Strangers in a Strange Land – Rethinking “Refugee”

One of the questions that a few folks have asked me is in regard to a Facebook post shared by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). The point that they seem to be trying to make in the post is that political leaders need to stop acting like the hundreds of thousands of people are leaving their homes on a whim in order to find greener pastures elsewhere. Unfortunately, the message being implied is that while migrants aren’t worth our efforts and protections, refugees are. Today I want to challenge that idea and suggest that maybe we need to revisit our understanding of what it means to be a refugee and adjust things for the realities of migration in the 21st century.

Refugee or Migrant? Word choice matters...

Refugee or Migrant? Word choice matters…

I touched on this in my last post, but for a bit more background the current definition of refugee was developed first with the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as a response to the migration crisis following WWII. It attempted to articulate the primary reasons why millions of Europeans had found themselves living abroad without the protection of their home countries, and it outlined the obligations that the rest of the world had in response. Realizing that displacement wasn’t unique to Europe, the UN met again in 1967 and passed the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees which extended the original definition of refugee to something more globally applicable.

Unfortunately, the ’67 Protocol did very little to adapt an outdated view of what it means to be a refugee to the contemporary reality. Sure, there were still individuals who met the original 1951 definition of a refugee, but there were now many more who were starting to fall into an area on the periphery. Chileans, Argentinians, and Bolivians began to flee in mass numbers because their national industries had been privatized and it was no longer possible to make living. With the collapse of the European colonial project in Africa and the subsequent flight of white Europeans and European capital, Congolese and Zimbabweans began fleeing north to the Mediterranean and South to Johannesburg seeking the possibility of a life without crippling poverty.

If you were to look at the UN definition in only the strictest of ways, these people might not be “A person [with] a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” but is it such a stretch to say that these individuals were victims of persecution of a different sort: economic persecution? Were they not forced from their homelands because of the short-sighted economic schemes of others? Furthermore, are the protections of their local governments really available to them? Can the average exploited Southeast Asian of Sub-Saharan African necessarily trust that their local leaders have their best interest in mind?

To muddy the waters even more [pun intended], deforestation, reckless reliance on non-renewable resources, and ecological exploitation are leading to a third growing category of displaced persons; environmental refugees. Global climate change and the subsequent rising sea levels are wiping low-lying islands and coastal plains off the map. Unprecedented droughts and meteorological instability are causing nation-wide agricultural failure have made life impossible for people living in less protected corners of the globe. For many, the options are to stay and starve/watch your home slowly erode into the sea, or flee.

And are these economic and environmental refugees – the likes of whom weren’t even conceived of during the 1951 Convention – less deserving of the support and aid of the rest of the world because they weren’t included in a definition written 64 years ago? Some of my fellow Americans might loudly exclaim that they aren’t our problem and call me crazy or reckless for saying this, but I think that those with the ability to help have an obligation to do so.

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Strangers in a Strange Land – Migrant, Refugee, or Expat?

When you look at the current conversation surrounding global migration, the topic is so vast and multifaceted that it is almost impossible to know where to begin. After trying to start a post and then deleting the whole thing about a half dozen times, I figured that a good place to start is with a few definitions. These come from the UNHCR and UNESCO:

Migrant: a) Persons who are outside the territory of the State of which their are nationals or citizens, are not subject to its legal protection and are in the territory of another State; (b) Persons who do not enjoy the general legal recognition of rights which is inherent in the granting by the host State of the status of refugee, naturalized person or of similar status;

Refugee: a person who is outside their home country of citizenship because they have well-founded grounds for fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and is unable to obtain sanctuary from their home country or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country

Expatriate (expat): a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship.

With those three definitions in mind, I want you to look at the picture below and guess which people fall into which category. Can’t do it? Neither can I, and I know all of them personally. The fact of the matter is that these labels are porous, intentionally vague, and incredibly political.

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Let’s take a look back at the immigration waves into the U.S. from our Latin American neighbors in the 60s and 70s. At the time the U.S. and Soviet Union were waging proxy wars all over the South American continent, and as such were choosing to offer political (aka military) and economic aid to certain regimes while denying it to others. When the violence and resultant crippling economic implosions became unbearable, the citizens of these countries did what any logical, impoverished, marginalized person would do…the headed north. So how did America, the land of opportunity that had been built on the ideals of safe harbor for all, respond?

Poorly.

We decided that people fleeing persecution, violence, and potential death from hostile regimes (ie: regimes with closer ties to the USSR than the U.S.) in countries like Nicaragua would receive automatic refugee status upon their arrival in the States. At the same time, we decided that those people fleeing identical cases of persecution, violence, and potential death from friendly regimes (ie: regimes that we had decided to support in their fight against the big, bad commies) in countries like El Salvador would not receive automatic refugee status. Thousands of these men, women, and children had their asylum claims denied, and became irregular migrants in the eyes of the U.S. government.

Despite coming from identical situations with identical risks to life and well-being, our political friends became refugees and our foes became migrants, and over the last 50 years very little has changed in how we hand out those two titles.

Maybe I’m feeling extra cynical today, but after spending two years working amongst migrants, refugees, and expats from all over the globe I feel like this might be a better definition of the three groups I mentioned above.

Expats: People who we want entering our country because they will make us more money

Refugees: People we feel sorry for who we want entering our country because they gives us more political weight or support our current geopolitical stances

Migrants: Poor black and brown people who we don’t want entering our country

I know this is a bit simplistic, but if we look at the current situation with hundreds of thousand of men, women, and children fleeing across the Mediterranean from North Africa and the Middle East, is it really that far off base? Or if we look at our own US border to the south is it any surprise that GOP candidates are happy to welcome foreign “job creators” into the U.S. while demanding that we must keep out those “Mexican rapists and criminals”?

The folks in the picture above are all foreign nationals living in a country other than their own. They are friends, parents, students, teachers, professionals, diplomats, and day laborers, and they are all worthy of having their dignity as human beings acknowledged.

But what does that look like? Where do we start? Check back in later this week and I’ll offer some ideas.

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New Blogging Series – Strangers in a Strange Land

I know it’s been a little while since I last posted…has it really been a year?…but I figured it’s time to fire the blog back up. If the last two years that I spent working full time with migrants and refugees taught me anything, it taught me that we as U.S. Citizens are overwhelmingly clueless when it comes to the topic of global migration. Now I know you might be thinking, “America is a country founded by immigrants! It’s in our DNA!” and you’d be absolutely correct, but that does not mean we have any clue to the migration patterns and crises in the 21st century. Hell, I dedicated my life to addressing the issue for the last two years and I still don’t feel comfortable saying that I totally get it.

Why?

Because I’m not an immigrant. I haven’t been forced to leave loved ones behind knowing that I might never see them again. I haven’t seen my country burn to the ground around me. I haven’t seen the resources of my homeland ripped away by foreign investors and corporations, and I haven’t seen my country’s economy decimated as a result.

After the storm of commentary from politicians, journalists, pundits, and even friends on the Internet (most of which are offensive and refuse to even acknowledge the humanity of those who are fleeing their homelands for Europe and the Americas) I have decided to wade into the waters to share some thoughts. I know that I’m no expert and I know that the couple hundred readers who see this blog may notice the word migration in the title and scroll on by, but this is as much for my own sanity as it is for changing other peoples’ minds.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be posting every couple of days about the current migration crisis. Some of the posts will be responses to questions that I have gotten from friends and family about the current crisis, others will be responses to the policies and talking points of politicians, and a few will be sharing stories from some of my friends in Moscow (with names changed) who made the decision to leave their homes for Europe.

I hope you enjoy reading them, and please feel free to leave any comments or questions that you’d like me to write about.

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Let’s Get Back to the Point

As some of you might have noticed over the last few weeks, I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet in regards to the civil unrest that has been flaring up in Ferguson, Missouri. It has been an intentional move on my part, but I feel like it is time that I added a little perspective to the conversation.

I’m not going to argue about whether or not Mike Brown stole a pack of cigarillos, whether or not he made a move for the police officer’s gun, or whether or not he was a gentle giant. I wasn’t there, you weren’t there, and about 99.9 percent of the people who have jumped to attack Mike Brown’s character weren’t there. So stop it.

Instead, what I am going to do is look at the facts that we do know.

1) An unarmed 18-year-old black male with no criminal record was stopped by police for walking down the street by white police officers. Although the exact details are unconfirmed, we do know that he was shot six times and killed.

2) Demographically, Ferguson, Missouri is a majority African-American community with a majority white police force. Around 67% of the population is African-American, and yet only 3 out of 53 of the city’s police officers are black.

3) The Ferguson Police Department has responded with overly-militarized force, has repeatedly withheld pertinent information about the case, has repeatedly detained members of the press, and has intentionally prevented people from peaceably gathering together to protest.

Regardless of whatever else might come to light in the upcoming weeks, these three facts are indisputable and highly problematic. Children should not be gunned down in the streets, public servants should be a fair representation of the people that they are supposed to serve, and basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and press should not be infringed upon.

Right now I am writing from a country that has more than its fair share of racism. It has what might be considered an overzealous police force that seems to be perpetually geared up for WWIII. It is illegal for citizens to gather and voice displeasure without a pre-approved permit (which is rarely given) and it is not uncommon for members of the press to be censored or detained without due process.

And yet when I look at the photos and videos coming from Missouri, I can’t help but notice the striking similarities.

So to my American friends, I have a favor to ask you. If you want to keep calling yourself the land of the free, start acting like it. Look in your mirror and ask yourself the hard questions about racism in your communities. When you see the rights of your neighbors being infringed upon – regardless of who they are or what they’ve done – do something about it. Hold your lawmakers and local authorities accountable for their actions.

And for God’s sake, learn to have a little empathy for the family, friends, and community of a young man whose life has been ended way too early. All lives are precious, even those of young black men.

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From Tourist to Terrorist?

Well I’ve got a new thing to add to the list of firsts. When exiting Israel, I discovered first-hand what it is like to be considered a “threat” by the Israeli military/security machine. The check in process for my flight started normal enough with three or four simple questions from the person directing travelers into the appropriate lines. The woman was polite, friendly, and even wished me a happy birthday!

(These also happened to be the last kind words I heard for the remainder of my interactions with security officers in Ben Gurion International Airport)

Next up was a forty-something guy standing behind the Aeroflot ticket counter. He wasn’t particularly rude or unhelpful; he was just very…Russian. Kurt responses, a stone face, and a slight irritation at having to talk to me in my crappy Russian language. After a bit of back-and-forth, I was finally handed my boarding passes and directed towards security.

This next part requires a little background information in order to make any sense. One of the things that happens as soon as you go through the first security checkpoint is that you are “sorted” into one of six categories based on the potential threat that you represent to the airport. 1 is the lowest threat level and 6 is the highest. I spoke with Grace (the Global Mission Fellow working in Bethlehem), and was told to expect a 5. She said that anyone with connections to Palestine is more or less put into the second highest category and would be subject to additional screening.

She also told me that I don’t have to worry about getting a “6” because the number is reserved for members of Al-Quida and the like. Flash back to this evening.

As I got ready to enter security, I noticed that I had been given a 5 (no surprise there), and I was instantly directed to a special screening area off to the side. I took off my shoes and belt, emptied my wallet, slid my bag through the scanner, and walked through the metal detector. Nothing beeped, I was handed back my belt and wallet, and I thought to myself that this whole thing took a lot shorter than I had expected.

(Or not…)

The security woman than took my bag and began to dig through it with a purple-gloved hand, shifting things aside and asking me if I was carry anything sharp that could be seen as a weapon. I said “of course not, ma’am” and flashed a smile, but apparently this southern boy’s charm doesn’t do much for Israeli women.

“Sir. What is this”

I looked up and she was holding a couple of brochures that I had strategically placed amidst my wad of dirty clothes. One was an information booklet about the Wi’am Institute in Bethlehem, a Palestinian Christian organization that engages in conflict resolution work and has an office directly next to one of the “hot” points on the Wall. These folks advocate for non-violence and are about as far from a threat as can be, but to the Israeli government they are seditious troublemakers.

The second brochure was a copy of the Kairos Palestine document printed in a handful of languages with resources for political advocacy. The original Kairos statement was drafted by faith leaders in response to Apartheid in South Africa, and the Palestinian version is quite similar in its approach. It is signed by Christians of all different stripes, and very clearly outlines why people of faith should care about the human rights abuses taking place in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Oh, those are from one of the organizations that the United Methodist Church works with. I haven’t really read through them yet.”

Now it is true that the pamphlets were from a ministry sponsored by the UMC, but it wasn’t exactly true that I didn’t know what they were about. Actually, I know the Kairos Palestine statement quite well and picked up a copy so that I could better familiarize myself with the language. I hoped that my little white lie would be enough to appease them, but had no such luck.

“Sir, leave your baggage and step over to that station there”

“Shit”

Next thing I know, a new sticker is being placed on my passport as all of the contents of bag get dumped onto a table. I’m now a number 6. A new woman walks up and explains to me that because of security concerns they will have to search through my luggage more thoroughly. Every inch of fabric was swabbed by cloths to detect explosives, my belt and wallet were taken away again, and the real interrogation began.

“Why are you really here in Israel?”

“Why are you going to Russia with an American Passport?”

“Why would you go to the West Bank/Bethlehem?”

“What do you intend to do with these documents when you return to Russia? “

“Who sent you to Israel?

After about 10 minutes, the new women finally walked away and the next guy in the security hierarchy walked up to take over about 10 minutes later. He explained that he is the security supervisor on duty and that he would need to ask me a few questions.

“Do you have any ties with people or organizations that would want to cause Israel harm?”

“Did you meet with any people in the West Bank who would want to harm Israeli citizens”

Oh God, what did I get myself in to. Finally, the man said that I could advance to the next section and I thought that the whole ordeal was finally over. I happened to glance over to where my luggage had been taken and realized that the internal frame of my backpack had literally been taken apart, and that a security worker was sifting through the contents of a bag of couscous and a half kg bag of za’atar that I had planned on bringing back to Moscow with me.

“Sir, we need to give you a full body scan”

Seeing as this has become the norm in most US airports, I knew the deal and wasn’t too worried. The scan happened, the lights turned green, and I was told to step back out of the scanner.

“Sir, please unroll your sleeves and the cuffs of your jeans and then reenter the scanner”

Round two had the same results as the first.

“Sir, the way your shirt is tucked in is obscuring the scanner. I am going to need to physically check your person.”

I got pat down rather roughly, and then before I knew what’s happening he was sticking his hands in my pants and feeling around the waistline of my jeans. After finding nothing, he told me to step back into the scanner, and the results came back the same as the first two times.

At this point I realized that if they weren’t going to let me through, clothing would be coming off in some back room and my relationship with the Israeli security folks would go to a whole new level. Fortunately, they decided that over an hour of searching through my things was enough and that I wasn’t actually dangerous. They let me repack my bag, and as I left the checkpoint I sent a message to Grace recounting the whole ordeal.

She asked me if I had been accompanied to my gate by security personnel, and when I told her that I hadn’t she said that it was odd for a 6 to not been accompanied. This piqued my curiosity a bit, so I decided to be a little more vigilant about paying attention to my surroundings.

It turns out that there was a man in civilian clothing who happened to follow me from the food court to my gate, and then from my gate to another gate where I was able to find a power outlet, and then back to my gate. He never overtly engaged with me and I can’t say with 100% certainty that I wasn’t just being paranoid, but he was never more than 20 feet away from me from the point I first noticed him until the point at which I got on my plane.

As I’m sitting here on the plane playing over everything that happened in my head, the absurdity of the situation has started to sink in. Ultimately, the whole ordeal cost me a little over an hour of stress, 1 kg of couscous, and ½ kg of za’atar.

But the fact that all that it took to transform me from friendly traveler to highest-level security threat was a pamphlet about a Palestinian faith-based organization committed to non-violent conflict resolution and a statement signed by Christians all over the world calling for an end to human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is more than a little scary. The fact that the only time during my entire trip in which I was concerned with my personal well being was when I was in the custody of the Israeli security folks says even more.

And if being tangentially connected to Palestine was enough to garner such a response, I can’t help but think about how much more hellacious it must be for Arab men and women.

The ^ at the beginning of the string of numbers on this sticker denotes the threat level. (I even got a special star on mine!)

The ^ at the beginning of the string of numbers on this sticker denotes the threat level. (I even got a special star on mine!)

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Photo Friday – Apartheid Wall

I know that some of you might take issue with the title of this post, but I use the term Apartheid intentionally. It was a term that originated in South Africa to describe the system of segregating black South Africans into townships in order to keep them under the control of the white South African elites. It was deemed illegal, immoral, and unjust by the majority of the world, and was bought to an end through the efforts of folks like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

Men like Mandela and Tutu have made clear connections between the treatment of black South Africans and the treatment of Palestinians, and they have shown support in using the term Apartheid to refer to current Israeli policies. Some people may not like the fact that this term is now widely used in relation to Israel and Palestine, but if people like Tutu and Mandela – people who suffered for decades under South African apartheid – are  willing to make the connection, I am comfortable doing the same.

I have spent the last hour or so trying to think about what to say about today, and yet my mind keeps going back to one thing; the wall. It is a concrete symbol of the second-class status that Palestinians are forced to cope with, and it is a constant reminder of the destructive power of occupation. To say that it is heartbreaking would be an understatement, and yet I don’t really know what to say to describe it. Instead, I’ll share some photos that I snapped today while walking around it with Grace.

 

The tension between a children's playground and the separation barrier sitting right next to each other...

The tension between a children’s playground at the Wi’am Center and the separation barrier sitting right next to it is almost tangible.

The cluster of buildings in the background is one of the largest refugee camps near Bethlehem. Many of the IDF raids have taken place their, and it has become a flashpoint for demonstrations.

The cluster of buildings in the background is one of the largest refugee camps near Bethlehem. Many of the IDF raids have taken place there, and it has become a flashpoint for demonstrations.

And this is the security tower at the checkpoint. It is a major flashpoint for demonstrations every Friday afternoon after midday prayers.

And this is the security tower at the checkpoint. It is a major flashpoint for demonstrations every Friday afternoon after midday prayers.

This is the gate used by IDF troops to disperse demonstrators. Before his visit to Bethlehem earlier this year, people spray-painted "Pope, we need someone to speak about justice" and "Pope, Bethlehem looks like Warsaw ghetto"

This is the gate used by IDF troops to disperse demonstrators. Before his visit to Bethlehem earlier this year, people spray-painted “Pope, we need someone to speak about justice” and “Pope, Bethlehem looks like Warsaw ghetto”

More that went up before the Pope's visit

More that went up before the Pope’s visit

"Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness, and Resistance" and "Come and See"

“Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness, and Resistance” and “Come and See”

"Reconciliation"

“Reconciliation”

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"Warning: This Is Illegally Occupied Land"

“Warning: This Is Illegally Occupied Land”

"This Wall Must Fall"

“This Wall Must Fall”

The boy holding the flag is named "Handala" and is a common symbol of the oppressed Palestinian masses

The boy holding the flag is named “Handala” and is a common symbol of the oppressed Palestinian masses

"Until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream"

“Until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream”

"Mr Netanyahu, Tear Down This Wall!"

“Mr Netanyahu, Tear Down This Wall!”

Another Handala

ANother Handala

"Justice is what Love looks like in public"

“Justice is what Love looks like in public”

"This is a Ghetto"

“This is a Ghetto”

This was probably my favorite piece of art on the entire segment of the wall that we walked down

This was probably my favorite piece of art on the entire segment of the wall that we walked down

"To build your world, you killed theirs"

“To build your world, you killed theirs”

"Peace begins with me" written above what is left of a burned mattress

“Peace begins with me” written above what is left of a burned mattress

And here is one final shot of the flashpoint. Every Friday after midday prayers, young Palestinian men march towards the wall in protest of land confiscation and occupation. Every Friday, IDF troops respond with teargas, smoke grenades,  and "skunk water" to disperse them.

And here is one final shot of the flashpoint. We left the area as soon as midday prayers began so that we wouldn’t get caught up in the middle of the protest, but concussions from smoke grenades and teargas canisters could be heard all afternoon from all over the city.

 

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Bethlehem

Right now I am sitting on a balcony in the West Bank listening to children playing on a roof next door, dogs barking, an imam singing the evening prayers, church bells ringing, and cars whirring past. There is no visible sign of the warfare that has devastated Gaza, and nothing overtly screams “oppression”. In a way, it’s a cacophony of voices shouting that there is life in these hills…and more importantly that this life will not be extinguished.

When I stepped off of the plane earlier today, I told myself that I would come into this ancient land with an open mind and a listening ear. After all, I have spent countless hours over the last few years reading the books, looking up the UN resolutions, listening to the stories, and absorbing as much as possible about the bloody conflicts that have marred this corner of the globe, but I wanted to hear people’s own stories.

Palestinian olive trees in the foreground, and an illegal Israeli settlement in the background

Palestinian olive trees in the foreground, and an illegal Israeli settlement in the background

After meeting up with my friend Grace – another Global Mission Fellow who is working towards creative conflict resolution in the region – we made our way through my first IDF checkpoint and into the West Bank. The hostel that I am staying in is about a 10 minute walk from the Church of the Nativity and on the “wrong side” of the separation barrier, which means that any time I want to leave the town of Bethlehem over the next few days it will involve guards, guns, and razor-wire.

When we finally got to the House of Peace Hostel, Grace and I were greeted by a friendly Palestinian man in his mid 60s named Anton. His son manages the family-run hostel, but happened to be sleeping and Anton was in no rush to get down to the business of checking us in. Instead, I heard about how his family (Palestinian Christians) had been living in Bethlehem for generations and about how they draw their lineage all the way back to the Pentecost story in Acts 2. He showed us pictures of his children and grandchildren while his wife brought out homemade raspberry juice for us to sip on. He asked about the kind of work that I do in Moscow and why a young American would choose to do such work so far from home, and we had authentic conversation for at least a solid half hour. It was refreshing to feel such welcome from an absolute stranger, and I think we could learn quite a bit from his approach.

Mosque at the far end of Manger Square in the old town

Mosque at the far end of Manger Square in the old town

Next, Grace and I made our way through the old town and up to the Church of the Nativity. For those of you who might not know, this is a cathedral built upon the site where Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been born, and it is taken care of by representatives of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. The place has recently been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the restoration work takes away a bit of the aesthetic impact, but it is a beautiful site nonetheless.

Church of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity

Sorry for the blur, but this is the actual spot where Jesus of Nazareth was said to have been born

Sorry for the blur, but this is the actual spot where Jesus of Nazareth was said to have been born

From the Cathedral, we went to an olive wood shop owned by a friend of Grace, and I once again found myself talking about life with a Palestinian native to Bethlehem. As we sipped on his homemade sweet tea brewed with sage, he spoke about the 5 year stretch when the IDF occupied the entire town of Bethlehem. He told me about countless afternoons where he sat similarly drinking tea with friends and wondering when things were ever going to change.

He told me about how even in spite of these things he still has his heath and he still has his home, and that this was enough for him to keep on going.

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To close out the night, Grace and I went to a falafel shop where we ate copious amounts of hummus, falafel, “Arab salad”, pickles, peppers, and fresh pita, and drank homemade mint lemonade. I ate to my fill (and then some more), and I can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store.

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Photo Update – Seeds of Hope

I know my last post about the farm was a bit of a downer, but I want to share some of the exciting news from the farm as well. Here are a handful of photos from our harvesting trip last Saturday.

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The parsley took a while to set roots, but now it’s starting to look strong.

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It wouldn’t be a Russian farm without tons of dill sprouting up everywhere

The beets are just about ready to harvest. This is one of the largest ones, and it's about the size of a softball

The beets are just about ready to harvest. This is one of the largest ones, and it’s about the size of a softball

Our third potatoes patch was planted a few weeks later than the others, but even it it starting to flower. By this rate, we should have all three potato subplots in full production over the next few weeks!

Our third potatoes patch was planted a few weeks later than the others, but even it it starting to flower. By this rate, we should have all three potato subplots in full production over the next few weeks!

The carrots are...well...taking their precious time. They still aren't very big, but even the little guys are still tasty.

The carrots are…well…taking their precious time. They still aren’t very big, but even the little guys are still tasty.

Green Beans that have been in the ground for almost 3 weeks now. Thanks for the folks who helped us weed out the native growth that was choking these little guys out.

Green Beans that have been in the ground for almost 3 weeks now. Thanks for the folks who helped us weed out the native growth that was choking these little guys out.

Obligatory picture of wildflowers and the Russian countryside. The view alone makes it worth the journey out.

Obligatory picture of wildflowers and the Russian countryside. The view alone makes it worth the journey out.

Another foe came out to stir up trouble over the last week, and it's name is the Colorado beetle. These little guys will decimate a potato crop if left unchecked, and since we don't use pesticides they can be fatal to our potato harvest. Luckily, they were isolated to only one section of the potatoes, so we were able to harvest as many as possible out of that section and burn out the problem plants. About 50 kg of baby potatoes were harvested this week!

Another foe came out to stir up trouble over the last week, and it’s name is the Colorado beetle. These little guys will decimate a potato crop if left unchecked, and since we don’t use pesticides they can be fatal to our potato harvest. Luckily, they were isolated to only one section of the potatoes, so we were able to harvest as many as possible out of that section and burn out the problem plants. About 50 kg of baby potatoes were harvested this week!

This was by far the biggest veggie of the day. In two weeks, this monster transformed from a blossom into a 3.15 kg zucchini.

This was by far the biggest veggie of the day. In two weeks, this monster transformed from a blossom into a 3.15 kg zucchini.

The Kohlrabi (aka mini-sputnik plants) is also just about ready to come out of the ground

The Kohlrabi (aka mini-sputnik plants) is also just about ready to come out of the ground

Our mystery tikva is also starting to develop little squash. For those of you who don't know, tikva is the russian term for all winter squashes and pumpkins, and the farmer who gave us these seeds didn't tell us what variety they are. Whatever they are, they are growing well!

Our mystery tikva is also starting to develop little squash. For those of you who don’t know, tikva is the russian term for all winter squashes and pumpkins, and the farmer who gave us these seeds didn’t tell us what variety they are. Whatever they are, they are growing well!

Imanni and Andrew finishing up the weeding in one of the rows of lettuce.

Imanni and Andrew finishing up the weeding in one of the rows of lettuce.

This is the lettuce that volunteers worked on this weekend after the mess of Russian weeds was removed. Great work everybody!

This is the lettuce that volunteers worked on this weekend after the mess of Russian weeds was removed. Great work everybody!

Another look back at some of the pumpkin plants.

Another look back at some of the pumpkin plants.

Group shot of volunteers. Thanks for giving up your Saturday to help us keep the farm alive. It wouldn't be possible without you!

Group shot of volunteers. Thanks again for giving up your Saturday to help us keep the farm alive. It wouldn’t be possible without you!

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Hard Times on the Farm

I started writing this post almost a week ago, but decided that I should wait until word got out to our shareholders and community members before I put it up on the blog. Now that the parties immediately impacted by the events have been informed, I figured I’d share a bit with my supporters and partner congregations in the States. To put things simply, the farm was struck a pretty large blow last week and my colleagues and I have been trying to find a way to pick up the pieces and move forward.

As most of you know, a majority of my time in Moscow has centered around the planning for and launching of an agricultural development project in the Moscow reason. When I arrived almost a year ago, I was given an idea the the church had come up with and was told to “run with it”. I researched different models, spoke with farmers all over the world, and together with coworkers we were able to come up with a plan. Over the rest of my time here, we’ve been making that plan a reality.

If you have been following this blog, you will know that we have had more than our fair share of hiccups along the way. However, 10 months later we have a plot of land that has been transformed from two decades of uncontrolled fallow growth to an irrigated CSA farm with approximately 60,000 planted feet of crops. We were providing employment to marginalized people, paying them a fair wage, harvesting crops for CSA shares…all seemed right in the world.

(OK, with Gaza in flames, passenger aircraft being shot down over Ukraine, the Ebola virus ravaging West Africa, and thousands of immigrant children being detained and deported in my own country, not everything was right in the world but we did feel like we were making a bit of a positive impact in a pretty crappy situation.)

And then the Taldom police and Federal Migration Service decided to rain on our parade. To make a long story short, two of our workers (both of whom happen to be undocumented) were picked up by the police, arrested, and one has been ordered out of the country. On top of that, the local police force have said that they are unwilling to turn a blind eye towards our operation and that they will detain anyone they think might be undocumented and deport them if they are.

(The sort of sick irony of the whole situation is that we are working towards the same goal as the police. We are trying to help these individuals get out of Moscow and return to their home countries, we just hope to do so while allowing our undocumented brothers and sisters to retain some dignity)

Now this isn’t the first time we’ve had members of our community arrested or deported, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I have known since my first days in Moscow that this is a perpetual risk in everything that we do. As persons of faith, my coworkers and I don’t think it’s right to make the services that we provide conditional based upon one’s immigration status…so we don’t ask people for their documents. If someone comes asking my colleagues or myself for help, we help them.

But that doesn’t make it suck any less when friends are arrested, harassed by police, or ordered out of the country. It doesn’t make the smuggling, trafficking, or exploitation of our African brothers and sisters stop. It doesn’t stop the racially-motivated violence and harassment that these folks face on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

It just makes it that much harder for us to make a difference.

In the days since last week’s unfortunate events we have come up with a short-term solution to keep the farm chugging along through the end of the 2014 season, and (fingers crossed) it looks like we shouldn’t have too much trouble as long as our volunteer base holds out, but it’s been a sad week for the Seeds of Hope farm.

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We Teach Life

So the death toll of Palestinians in the current Israeli offensive against Gaza is just about to pass 1,400 lives, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. The US president has finally started to condemn the atrocities being committed by the IDF in the name of security (most recently, the shelling of a UN school full of internally displaced Palestinians that had radioed it’s position over 17 times in order to keep from being attacked), and yet still won’t outright condemn Israel’s wake of destruction in the Gaza slip.

There are close to a thousand dead civilians.

There are hundreds of dead children.

There are 7,200 injured Palestinians.

And there are 245,000 displaced Palestinians .

When you mix this with the amount of anti-Palestinian (and islamophobic) nonsense that has been all over facebook these days, it’s hard to not think of the situation as hopeless. I wish I had something witty or smart to say, but I have no more words. I’ll leave it to a Palestinian activist and poet to share instead.

 

 

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