Rootless

On the other side of the world, in a space roughly 7.3 square miles of what was once a forest in the hills of Bangladesh, 700,000 Rohingya refugees huddle under tarps in makeshift homes. They have lost everything once – homes, jobs, possessions, family members, dignity, country – and now, with the storm season starting and the monsoon closing in, they risk losing all again.The tree roots that once held together the clay-like soil, preventing massive landslides, are now gone, leaving the refugees rootless in more ways than one.

While Rohingya refugees have resided in Bangladesh for many years, this group has been pouring in since the ethnic cleansing began in full force by the Burmese Military last August. Among them, an uncounted number of women are quietly preparing to give birth as a result of being raped by soldiers before they fled the country. Pramila Patten, the UN’s special envoy on Sexual Violence views these rapes as a weapon of genocide, a “calculated tool of terror”. Nearly nine months since many of these women have crossed the border, aid agencies are preparing not only for a spike in births, but also for babies abandoned by traumatized mothers who simply do not have the physical nor emotional resources to care for another child.

Last week the UN Security Council sent a delegation to observe the situation first hand and it was no surprise when the report came back that the situation was “overwhelming.” The council visited Myanmar for the first time since the genocide began and traveled to the region where the Rohingya refugees had fled from. Earlier reports from the area, as well as  satellite images show that  many of the villages have been completely burned and bulldozed; homes, cemeteries, mosques, trees, landmarks, everything wiped away. Additionally the Myanmar parliament has approved a $15m budget to build a wall along the Myanmar/Bangladesh border, where the refugees crossed over into Bangladesh.

Of the 500,000 Rohingya who stayed behind in Myanmar, at least 130,000 are being held in  camps where their freedom is greatly restricted and the conditions are appalling.

A fierce anger is stirring in me today. What is wrong with humanity that we spend millions of dollars on walls instead of acknowledging atrocities and doing the real work of healing the gaping wounds? Who do we think we are that we can confine a people group to a specific, tiny piece of volatile land, keeping the best for ourselves? What gives us the right to limit the basic human rights of others –  access to food and water, health care, education including college visits, equal pay, police protection, citizenship, and a country to call our home?

I can’t find it in me to be angry at the Burmese people today. They are simply following our footsteps. From English Colonizers to the Germans in World War II to the United States of America where we continue to live on stolen land and benefit daily from an economy built on the backs of slaves. How many villages have we bulldozed, physically or metaphorically, wiping away the history of an ethnic group and rewriting it to make ourselves look better? How many ethnic conflicts around the globe have we perpetuated because our government has funded one side or the other for our own political interests? How many bodies have bled out on the sidewalks and forests of this country because of racial hate more than anything else? Why are we so afraid of people who are different from ourselves?

I see blood on the hands of the Burmese yes, but I also see it on my own people’s hands. As a citizen of this country, I have to own it. I am part of a nation that has systematically chosen which people group should be treated the best and which others should be treated as less than human. It’s written into the founding documents of our nation and has been fleshed out in courtrooms across the nation.

The silent cries of the Rohinga women wrap around my heart like tender vines, mirroring the cries of pain caused by my own nation and my heart remembers and bleeds and spends itself because only a heart that spends itself like currency is strong enough to push back against injustice.

Wearing People’s Suffering

Her shining eyes beckoned and spoke of stories untold, her voice wrapped in love as she showed me the embroidered scarves her women had made. Opening the book she carried with her, she showed me their faces and the 100 year old loom they used to turn the stands into fabric. I listened, mesmerized, as Nasreen Sheikh told of how she spent her childhood in a tiny room with other girls, forced to spend their days sewing clothing for the garment fashion industry of the West. Her only bed at night was the clothes she was working on and she would often wonder who would wear these clothes someday.

Nasreen was able to eventually escape. She now spends her days tirelessly working so that other Nepali women and girls do not have to go through what she did. She started Local Women’s Handicrafts in Kathmandu, operating on Fair Trade Principles before she even knew Fair Trade was an thing.

As we talked, she mentioned how she had been to Walmart a few days back because she needed to pick something up for her travels and she lamented because the experience was painful for her. She saw a $3 t-shirt. “How can there be a $3 t-shirt,” she asked? I’ll never forget her response to her own question, “We are wearing people’s suffering!”

This tiny, uneducated woman from Nepal who doesn’t even know her own birthday is by far wiser than most people I run into these days. She inspires me to keep spending myself so that women and children around the world can live in freedom. She reminds me to consume less, and when I must buy, to buy carefully. She proves that women have what it takes to change the world.

Five years ago today, the world watched in horror as Rana Plaza collapsed, trapping and killing more than 1,000 garment factory workers in Savar, Bangladesh. Nasreen’s words are like a gentle scarf around my shoulders today and the words hit home. “We are wearing people’s suffering.”

I sit in that lament and hold it tight. I check the labels on my clothing. Top shirt – made in India. Undershirt – made in Bangladesh. Jeans – made in Jordan. I’m wrapped in a connection to these places.

While fair trade or suffering-free clothing is becoming more and more available, for the most part, here in the West, we wear people’s suffering. Let’s be more aware. Let’s own it and then do what we can to change it. Like Nasreen, let’s replace suffering with dignity.

Press for Progress

This is Chonda. The real deal. Not an actor paid to play the part. She is the heart and soul of a change that is gaining momentum in Bangladesh. Her face will tell you a story, if you take the time to let it capture you.

Nestled across the river from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest and home to the Bengal Tiger, is the small village where Chonda and her husband Rabindranath have made their home. For years, Rabindranath caught larvae from the river and sold it in the market to support his family. If he caught enough, the family ate well. If not, they were hungry. When the Bangladesh Forest Department banned the taking of natural resources from the Sundarban as part of a conservation program, Rabindranath had no choice but to become a day laborer. Now, instead of being at the mercy of nature, he is at the mercy of local employers who may or may not need temporary help.

Chonda longed to do something to help. As a woman in a conservative Hindu village, she was not allowed to become a day laborer and no local shops would hire women either. She dreamed of starting a small business in her home but lacked the capital to do so. Then one day she heard about Hathay Bunano, which means handmade in Bangla. Hathay Bunano had started a work center near her, where other women gathered daily to knit and crochet  soft and colorful Pebble toys. Robindranath agreed that Chonda could take the training. During her training, she not only learned how to knit and crochet, she also learned the values of Fair Trade, as well as her value as a woman deserving of equal opportunity. For three years now, she has been working as an equal to her husband in providing for the family. They no longer worry about whether they will have enough to eat. They are able to send their daughter to school, which is significant in a country where schooling is not free and education is not mandatory. Chonda has opened a bank account and has been saving money, instead of living hand to mouth, dependent upon her husband’s earnings. She and her husband are now talking about starting their own business together someday. Chonda has become a powerful voice in her community, challenging other women to realize their value and equality, pressing them towards progress and being a living example of hope and change.

 

Love and Ashes

Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. We’re in the middle of Black History Month.  Rohingya refugees are still streaming across the border from Myanmar to an already-crowded Bangladesh, now totaling 900,000.  Love and bravery, death and injustice, all wrapped up in the cold and dark of winter.

For me though, it is Ash Wednesday that ties it all together.

Ashes rubbed in the shape of a cross saying:

You are dust and to dust you will return”.

Sometimes it takes the crumbling remains of death to remind me of the greatest of all loves. A love whose whisper penetrates through time and space,

The only thing I ask of you is to love me with all you have, and to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” 

If we did that, love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, it wouldn’t be a lonely day for anyone. We wouldn’t have only a month of Black History because our history books would speak truth each day of the year. We would not have 1.19 million refugees in need of a home. According to UNHCR, less than 6% of these found home last year. I did the math and it is heart wrenching.

So my gift to you, on this day of love and ashes, during this month of remembering, is to share with you a beautiful glimpse of humanity in the moving picture Human Flow. Created by Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and activist, who spent his childhood in refugee camp, The Human Flow beautifully documents the refugee crisis and it’s impact on the world. Ai Weiwei says:

“The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis.”

You can read more of his story here, as well as watch the trailer for the movie. For those of you with Amazon Prime, The Human Flow will be released on Prime on February 16.

 

 

Basha: The House of Hope

Imagine living in a place wrapped in green all year, where warmth and color are alive, swirling from the rice paddies to the rickshaws to the ever growing stream of people. Imagine waking up to the smell of curry and the sound of the call to prayer. Imagine falling asleep to the rustle of palm branches and the banter of neighbors. Imagine a place where shopkeepers call out greetings as you walk by and no one is a stranger. Imagine that tea is a language of its own, poured out fluently on every corner, pausing time so friends can catch up and deals are sealed. Imagine a place where everyone is family and no one cares about your given name because you are sister, brother, uncle, auntie, grandmother, grandfather, someone who belongs.

Imagine being born daughter in this place where your physical beauty, the shade of your skin and the status of your family determine the course of your life for you. Where education comes at a cost your family most likely cannot afford. Imagine if your father, your uncles, your brothers decide who and when you will marry and how much they can pay to make that happen. While in many families, daughters are welcomed and protected, there are many more where the desperation of poverty and centuries of male dominance have led to these daughters growing up voiceless and vulnerable.

Imagine being daughter in a family that has lost its income and protection because it lost its father. When *Shanti’s father died, her mother had no choice but to take her out of school and send her to work as a maid in the home of a wealthier family. There Shanti was raped repeatedly until she became pregnant, and was thrown out onto the streets.

Imagine being forced into a marriage that you found repulsive, like *Rani, who protested against the arrangement and was beaten by her brother for objecting. Or *Jasmine, whose worst fears were realized when her new husband abused her and then abandoned her and her unborn child. Or *Lucky whose husband pimped her out to support his drug  habit.

For women like these, there is little hope. Their families rarely take them back and, more likely than not, they are blamed for their situation. In a land where employment for women is harder to find than cold water in the desert, and with their protector gone, women like these often turn to prostitution as the only way to survive. Filled with shame, their only bit of dignity left is their voice which they use to demand payment for what would otherwise be taken from them anyway.

Imagine all this. The beauty and warmth of this land of belonging and then the loss of that place of belonging. Where once you were celebrated, now you are treated like the mud that clings to the bottom of sandals in the monsoon. Where once you saw friends, now the women hate you and the men use you.

There’s little hope for prostituted women in Bangladesh. While it is quite rare for a Muslim country to legalize prostitution, most of the estimated 100,000 women carrying out the trade have not chosen it. Most of them would choose anything but prostitution, if only there was an “anything but”.

When Robin Seyfert moved to Bangladesh in 2006, she fell in love with the beauty and hospitality of the place. As she got to know some of these women and saw that there were so many who wanted an alternative, she knew she had found her new place of belonging by creating safe spaces of belonging and opportunity for these women. She says that:

“starting and running Basha, a social enterprise, was completely unexpected and has been the biggest challenge, terror and joy of my life”.

Basha, named after the Bengali word for hope, Asha, and the Bengali word for house, Basha, is a house of hope. It has grown from thirteen women in one small Dhaka apartment to more than 100 full-time production workers in five production centres throughout Bangladesh.

As you can imagine, the needs of exploited women go far beyond their need of a new source of income. Women coming to Basha begin with a training program that gives them time and space to heal. This six-month training provides basic literacy, basic English, life skills, values, conflict resolution, health and hygiene, and they are taught how to make the beautiful, one of a kind Basha products. The monthly allowance they receive allows them to completely cut ties with abusers and focus on their healing and discovering their true worth. As dignity is daily mirrored to them, their shame begins to fade and hope is born.

Not only is Basha a strong agent of change for so many women, it also works hard to give the children of these women a different life than their mothers had. It provides a daycare program which educates, tutors and and feeds the children. Basha has also opened up a hostel for young girls who used to fend for themselves on the streets. You can read some of their stories here.

I’ve gotten to rub shoulders with a few of these women and sit in hallowed spaces with them, where time stops as stories poured out mark the journey from shame to dignity. My eyes and heart overflow because I cannot hold it in, the sacred beauty of shame turned dignity. Isn’t that what we all want, our shame to be reshaped into dignity? Isn’t that what makes us brave and causes us to give ourselves away again and again, to also help the shame of others be turned into dignity?

This is where you and I can help; the building of Basha is far from over. You can read more about Basha in their journal and here are tangible ways for you to give and be involved in creating dignity for the women of Bangladesh. There are monthly and one time gift options, made easy by credit/debit card, as well as bank transfer. You can choose what you would like to support: the hostel, the training program, the nutritional program, daycare, or support for the foreign workers, like Robin, who are committed to being agents of change in Bangladesh. You can also purchase beautiful hand-crafted works of art made by Basha Boutique. Here is the list of stockists around the world who sell Basha products.

Imagine with me: Suffocating shame being transformed into breathtaking dignity.

Become a part of the Basha story.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.

 

 

The Rohingyan Nightmare

 

Embed from Getty Images

Smoke rises thick and hovers over the jungle like a greedy wraith, never pausing, angrily swirling on and on as proof of the genocide of the Rohingya of Myanmar’s Rakhine Province. Although they have been hunted down and killed by their countrymen and their government since 1948, the genocide has intensified over the last 30 days as more than 400,000 refugees have poured into Bangladesh, the closest country that shares a land border. Many of them have been walking for four days through the jungle, hiding from soldiers with machetes, dodging bullets, running for their lives. Many are mothers with small children, who no doubt put off this journey as long as possible, hoping against hope that something would stop the madness in time to save them. Now, with village after village going up in smoke and machetes swinging in the hands of the very ones who are supposed to protect, staying is most certainly death. So they grab their wee ones and run.

When I read this post today and saw their faces, something inside of me broke a little more and the madness of the world folded in on me. Breathing in the scent of the spices roasting for tonight’s curried lentils and rice, I was deeply aware of the solid floor beneath my feet and the running water in the sink. As rain poured down outside, I absorbed the dryness and safety of my home. Rice bubbling, vegetables frying, more than enough everywhere I look. But inside my soul weeps for those on the run. For the pregnant mother running through the jungle. For the baby born on the outhouse floor. For the terrified little one separated from her family. For hungry bellies fighting for the tiniest scraps of food. For families who have lost everything – their home, their country, their place of belonging.  I store the leftovers from our meal in the fridge and am overwhelmed by the much that I have. Scrubbing curry rings off emptied plates is a holy act as I am humbled to have so much, yet my soul roars within me, praying for this madness to stop.

While I know nothing of the terror they are running from and can only imagine what they feel, I do know what they are running to. Bangladesh is a tiny country, about the size of Iowa, yet it has a population of about half of the United States. Imagine if half of all the US would decide to move to Iowa tomorrow? And then accept 400,00 refugees in 30 days!

Bangladesh is already struggling to deal with the massive flooding that has hit the region, the worst in decades. As a developing country, resources are stretched thin in the best of times. Lack of space and resources are a very real problem.

If there is a family on the other side of the world that has to live in a concrete pipe, or huddle under a tiny piece of plastic while the flood waters rise inches away, can I say, “Be blessed” and scroll on to the next tidbit of news?

Every voice is needed when there is an ethnic cleansing going on. Never think your voice is little or your circle of influence too small. There is always something you can do.

For Myanmar, for the Rohingya, you can pray. You can be aware and share the awareness. You can give. Unicef UK, Oxfam, and UNHCR are all working with the Rohingya.

You can also write to your senators urging them not to support giving aid to Myanmar’s army.

And hug your lil’ ones a little more today. See past the mess of your home to feel the abundance that you have right here, right now. Feel the love, and then give it away.

 

Swept Away

Image taken by Austin in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the very beginning of the flooding.

Long before Hurricane Harvey blasted Texas with catastrophic flooding, Bangladesh, India and Nepal have been experiencing a monsoon gone wild. In Bangladesh, the Jamuna River has risen higher than in 1988, the year of the deadliest flood they have seen up to this point. The death toll across the region has hit 1200, and the rain continues to pour down with a vengeance. A couple weeks ago, one of the Pebble staff told me that 30% of the country was under water. Today it’s closer to two-thirds of the country.

Flooding in one of Pebble’s production areas.

 

Throughout the region,including India and Nepal,  some hospitals are filling with water. Clean drinking water is a scarcity. 18,000 schools have closed, affecting 1.8 million children. For  those that remain open, children must sometimes walk in water more than waist deep.  Homes have been damaged or swept away by mudslides.  Farmland, which is the source of life for countless families, is underwater, some washed away to never return. Crops gone. Lives are lost. Necessities vanished.  For the many day laborers, providing for their family is impossible. 32 out of the 64 districts in Bangladesh are affected and 335 shelters have been set up, housing more than 106,000 people. Most of Pebble’s production centers are in the southern part of the country and they have fared well. The center in the north that Austin visited this summer, suffered from sudden flooding. While the situation is better now, the flood left behind various illnesses which local organizations are helping to address.

Our hearts break for Texas, but there is also room in our hearts to weep for Bangladesh, India and Nepal? Imagine if half of the United States was under water. Imagine the news coverage and the rescue operations and charities that would shine through. You see this spirit at work in Texas right now. Yet this disaster is going down right now in a country that has only been a country for 46 years. A country that is constantly dealing with flooding, cyclones, and other disasters. A country that has made it onto the list of the 50 poorest countries in the world. A country that has the land mass of Iowa, filled with 163 million people. People who embrace life and welcome the stranger. Who love to share tea and curry and a hearty discussion.  Who held my babies when they were little and taught me to speak a new language and to cook with color and spice.  A people whose strength and resilience inspire me daily.

For more details and poignant images, visit here and here. To raise your voice in protest of the lack of coverage of the disaster in SE Asia compared to Texas, visit here. There is an email address there that you can use to join the conversation. There is also a very interesting conversation here on similarities and differences in the two floods.

Honoring the Mother of our Nation

Like a moth is drawn to the light, I flutter as near as I can. Quiet soul that I am, I struggle to find the words to tell her what I see. History is wrapped in her ebony skin and in the map of her face I see that she is the daughter of a noble people. Through no fault of her own she was kidnapped, beaten, sold as property, raped again and again by white men who said they followed God. Stripped of her clothing and put on display, dignity in shreds, she stands. Forced to bear children only to have them wrenched from her, she is treated like an animal for 200+ years. Her life not her own. Hunger, exhaustion and shame her only constants.

When I see her today, I see the horror of her history and I weep. Like a sack of rocks she continues to carry it – not because she wants to but because we, the children of a not-so-noble people continue to treat her as less-than…but she is strong and brave. This country was built on her back. She cut the cane to satisfy our sweet tooth. She cleaned up the messes that no one else would. Her fingers plucked the cotton that built our economy and her womb birthed greatness. She nursed the children of her “owner”. She, more than anyone, is the mother of our nation.

Today I honor her, the unsung hero who paid a price that we were so very wrong to demand of her.

To her daughters today, wrapped in beautiful shades of ebony, cinnamon, butterscotch and caramel, I say you are not less-than. You are more-than for you have endured. You are strong and brave and beautiful.

I look in your eyes and I see your nobility still. I am not worthy to say it…that I am sorry for all you endured. Thanking you for your service to this country seems paltry and lacking but I want to honor you. So, when I see you, I see your skin and I honor you by acknowledging the story it brings with it…painful as it is.

I dream of the day when the last rock will be removed from your bag and you can walk with your head high as the equal you are without fear or discrimination. In the meantime, I won’t hold back when talking to my sons and those near me about the history of our nation, hoping to help fashion a future that is different from but doesn’t gloss over our past.

World Fair Trade Day 2017

Saturday, May 13, is World Fair Trade Day. Started by the WFTO in 2004, the second Saturday of May has been set aside as a day to not only raise awareness of Fair Trade but to celebrate the way it has impacted millions of lives.

Simply put, Fair Trade means:

Opportunities are created for the poor to have jobs.

In Fair Trade, the supply chain is accountable and transparent from start to finish. Unlike certain large chocolate chains who say they cannot know for sure where their raw cocoa comes from, Fair Trade chocolate can be traced to the source.

Fair Trade ensures prompt and fair payment for goods. For the Pebble toys we sell, it means we provide advance payment so they can purchase the raw materials and pay wages during their production period.

Fair Trade ensures safe and empowering working conditions. Not only does it insist that working conditions are physically safe, it must also be free of discrimination and harassment.

Fair Trade ensures the rights of children. This means no children are working to make the items in your shopping cart. It means the parents are making enough money to feed, cloth, protect and educate their children.

Fair Trade is kind to the earth. Environmentally sustainable practices are taught and implemented through the entire supply chain.

To sum it up, Fair Trade celebrates cultural diversity and gives a voice to the poor and marginalized. No one is forced to work in slave like conditions. Entire communities are transformed and local economies boosted. In countries that have no Job and Family Services, no Unemployment Benefits, no place to land when they are falling, this is huge. This is dignity for every person. This is loving your neighbor as yourself. This is reason to celebrate!

Lenten Rememberings – The Rohingya

The Rohingya, one of the world’s most most persecuted ethnic groups, are a Muslim people who have lived for generations in Myanmar. Denied the right to vote and given nearly impossible rules for acquiring citizenship, they are hated and looked down on by the Buddhist majority around them.

The Rohingya speak a dialect of Bangla and are seen by many as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many of them can trace their family history in Myanmar for many generations. While they represent roughly 2% of the total population, their Buddhist neighbors fear they will take over and try to make Myanmar a Muslim country. Untold numbers have been hunted down, raped and murdered in a genocide that the Myanmar Government continues to deny is happening. Many have escaped across the border into Bangladesh or by boat to Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines where again and again they are turned away.

Bangladesh, the most accessible country by land, is currently planning to house them on an uninhabited island that is immersed in water during the monsoon. Many are taking the risk of returning to Myanmar rather than lose their lives to nature. A small number have been accepted as refugees into the US, Canada and Australia but, for the most part, the Rohingyas remain an unwanted and fiercely hunted people group.

Rohingyas eat rice, fish, vegetables, milk and chilis. Meat, such as this Beef Curry is served to guests or for special occasions. We shared this meal family and prayed for a place of belonging and safety for the Rohingyas.