Monthly Archives: September 2015

There’s No Place Like Home

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There’s No Place Like Home

What if you could never go home? Or even see your family again except in Facebook pictures? I’m contemplating this on my flight home because this weekend I met a refugee from Syria in New York. He moved to the U.S. a few months ago, and he will never be able to return. Not just because of the civil war or violence that is ongoing, but also because he is gay. He is not homeless in the traditional sense; but if you consider the place where your family, relatives and loved ones reside as your home, then he is without a home.

His culture’s inability to accept homosexuality did not change the fact that he seems to love his home very much. He talked about the food from Syria with passion, as he discussed the different taste of U.S. hummus with our Israeli host. He described the different varieties of pomegranates in his homeland with a hunger in his eyes that expressed his longing.

Although his parents may never know or understand his sexual preference, he still loves and misses them very much. He told me that he would check his phone constantly because he never knew when his relatives would have Internet access to call, and he needed to be able to answer in case they got a chance. Communication was exceptionally urgent recently, as my friend’s mother had told him that Russian troops were just stationed in their village. He explained that this is a very bad sign and he feared for the lives of his family if the village were bombed. He was so worried that he hadn’t been able to sleep for 12 days since.

I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like to be unable to return to Belize, to never see Mamita again, or to only see my little cousins grow up in pictures. It’s hard enough to see my grandparents aging, but to fear that an off-target bomb could reduce my entire family to “collateral damage” in a moment’s notice? I would not be able to sleep either.

Meanwhile, across town, the leaders of almost every country in the world were in Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. I cannot understand how Americans, Israelis and Syrians can eat dinner together in peace, but our governments cannot take the time to ensure the safety of entire nations by resolving these issues themselves. Or at least get together over dinner and agree to stop supplying weapons to the governments and rebel groups that insist on causing problems. Real lives hang in the balance, and refugee crises can be prevented by keeping residents safe at home.

We discussed many things that night, including the geopolitical climate in the Middle East. We agreed that the conflicts were about power and resources, not religion like so many believe. We thought that the world would be a better place without governments or borders to separate the individuals that live within these artificial lines that some empires arbitrarily sketched on a map way back when. Just IMAGINE… If we were all citizens of the world instead of countries. Then a man could love a man, a Palestinian could love an Israeli, and everyone could worship the Creator in his or her own way; without arguing over who gets to sit at the UN’s table.

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Mountain Village

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Mountain Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala and witnessed the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

We drove through the desert of Guatemala to Zacapa, and up a mountain ridge to a village called Pinalito. The only way to reach the village was through a dried up river bed. My hosts worried that we might not be able to make it, since we could get stuck if it started raining. Luckily, the rain held up, and we made it to the mission at the peak of the mountain in Pinalito.

I can honestly say that I have never seen such abject poverty in my entire life as I did in Pinalito. Like in Castulo, the residents of Pinalito eat primarily corn tortillas, which leaves them malnourished. Their children die of malnutrition, usually at a very young age. Maternal mortality in labor is also common, and the closest hospital is at the base of the mountain in Zacapa. The rough terrain on the mountain side, along with the subsistence-agriculture living of Pinalito’s residents, places each family at a fair distance from its closest neighbor.

The mission began as a clinic and school for the children of Pinalito, and children walk from all over the mountain, bare-footed through the jungle, to get an education in exchange for food. The feeding program rewards students for their school attendance each month with beans, rice, and sugar; or else they might not be allowed to attend. The clinic is equipped to provide basic medical attention (stitches, broken bones, etc.), give vitamins to new mothers/children, and distribute clothes to whomever needs them. Occasionally doctors or dentists visit with teams from the states, and volunteer their services in the clinic. Some teams of volunteers help with construction projects.

The missionaries teach the farmers new techniques to generate revenue for the village. They have learned how to grow completely organic coffee (using soapy water instead of insecticides to kill bugs.) There is a factory where they collectively roast the coffee. The missionaries use their network to connect the producers with buyers in the states, without collecting a profit. Macadamia nut trees shade the coffee plants, and will eventually be another cash crop for sale. While we were there, the mission hosted a session on how to graft citrus plants. They recently started to use earth worm composting, which I thought was great. The mission itself was solar and gas powered, since there is no electricity on the mountain. In general, it was very sustainable.

I woke up the next day at the mission house and walked into the kitchen to be greeted with “Hola!” by adorable little children with their faces pressed against the bars on the windows. Later, I met 2 little girls that were playing in the school yard. Their mom had died giving birth to their youngest sister. They were so tiny. The older one was 9, and she had to take care of her 3 younger siblings, including her new-born sister after her mom died. Their dad was an alcoholic. When their mom died, he went on a drinking binge and abandoned them without any resources at all. Now he is back and still spends all of their money on alcohol. We bribed her and her 5 year-old little sister with new clothes, so that they would take showers. They were filthy from walking barefoot on the muddy mountain paths. They ate candy and chattered happily while I brushed their hair. We sent them home with soap, shampoo, and underwear that they would most likely sell to buy food, unless their dad spent the money on alcohol.

My hosts and I hiked 30 minutes through the rain forest to visit two of the poorest families on the mountain. The first family we met was a young girl with 4 kids. She used to be the smartest student at the mission’s school, but her parents married her off to a man in the village when she was 14. Her first son lost his eye due to malnutrition. We gave her food and some toiletries, along with vitamins. The one thing that struck me while we were at their house was the dogs. A mother dog had 4 puppies and the family could hardly afford to feed themselves, much less the dogs. The bitch was bloated from starvation and her nipples were sagging from nursing her puppies, which were so skinny that I could see their ribs and bones.

The next family was probably the poorest family on the entire mountain. A single mother and her 3 sons lived in a 15’ x 10’ hut made out of sticks and a tin roof. She didn’t have a husband, and her oldest son left the mountain to find migrant work when he was just 14. I was told that when the missionaries first visited the family’s home, they only had 10 sticks for “walls” and half a tin roof. During the rainy season, their house was washed down the side of the hill, and they would have to rebuild every time it rained. They weren’t home, but we hid a bag of food and other things under their (only) blanket in the tiny shanty.

It started pouring down rain as soon as we returned to the mission, and we had to leave immediately. The stream in the previously dried up river bed quickly turned into a creek, but we were still able to drive through it. We thought we might have to hike down the mountain, but we made it down only having to walk a little while. The rest of the trip was a blur. I got home on a Sunday, and started summer classes the next day. I learned about “Culture & World Politics,” and wondered how many more mountains existed with villages like Pinalito sitting on top of them – in the U.S. and all over the world. How many of them were lucky enough to have a mission? And how many more did not?

Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon

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Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon

Last October I visited Dignity Village – an institutionalized homeless encampment just outside of Portland, Oregon. I had stumbled upon the encampment online, and I jumped at the opportunity to see Dignity Village with my own eyes when I realized that I would be traveling through the area.

Dignity Village is a city-ordained “campground” located on Sunderland Street in Northeast Portland. It has been at its current location for almost 15 years, but most of the residents of Portland have no idea that it exists. It is located near an industrial area in the parking lot of the city’s composting facility. I met a resident named Brian as we checked in at the security desk, and he toured me through the village to show me the amenities.

Brian explained that the “tiny houses” were built by churches and community organizations to accommodate the formerly homeless residents. The structures were built to be no larger than 10’ x 12’ so that building code regulations and permitting were unnecessary. There is no electricity in the houses, but propane heaters donated by the fire department kept the residents warm at night. Residents are required to pay $20 per month in rent, along with offering 10 hours of community service per week (this could include picking up trash, chopping firewood, or manning the security desk as Brian had been doing when I arrived). Electricity is available in the “common area,” along with wifi and cable television. Anyone, including non-residents, can visit this community space between 8 AM – 10 PM, to warm up, use the internet, or just hang out.

A sense of community existed in the village, which I believe is an essential element in the reintegration of marginalized groups into any society. In fact, the entire village started as a group of homeless individuals who banded together while struggling to survive the winter, by forming a tent city underneath an overpass in downtown Portland. Whether intentionally or not, this became the impetus for a movement that demanded the right to housing back in 2000. Eventually, thanks to the work of advocates and community stakeholders, the City of Portland agreed to lease the parking lot of their composting facility to the board of the 501c3 that governs Dignity Village.

The results have been incredible – a sense of community and participation in civic society that is unprecedented in any homeless shelter or section 8 housing, the formation of micro-businesses by residents, and a waiting list of other homeless individuals who would like to become a part of this community. “The five rules are all very basic; No violence, No theft, No alcohol/drugs, No constant disruptive behavior, and Everyone must contribute at least 10 hours per week to better the Village” 

It made me think: what are we waiting for? why can’t we build tiny houses to house the homeless now??  There must be something to this… I’m not saying that they have all the answers, but it seems like the rough draft of a beautiful masterpiece.

Mayan Village

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Mayan Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala to bare witness to the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

I flew into Guatemala City on a Monday, and a missionary couple picked me up. Within an hour of being in the country, we drove over a bridge with armed policemen guarding each end of it. This didn’t seem abnormal until someone pointed out that in the previous two weeks, three different people had stopped cars in the middle of the bridge and jumped over the guard rail into the ravine below. The police were there to prevent another incident, or maybe just to move any empty cars that might cause traffic jams.

We drove out of the capitol, winding around S-curved mountain roads and suddenly I saw a crippled man using his arms to pull himself into the road. I shrieked, and the driver managed to swerve around him. His skin was darkly tanned, and it was obvious that he had spent most of his life in the sun. I couldn’t believe that anyone would hope to die like that.

We ended up in a town called Rio Dulce, and stayed overnight near the river. The next day we took a two hour boat ride up a tributary to visit a rural village near Castulo Creek. A decrepit wooden house sat in the middle of a farm yard on the bank, while turkeys, chickens and horses roamed around. Across the yard, a wooden bridge stretched over a swamp and into a cow pasture, where a herd of bulls grazed at the bottom of a steep hill. It was still the dry season, but there was already muddy water at both ends of the bridge from an early rain. I learned that the first time my hosts visited this village; they had to wade waist-deep through these swampy grasses to reach the hills. They built the bridge not too long before, with the help of a team of volunteers.

We hiked up the hill and 20 minutes into the jungle before reaching a village named Castulo, where the residents lived the same way that Mayan villagers have for centuries. The first time my missionary friends arrived in Castulo in the 1990s, the villagers had never seen anyone as pale as them. At that point in time, the death rate was 50% because the villagers were dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water. My hosts showed them how to clean the water to make it drinkable, and helped them re-hydrate with a sugar-saline mixture. No one died after that.

The village was centrally planned around a soccer field in front of a school house that a missionary team built. The children learned their own Mayan dialect, as well as some Spanish. Education is their only chance to improve their livelihoods, possibly move away someday, or make a better life for future generations. Everyone in the village gathered to meet us at the 2-room school house. The students were so excited to take a break and play, and some of the kids brought us baby Amazon yellow-head parrots to hold.

Families live in thatched roof huts made with cahoon palm tree frons for roofs and bamboo as walls. The floors are dirt, and the typical ‘stove’ is an open-fire hearth in the middle of the hut. Their diets consist primarily of corn tortillas, which is not enough to sustain a person. Women use a metate (mealing stone) to grind corn into flour that they use for dough. Tortillas are flattened and baked over the hearth on a flat piece of aluminum. The village has no electricity, but a team of volunteers had built a new hand-pump well.

Idealistically, I thought that if I were Guatemalan, I would be more content to grow up insulated in Castulo than in the smoggy, over-crowded capitol. It seemed to me that without electricity, TV, or radio; people must be happier there. Surely, no one committed suicide in Castulo? Of course, I was wrong and my host told me that 2 people had chosen to take their lives since he had been to Castulo. One was a girl who drank plant fertilizer after fighting with her boyfriend. The other was a heart-broken boy. Before the end of the trip, I received notice that my cousin had killed himself and his ex wife had been found dead. I started summer school the day after I returned, and went to the funeral the following weekend.

Cultural Revolution

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Cultural Revolution

Last week makes it 4 years since my best friend Sarah and I went to Occupy Wall Street in New York City. After feeling like the odd ones out in a hoard of angry millennials, we left with the realization that nobody else had read the manual or understood that our “One Demand” was supposed to be an end corporate personhood. We didn’t even get to go camping in the financial district because no one had bothered to pull a permit for the gathering. (I told them that the point of civil disobedience is to break the laws that are unjust, not the ones that keep us safe, like permitting.) But the dialogue that began that weekend was the real take-away from our experience with this grassroots movement.

I returned to finish my last semester at UF, realizing that I was way to small to make any real impact on the state of US or international finance. But I joined the solidarity movement that arose as “Occupy Gainesville” in my college town. Just like in New York, nobody could agree on the intricacies of our manifesto or decide on a cohesive plan of action. However, we coalesced around a park in the middle of downtown Gainesville called “Bo Diddley Community Plaza,” named after the Originator himself. It was our struggle to Occupy this space that confronted us with the real victims of the financial crisis: the homeless. As neither of our groups were allowed in the park after hours, they became our greatest cause.

We protested at the Alachua County Commission meetings, and advocated for the rights of the homeless to have a place to stay. We protested the meal limits imposed on the local churches, preventing them from feeding more homeless. We slept on the sidewalks with the homeless at night, just outside of the plaza, and kept night vigils to protect our group from harm. We had community meals, and ate together at least once a week.

Some of my friends understood, but the majority of them didn’t. Sarah was the most supportive. She even traveled to Gainesville for a Peace Protest, where we stayed in the plaza overnight and demanded the rights of the homeless to sleep there whenever necessary. Sarah and my friend Viv stayed with me for the majority of the night, and left to get coffee just before the police arrived to arrest us all. I was arrested for breaking a law that was unjust: sleeping in the plaza. I still believe that the homeless and I deserved to stay in Bo Diddley Plaza if there was nowhere else available to stay or Occupy.

My experiences at Occupy Gainesville made me realize that the real achievement of the Occupy movement was not revolution in the traditional sense. It was more of a cultural revolution. It was meant to get us out of our houses, to bring us together in the general assemblies, and to discuss the problems that we all faced, together in civic society. I mean, how are you supposed to love your neighbor if you don’t even know them?

Sarah and I continue to discuss the failures of the horizontal movement that was Occupy Wall Street to this day. But mostly we talk about the memories we made, and the time we spent fighting for justice. It made us each into the people that we are today, and we certainly cannot regret that.

No Strings Attached

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In 2008, I served on an advisory board for an international foundation that supports non governmental organizations helping victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. We targeted organizations that aimed to “rescue, restore and reintegrate” victims into society, and many were doing a wonderful job with treatment as well as prevention.

However, it would really frustrate me when some faith based non for profits would attach strings to their charity. Meaning, they would only give these young women food and shelter IF they would attend religious services, Bible studies, and accept Jesus as their Lord & Savior. It would honestly infuriate me to think that someone who has been a victim of the worst kinds of abuse would then be required to conform to another’s belief system before he or she could receive shelter, food, and clothing.

One example was a young girl less than 17 years old in Thailand. She was sold by her parents, most likely to make ends meet so they could feed their other children. She had been diagnosed with HIV, and was (understandably) feeling resentment over the awful hand she had been dealt in life. Her refusal to participate in Bible studies resulted in her rapid return to the streets.

The Jesus I know would not have refused help to anyone just because they didn’t believe in Him. Needless to say, that organization did NOT receive my recommendation for funding.