Bearing Witness

English: The Witness Cairn The Witness Cairn.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about surviving these past weeks. The blind rage I have felt for victims who haven’t survived, the incredible respect I have for those that survive and enter into healing – they have occupied my mind, my heart.

And though I have never been raped or attacked, though I can’t begin to understand that deep agony of body and soul – I have learned one thing. When we bear witness to the stories of those who have experienced the wounds of rape and violence, we help in the healing process.

Conversely, when we dismiss them, we become part of the attack, part of the abuse.

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, not in facts.

Bearing witness means that we are showing by our existence that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost”. To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering in, and in our entering offering hope and healing.

Bearing witness is a good phrase.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Who has walked beside you as a witness to your stories, so that you can move forward with purpose and hope?

Blogger’s note: Might I suggest this excellent op-ed piece from the NY Times: After Being Raped, I Was Wounded – My Honor Wasn’t

Malala-style Grit and Other Responses to a Rant

It was with a fast pulse and flushed face that I pressed ‘publish’ on yesterday’s post. Whenever there is a passionate rant there is a chance that it won’t be received as intended.

I am grateful to the readership of Communicating Across Boundaries for the thoughtful responses and sharing that the post received. I’ve picked some of these comments to highlight in today’s post.

Jessica wrote: I had hoped you’d blog about Malala! I read her story yesterday and it hit home for me… my ESL students this year are mostly all from the Middle East. Every day I learn from them. I learn what it means to sacrifice for something you believe in. To give your LIFE for something that some students in America would do anything to skip out on! I spoke with one of my students this week, and he shared that he feels like we Americans don’t know what it is to be free; we’ve grown up with freedom all of our lives. He hasn’t. He knows what it means to be oppressed…to fight and dream and sacrifice for something we consider so basic. When he spoke of freedom, it was as if he were cradling the most precious jewel in his hands. And he spoke with tears of how he would rather die than to give that up. We Americans have sold ourselves so cheaply… and we live for the basest of causes. I think it’s time we get some Malala-style grit, bravery and passion!

My brother Ed responded with this: 

Oh my – no wonder my laptop was smoking this morning… (!)

But in response to your line, “a 14 year old girl is a threat in what universe?” I can only think of Psalm 8:2 – “Through the praise of children and infants, you have established a stronghold against your enemies…” and I Corinthians 1: 27ff “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are…”

It is the 14-year-old brave ones, and a million others who have none of the power or wealth of this world but still stand up for what is right and just and good and beautiful who will win in the end. But there’s going to be a lot of pain between now and the end…

Finally Brother James with three phrases that are known to many – an appropriate benediction: 

I heard her story this morning.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

And that’s it – may we go with Mercy into this day. Thanks for reading.

If you missed yesterday’s post, please take a look at 14-Year-Old Courage to get context for today’s article.

A Late Night Response

I have just finished watching hours of commentary on the Middle East as I put final touches on a health presentation I am doing tomorrow. And I feel compelled to write.

An ambassador and other public service officers have been killed. It is a tragedy, and a condemned act of violence.

The last time an American ambassador was killed was in Kabul in 1978 — and I was in Kabul. As a senior in high school I had gone to Afghanistan on a school trip to participate in a Fine Arts festival at the American International School of Kabul. While there, the famous military coup transpired, paving the way for the Russian invasion in 1979. As an adult I now understand the diplomatic nightmare at play; not only did the foreign service personnel have to worry about their staff in Afghanistan, they had hundreds of added students and staff from international schools throughout Pakistan as well as from Delhi, India. It was an emergency, much like the current situation in Libya

And with this recent event there are a lot of voices, and so much opinion. Even as those in public service are mourned, politicians are using the grief for gain.

The stereotypes on both sides of the globe are reinforced. Over and over we see images of fires, riots, and demonstrations in Egypt,Yemen, and Libya. With Friday prayers, the worry is that violence will spread farther in the region.

And on this side of the globe the cries arise: “Jihadists” “Islamists” “Fanatics”. “They hate us” many say, fueling an already blazing fire of misunderstanding.

Yet, even as I am burdened and frustrated by an amateur film maker who, in making what sounds like a sub par film, has incited rage throughout the Muslim world, I support his right to do so.

Was it wise? No.

Was it correct? Probably not.

Was it his choice to do so? Absolutely.

That’s what we preach, that’s what we boast – that we live in a democracy that allows freedom of speech.

Over a year ago I wrote a post called “Protected Privilege, Awesome Responsibility”. And right now at 11pm, while watching CNN in a hotel bedroom in Lincoln, Nebraska thinking of my daughter, living just blocks from the American Embassy in Cairo, I looked back at what I wrote. I have posted an excerpt below. To understand the full context I have linked the post but even without that context the words below express my viewpoint.

Freedom of Speech. It is a privileged protection and an awesome responsibility. Only days before our neighborhood became the target for these messages, my husband and I had been at a lecture on the apostasy law in Pakistan. As I passed the signs I couldn’t help but think that the messengers have no clue what a privilege it is to live in a country that allows freedom of speech.  It was fully their right to be there and broadcast what I consider to be messages that are at best unwise and at worst vitriolic and hateful. No one would think to arrest them or charge them for breaking a law and this gift is not enjoyed world-wide.

And though I desperately want to rip the signs down shouting “You have no right to present God in this way” and let those around me know that this message is one of extremism and that the God I love walks among us, knows our hearts, and loves with a love that is deeper than deep, I respect freedom of speech. I know that the privileged protection of speech used on vans with venom also protects me. It protects outwardly through the law of the land, and it protects inwardly by challenging me to carefully weigh words and meaning so that I may not abuse this protection.  Freedom of speech is a gift to be used carefully and protected continually.

The incidents of the last few days are a compelling challenge to all of us who value our freedom of speech, and recognize its power and gifts, to use these gifts for building bridges; to commit to communicating across boundaries and being agents to heal the great divide.

A highly disturbed reader takes a look at a highly disturbing book: Zeitoun!

Fridays with Robynn

Zeitoun Dave Eggers(McSweeney’s Books: San Fransisco, 2009.)

I just finished a book that’s left me shaken to the core. Zeitoun  is a non-fiction account of one family’s experience during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun (pronounced zay-toon) run a professional painting business. Abdulrahman is a sympathetic immigrant from Syria. He is a devout Muslim. He works hard and contributes to his community. He is well-respected and liked.  Kathy, his wife, grew up Southern Baptist and is a convert to Islam. At the time of the Hurricane they had 4 children, one son Zachary and three daughters:  Nademah, Aisha and Safiya. They were tracking the storm’s arrival and decided that Kathy and the children would leave town while Abdulrahman stayed back to take care of their house, monitor their rental properties, business office and equipment. What follows is the story of Abdulrahman’s experiences after the hurricane hit. Using his canoe to paddle around neighbourhoods that he used to frequent, he rescues several elderly residents, discovers and begins to feed dogs that were left behind and happens upon friends that also stayed. The story takes a horrendous turn when Abdulrahman and three friends were forcibly arrested and taken to a makeshift prison at the Greyhound bus station. They were not told why they were being arrested, they were not allowed to phone their families or their lawyers, and they were held in inhumane cages and conditions before being transferred to other nearby facilities.

Abdulrahman’s story is absolutely unbelievable. And yet the author goes to great effort to show the research he did to verify the Zeitoun’s family story. It is certainly true.

By all accounts the agencies in charge of law and order and rescue during the days immediately after the hurricane went rogue. Rumours of terrorist organizations capitalizing on natural disasters, the prevailing chaos, the sheer horrors and numbers of the victims and the displaced distorted the judgment and discernment of normally rational individuals.  The New Orleans police department, the Army Corp of Engineers, the Mayor of New Orleans, FEMA –any of these might have stabilized the situation and brought calm and hope to what was a devastating reality. But they didn’t. They rose up with fear and they abused the power with which they had been entrusted. They bullied, they tortured, they neglected care, they mistreated. They fixated on minor infractions while largely neglecting to rescue innocent victims.

It’s very hard to imagine how all of it could happen in modern-day, 2005, here in the United States of America. What went wrong? How did this happen?

As a Canadian, who grew up in Pakistan,  I remember vividly an encounter I had with a US Immigration Officer in Ontario. I was applying, at that time for an R-1 visa. We were hoping to stay in the US for two years. I needed that visa to be able to temporarily live here.  The officer was looking through my records on her computer screen, “It says here that you said you’d be leaving to return to India in three months time.” I had never said that. I wouldn’t have said it. It wasn’t true. The officer completely shrugged me off. The recorded memo of my earlier conversation with a previous immigration officer was considered the truth about me. My word against theirs. And they were right. I was wrong. Accepting their word though meant that I had lied and over stayed my welcome. I was powerless to defend myself. She didn’t believe me. I was in the wrong.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was in a far worse situation. He was completely vulnerable. Completely at the mercy of those in authority over him. They were authorities that at that time were not to be trusted.

Here in the U.S. we pride ourselves in our systems of justice and defense. We are innocent until we are proven guilty. Justice rules. She is not influenced by money or by power…but only by truth and proof. In other countries these things seem so tenuous, so fragile, so impressionable….but here justice is solid and sure. It’s what, in our minds, separates us from all that is “uncivilized”. It sets us apart. It gives us voice and confidence.

Reading the Zeitoun’s story leaves you wondering though.

Now seven years later, Kathy Zeitoun suffers with Post Traumatic Stress disorder. She will never be the same again.

“She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night and sometimes just while sitting with little Ahmad sleeping on her lap: Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us? It could have been avoided, she thinks. So many little things could have been done. So many people let it happen. So many looked away. And it only takes one person, one small act of stepping from the dark to the light.” (p 329)

It happened here.

And it could happen again.

It takes all of us committed to justice to preserve it. Justice, when left unchecked, uncared for, unguarded, untethered, spoils. We all need to protect it.

It’s a precious commodity.

Thankfully a hero rises up in Abdulrahman’s story. A simple black preacher delivering Bibles to the inmates hears Abdulrahman’s plea and is true to his word. He called Kathy and let her know where Abdulrahman was being held. Admittedly this doesn’t sound very heroic. But he was a man who was willing to listen to his conscience. He was willing to be the messenger.

Kathy goes on to say,

                “But did he risk so much? Not really. Usually you needn’t risk so much to right a wrong.  It’s not so complicated. It’s the opposite of complicated. To dial a number given to you by a man in a cage, to tell the voice on the other end, ‘I saw him.’ Is that complicated? Is that an act of great heroism in the United States of America? It should not be so.” (p 329)

I want to be like that preacher. I want to be “one person” who doesn’t look away, who steps from the dark to the light, who defends those who aren’t being defended, who stands up against injustice. Like Kathy Zeitoun said, “It’s not that complicated.”

Note from Robynn:  

A response to Abdulraham Zeitoun and Kathy Zeitoun’s ongoing story.

I was horrified to discover in a quick web search that Abdulraham and Kathy Zeitoun were divorced in early 2011. More recently Abdulrahman has been arrested for violently attacking Kathy on July 20, 2012. He remains imprisoned at this time.

My heart breaks for this family. They deserve our deep sympathy and our compassion filled prayers. At the time of Dave Egger’s book their marriage was described as solid and happy. They were sweet to one another. There was humour and kindness, deep loyalty and respect. One can only wonder, considering the extent of the trauma they endured, how much of their current situation is in part to blame on the injustices they experienced.

It further grieves me that this type of violent behavior is what the media expects of Muslim men. Abdulraham Zeitoun is now who everyone expected him to be. Yet – he was as Muslim before the hurricane as he is now. And yet now thousands will knowingly nod their heads – “We expected as much” they will say. It makes me angry. We will never know the depth of the damage to this one man’s psyche, to his (now ex) wife’s sanity, to his children’s sense of security that occurred when the raw horror of injustice and cruelty was served.

A man now sits in prison. A family is destroyed. A marriage wounded.

Certainly Abdulraham is responsible for hitting his wife. There’s no doubt he’s responsible for his fierce anger and his uncontrollable reactions.

But what happened inside to turn on that rage? When did he break?

Perhaps those responsible for his post-hurricane Katrina treatment should join him in his jail cell. Perhaps they, in part, share some of the blame for the way Kathy Zeitoun and her children were treated.

Moms and Babes – the First 1000 Days

Every day I wake up and I know my children have enough to eat. It’s always been that way. When I lived in Chicago with a new-born baby, breastfeeding for the first time, I would wake up and have a nutritious breakfast, full of protein and the calories necessary for my baby to thrive. When we lived in Pakistan, a land where the average daily wage is three dollars and fifty cents and poverty inescapable, my children were well nourished babies and toddlers. Egypt was the same.

No matter how poor I thought we were, there was always food, there was always healthcare. But I, well (perhaps over?) nourished, am not the norm.

Each year over 2.6 million children die of malnutrition.

Save the Children has published their “State of the World’s Mothers” report for 2012. This annual report focuses on the first 1000 days of life, that critical period of development for a child — a time when the effects of poor nutrition will yield long-term results that cannot be reversed.

The period begins at the start of a woman’s pregnancy and goes through a child’s second birthday. It is during this time that good nutrition is necessary for a child to grow both intellectually and physically, in brain and in body. Malnutrition not only affects the baby, it affects the entire country and ultimately the world through extending poverty, lower earning power and loss of human potential.

The report looks at which countries are successful at providing adequate nutrition during these first 1000 days and which are not. But it also goes further and looks at solutions that are not costly and can make all the difference in a child’s life.

Some of Save the Children’s key findings include:

  • Children in an alarming number of countries are not getting adequate nutrition in their first 1000 days. “Out of 73 developing countries- which together account for 95 percent of child deaths – only four score”very good” on measures of young child nutrition”
  • Child malnutrition is limiting the future success of millions of children and by default their countries
  • Economic growth is not enough to fight malnutrition. It seems like it should be so easy, right? Just offer more aid, more money, increase assistance to farmers. But like many things it takes not only money but also policy change in a world where women and children don’t stand on the highest rung of the global ladder.
  • Health workers are the key to success. By this they don’t mean doctors and nurses in traditional primary care settings, but rather community health workers and midwives stationed in communities and available to bring community care of teaching on hygiene and nutrition, vitamins, promoting breast-feeding,and treating diarrhea.

The report is not all bleak. Solutions are introduced in the form of 6 low-cost nutrition interventions that were identified. These are iron folate, breastfeeding, complementary feeding, vitamin A, zinc and hygiene. None of them are expensive and Save the Children estimates that these could be provided for a cost of $20/per child for the first 1000 days. The report suggests that over 2 million lives could be saved through world-wide implementation of these interventions.

But for the interventions to work people and policy have to come together and care. So what to do? It’s a Tuesday morning and if you are like me you are probably sitting a bit removed from all of this — I just had a coffee worth half a day’s wages for a Pakistani.

I’m told in the book of James that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” and I can believe that malnourished children, and moms who can’t afford the nourishment fit well into that category.

A start for me is to take a closer look at this 70 page report.  Awareness is always a first and necessary step.

And after awareness I’m not sure – I do know this —  it is not about guilt, not about feeling forced, rather any steps are out of a greater understanding and commitment to my faith and God’s world.

Hanging Ourselves on Soundbites

We are a society of soundbites. Having little time for the real story we are delighted when we come upon that pithy quote or 140 character twitter feed that keeps us informed.

Or does it?

I recently commented on an article that a friend had posted on a social media site. She responded graciously but pointedly “Marilyn, did you read the article?” Although she could not see me, I had the humility to blush from my toes to my eyebrows. I hadn’t read it. I had skimmed and picked out the one sentence that I disagreed with, the one thing I could become righteous about.

It was embarrassing and it should have been. I hung myself on a soundbite.

The reasons why are many. We’re busy, we’re preoccupied, we multi-task….we also want to sound informed and smart. We want to get on the proverbial band wagon, showing that we are righteously indignant by responding with piercing words through comments.

And that’s fine – except when we haven’t read the full article, we don’t know the full story. Or if we’ve just believed someone who is well-known with a powerful voice on the internet instead of critically thinking through the issue and seeking information that will inform. And then the righteous response we are so proud of is nothing but clamor in an already too loud world.

How do you frame your comments on issues? Do you read the entire story or do you respond to the soundbite? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m serious. How do we in a world so divided learn to respond without getting caught up in misplaced indignation and quick, poorly formed log-in-the-eye responses?

Would love to hear what you choose to respond to and how you respond in the comment section.

When Kids Kill Kids

When our daughter Annie was two years old she saw television for the first time. We were in Islamabad, Pakistan and she was invited to a birthday party of some older children. My husband took her while I stayed home with our brand new baby boy. When they came home he relayed to me her reaction to this first time of watching TV. She was watching a cartoon and the character was hit over the head with something. As often happens with cartoons, there was a bonk, birds flew over the head of the character and then the scene faded out. She began to cry. She thought the character was dead and was inconsolable. In her 2-year-old mind she was unable to distinguish real from imaginary on the screen.

This is huge. Until a child is seven years old, they cannot differentiate between imaginary and real; fantasy and reality. So when young children see television violence, it’s accepted as not only real, but a part of “normal” life.

Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, in an article released in 2000 called “Trained to Kill”, speaks in-depth to this problem. In nature, he says, “Healthy members of most species have a powerful, natural resistance to killing their own kind.” So while rattlesnakes bite others, they wrestle each other; while piranhas use their fangs on others, they fight each other by flicking their tails. So it is true with humans – we don’t naturally want to kill, we are taught to kill.

He talks about three ways of being conditioned to kill – the first is something we would think of when we think of boot camp. Everyone is taken and their heads are shaved, they are shouted at, they get up at unearthly hours and go through relentless discipline and violence. At the end the recruit believes this is normal. This is a perfect segue into a war zone.

The second is “classical conditioning” where violence is associated with pleasure. The author would suggest that “classical conditioning” takes place in kids as they watch violence while eating their favorite foods of popcorn and soda, or smelling a girlfriend’s perfume, all while watching horrific movie violence as “entertainment”.

The third is “operant conditioning” which is a stimulus response. This is where in target practice a target shaped like a man would pop up. If you shoot the target correctly, it will fall, and so on. Contrast this, he says, to video games, where for hours at a time a kid is pointing and shooting, pointing and shooting, getting better and better at hitting the targets and gaining points every time they do so.

The article is well worth looking at and provides irrefutable evidence of the problem: all this is teaching kids how to kill. The evidence is present in the tragedies that read like headlines from newspapers – because they are.

  • Jonestown, Arkansas Massacre 1998 – An 11 and a 13 year-old, camouflaged in the woods kill four kids and a teacher with ten others wounded.
  • Paducah, Kentucky 1999 – A 14-year-old opens fire on a prayer group at school and hits eight kids.
  • Columbine High School, 1999 – Two kids in trench coats terrorize the school ultimately killing twelve students, one teacher. 21 other students are injured and ultimately the kids kill themselves.

There are more but this makes the point. All of these have one thing in common – they are kids killing kids. It begs the question: Why are we shocked when we see child soldiers from the widely seen Kony 2012 video?

So why am I suddenly bringing up violence and kids killing kids? In the newly released movie “The Hunger Games” that is the premise and it has some people disturbed. And that is the very point of the author. My friend Stacy, who blogs at Slowing the Racing Mind, wrote an excellent post on this called “Hunger Games – Disturbing? Indeed” Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, wants us to be disturbed so that we can discuss this and question it, talk with our kids and know that there are times where we must stand up to what is wrong.

I won’t go into The Hunger Games further, as others have done a fine job of doing just that, but I would argue books like these, and movies like these, are not what creates violence in our kids. It’s gratuitous violence in movies and video games that evokes laughter as opposed to tears, mocking as opposed to compassion. That’s what we should be worried about. Crying because a 12-year-old was killed in a society’s sick attempt at control is a human response; laughing when a teacher tells you that a middle schooler ambushed a school, killing kids and a teacher, is a an inhuman response born of inappropriate exposure to violence at young ages.

It’s a big issue – What do you think?

“On June 10th, 1992, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a definitive study on the impact of TV violence. In nations, regions, or cities where television appears there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That’s how long it takes for a brutalized toddler to reach the “prime crime” years. That’s how long it takes before you begin to reap what you sow when you traumatize and desensitize children. (Centerwall, 1992).” (from Teaching Our Kids to Kill)