Archive for the refugee crisis Category

Welcome the Stranger

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Lublin, Poland, refugee crisis, Travel with tags , , , , on September 16, 2019 by Louise Steinman

It’s been an intense and magical week in Lublin, Poland. A Kabbalistic text appears over the archway of the Brama Grodzka; a flamingo is invited to perch in a storks nest high in a poplar tree; the words of Polish veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are projected on the walls of the cultural center, reminding us of the hospitality that veterans need after the trauma of war. In the passageway of one the crooked streets of the Old Town, the voice of the local poet Jozef Czechowicz– killed in the German bombardment of September, 1939, fills the air… just near the vinyl record shop where they’re playing Talking Heads and Miles Davis. And at the Old Well in what is now the bus depot– and was once the Jewish quarter of Lublin– a voice sings forth on the hour with the words of asylum seekers, some from Guatemala, some from Eritrea, Iraq. “I don’t even know where this ship is taking me.” “I’m sorry cousin, I could not save you.” These art projects are all part of Open City Festival 2019, curated by Pawel Leszkowicz and Tomasz Kitlinski– dear souls, fiery social activists– who invited me and artist Dorit Cypis to create a piece for the festival they had set on the theme of “Hospitality” one of fourteen artist projects. Thus, “Welcome the Stranger,” an installation for social engagement… with a text inspired by Edmond Jabes that asks, “What is a foreigner?” “What does a foreigner help us understand?” After the installation, Dorit and I have loved /watching people in the busy bus depot– carrying their satchels and suitcases– arriving or leaving for other cities, countries– and the local cabbies– reading the text and listening to the Voice of the Well… which is a witness from the past, the only surviving well of the many that once served the city’s citizens, places where people came together to fill their buckets wth water, wells that were drawn from springs and river under the cities, connecting Lublin to places far away, to other continents… all connected. On opening night, we joined a procession of 200 plus people that began on the steps of Lublin Castle, then proceeded to the bus station and the Old Well, and on into the old city to visit all the art projects and listen to the artists speak about them, a beautiful night with a full moon, a city engaging with art, with history, with questions about hospitality and the lack thereof, in this world we all shar

“This happened centuries ago. This happened yesterday.”

We thank our collaborators– Jimmy Harry (sound score composition); Magdalena Birczynska (vocals); Piotr Florcyzk (translation), Lloyd Hamrol (water station design)– and the wonderful Lublin artists Magda and Ludo Franczyck who added their support plus Ludo’s beautiful performance at the Well; the art historian Joanna Zetar, from Brama Grodzka, who offered a fascinating talk on the history of Lublin’s wells and waterways… and took us to see the mural of Jewish Lublin placed along the small river that runs near the well…another delight of “hidden Lublin,” all that exists below the ground and in memory, kept alive by those indefatigable guardians of memory at Teatr NN… friends Joanna Klass and Wojtek Sasznor; Katy Bentall for sustenance and hospitality in the beautiful village of Dobre, to the staff at Rozdroza Foundation and the great tech team, Marcin and our guy Krzysztof Spoz and our friends and supporters on Gofundme, thank you all thank you all and many more.

Water station designed by Lloyd Hamrol, in front of Lublin Castle

Artist Ludo Franczak giving a talk at the Well, his search for the key to the Well, and playing his recording of the sound of the Well taking a breath, taking our breaths away.

A woman reads the text on the Old Well at the bus depot. [photo: Katy Bentall]

Dorit Cypis in conversation with two Lublin cabdrivers at the Old Well, talking about the text they just around, about “foreignness.”

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Posted in asylum, civil rights, history, Life and What about It, Peace and social justice, refugee crisis, refugees with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by Louise Steinman

merlin_157452141_35556aff-1a2e-4fce-8149-44a0ca5e6ad1-superJumbophoto: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

July 6, 2019

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
And a long, long way from home, a long way from home

What does July 4 feel like to a child in a cage in Clint, TX? To a Salvadoran mother wearing an ankle monitoring device afraid of being deported? How can one celebrate the 4th of July in America?  The Statue of Liberty is weeping.  I’m gliding on the elliptical this morning at the Glendale Y, to a podcast of an interview with Tracy K. Smith, our last poet laureate, who took  poems on the road, reading to rural communities in America, testing her theory that poetry can break down the divide between us, a black poet from the east reading poems about the Civil War in South Dakota, at a womens prison in Maine. Why, she wonders, when reading aloud a powerful Joy Harjo poem at the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers home, in Palmer, Alaska, do more of the residents not respond? Ask questions as others have at other community centers, libraries across the country. She hears just a few quiet moans from the audience. Then learns later, that those attendees suffered from Alzheimers and dementia—they hadn’t spoken aloud or moved their bodies in some time. The poems did reach them, deeply, the staff informs her, they could tell.

Interview over, I switch to music, shuffle songs.  And I forget so much of what’s in that library of music, assembled over so many years, music acquired for different ALOUD events at the library.  And out of my earbuds into my soul comes a soaring voice, Marian Anderson, singing the spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”  I’m gliding on the elliptical and weeping, can my body keep moving while weeping? Gliding to a halt.  Unbearable, the weight and suffering in her voice, the images of children in ICE Detention, the truth of their pain brought to the heart through the agency of the human voice, a pain so strong you could feel it on Novocain, and hammered home by this New York Times expose on Clint, TX, shortly after I return home, sit at the kitchen table with my coffee, open the newspaper.  How can one celebrate the 4th of July?  As we learn of this secretive site where children endured outbreaks of scabies, shingles, and chickenpox while being held in cramped cells? Where “the stench of children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing—people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly.”  Two brothers, both epileptics, separated from their guardian sister, deprived of their medication, desperate to contact their father. Trying to behave “like little adults.”  Young mothers with dried breast milk on their dirty clothes. How does July 4th feel to a child in a cage in Clint, Texas?

July 12th rally, Lights for Liberty rally, Metropolitan Detention Center, 535 Alameda, downtown Los Angeles, 7:00- 9:00 PM.

Marian Anderson sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”   listen and weep. listen and get yourself to a demonstration against the depredations and humiliations of ICE inflicted on our fellow human beings. Write your reps! Be outraged!

as I take care of the pupil of my eye

Posted in asylum, civil rights, Human Rights, refugee crisis with tags , , , , , , , on June 22, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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[photo: LS2019]

I have been corresponding with inmates at Otay Mesa Detention Center, where asylum seekers to the US are being detained. There are detainees from Mexico, Yemen, Iran, Tajikistan, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Columbia, and many more countries– fleeing persecution, rape, gangs, torture, police, threats to family and livelihood.  One young man from Congo, has been detained for two YEARS and 28 days.  As ICE ratchets up new raids and threatens deportations, please think about these people kept behind bars in a country (once upon a time) predicated on the idea of offering safe harbor to those fleeing persecution.  With this letter-writing system, every week you are given the name of someone in detention to write to, and all the letters (redacted) are published on-line. These letters are a life-line to those in detention separated from their families. They need to know that someone cares.  People who come to this country fearing for their lives should not be treated like criminals. Find out more here: Detainee Allies    This young man from Yemen (words below) would take care of our country like he would THE PUPIL OF HIS EYE.  What a good measure for any citizen!

Honorable Judge,

I hope that you will give me the right of protection and let me live

in this country like any citizen.

For I pledge to you that I will serve this country and will work

to build it up night and day and will take care of it

as I take care of the pupil of my eye,

and I will be a trustworthy watchman for it

and contributing member of society,

not a destructive one.

-refugee asylum seeker from Yemen, in ICE custody

and read this letter from Horacio, from Mexico to his pen pal Dora in Maine… I was so moved by this.

To Dear Dora and Otay Allies

It is a pleasure to write you and all members of Otay allies, I am so happy to receive your letters of support every week and to know that there is still people that care for the human rights nad actually still have comprehension, compassion ,and kindness. I also feel admirable towards you for you generosity every time you help me to buy my needs here in detention thank you very much for your kindness, I love to read yours letters and when you tell me about the water in Maine and the things you do every day I can imagine everything in my mind about what you do every day in your house and believe me I know where Maine is I know the names of all the states of U.S. A. in my case I used to live in a realy beautiful area close to Monterey CA, Carmel Valley, Santa Cruz is a very place places in California nice places in California where is located the Salinas valley where all of vegetables grows like lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, strawberries, artichokes and all kinds of vegetables. I don’t know if you of Clint Estwood, very good actor for the Western movies, he lives in Carmel Valley very close where I used to live, if you have the chanse to look it in google or even visit those places you will be amazed How beautiful they are. I receive the letter that you wrote me and I ma glad to know that you guys can be able to understand every single letter that all the detainees write to you guys even and knowing that there must be hundreds of languages that write to you guys Google translate is very good that’s the one I used to use every time I needed. I like the way that you send me the letter half in Spanish and half in English, for me when I was barely 16 year old I was brought to U.S. right after I started working in the field of Salinas CA my job was irrigate all of those vegetables with irrigation sprinklers that are really long and heavy but I was very happy because I was with my two older brothers, I them started going to ESL clases every afternoon after my work that how I learned som grammar I also used to love to take my younger brothers or sometime I used to go to those cities that are by the sea like Monterey, Santa Cruz just to take walks and to talk with the American people that honestly were and are very nice and kind and I remember I loved to make conversation with that people just to improve my English so that way I could practice more and more people in that area are honestly so sweet and is always are willing to help you I know that most of the American people are like that, I can say that because threw the years that I lived here I had such a good memories with the people from this country. I also must say that my situation is critic and sad I have to be truth about it it is sad the price that we “Mexico” people must pay just to be neighbor of the most rich and powerfull country of the world I say that because I see a lot of discrimination against us, like for example Mexican don’t get asylum almost never I don’t know why even knowing what is going on in that country with the cartels and all of that corrupted goberment that Mexico has all of those massive killings are happening just because they are fighting for territory why because that envolves a lot of money because this country has it. I always ask myself if Mexico will be situate where Argentina and Uruguay are it wouldn’t be that bad in crime people will be working decent it would not be all of those killings that are happening now that’s is one of my points of views. I am plenty fighting to be deported to Mexico I askin the court that I m fighting now to please try to send me to another country I have send letters to the embassis of Guatemala and else of the Panama to see if they fix something, that’s is what the deportation officer has told me to do, to try to get in contact with the consulates or embassis and ask them if they can give me what is called asylum humanitarian so I can avoid to go to Mexico or get deported again there, it is else part of my argument what I’m telling the court please send me to another country   Well Dora it is a pleasure to hear from you and also to write you every time I have the chanse I hope you can understand my situation that it is so difficult. I hope you had the chanse to listen to those wonderful songs that I mention to you in my last letter that I send you last time I hope you enjoy them, but I totally forget o mention about one other band of music of my favorites which is the Bee Gees I really love their music Barry Gibb is one of my favorites one of my favorite songs are “Alone” something in the Dark by Barry Gibb and I also know all about them Barry Gibb has a couple of CDs by himself listen to them they are wonderful I am sure they are going to like a lot. Well Dora thanks for everything and I hope for the best for you

You have a very noble kind heart, we definitely need more people like you in this world.

A++ your friend Horacio

 

 

Among the Righteous, on the passing of Marian Bereska

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Poland, refugee crisis with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by Louise Steinman

IMG_6326I can’t let 2015 fade into the night without making mention of a remarkable man who passed away in a little town in central Poland on December 20, the day before the winter solstice.

I had the privilege of meeting Marian Bereska first in 2009, when he finally was willing to tell his story of how he and is mother Janina together hid five Jews from the Radomsko ghetto in their little house.

(Below: Janina Bereska with young Marian)

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For seventy years, he’d kept this story to himself. He hadn’t told his wife, his children, or any of his neighbors or friends in the town where he’d lived his entire life. In the postwar years, under Communism, secrecy about the past had become a habit. For a while it appeared that Marian Bereska would carry his secret to the grave.

IMG_6327 I will always remember that remarkable winter day in an empty hotel dining room in Radomsko, with snow falling outside the windows– when Marian met with me, his grandson Szymon (who helped persuade his grandfather that it was safe now to tell his story), my journalist friend Maciej Ziembinski, and my translator Tomasz Cebulski, to tell us his story, even sketching out the dimensions of the bunker in my little black notebook—the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. His mother Janina was a young widow with young children (Marian was eight). They hid five people—Berek Ofman, his schoolmate Regina Epstein, her parents, and her cousin– in their bunker for two years. Young Marian procured food for the hidden guests, trading linens for bread. They came close to disaster more than once. In occupied Poland, the Nazi’s penalty for anyone found hiding Jews was death for the entire family.

where he ran Marian

When I asked Marian why he and his mother had assumed the brutal risks of harboring fugitives during the German occupation, he brushed off my query: the question had no meaning. They saw people who needed their help. They responded.

As we move into the New Year, at a time when so many around the globe and in our communities are on the move seeking safety, shelter, sustenance– it’s worth pausing to think about those like Marian and Janina Bereska who said yes to rescuing strangers, even at grave risk to themselves. Rest in peace, Marian.

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photo: Marian Bereska in 2011, Warsaw, with Leo Ofman, son of Berek Ofman, who was rescued with 4 others by Marian and his mother Janina. This was the day of the ceremony in which Marian received the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations, from Yad Vashem on behalf of his mother and himself.

Syrian Writer-in-Exile, an interview with Yasmine Merei

Posted in Human Rights, refugee crisis, Syria with tags , , , , , on December 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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THE IMAGES of the Syrian migrants go from harrowing to devastating: families facing batons of Hungarian police, a drowned three-year-old face-down in the surf of a Turkish beach. Then we try to grasp the reality of people still in Syria, the place that drove these refugees to risk the death of their children on foreign shores — Assad’s thugs; the black flag of ISIS; rogue militias; Russian bombs; US (and now French) air strikes.

Maybe I would feel less powerless, less despairing, if I could understand more, understand better than I do. When I heard that a Syrian journalist and human rights activist named Yasmin Merei was staying at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, I jumped at the chance to talk with a woman recently arrived from the front lines of the turmoil.

No one answered, however, when I rang the buzzer for our appointment at 520 Paseo Miramar on a quiet afternoon in late October. Just the sound of a few leaf blowers and the occasional passing car broke the silence on that winding street high in the hills of the Palisades. I peered through the barred iron gate. No activity at all. I glanced at my watch; I was half an hour late. Perhaps I had the date wrong? 

The Villa Aurora was once home to another writer-in-exile, Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish playwright and novelist who recognized — and wrote about — the Nazi threat as far back as the early 1920s. By the time they assumed power, the Nazis named him “Public Enemy Number One.” Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta moved to the south of France, but once that became occupied territory they barely made it out of Europe in time. Their salvation came at Roosevelt’s bequest and with the canny assistance of diplomat Varian Fry. Once they arrived in the United States in 1941, they moved to California and, in 1943, Marta was able to purchase the rundown villa — built in 1921 and modeled on a “Castillo” in Seville, for $9,000.

The villa became a focal point and a regular salon as Lion and Marta opened their home to European and German artists and intellectuals in exile: among them the writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and composer Ernst Toch. Now the Villa is an international residency program for artists, administered by the nonprofit Friends of Villa Aurora, with partial funding from the German government. Marta donated her husband’s library, now The Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, to USC.

This year, Villa Aurora invited Merei, a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Lobby, to be their “Feuchtwanger Writer in Exile.” She travelled from Turkey, where she had been living since 2012, and where she edits a magazine called Sayyidat Suria (“The Lady of Syria”).

My interview prospects were starting to look dim. No response to texts. The driveway was gated and stairs off the sidewalk lead down to a locked boiler room. I wrote out a note to leave in the mailbox, and tried the buzzer one last time. To my surprise, this attempt summoned a courteous young man, who told me he was an artist from Berlin and welcomed me inside. I followed him through the large tiled kitchen, out the back door onto a brick patio with an expansive view. My guide knocked politely on a closed door, then rapped his knuckles again: “Yasmin, you have a visitor.” 

A woman opened the door a crack. She was in her pajamas, just awakened, and understandably abashed. I countered her string of apologies with reassurances: I was not in a hurry; I knew she keeps difficult hours, editing through the night via Skype with her magazine colleagues in Turkey and Egypt. I know you have to sleep when you can.

I seated myself at a wooden table on the patio and stared out at the Pacific coastline. Fruiting orange trees lined the terrace below. The bougainvillea gleamed translucent scarlet. The blue sky was cloudless.

In a few minutes, Yasmin emerged from her room in a pink embroidered blouse, glossy dark hair brushed back from her the oval of her pale face. She offered a warm smile and more apologies as she joined me at the table. Her eyes, I noticed, looked weary, even haunted. With her permission, I turned on the tape recorder. Her English is “not perfect,” as she says, but understandable. I’ve largely maintained her word choice and syntax, which struck me as lilting, at times poetic. 

I’d never interviewed a Syrian revolutionary before, someone whose family was made to suffer gravely because she decided to fight for a better Syria. How to talk to her about so painful and fresh a period in her life? I took my cues from Yasmin, and, when she needed to, let her cry in peace. Interview (originally published in Los Angeles Review of Books) follows… MORE

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