Suffer the Little Children

It’s hard to imagine life in Syria today. Harder still to imagine that fleeing to Iraq would be preferable to remaining in Syria.

Being a child and experiencing either is unimaginable.

Yet, Save the Children estimates that as many as 1 million Syrian children are now living as refugees. One million.

War and conflict are tragic enough. But, robbing children of their childhood and all the attendant delights of youth is simply criminal. I cannot imagine a more helpless feeling than being a parent to a child living in a war zone or fleeing from conditions which are nightmarish at best and a living horror at worst.

How do you explain it? How do you try to shield your child from the reality of war without deceiving them into a false sense of security? How do you instill hope whilst living in conditions which leave little room for belief in a brighter future?

Children under Fire, Save the Children’s report documenting the reality in which children now exist as a result of the civil war raging in Syria, is gut-wrenching.

By their estimates, more than 2 million children in Syria now need some sort of assistance. Figures from a study conducted by Bahcesehir University in Turkey which is referenced throughout the report suggest that three out of every four Syrian children have lost at least one loved one because of the conflict. Three of every four. Many children have lost multiple family members. Many of those children have watched as those loved ones died.

In their own words, children describe the horror of constant shelling and gunfire, as well as living in houses which are shelled whilst they sit inside. They describe running for their lives through neighbourhoods they used to run around in for play. They describe the loss of their schools, either to serve as shelter to the millions displaced within Syria or which have since been burned to the ground. They describe watching friends and family members being shot in front of them. One child’s mother recalled the first word spoken by her young child, born into a world lived only in a state of war: ‘explosion’. That was the first word a mother’s child ever uttered.

Malnutrition is now the norm. Children go un-vaccinated because the manufacturing of medicines has declined if not completely ceased (along with all manufacturing in the country) or because it is impossible to get through the multitude of checkpoints set up by various factions within the country. Thus, the likelihood of epidemics are all the more real. When children do get sick, it is either impossible to reach a clinic or hospital due to the continued threat of sniper-fire or bombings or the impossibility of simply getting through or there is nowhere to go because most if not all hospitals and clinics have been destroyed in a particular area.

Young girls now face the threat of sexual violence as well as the violence of war, and are thus kept indoors for weeks on end. Young boys, some as young as 8 years old, are being recruited as child soldiers and have been used as ‘human shields’.

Suffer the little children. ‘Suffer’ seems insufficient to describe the hell that is life in Syria today.

The easiest way to end the suffering is to end the conflict in Syria. As the US and others in the West beat the drums of war, peace looks unlikely any time in the near future. But, what of the children now? And, how to help even if we cannot physically be there?

In addition to prevailing upon our own leaders for peaceful solutions rather than violent retaliations, we can take steps to help in the seemingly smallest of ways.

As Syrians flee for refugee camps and as winter approaches, many of those fleeing have nothing but the clothes on their backs. One charity which is specifically designed for the crafty amongst us and focuses on helping children in need is asking for a very simple show of support and kindness—send knit or crochet squares.

LILY—or, Love in the Language of Yarn—is calling upon the community of knitters and hookers (not those hookers) to spend a bit of time busting their healthy yarn hordes to make squares, which are then pieced together and given to child refugees. As a knitter, I love this idea. As a humanitarian, it is so elegantly simple and yet necessary. As winter approaches and warm shelter, let alone a warm blanket, is often non-existent, I’ll gladly use some of my time and precious yarn stash to make as many squares as possible.

It may not be much, but it is something.

If we cannot give them security and safety, perhaps we can at least give them warmth.

Some of the squares I'll be sending in the hopes that they bring some 'security' to Syria's forgotten children living as refugees.

Some of the squares I’ll be sending in the hopes that they bring some ‘security’ to Syria’s forgotten children living as refugees.

So Very Unexpected, So Incredibly Welcome

Eight years ago, on an ordinary day in my then-home Moscow, I met a man who loved great music and wanted to share it with the world.

He had a quick wit, a wicked sense of humor, and a commitment to social and economic justice that completely inspired me. He was kind, gentle, strong beyond his own awareness, and conveyed a quiet calmness which immediately enfolded those around him.

The first time we hung out, he described himself as just a ‘tropical fish out of water’. Indeed.

Our courtship was short and sweet. What was there to really ‘decide’? The Cuban and the American who met in Moscow were simply meant to be. As cliche as our story is and as unexpected as meeting him was, his entry into my life was more than welcome — it was necessary.

On this day two years ago, we finally took the plunge and made it official. In the Helsinki Courthouse on a bright, warm, late-August day, we became husband and wife. It was a small, intimate ceremony and at moments a bit silly, but it was all us.

The last eight years have been more meaningful because of the man with whom I share my life. It hasn’t always been easy — but, not because of the two of us, just because life isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. I can’t imagine having gone through it with any other person on the planet. I wouldn’t want to.

Rather fittingly, the night before we married, we spent a delightful evening seeing music we both love—AfroCubism. For anyone who doesn’t know the story of how a group of insanely talented musicians from Mali and Cuba joined forces to create some of the most beautiful sounds around, it’s a tale of impossible odds and years of patience and waiting for a dream to become a reality. Perhaps that is why we love them so.  It was a perfect bridge between ‘co-habitating’ and ‘married’.

He is my best friend, my family, my hero, and my moral compass. He understands my fears and insecurities better than anyone and can bring a smile to my face when all I want to do is cry. As unlikely as a couple as we are, I cannot imagine spending every day of my life with any other individual than the man from Cuba with the insatiable quest for great music who stole my heart and captured my imagination on an ordinary night in Moscow.

Happy anniversary, Tweetie! Here’s to us…and wherever this life takes us next.

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Cancer sucks

At this moment, that’s all I’ve got: cancer sucks.

Several weeks ago, I learned simultaneously that one friend was just diagnosed with melanoma and a sorority sister of mine had just lost her battle with cancer.  That morning, all I could think was, ‘cancer sucks’.

This morning, one very close friend was rushing home to be with his father who has been fighting courageously to rid his body of leukemia. Then, this afternoon, another friend wrote to tell me that his mum — a woman very dear to me — lost her seven-year battle with breast cancer just an hour earlier.

And, again, all I can think is, ‘cancer sucks’.

I don’t think many of us are strangers to cancer any longer. It is so pervasive. Whilst most of my working life is occupied by the world of HIV, TB and drug use issues, I’d love to see us all live to see the day when cancer is no longer so common. Regardless of what type or system it afflicts, the simple word, ‘cancer’, has this ability to absolutely paralyze and arrest all other thoughts.

We’ve come a long way in terms of diagnosing and treating cancer. Perhaps its simple awareness; perhaps it is a combination of awareness, early detection and better, more aggressive treatment. Perhaps, I’m simply at that age when cancer affects more within my own social network.

None of that is particularly comforting at this precise moment. I’m sure that it holds absolutely no meaning for those family members my darling friend Rita left behind.

Here’s to all those fighting their own battles against cancer, to their family, friends and loved ones fighting right alongside them, and to all those grieving as a results of this horrible scourge.

Cancer sucks. That’s still all I’ve got.

[For Rita.]

Image by Becky Hilgendorf (pikesbabe on flickr)

Image by Becky Hilgendorf
(pikesbabe on flickr)

The Madness of Mandatory Minimums

The Scales of Justice

In a former life, I spent many a holiday and break from school hanging with the ‘long-haired hippie freaks’ who, like me, enjoyed a few hours spent grooving around various venues to the meandering and magical musical madness of the good old Grateful Dead. Oddly, not all of us at the shows were long-haired, and many, like me, were basically budding or full-fledged professionals.

Hippie freaks? Perhaps. Gainfully employed and fully engaged members of the broader society? Amongst my friends, yes.

I won’t say that we were a straight-laced crew. Far from it. But, we bought our tickets before showing up to the venues, paid our own way, and most preferred the comforts of the nearest hotel to the wilder times in various campgrounds where the festivities continued well into the wee hours. We enjoyed our time off, and ‘turned on and tuned out’ to the fullest possible extent. But, we did so responsibly (there was always a designated sober person to shepherd the flock).

It was during that incredibly fun-filled and enlightening time in the ’90s when I learned first-hand the absurdity of mandatory minimums, those most insane sentencing ‘guidelines’ which determine the minimum sentence for things such as possession of certain narcotics, or which determine that an individual gets three chances and then they are jailed for life regardless of the offense (three strikes). Sentences under mandatory minimums rarely fit the crime and often remove the uniqueness of an individual defendant and what lead them to appear in court.

A particularly gentle soul, as well as perhaps the unluckiest person I’ve ever known, was facing a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a third non-violent offence. He had been caught three times with relatively minor quantities of marijuana and LSD (not simultaneously), all under rather unfortunate sets of circumstances. He was 23 or 24 years old at the time, and one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people I have known before or since. It was heartbreaking. Prison would break him and eventually kill him, and, just about everyone who knew him understood that simple truth.

In the exceptional documentary, The House I Live In, the absurdity of mandatory minimums and the countless failures of the war on drugs are framed within the context of their effects on otherwise ordinary people, from the incarcerated, to those working within the criminal justice system to individual family members affected by drugs and unfair sentencing laws. The tragic consequences of policies which disproportionately affect the poor and minorities and a ‘war’ which has been waged on the American public are made all-too real. As I watched the Kevin Ott re-tell his own tragic story, I was reminded of my friend’s story from two decades ago:

Story after story after story in this fine, troubling film demonstrate how mandatory minimums are not helping to reduce drug-related crime or drug use itself. Rather, they are forcing judges to sentence those caught to prison terms that are ‘unfair and unjust’ and condemning individuals and families deal with the tragic consequences generation after generation. The cycle of drug-dealing, poverty and hopelessness continue , and specifically impact inner-city African American men disproportionately.

Two decades after an otherwise privileged young man awaited an unfair sentence for a non-violent crime which hurt no one (possession of an ounce of marijuana), the US Attorney General is finally talking sense:

‘While the entire U.S. [prison] population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal population has grown at an astonishing rate — by almost 800%,’ Holder’s speech says. ‘It’s still growing, despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5% of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.’

It’s two decades too late for my friend. But, it’s never too late to make a sound policy change, particularly one which is based on a fair and just system and which doesn’t mete out punishments far exceeding the crimes, or which, by design, unevenly targets those who are simply attempting to survive the only way that they know how.

Water, water everywhere; not a drop to drink or use…

Not long ago, I was musing about how fortunate and privileged we are in our comfortable life here in the uber-developed North. Today, I’m realising just how incredibly privileged we are and how a mere 8-hour disruption is, well, disruptive to our normal routine and cushioned life.

First-world fortunate, indeed.

The story:

A few months ago, some maintenance men with clipboards and tape measures traipsed through our flat looking at the pipes in our kitchen and bathroom to determine how sound they were. They went to each and every flat in the building and we knew they would be carrying out this inspection well in advance. After the inspection, the decision was taken to replace the building’s entire plumbing and drainage system. Thus, the next few months will see loads of renovations taking place throughout our normally quiet and convenient life. All of the pipes and plumbing fixtures in our four-story, four-entrance apartment block will be replaced with shiny new pipes and fixtures. It all appears to be very well organised and orchestrated. And, we are given updates through our mail slots of impending disruptions and what to expect with plenty of notice.

Rather impressive, really.

The problem is that occasionally over the next several months, we will have no water nor drainage in our flat. Given that both my husband and I work from home, logistically, this is not quite ideal. A bloody nuisance when you think about all the various ‘functions’ which require drainage or running water.

Today — the first of those several days  — I’m truly astounded by how many tasks and ‘things’ require water and/or drains. And, I am so, so, so happy that it is for only 8 hours.

This also has me thinking about those who have no running water. And, those who have no drainage systems or modern plumbing.

UNICEF’s US-based website lists the following in relation to world wide stats on safe water and sanitation:

Water is life. Yet 768 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, and 2.5 billion people live without proper sanitation. When water is unsafe and sanitation non-existent, water can kill.

Across the globe, nearly 4,000 children die each day from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation facilities.

That’s quite staggering to me. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) lists diarrhoea as the leading cause of illness and death. Furthermore, 88% of diarrhoeal deaths are due to inadequate access to sanitation facilities, together with the inadequate availability of water for hygiene and unsafe drinking water.

Water is life, indeed.

To understand the importance of having clean and safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and just how much water we use along with how easily available it is to us in the developed North, take a day to make note of your daily water use. It’s eye-opening to say the least.

All the various, seemingly meaningless tasks which at some point require running (or at least clean) water and functioning drains add up and add up quickly.

We stocked up on bottles and buckets of water yesterday evening and also put out a few refuse buckets for the kitchen and bathroom sinks, mostly to remind us not to use the drains. Despite having spent a fair amount of time either traveling in places where water was a luxury or inconsistently available, numerous camping expeditions when it was all about humping water in and out in my backpack, and the completely unpredictable water cut-offs in Moscow and on holiday in Cuba, I’m still struggling with this inconvenience. Because, honestly, for us in our relatively posh life in Finland, this 8-hour disruption is a mere inconvenience rather than a daily fact of life.

And, I am extremely grateful!

UN Water estimates that each person—each individual human living on this giant rock racing through the universe—needs 20-50 litres of water each day to meet their basic needs for drinking cooking, and cleaning. Here in Finland, particularly in Helsinki, those 20-50 litres can be accessed quite easily by opening up any number of water taps in our flat.

From brushing our teeth, to using the toilet, washing our hands, making coffee, rinsing our coffee cups or spoons to get the bits of grounds off of them, drinking water because we’re simply thirsty, to showering, and all of the various things we do throughout the day which mean opening up the water tap, water most definitely is life.

And, I’m looking forward to opening up those lovely, luscious water taps at 16.00 (or in an hour and 40 minutes).

Image from Save the Children Australia

Image from Save the Children Australia

First-World Fortune

This week I have been reminded just how fortunate I am.

I have a loving, devoted, kind and principled husband, who also happens to be the one person on the planet with whom I could happily spend 24 / 7 / 365 and not become homicidal. Whatever issues in life we face, we face them together (and more often than not with some sort of ridiculous joke / quip attached to it which only makes sense to us). He places the same value on a just world and feels the same sorrow I do when we witness the various injustices which plague this planet of ours.

Perhaps it was his father’s visit this past week which brought home to me once again just how fortunate we are. In addition to have founding one another in this gigantic, crazy world, we have a solid roof over our heads, a full cupboard with more food than most people see in a year. We have our health and we have relatively healthy attitudes.

These are no small things. There are far, far too many in this world who don’t have a fraction of what we have and can only dream of having that fraction. There are also those who dare not dream for the dream is far too out of reach.

We have been thinking a lot about this simple truth: Whilst there are plenty of things we could (and at times do) b!tch about, we want for nothing really.

We live in a civilised, well-functioning country with all attendant social and health services making life relatively good. We have access to whatever health care services we need, and if we wanted, we could probably return to school for the further training of our over-educated brains. Our running water is clean and abundant and hot; the lights work, and our internet is fast. In winter, which is long, the heat is always on.

All too often, those of us who take these daily luxuries for granted, b!tch and moan about our First-World problems. We want a better-paying job, the latest and fastest technology (e.g., smarter smartphones or computers or whatever gadget du jour which may distract us from the world around us), or a bigger home with shiny, new conveniences.

We forget that the rest of the world would be happy to enjoy for a moment just a fraction of the multitudes of fortunes we b!tch about.

But, recognising and knowing that there are places where any running water is a treat (nevermind hot water or clean water), electricity is something which may or may not be available or will only work for portions of your day / week / month, etc. if at all, where food is scarce and your choice is between what’s there or nothing, where you may have access to great health care but vital medicines are scarce if available at all, and your complaints diminish.

Realising that we live in a place where violence is something we witness from afar makes all of our ‘troubles’ seem incredibly trivial and meaningless.

We are fortunate. Very.

Even though there may be moments when we forget this, we both resolved to remind ourselves often that we have infinitely more than many on this planet could ever hope to dream for, let alone actually hope to actually have. That we do so in a place which is peaceful and calm and free is simply priceless.

We spent much time this week looking out this window reflecting on our fortunes, which are many.

We spent much time this week looking out this window reflecting on our fortunes, which are many.