The truth matters too.
Asking me questions is easy enough to do, my e-mail is [email protected], people ask me questions all of the time, and I try to answer as best as I can. RISSE is doing remarkable and urgently necessary work every day. I will support it in any way that I can, and I thank the Army Of Good for helping me so directly and enthusiastically.
If you wish to donate directly to RISSE, which is tax-deductible, you can so here. If you wish to contribute to my Refugee Fund, which is separate (and not tax-deductible) you can send a donation to P.O Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. I use the money to support the individual needs of refugees and immigrants, children and adults, things like retreats, athletic and musical equipment, birthday parties.
You can also donate through Paypal Friends and Family, my ID is [email protected]
Thanks for listening and I hope this helpful.