31 May

A Happy Ending For Hawah. OK, I Wanted To Cry. For You, Grandma

by Jon Katz
Happy Ending For Hawah

Hawah spend the last few months in Hell, forced into a homeless shelter, her husband struggling for life, afraid she would lose her children, forced to eat the awful shelter food, walking the streets of Albany at 4 a.m. picking up bottles to cash in at a local supermarket for $5 or $6 on a good day.

Six or seven years ago, she and her husband Hassan had a good  middle-class life in Libya, and gave a good life to their eight children. Then the Libyan Civil War broke out and soldiers loyal to Muammar al-Gaddafi came to their home demanding that their sons join the Army. She and Hassan fled in the night with them to a refugee camp, where she spent five years before coming to the United States.

The family lost everything. Soon after they arrived Hassan, who worked as a large crane operator for 14 years, collapsed on the street and was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was rushed to the hospital,  is unable to move and the doctors say he will never be able to come home.

When Hassan got sick, local welfare authorities cut the rent subsidy they were getting to help pay for Hassan’s medical care.  He requires 24 hour care in a nursing home.

Hawah had never worked, spoke no English and had no money and no car.

She couldn’t make up the difference between the old subsidy and the new one.  She also had two children to care for, she doesn’t know where the others are. The welfare authorities did not care. She was soon out in the street.

In the new and Darwinian world of refugees, federal aid, which used to help sustain them until they could get on their feet, has mostly disappeared.They are on their own with nowhere to turn for help. There is Ali. And when I can, there is me.

There is also RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center in Albany, they are stretched thin and overwhelmed and do whatever they can.

Hawah was locked out of her apartment and evicted. She couldn’t afford to rent another apartment, she was forced to live in a dangerous, filthy and hostile homeless shelter.  The authorities there threatened to take her children away because they violated the curfew, walking  in circles with their friends because they were ashamed to let anyone know they were in a shelter.

She said she thought about killing herself, but could not do that because of her children.

When I met Hawah a week or so ago, she would barely talk to me, she was so anxious about me and my camera, she would only speak to me while holding a shawl over her face and eyes. She was fearful and bewildered. She looked stricken and hopeless. I could see she did not believe we could or would help her, she had the eyes of someone who was beaten down and exhausted.

I am so happy to tell you there is a happy ending ot this story.

Ali brought me and Hawah together.  We have her all the help she needed and all she would accept. We paid the deposit and first months’ rent on a spacious and clean 3 bedroom apartment in Albany, there is room for her, and for her two children. For the first time in many years, they each will have their own rooms.

I gave her $1,300 for rent and deposit last week, and $700 today for a TV and clothes and food. We brought her groceries for her new apartment, she loves to cook.

Thank you, Army Of Good. For $2,000, we saved a live and gave hope to a family and  brighter future for her children. With the refugees, it is always about the children. That is their eternal story, that’s why they risk their lives to get here.

I am well aware that Hawah and Hassan and their children would not be allowed into the United States today, Libya is on the governments’s  travel ban list.

Last night Hawah and her children slept on mattresses on the floor, today, Ali began bringing in furniture collected by local churches for the needy. The beds will be coming in a day or two, the living room has a new sofa and some chairs. The apartment has running water, head and big airy windows and tall ceilings.

They have a full refrigerator and a table to eat at.  For the first time in so long, she told me, she has a home again.

We gave Hawah another gift today. We bought her a TV for the apartment and paid the cable installation fees. The TV isn’t just for entertainment, it is the connection to their world, past and present. It is important to the children.

I gave Ali $300 to buy clothes for her  two children, their clothes are worn and dirty. Ali took them shopping Thursday afternoon.

Friends Now

Hawah and I are good friends now.

She has no fear of my camera, and now smiles and says she would like to crawl into it.  Hawah is a different person than the one I meet a week ago. She is always laughing and smiling, happy to pose, she shakes my hand and jokes about me. She is eager and joyous to start her life over again, although her heart is broken for Hassan, who lies immobile in a nursing home.

She paid me a great honor today, she asked if I would go with her a week from Sunday and visit Hassan in the nursing home where he is, just outside of Albany. Ali said he would like to come also.

Hassan can only communicate by blinking an eye. She says she wants him to meet and see the “man who is helping us live again.” I said I would be happy to meet Hassan, and I asked if it was all right to bring Maria if she wanted to come. She said that would be fine.

So we shall go on that journey together in a week. I look forward to it. She said I am the first person outside of her family she has brought to see her husband, she can only rarely see  him because she has no car and he is miles away.

She and I have a real connection now, as real as a connection can be without being able to speak to one another in the same language.  We talk to one another with hand gestures and facial expressions.

Last week, when we looked at a dreary and decaying apartment, her eyes told me she did not want to live there. She was grateful, as if it was up to me. She looks at me with trust now.

So Hawah has what she needs now, and after our visit to Hassan, she wants to cook a great meal for me, Ali and Maria. She is on her own now, that is the way it needs to be, the way she wants it to be.

I said that dinner would be fine also, I would love to stay in touch with Hawah. And Ali has told me that in her culture, it is important to give something back to someone who helps.

She is meeting with an employer in the morning, applying for a job one or two bus rides away, she has no car. I asked if there was anything else she needed now, and she shook her head.

“No,” she said, “I have enough. Others need help, too.” She said she liked my new Panama hate, she told Ali it was stylish. She thinks I might need some new clothes, she told Ali to take me shopping.

On the way out, we didn’t even think about it, we just hugged, something Muslim women don’t often do to men outside of their family.

She seems good. She is strong and brave and determined. She is eager to start her life anew.

It all seems very American to me, and I am happy to be a part of it. As I drove off today, I thought of my grandmother, a refugee from Russian who suffered horribly and lost everything.

This one’s for you, grandma, I said.

I did want to cry, but I did not. I wasn’t sure what she would make of it.

Hawah’s New Life


31 May

Video, Ali: “I Want To Thank The Army Of Good With All My Heart.”

by Jon Katz

Ali and I met in Albany Thursday to see how we can help several refugees facing  frightening and difficult emergencies as they struggle to acclimate to America. I will write about these two women later on, but I wanted to share this video with you.

As we finished our work and I prepared to leave, I had this idea that I ought to take a video of him. He is powerful when he speaks of his fellow refugees and their needs.

I asked Ali to help make the video so he can thank you, The Army Of Good, directly, and also talk about the way in which we are working together. He was eager to do it.  I thought you ought to hear from him directly. We make each other possible.

He wanted to speak about the amazing support you have given us in this work, and also to talk to you about what we are trying to do. Ali is emotional about his work. He  is very special to me, and to this work we have undertaken, and I plan to ask him to speak more frequently about it, along with me.

He is a religious man, he believes we have been put on the earth to do good, not to hate one another. In this work, he is my friend and guide and counsel. I thought you should get to know him. I’d like to take a video of him  every week or so.

He also wanted to tell you how much your support of the soccer team has meant to  him.

Thanks for listening to Ali. He is a gift to good.

Ali, (Amjad Abdullah).


31 May

For The Soccer Team, Summer Visits To The Powell House

by Jon Katz
For The Soccer Team, Summer Plans

Ali and I have talked all Spring about what the kids on the soccer team will do all summer. He doesn’t want them to spend the summer on their cell phones or video game players, and neither do I. I wanted to update people on our plans so far, one of which was finalized just today.

First, the team is going to the  Great Escape in July, the water and amusement park near Lake George. I’m exploring a boat ride on Lake George also. We plan to get them to the major summer movies, and there will be some regular soccer practice.

Ali has watched over these children for six or seven years now. He is especially proud of the soccer team, but also of the fact that every kid on the team is on the Honor Roll in their public schools. That is a great achievement. Ali emphasizes learning and hard work, and the  team has responded. No one can stay on the soccer team if their grades are not excellent.

So far, they are undefeated in one of their major indoor tournaments, they deserve some reward.

Our long-delayed tutoring program will kick off in the next few weeks also and we’ve identified a number of parks and day trips in the area, perhaps one to the Adirondack Animal Land. There is a drive through safari where they can see animals.

The team has already seen Infinity Two and Spiderman Two, we’ll get to all of the summer blockbusters. They haven’t yet asked to see Solo.

Today, I think we took the biggest and most important step. I reached an agreement with the Powell House, the wonderful and well-known and quite beautiful Quaker conference house and retreat center of the  New York Yearly Meeting. They have more than 50 beautiful acres just outside of Albany with a game and recreation center for children inside, and playgrounds, ponds, hiking trails and athletic fields outside.

My daughter Emma attended weekend youth retreats when she was young, and I volunteered there on a number of weekends. We both were struck by the loving and caring and very beautiful atmosphere there and the affirming and sensitive programs.

They have highly trained and experienced counselors on hand, and we planned a weekend retreat there in May, but that was delayed by bureaucratic and other difficulties. I did not quit on the idea. It is a joy to be reconnected with these wonderful people (I converted to Quakerism when I was 14, and have held my membership in the Montclair Monthly Meeting in New Jersey. I hope to stay a member there for the rest of my life.)

This morning, I reached an agreement with Regina Baird Hagg, co-director of the Powell House for a series of visits by the team to the Powell House through July and August. She was gracious and helpful with the cost.

We set up three-hour visits. The team can get out of the hot summer sun and off some troubled streets and swim at the Powell House in their beautiful pond, or go inside and use the recreation room, which has a library and a big ping-pong table.

Or they can go outside and practice soccer or play basketball or hike in the woods.

They will also get some  healthy snacks.

This is a beautiful and closely supervised place for them to go, a place where they can be free, be themselves and  be safe.

Ali is concerned about them having too much time on their hands, their parents don’t have cars or the time or money for vacations. The Powell House will help.

Ali is planning to be available five or six days a week  to keep his beloved team together and engaged, and I will help out whenever I can. His commitment to these children, many of who have suffered terribly in their lives, is infectious. I caught it. I hope some of you will also.

This was an intense process, with many phone calls and lots of negotiations.

But I feel we are set now, for the summer. I know there will be some surprises.

I’m sending a $500 check off to the Powell House, and I am grateful for their support, they are eager to be a place of refuge and recreation and learning for the soccer team, this is very valuable to connection to make for these children.

The Quakers have a long and rich history of working with refugees and helping and supporting them. I think they will be a profound resource for these kids. I hope one day Risse, the refugee and immigrant center, will also see fit to connect with them and bring their wonderful resources to all of the refugees and immigrants in the area. The Powell House wants to help.

I have enough money for the Powell House visits, if any of you wish to help support this summer program for the soccer team, you can send a contribution to the Gus Fund,  c/o Jon Katz, Post Office Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com. These children are an inspiration to me, it is a gift to be able to help them.

31 May

Red, Like Me, Beginning To Get Old

by Jon Katz

Red is a spirit dog, a companion, an alter ego, a doer of good, a loving creature who lives to lift up the spirits of me and others. At some point in the life of a spirit dog, they are always beside us, we see them so often we don’t really see them age, we look up and see they are getting older.

Red is 11 years old, not very old for a border collie, but older. He is in good shape, but he is slowing down. He is nearly blind in one eye, and losing sight in the other. The sheep are beginning to get wise to his vision problems, and while they don’t yet dare to really challenge his authority, they are getting cheeky, and slower to jump when he tells them to.

His therapy work is stellar, even better than before, he seems to have boundless energy for being where he is needed. it is pure joy to see him life the spirits of people at the Mansion. It is different from working with sheep, and Red has an almost mystical intuition about helping people in appropriate ways.

I have never had a dog like Red, although I have had many great dogs. Rose was something if a wild dog, she did not care to uplift other people, Lenore loved everybody but like many wonderful Labs, she was sometimes too big and enthusiastic for the very delicate work of working with the sick and the very elderly.

Red is a master, he strikes the right note, approaches gently and with care, and turns away if he is not wanted. I come into the Mansion and just let him go, and he visits the staff, people who call out to him, goes to rooms where he is wanted and pushes the door open, patrols the hallways looking for residents who are sitting in chairs and sofas, checks on the porch, the Great Room, the dining room.

He is moving more slowly, sleeping more, getting out of the sun a little quicker. He is, like me, beginning to get old.

He is a resident there in so many ways. Red is always with me. When I write, when I ride, when I go to the doctor or dentist, when I visit the refugee kids or adults in Albany. I never have to call him or urge him along, he lives in my shadow and is an extension of me.

He is not just my dog, like Gus, he belongs to a lot of people. He is much loved. He enriches and defines every part of my life.

I expect to have many wonderful dogs in my life, I don’t spend too much time mourning for them, but I will never have another dog like Red. He has done me so much good, taught me so much, led me to so much, I am eternally grateful to Dr. Karen Thompson for trusting me with this remarkable gift.

It seemed he dropped out of the sky and suddenly entered my world and made it safer, brighter and  warmer. I love you very much Red, it is an honor to get older with you. As always, we are in synch. That’s the kind of dog Red is, I think. Even if he were much younger, he would get older to stay right alongside of me.

31 May

At Long Last, A Panama Hat. Thanks, Hollywood.

by Jon Katz
A Panama Hat: Photo by Maria Wulf

I’ve wanted a Panama Hat all of my life, especially after I saw movies like “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon.” It seemed to me to be the only hat that was made for me and my head, but I never saw one that looked right or that I thought would fit me until I was on Etsy looking for a present for Maria and came across this maker of Panama Hats.

Mr. Pappa was in a village in Greece, and he used Ecuadorian Toquila Straw – the best straw for making these hats – and took weeks to make a hat and ship it to the United States.

The hats I was looking at here on various websites cost $50 or $60 – I have been looking at Panama hats for years online –  but they didn’t feel right or special to me, I have a big and oval-shaped head, if I was ever going to get a Panama Hat, I wanted one that was special and custom made and that would fit, especially if I was getting one from Greece.

I sent Mr. Pappa, the maker, a photo of my head and I even measured my head.

I can’t tell you how excited I was to be this close to a real custom-made Panama Hat. It cost $211 (gulp)  including shipping. It came to our Post Office this morning in a beautiful round wooden box, it was inside in a felt cloth with Greek lettering.

Mr. Pappa wrote thanking me for sending the photo. There were other  beautiful hats on this site and I hope to get a Wine Fedora one day. If fits perfectly, and when I opened the box and saw Maria’s face – she just loves it – I rushed outside to let her take my picture.

Panama Hats entered my imagination a long time ago, it may have been because Panama Hats have a rich history in classic Hollywood Movies, (Gregory Peck wore one in To Kill A Mockingbird) )and also in books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Hemingway and others. I love movies and they have always shaped my imagination and emotions.

I am happy to have this hat, it is an odd but lifelong wish, and it was even better than I thought it would be.

I actually never thought I would have a hat like this, if not for Maria and Etsy, I probably wouldn’t.

A rare fantasy whose reality exceeds expectations.  I will wear it often and until it wears out.  I hope Mr. Pappa is around for many years. It is important in life to pursue some dreams and achieve them. In the scheme of things a Panama Hat is not a big deal.

It is a big deal for me.

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