Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘refugees

Making America Great Again

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In Jordan at the Azarq temporary school for Syrian refugees, a student rushes up to the blackboard to solve a complex Algebra problem as part of a classroom competition.

In Jordan at the Azarq temporary school for Syrian refugees, a student rushes up to the blackboard to solve a complex Algebra problem as part of a classroom competition.

Last month I was sent to two Syrian refugee camps to photograph school girls.

I didn’t know what to expect.

I knew what school girls in the United States like to do. They play sports, laugh, gossip, create alliances and join clubs. But these girls are refugees. In my mind, I see images of highly traumatized people, crying, pleading and fleeing—people risking their lives and those of their children on frail rubber rafts.

School girls at the Malala Yousafzai All Girls' School in Bar Elias gather around a computer where one team of girls uploaded a powerpoint they created on Cleopatra.

School girls at the Malala Yousafzai All Girls’ School in Bar Elias
gather around a computer where one team of girls uploaded a powerpoint they created on Cleopatra.

Last week Time magazine ran a beautiful series of black and white photographs showing refugees in Greece. Yet they were abstract depictions, reducing individual’s humanity to artful forms. No wonder Americans are fearful of these refugees. They are judged and dismissed as anonymous groups an ocean away. Some of our presidential hopefuls portray them as dangerous to our way of life…whatever that may be.

Still, as an American, I understand that fear. One of the refugees handed me a broken plastic film camera, made in America years ago. He wanted me to have it as a reminder that Syrians love America. I’ll admit my first response was not to accept it, but my guide told to take it. I’m ashamed to say my next thoughts were “What’s in it? Will it blow up when my plane climbs into the sky?” I actually took the camera apart when I got to my hotel room to make sure it held nothing other than good intensions of Syrian hospitality. It now sits in my office as a reminder of my own suspicious nature when handed a gift of friendship.

The reality is these are normal people caught in extraordinary circumstances. They face hardship and devastation. A few years ago they would have been siting in their court yards sharing food with friends and family, taking pride in their children’s accomplishments, living life just like people anywhere.

I wasn’t in the camps to report the tragedy. I was looking a program that helps young women—the lucky ones, whose parents managed to get to a refugee camp. While the camps are not without issues, they are, for the moment, relatively safe. These girls are able to continue their education because of efforts made by non-profits including the Malala Fund and their partners: Kayany Foundation and UNICEF.

Other than the fact that every girl wore a hijab, their classrooms could have been anywhere in the US.

They were normal teenage girls. They laughed and teased each other. They were enthused about learning, inspired by their teachers and shared a contagious excitement.

This I wasn’t expecting.

 Math teacher, Shadi, helps a student solve an algebra problem.


Math teacher, Shadi, helps a student solve an algebra problem.

The teachers astonished me. Shadi, a young math teacher in the Jordan camp of Azarq, holds physics and math degrees, and kept his classroom of girls excited about solving algebra equations. Jamalat wears a floor length brown coat and hijab while working with the refugee children, keeping them competitive and excited. Jamalat had 40 students between the ages of 8- 13. She never sat down as she moved between lessons in English and Arabic, keeping the students engaged the entire day. Both teachers are Syrian refugees themselves. And, they volunteer at the school.

 Jamalat, herself a refugee,  was a teacher in Syria.  She teaches the younger students with warmth and ethusiasm


Jamalat, herself a refugee, was a teacher in Syria. She teaches the younger students with warmth and ethusiasm

 Jamalat brings her students outside when the weather is warm to play games and keep them energized.


Jamalat brings her students outside when the weather is warm to play games and keep them energized.

In the US, I would only expect to see such enthusiasm kindled only by the best teachers in the best schools of the best districts. I felt jealous that I didn’t have a teacher like Jamalat when I was in 3rd grade

When I left the US to begin this work, the leading Republican candidates were trying to one up each with their bigotry. They painted the refugees as villains or worse—terrorists determined to hurt us. Yes, there are extremists planning to do just that. But the majority, perhaps 99.9% of them, just want a safer life for their children, an education and a living.

High school students walk back to their temporary homes in the Azraq Refugee Camp

High school students walk back to their temporary homes in the Azraq Refugee Camp

We are a nation built of immigrants. Every one of us arrived from some other place. My ancestors came in waves from eastern Europe and Asia. My husband’s ancestors came from England, Ireland and France. They might not have been welcomed with open arms but they were allowed to come and make new lives over here. America is a better place because of millions of similar stories.

The people I visited in the refugee camps inspired me; parents who risk all for their children, girls who love math and science and teachers who strive to keep the love of learning burning inside their students. These are exactly the people we need to make America to great again.

 

Complexities of a Simple Weapon

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I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.

The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.

It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.

The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.

Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.

Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army.  With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.

Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world.  It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Jonas James who is a nurse, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Mr. Jade, the church caretaker, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.

So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met?  The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village.  Sandy's mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village. Sandy’s mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.

Written by kasmauski

December 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm