Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Place is Like a Prison

Today was huge. 

When I first started interning back in April of 2010, one of the first clients I helped out with was a great Ethiopian guy that we'll call Ben. He was coming from a refugee camp in Kenya and became eligible for emergency resettlement after having a stroke. Through spending time with Ben going to the bank, going to Social Security offices, and translating for him on a few occasions, we became pretty good friends. Even after my job changed I was able to keep working with Ben, which was great.

A few months after arriving in the states, Ben had another stroke and it pretty seriously impacted his ability to get around on his own. For the past year and a half, Ben has had to live in an assisted living rehab facility instead of with his family. We've been struggling to get him on disability insurance so that he can pay for the medicine he needs and live at home with his siblings. It's been one of the more frustrating experiences I've ever had and I can't even imagine how it must feel for Ben. What must it be like to flee your country, discover you have serious medical issues, be flown to yet another new place, then be told that you have to stay in a center where you are surrounded by older people who don't speak your language and are in varying stages of illness, and not have the choice to go live with your family? So overwhelming. Ben said recently that the rehab facility was starting to feel like a prison.

Finally, today we had a meeting before a judge who was to decide if Ben was eligible for disability insurance. Before Ben went before the judge, his stern-faced lawyer, Ann, warned us that this typically was another process. The judge would review the case, ask questions to make sure Ben answered them consistently, and discuss with an employment specialist to see if there were any jobs that Ben could feasibly do. The problems were many: the court certified translator wasn't there, Ben was missing medical documents from Kenya, and the lawyer was intimidating the crap out of us, so everyone was nervous. 

The lawyer went to present her case before the judge first, buying us more time before in case the translator did decide to show up (never happened), leaving Ben, his case manager, a person from the rehab center, and I to wait. When she came back 20 minutes later, she said - with a completely expressionless face and flat voice- that the judge had decided, based on the evidence, to grant Ben disability and award him with 16 months of reimbursements for the previous months when he should have been receiving assistance. He didn't even have to talk to Ben. It didn't matter that the translator wasn't there. We didn't have to come back another day. Ben just needed to sign a paper and it was done. None of us understood. We all just sat. Silent, staring at her. It wasn't until Ben poked me and asked me what she said that it completely sunk in. I jumped up and started shaking Ben by the shoulders (probably not good), telling him that he had gotten the assistance, that he was free. Tears were flowing, shouts of joy rang throughout the land. I've never had stress just evaporate like that so suddenly. For sure, Ben still has some challenges ahead of him, but at least now we aren't wondering how he is going to pay for his medicine and he'll have the support he needs to live at home. 

I don't think our stern-faced friend realized until that moment how much of a struggle this had been and how much it meant. Ben gave her a huge hug... let's be honest... we were all hugging her. She didn't have a choice. She took it well and left us with a, "well, next time make sure you have all your paperwork." 

Seriously, such an incredible day knowing that Ben can go home soon and get the more focused assistance that he needs. I haven't been able to stop smiling all day... which didn't go over well when I got to campus and ran into people groaning under the weight of finals. But you know... it really just doesn't matter. Ben is free.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Job love.

There are days where i love my job and then there are days when i really love my job. Today was a really kind of day.

First of all, when I walked in I saw three newly arrived refugees from Shimelba, one of whom I knew quite well!! The world seemed like such a small place all of a sudden and it was just a really happy moment. In the past month or so, many of my friends from the camp have resettled to the US: my translator Gebar, my favorite shop-keeper Jossy, and Tekle (all mentioned in a previous post). I've had the chance to talk to them on the phone, however none of them were resettled to DC. To see a friend in the office was so fun! And to finally feel like I have the chance to repay some of the kindness and generosity that was shown to me in Shimelba is so exciting.

Secondly, tonight we had a going away party for one of our favorite teachers, Madhav, in the refugee ESL program. I've been coordinating this program for the past year and Madhav joined at the same time I did. He is himself a refugee from Bhutan and is very well loved by his students. He has been studying English for the past 10 or so years and is so able to relate to the struggle of navigating in a world that doesn't speak your mother tongue. It was sad to see Madhav go, but the party was so so great. The students came together, of their own accord and with their limited incomes, and gave really heart-felt gifts. They all stood and said their favorite things about Madhav, which was so great... especially from those who have limited English skills. We even had some former students return to thank Madhav for how much he helped them improve their English skills and share how they were able to get better jobs as a result.

My favorite part of these classes is seeing refugees from all over world interact together. They come from such unique cultures, but they share a bond of being forced to leave their country and settle in a new place. It's so fascinating to watch them come, grow, and learn. They all have such valuable knowledge and experiences, it's just a matter of providing them with the platform (in this case, English) to share it with others.

In conclusion, a paragraph written by one of our Congolese students. They were asked to write, in 5 sentences, something that they do routinely. He is generous with his sentences, but it's beautiful so I'm ok with it...

"I usually work in a farm as a tractor driver. Agriculture is a very good activity. Personally I like it because, when I plant corn or soy beans, it is like I give a life to something, I see it grow, and after, I harvest it and I labor the soil again I replant it's a good job, when your result per hectares is high! Also I know how to work with all the implements as planter, sprayer, disk, spreader. Actually it is a nice world."

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Place with no Name

Allow me to be frank about one thing: my favorite animal is the giraffe and it always will be. However, were the unthinkable to happen and all the giraffes eradicated from the planet, my back up favorite would be the camel. They are just such useful animals, they always have an inquisitive look on their face, and they never seem to complain no matter how heavy the load or how hot the temperature. I like this. Here camels are sometimes referred to as the “ships of the desert” due to their ability to haul things over long distances with minimal effort. I mention all this only because the camp I am at is swarming with camels, I got to ride one, and it was perhaps one of the happiest moments of my life. Due to my obvious glee following the camel excursion, it was suggested that I purchase a camel and ride it home, using the camel not only as a ship of the desert but also as a ship of the sea. I am seriously considering this option.

(Erikson, a refugee social worker, leading the way. I will buy a camel one day.)

Life at Shimelba refugee camp has been interesting thus far and I am learning a lot. The name “Shimelba” is a result of the smashing together of two words: “name” and “there is no,” or “the place with no name.” At first I found this to be a bit harsh and it didn’t seem nearly as bad as had been described to me by former Shimelba refugees now living in the DC area. It seemed like any other Ethiopian town- there are small shops set up, a market area, cafes for drinkingtea/coffee, DSTV houses that show soccer games and movies, a stadium for actually playing soccer, restaurants for eating tasty lamb with injera, and even a nice school. In fact, I even found it nicer than most Ethiopian towns in some ways- water is provided by the IRC and there is an abundant flow (not what I was expecting from a refugee camp). Food is distributed monthly by the UN, so all the children appear to be healthy. There are ceiling fans, which I don’t think I have ever seen in this country. And the whole scene is set to a backdrop of gentle rolling hills. The IRC offices/ the housing where we live is set on top of a hill overlooking the entire camp and it is tempting to look out over everything and think that it is all simply picturesque. Then I stayed here for a month.

(A favorite evening hangout overlooking Shimelba)

It’s not just the weather, though it tends to bear the brunt of the blame. It really is amazingly hot. It feels like the sun has become your personal adversary, out to slay you whenever you attempt the smallest of tasks. People say that this is the “cool” season, but they are delirious and don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t want to think about what the hot season is like. The air here is so still, making the heat omnipresent and constant. The heat becomes trapped in things, like your bed sheets or your clothes, giving the impression that you are being baked in an oven. The only relief is at night if the rains come, bringing with it a breeze and magnificent lightening storms. However, more often than not, the rains haven’t been coming as expected, which is a cause for concern.

The real reason people take issue with Shimelba is because it is an in-between place. It isn’t necessary to give these types of places a name. You don’t think you’ll be there long enough to warrant a name. No one wants to be here, but they can’t go back where they came from and they don’t yet have permission to go forward. Everyone is waiting for permission for something: to complete their education or start a business or find a job that would support them and their families. And while they are waiting, a lot of time is passing. Some have been waiting here for as long as 7 years and you can hear a tone of futility in their voices as they talk about the ineffectiveness of the system they are trapped in. The Ethiopian government just opened a limited number of positions for Eritrean refugees to attend university, but its not enough. They also just began allowing the refugees to move to urban cities if they can demonstrate that they have sufficient support from family and friends, but few have that kind of support. In 2008, the UN started resettling refugees from Shimelba, mostly to the US, but the process is slow and most are still just waiting.

For the past month, I’ve been teaching Cultural Orientation courses to refugees who are in the waiting stage before resettling to the US. The course lasts for two weeks, with one group meeting in the morning and another in the afternoon. Our second round of classes has just finished and they’ve been a lot of fun. In total, around 200 refugees participated and hopefully they are now a bit more prepared for what is to come. I’ve also been working on revising the Cultural Orientation curriculum, which has been a bit challenging with minimal access to electricity and no internet, but it’s coming together. And finally, I’ve been drafting budget and funding proposals to try and get some money directed to the refugees that are resettling. It’s hard to get funding for projects like this because donors tend to be more focused on hot issues, like the unaccompanied minors who are flocking to Ethiopia from Eritrea or the massive drought that is taking place in the Somali region. Those who are resettling don’t have imminent needs and thus much less funding is given. However, if refugees have realistic expectations about what life will be like once they arrive in the US, the transition process is at least a bit smoother and it can make a big difference in their first few years in the States. Or at least that is the hope. Some of the students from the first class have already flown to the United States (they really enjoyed the fact that they would get there before me), so I’m hoping to follow-up with them in a few months to see if the course proved helpful.

(Tekle, a favorite student, after his name was posted for resettlement. He should be in the US now!)

Some highlights of my Shimelba experience include:

-getting to know the refugee social workers. These are refugees employed by the IRC to implement the different programs. I mostly worked with social workers from the Youth and Livelihood program and they are great. Two of them helped me by translating for the entire month, which was a huge task. Gebar and Dawit are incredibly bright, strong guys and have ridiculous, unbelievable stories. We grab tea after most classes and I have gained so much insight and perspective from them. Other social workers were kind to invite me to hang out with their families, drink coffee, and talk for hours… doing what those in Shimelba do best.

(With Gebar and Dawit outside our favorite tea house)

-making new friends. Before leaving DC, one of the refugees from Shimelba who resettled to DC and received his assistance from our office told me that I HAD to find his best friend who was still in Shimelba. And so I did. Jossy became a great friend and loyal ally. He runs a small shop in the camp and would sometimes venture to the world outside of Shimelba (the great beyond) and bring back luxury items such as bananas and candy. I also became great friends with the IRC staff, who are smart, dedicated, and adventurous.

(coffee ceremony at Jossy's house)

-finding the secret garden. One day, a favorite social worker of mine, Tukku, was waiting for me as soon as class got out and told me that we had to go somewhere immediately. Naturally, I followed him. We ended up in the secret garden of Shimelba, a wonderful place with trees and vines and flowers and green things and life. The mastermind behind it all is a refugee named Bekele who has the greenest thumb imaginable. A couple years ago, some Canadians were offering gardening classes to refugees (just repeating what I’m told. No idea why Canadians felt the need to teach farmers how to grow things, but there you have it) and this guy took to it like a champ. He fashioned benched and tables out of dirt bricks, allowing other refugees to come and find relief from the heat. For the guests’ reading pleasure, he has Canadian gardening magazines available to peruse. He also had 3 caged parrots and was growing sweet potatoes, a rare and tasty commodity. It was an entirely bizarre experience to have in the middle of a desert, but I couldn’t stay away after that.

(Hanging with Bekele in his garden)

-the 4th of July. This came at a crucial time. About halfway through my time in Shimelba, we hadn’t had cell phone service/ electricity/ rain for weeks, it was hot, my first group of students (who were awesome) had completed the course and the second group just didn’t seem as awesome yet (no worries- we warmed to each other in no time)…. Thus, it was imperative to do something to boost moral. I sent my computer with a driver going to town, had him charge it, and then arranged a movie night in order to celebrate. The IRC staff was just as doldrums-y as I was, so we all really got into it. Mattresses were dragged out onto the porch, popcorn was popped, and we chose a classic American film- The Shawshank Redemption. This was a great hit with the staff, largely due to a deep love in this country for Morgan Freeman. Following July 4th, Shimelba became known as ‘Shimelbashank’. I feel like the staff really identified with the film.

-discovering cactus fruit. A double-edged sword, I’ll tell you that much. A tasty, delicious and abundant fruit, akin to the passion fruit, but covered with skin-piercing thorns. Though that’s not the worst of it. When first introduced to the fruit, many people I talked to said that they didn’t eat it because it was known to cause constipation. This did not seem like an entirely negative thing to me, given some extenuating circumstances. Thus, I purchased a kilo of the tasty delights and commenced to eat them for breakfast because the other option was usually shredded, spicy injera, which is unacceptable in the morning and usually the cause of my extenuating circumstances. Around this same time, I began feel rather ill. I would wake up feeling fine, but usually an hour into my first class I would break out into a sweat, starthaving stomach cramps, and get light-headed. After an hour or so, I’d be fine again. I attributed it to dehydration and commenced an intense water-drinking regime. In the meantime, my extenuating circumstances were not improving and I was losing faith in the cactus fruit. My days continued in this terrible cycle until one day my friend said that she was surprised that I didn’t get sick after I ate the cactus fruit on an empty stomach. When I asked her why she would wait so long to say something, she just said she thought everyone knew that cactus fruit should only be eaten after other food. Lesson learned.

-Witnessing a Kunama wedding. The Kunama people make up a large population of Shimelba and they have a fascinating culture. They are known for being an extremely tight-knit community and, when asked if they would like to sign up for resettlement, the elders said sure… if they could all be resettled to the same place and if they would be allowed to take their camels, donkeys, and goats. Needless to say, most of them did not sign up for resettlement, preferring to stay together and with their livestock. Anyway, one day some friends and I were heading to hang out in the secret garden and along the way we ran into a Kunama wedding procession. It was out of control. I’ll post a video someday.

(The wedding procession and with friends Lemlem, Kidist, and Alem after the bride and groom passed by)

-Renewing my love of sports. The canteen on the IRC compound, where the staff eats meals, is equipped with satellite television. Except for the few times I was able to gain control of the remote, if we had electricity we were watching either sporting events or music videos. Good news is, I am now caught up on all the songs the kids are listening to these days. The best part though, was the community that arose around the sports. We first got into Wimbledon and did our best to mimic the moves of our favorite players. If the electricity went out, we took our newly acquired skills to the Ping-Pong table and started fierce competitions. When anyone made a particularly good shot we would yell “NADAL!!!!!” or “SHARAPOVA!!!!,” the camp favorites. Needless to say, we were rather devastated when they both lost…

(An intense ping-pong tournament with the IRC guys)

After Wimbledon, we became rather obsessed with the Women’s World Cup and I’ll be the first to admit that I would tolerate nothing but single-minded support for team USA. Some tried to cheer for Brazil, France, Sweden, the UK. Others expressed sympathy for Japan. I would have none of it. Before the games, IRC staff and any visitors were required to learn at least the key sections of the Star Spangled Banner and sing along. Tragically, the electricity went out 33 minutes into the final and we were left not knowing the result. Perhaps this was for the best. The next day was rough.

(celebrating American victory over France... our last chance to celebrate)

So that’s probably enough for now… sorry about the lack of posting. Internet was hard to come by, so I lost some motivation. However, I’m back in Addis now (most of this post was written last week), wrapping up some final reporting. Heading back to the Finote in a few days to catch up with everyone, which I’m real happy about. Hope all is well!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Just do your business and don't look down . . .

I’ve made it to Shire (pronounced “Shi-ray,” there are no hobbits here)! Shire and I got off to a bit of a rocky start. I was told that there was an airport in Shire and that the IRC would fly me up, a convenient arrangement as a road trip up from Addis would take 3 days. However, as the plane was descending and the rocky, red ground growing ever closer, I was struggling to identify anything that resembled a runway or an airport. The pilot had made a point of announcing, in both Amharic and English, that he was allowing the co-pilot to land the plane, which I hadn’t really thought much of, but it was now making me nervous. When we were moments away from touching down, I realized the red rocks were our runway and the tin shed (even this is a generous description) was the airport. As we bounced our way to the “airport” through a cloud of red dust, herders were running around attempting to keep their animals out of the way and children were standing just on the edge of our rocky path to watch the arrival of the plane. It was not a safe program and I still don’t feel good about it.

Shire is an interesting town, a little bit larger than Finote Selam, but crawling with international aid workers. It’s close to a contested portion of the Ethiopian/ Eritrean border, so everyone has an office here. There are two nice-ish places to eat/ drink coffee in town, so I end up eating my meals with the IOM (International Office of Migration) office head, Chinese construction workers, and various other expats who have been placed here. It’s an interesting experience and I’ve enjoyed hearing the stories of people who have been in the development/ relief business for years.

The IRC is operating in two refugee camps in the area and I arrived just in time for the annual grant-opening meeting (where they share how each program will use the funds that have been allotted to them for the year) and staff retreat. It was really quite good timing as I got to spend time with the entire staff and see historical sights around the Tigray region, which I had never seen before. I was also glad I had the opportunity to sit in on the grant meetings, as it has been good to hear what activities the different programs are implementing (water and sanitation, gender based violence, child and youth protection, livelihoods, education, etc).

The people I am working with are hilarious, interact together so well, and immediately made me feel like part of the team. They are from all different parts of Ethiopia and yet they treat each other like family. The staff is extremely male dominated, but the women handle it well and always have a response for any teasing comment the guys send their way. I think the girls are happy to have a boost in their ranks, so I’ve been trying to keep up with the constant joking and am working on my quick Amharic retorts.

I will confess that I have completely lost track of how many places we visited during this 4-day retreat. Being thrown into Tigray was a great way to get started, but also completely overwhelming. They speak a different language, Tigrinya, but have many of the same traditions and culture as the rest of Ethiopia. It was disconcerting to be in a country I feel so familiar with, but to be starting over again with language. Also, the look of this region is completely different- I’m not in the injera-basket anymore! A vast majority of our time was spent driving through the countryside, which, I am convinced, is one big rock. Everything is made of rock. Roads, houses, churches, cafes, the fields the farmers were plowing… Massive hunks of rock merge together to form striking mountains and cliffs, though sometimes they stand alone like they were dropped from the sky. I think it might even rain rocks here, if it were ever to rain.

Northern Ethiopia is considered to be the origin of the Ethiopian empire, so there are ruins dating back to 5th century BC (approximate) when settlers came from Yemen (though some say that Ethiopians were here first and then influenced Yemen). Regardless, there is a temple in a village called Yeha made from perfectly fitted, huge squares of stone that apparently resembles Yemeni architecture. No concrete was involved and yet the building is still standing centuries later. They also found ancient rock tablets with Sabean script carved into them, which they think was the linguistic predecessor of Gi’ze, which gave birth to Tigrinya, which begat Amharic (kind of). I am accustomed to seeing such things safely shielded in the glass cases of museums, but not here! These tablets were kept in an attic over a food storage shed and were shown to us as an afterthought when we kept asking questions about the origin of the temple. Ethiopia is awesome.

A group of us also went to see a remote rock-hewn Orthodox church. Some people opted out of this excursion and I assumed it was because they were too tired to hike 20 minutes to get there. There are some things that I forgot/ weren’t clearly communicated: 1) when a rural Ethiopian guide says “20 minutes,” you must assume that he means more than an hour. 2) Reaching the church required scaling a mountain and walking across an exposed plank over a 700ft drop. The title of this blog was sound advice given in regards to a particularly foul latrine (shint beyt!) situation, but I’ve found it to be applicable in various settings over the past week. Even with the “don’t look down” mantra running through my head, there came a point (after climbing barefooted up the mountain face, wondering at the inspiration that drove people to build a church in such an impossible to reach place, but before the exposed plank) that I decided I had seen plenty of Orthodox churches and that I would just enjoy the view. I felt great about the decision, but our guide- a 65-year-old priest who moved like a mountain goat up that beast of a rock- was less than pleased. I offered to build a handrail and then come across, but he didn’t seem to feel there was a need for that. Curious.

That's the update for now! I've made it out to the camp and am loving it! More soon! Miss you all!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

And We’re Back!

All is well in Addis Ababa, where the coffee remains strong and the people as friendly as ever! The first week or so has been a fun time reconnecting with friends, finding a trusty vegetable vendor, and attending many programs (from here on, the word ‘program’ will be used to describe a myriad of activities, in true Ethio-style). A friend from AU, Alexis, and I travelled from DC together and were immediately taken to a lunch program at my good friends’, Teshager and Mame, house upon arrival. Their mom had piping-hot shiro ready and waiting, which is the only way to be welcomed back to Ethiopia.

(Alexis and I, as foreigners, paid 20 birr to receive these pink slips and gain access to a "rock hewn church in a cave." Clearly, this is just a very small rock hole, not even worthy of being called a cave. There is no church in this rock hole... in fact, the church is built above the hole. Not only was the advertising false, but the guys only had to pay 3 birr to gain access to the hole. So much injustice.)

(Alexis and I touring King Menelik and Queen Taitu's original palace outside of Addis)

Tesh, Mame, Alexis, and I spend most of the weekend with our great friend, Ermais. Ermi’s brother recently passed away in a bad car wreck and we arrived just in time to attend the 40-day memorial. Ethiopian funerals are done in stages, with the first ceremony immediately following the death, followed by more ceremonies 40 days after, 60 days after, and a year later. For Ermi’s brother’s memorial, we went to the church early in the morning, had a short service lead by a priest, and then saw the uncovering of the headstone. It was such a sad time and you could almost feel the death of this family’s son/brother become a reality to them. However, the priest gave a strong message, calling on the family to maintain faith and not focus on asking the ‘why’ questions.

After the service, we all went back to Ermi’s parents house for breakfast. Ermi’s parents are well-respected business owners and it was so great to see their community gather around them. Everyone sat around for hours, offering support, distraction, and of course eating food. I had spent some time with Ermi’s family when I was last here in December, so it was good to see them again even though the occasion was sad.

(Hanging with Ermi, Mame, Tesh, Ermi's brother Simon, some guy, and Tesh/Mame's brother Iskahun)

(Ermi's brother Yohannes, Ermi, Simon, Biruk, and their mom)

In sharp contrast, the rest of the week was spent preparing for a wedding! Over the past year in DC, I have become great friends with Meron through working with her at the IRC and attending the same program at AU with Alexis. The week was a mad dash, trying to get everything together for the big days (plural- so many programs). Meron’s husband’s family all came over from the States, so it was fun to hang out with them and see Addis through their eyes. This past weekend was full of much dancing, more food, and much time spend with Meron’s awesome grandma.

(Meron and Dave!)

(Grandma was trying to get me to sing... which wasn't going to happen)

This week, Alexis headed out to Southern Sudan to start her practicum and I started orientation for mine in the main office. On Monday I'll be going north to the refugee camp, which is in a region I've never been before. I’m excited get to work and start pulling together all the pieces of what people are telling me here. More later!