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Protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Dismissing and criminalizing the youth

Today is the fourth day of the protest wave that swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina after workers and angry citizens in Tuzla filled the streets by the thousands.  Unhappy with the lack of transparency in the privatization processes of the state-owned firms and their own living and working conditions, the workers were supported by the retirees, students, and other citizens desperate for change. For a list of demands of the Tuzla workers, please click here.  For a list of demands of the citizens of Sarajevo, please see Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian text here (translation coming soon). For more background information, please consult this piece by Emin Eminagic written for the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung here.

The protest wave spread to Zenica, Sarajevo, Mostar, Bihac and other cities, and in some cases the protests became more violent and government buildings were set on fire. Citizens demanded for the resignation of their representatives sitting in the Cantonal governments and so far, Premier Munib Husejnagic and the government of the Zenica Doboj Canton have resigned, Premier of  the Tuzla Canton Sead Causevic has resigned, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Hercegovina Neretva Canton Mario Sulenta has also resigned. The Mayor of Novi Travnik Refik Lendo also offered his resignation. In Sarajevo, the Canton Premier  Suad Zeljkovic suggested that , there were no hungry people and no reason for unrest in our city. However, just a few hours after his remarks, he has also given his resignation, which was one of the demands from the Sarajevo people.

Religious leaders called for an end to violence and  for more patience, and the Minister of Security Fahrudin Radoncic took this opportunity to present himself as the protector of the people and suggested that since his party was not in power during the wartime he was essentially not responsible for the political situation in the country. Given that 2014 is the general election year for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he seemed to waste no time and used this opportunity to position himself as a vote-worthy candidate. I hope our citizens remain vigilant and continue to demand accountability from politicians and those wanting to take their place.

Last night in Sarajevo, the Municipal and Cantonal government buildings were set on fire. Likewise, the BiH Presidency building which also houses the (undigitized!) Archive  of Bosnia and Herzegovina sustained serious damage. The Director of the Archive  confirmed that some of the most important and priceless historical documents were lost last night and angry citizens went on to draw the parallel with the Army of the Republika Srpska destroying cultural and historical evidence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s historical continuity during the aggression in the 1990s, and that apparently these “stupid hooligans” have continued their job last night, by destroying culturally significant records in times of peace. The issue of keeping historical documents in a basement with terrible protection is yet another matter altogether.

We can also expect a hypothesis from the Republika Srpska that this is an attempt to create a unitary Bosnia and Herzegovina which is apparently a natural enemy of the Bosnian Serbs, the Dayton agreement and the Serb majority entity. The Premier of RS Zeljka Cvijanovic also stated that protests in the Republika Srpska are not necessary by suggesting that the violence seen in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t need to “spill” across entity lines. Interestingly enough, the wave of protests has not hit the RS just yet, even though there was a small gathering in Banja Luka of about 300 people. Bosnian hip hop artist Frenkie joked on Twitter, calling on people from the RS to at least “light up a barbecue” [since in the Federation, buildings are in flame].

The media has already started with attempts to discredit the protests. In Tuzla, reportings of mall lootings were verified as false after an Al Jazeera Balkans journalist posted photos of the untouched mall. Later, the mall website provided information that no stores were vandalized and nothing was stolen. Today in Sarajevo, the discrediting process continued. Apparently, 12 kg of speed was seized from the protesters, in an attempt to paint the protesters into violent thugs and drug users or dealers. While many young people did indeed participate in the violence and rioting (and cleaning actions this morning) we cannot and should not dismiss their actions nor should we look at them without proper context:

These young people live in a state which does not invest in its youth. Museums and cultural institutions are closed or are having major funding problems. Sarajevo does not have adequate green spaces in the city, affordable recreation youth centres or adequate youth centered programs. Our educational system suffers, the youth unemployment rate is high. Very few scholarships or skill upgrading opportunities exist. Corruption and nepotism-based success is widespread and deeply ingrained in society. Many of them will reach the age of 30 without a day of work history on their CVs. Many of them are not able to live independently, not even with roommates. Many live from the money borrowed from their parents -and many of these are grown people, well ahead into their adulthood.

Last night, as the protesters were dispersing away from the Presidency building, we were running towards the Alta shopping centre through the small streets to avoid potential violence. I asked a group of young men why they are doing this and one of them said to me: “Well what have I left to lose? I can’t even pay for coffee when I take my girlfriend out. She probably wants me to be like the son of those politicians. I don’t even have a driver’s licence and I’m 20″. The other young men laughed at this, but this was the kind of laugh full of pain and discomfort because they cannot afford even the most basic social and recreational activities or feel like they can lead dignified lives or have promising futures. While it is unfortunate that there has been significant damage to property, I will say that the administration costs for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s huge state apparatus is much higher (not withstanding the Archive materials lost nor the money laundered and stolen from the budget), and in a discussion about what a proper social movement is and isn’t, we cannot and should not dismiss these “hooligans” without acknowledging the difficult political and socioeconomic situation they live in.

These young people are not angry because they are bored and want to burn things, they are angry because their futures are not just compromised but gambled, their grandchildren are already in debt and they see no way out. This violence is not characteristic of Bosnian-Herzegovinian youth and it’s no different from the violence we have previously seen in Greece, North Africa and South America. These young people do not have political representation, their voices are not being heard, they are isolated not just in their own countries but also by civilized Europe. We keep getting urgent calls for nonviolence from religious leaders, governments and international community representatives. I assure you, no one here wants to riot. No one here thinks it’s cool to destroy our cities. But I beg of you to support the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina in building strong, representative and democratic institutions which will work for the people and create opportunities for them to be able to have a shot at a future. Support the youth, don’t dismiss them. Do not point to desperate violence as a legitimate reason why police and state brutality should be used to punish them. What else did they have when they threw stones, fire crackers and then their bodies into the chaos?

Young people with a future will not riot in their cities. Young people will not throw rocks at buildings because they would have lives to build and something to look forward to. The governments on all levels haven’t bothered with that so far. We need to help rebuild this country. We need to help them, rather criminalize their desperation and poverty. We need to stop pathologizing them and shifting blame on them when they were not the ones who created the problems in the first place.

While I lament the destruction of the cities, all the injured people and the destroyed historical records – I lament the loss of a generation of young people who are being punished when they are being patient as well as when they are being violent. This is not the way to prepare for the future.






Immigration — south of the border

And no, I’m not talking Mexico.  A while back I reflected on one of the many aspects of immigration in the U.S. – which undoubtedly might seem strange for someone in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. to talk about immigration; but while Washington’s nowhere near the Mexican border, immigration in all its forms has played many roles in the Pacific Northwest; our agriculture depends heavily on immigrant labor.


Prof. Antonio Alves Almeida of CAMI (Center of Support for the Migrant)

However, today I’m writing to you from way south of the U.S. – Mexico border — São Paulo, Brazil, to be precise. A city of 20 million, Brazil’s biggest, and I’ve been here over two months now. I’ve been learning more about Brazil — a huge country (192 million, give or take a couple hundred thousand) — been learning Portuguese, and acclimatizing to a climate where I can wear t-shirts in the fall (big change for a Seattle girl.) That said, as unique as Brazil is, I’ve been noticing how many similarities it has with the United States — historical colonial influences (British & Portuguese respectively), historical economy based on slavery (though Brazil outlawed it after the U.S.), and hugely diverse. The latter point was what intrigued me when I attended an event last Saturday here in São Paulo — what is immigration like here?

Given its geographic location, clearly Brazil sees a number of immigrants from surrounding countries in South America, for varying reasons — whether escaping political instability & conflict (Uruguay, Colombia) or economic (Peru, Bolivia). That said, as someone who’s become increasingly aware over the years of the plight of migrant workers in the United States (I’d recommend ‘La Cosecha/The Harvest‘ – excellently insightful) – it was a bit frustrating to learn that Brazil faces some of the same challenges in the same ways as the United States when it comes to the difficult conditions many people face.


Nello Pulcinelli of CAMI explains more about the work of CAMI & the situation of immigrants in São Paulo.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s horrible living & working conditions for every immigrant in Brazil. Clearly not — keep in mind I’m an immigrant, too! That said, if you have money, a job, decent housing, and especially a leg up with the language, you’re pretty much set. Sure, you’ve got bureaucracy when you start to deal with all the paperwork — going to register with the Federal Police is not exactly high on my list of things I enjoy doing, but it was necessary to do to stay here legally, and after my visa application process, has certainly taught me a lot about patience.

But what do you do if you don’t have the money, or the means, or a number of other reasons? Brazil too has its undocumented. It is estimated that there are some 2 million foreign residents, legal and illegal. In 2009, the government estimated its unauthorized immigrant population at around 200,000; charity & NGOs say this number is possibly more around 600,000. There are a number of people who come to São Paulo, the commercial center of Brazil, to look for a better life — but while there are many ways to survive, this doesn’t mean that everyone is able to do so at the level at which they would prefer. There are those who are limited in their resources & skills, and so can be subject to the difficulties that many people face as immigrants: exploitation of labor, human trafficking, xenophobia, difficulties of communication, culture shock, social & racial discrimination, lack of public policy (on behalf of immigrants), social injustice, domestic violence — and for those undocumented, there is also sometimes the risk of police raids that could jeopardize their ability to live and work in the country.


Morais, a native of Angola, describes some of his experiences from his 3 years in Sao Paulo.

As any country has experienced, Brazil has seen xenophobia & discrimination towards its immigrant populations. That said, it was fascinating to read some of the national level responses to this — in the article ‘Rising Brazil tackles immigration question’,  Defense Minister Celso Amorim, a former foreign minister, is noted to have said:”You cannot become the sixth economy in the world with impunity,” referring to combating such attitudes that some have against immigrants. Justice Secretary Paulo Abrao added, “Immigrants add cultural value to Brazil and collaborate in the development of the nation.” Even former president Lula stated in a speech that “repression and intolerance against immigrants will not solve the problems caused by the economic crisis,” also criticizing the “policy of discrimination and prejudice” against immigrants in developed nations.

It is perhaps unfortunate that I am not all that surprised anymore by instances of racism, discrimination & dislike of “the other” - in any society or community. That said, I was intrigued to learn that unauthorized immigrants in Brazil enjoy the same legal privileges as native Brazilians regarding access to social services such as public education and the public healthcare. The United States is currently continuing its national-level debate regarding immigration reform, and there are heated opinions on all sides. Recently the Associated Press has done away with the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its guideline book that is used professionally & academically across the world.

I’m not asking those who think the U.S. should shut down the Mexico border or ask every brown person for their papers to switch sides on the subject, but I would challenge everyone to try and see things from another perspective. You see, it certainly brings the issue a lot closer to home when all of a sudden you realize that you are ‘one of them’ — I am an immigrant.


PS: Came across this article merely a few days later– Brazilian state declares emergency over immigration

Conference: Ensuring Justice, Reparations and Rehabilitation for Victims of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Last week, on December 5th and 6th, the United Nations Population Fund in Bosnia and Herzegovina organized a conference about justice and reparations for conflict-related sexual violence. One thing was immediately clear: victims are still not adequately supported, and high-level government representatives were not there.

The conference participants were greeted by: Vjekoslav Bakula, Adviser to the Minister of Human Rights and Refugees; Nuzhat Eshan, UNFPA Director for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria and the Ukraine; Emine Bozkurt, member of the European Parliament; and Erika Kvapilova, Regional Programme Director for UN Women as well as Faris Hadrovic,  UNFPA Assistant Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most importantly, Enisa Salcinovic was the voice of survivors of sexual violence, having experienced sexual violence during the Bosnian-Herzegovinian war 1992-1995.

The first day of the conference started with a discussion on the reaction of conflict related sexual violence and a victim-based approach. It included an excellent discussion by Madeleine Rees, the Secretary General of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. She reminded conference participants about the international legal framework, de jure and de facto barriers to women accessing justice and reparations. Among some of the speakers were Saliha Djuderija from the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other regional figures.

Unfortunately, Ms. Djuderija highlighted some issues that have been plaguing the victim’s access to justice since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She pointed to the stigma of being a victim of sexual violence, and that rape is shameful for the victim, not the rapist. She highlighted that it is very difficult to apply international legal frameworks within Bosnia-Herzegovina, citing poor communication and poor policy making. I would further suggest that the fragmentation of the BiH society also contributes to the problem because women are not a priority, and the complex structure of BiH’s administration creates further obstacles and problems, while women are still waiting for justice. According to Ms. Djuderija, victims cannot access the mechanisms of transitional justice, compared to women and men. Especially problematic is the access to justice of women in rural area, unemployed returnees, women without resolved housing and women who are searching for their missing partners.

Ms. Salcinovic, a rape survivor highlighted that “victims do not want pity, they want their rights and a system which would ensure that this would never happen to anyone again”. She furthermore suggested that there are women that are still struggling with stigma and suggested that the women are “marked and living in shame”. Emine Bozkurt from the EU Parliament also offered her support to women reminding the audience that she will continue to call for help for victims and continue to push for reparations to become part of national agendas. She remarked, “it was a disgrade that women are encountered with rapists that live in their neighborhood with impunity. Everyone needs to hold their politicians accountable for not fulfilling their promises”. The idea of reparations for victims was also welcomed by Erika Kvapilova, the Regional Director for UN Women.

The conference included a voice from the non-governmental organizations from the region: Viva Zene with a presentation by Jasna Zecevic, Centre for Women Victims of War ROSA with a presentation by Nela Pamukovic. All non-governmental groups highlighted their continuous work with women, offering them support but also participating in activism in advocacy to ensure gender equality and women’s rights.

Participants were also divided into groups and topics included psychological support for survivors of conflict related sexual violence, the fight against stigma, socioeconomic empowerment of victims, and the establishment of a regional mechanism to address justice, reparations, and rehabilitation.

The final day included a discussion by Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur  on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences. She further highlighted the need for reparations programmes and how programs like these can operationalize principles of gender equality, anti-discrimination, and human rights in the conflict context and have a transformative effect on women’s lives.

My intent here is to give an overview of the conference rather than analyze the content of it. Very soon into the conference, it became clear that there is still a lot of work to do, that women, especially victims of wartime violence are not a priority. The evening included a short film about a rape victim who lost her husband and is still unable to find him. She was there, among us and I commend her for speaking out and continuing to be strong. It was also inspiring and heartbreaking when one of the victims shared her story of living in a small town, where she is stigmatized and ridiculed because she receives assistance from two levels of government. She said “they all know what the mailman is bringing.” But she bravely said: “I don’t know very much about things, but I will keep fighting”.

And I hope that she does, and that other women find the strength to break the silence.

Rashida Manjoo. Photo source OHCHR


Conference image. Source: unfpa.ba

Reaching Out, Remembering & Rejecting Hate

Recognize all of humanity as one.

Recognize all of humanity as one. -Guru Gobind Singh

Admittedly, I’m a writer who likes logical segues and transitions. That said, I’m somewhat saddened that I have the chance to segue from my last post – reflecting on the shooting in Oslo, a year ago – to reflect on another shooting, this time in my own country. Last week I found myself, like thousands of others across the U.S., stunned to hear of a shooting at a gurdwara, or Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which left six people deadThe shooter was shot and killed by police at the scene, but not after adding another bloody chapter to hate crimes in the United States, and shaking not just a religious community, but the very ideal of diversity in American society itself.

I know; I’m sure some people would likely say, “Hey, Nina, I know it was bad, but really? Dramatic much?” Well, when people’s lives are involved – and especially when people’s lives are taken - then yeah, it’s kind of a big deal. I think we’re in a potentially dangerous place when we find ourselves not moved by the loss of human lives, regardless of how different from us those people may be.

That said, I am pleased to report that I feel that day – though leaving its mark in the hearts of thousands – left us shaken, but not still shaking. Last night I had the privilege to attend a remembrance vigil at a nearby gurdwara, which was my first time at a Sikh temple. As someone who has grown increasingly passionate about interfaith dialogue, recently celebrated iftar – breaking of the Ramadan fast – with some Muslim friends at my former university, I was saddened for visit a gurdwara under these circumstances, but pleased to have a chance to visit nonetheless. Upon arriving at the temple, I was impressed with the level of organization I saw. My friends and I were greeted warmly and asked if we would like to have someone show us around the temple. A young lady named Harman served as our guide, and after removing our shoes and washing our hands and feet, we walked into the gurdwara‘s sanctuary.

Bowing in respect before the guru granth sahib.

Bowing in respect before the guru granth sahib.

I’m sure there are some people whom I would annoy by my identifying as a Christian, and yet when I visit a mosque, I pray with my Muslim friends in the manner that they pray. When I visited a Hindu temple in Toronto a few weeks ago, I paid my respects to the deities represented there. Similarly, upon entering the gurdwara, I bowed before the guru granth sahib to show my respect. I was struck by a particular quote later in the first half of the program that evening: “To defeat hate, it is not enough to simply read [about other communities, religions]…hate takes refuge in ignorance, but knowledge [alone] doesn’t dispel hate; personal interactions and experiences do.” I can only wholeheartedly agree. However, I know that not everyone takes the opportunities to do so, or makes the opportunities to do so.

After the first portion of the event which took place inside, everyone filed outside for the candlelight vigil. Dusk had fallen, and the swelling crowd with lights was a sight to behold as we quietly stood beside the building. There was a relative quiet as the names of the victims were read, their memories honored. I looked around where I stood – people of different backgrounds, ages, likely of different religions, incomes and professions – but I saw only members of my community. There had been a number of notable guests, officials who spoke, and I was glad to hear of so many representatives of so many organizations who had made a point to be there that night. When we filled the first floor of the gurdwara to share a meal together afterward, I looked around again – and I realized just how much this simply had to be it. This has to be what I strive for, this sense of community. I have a friend in England who is pursuing theological training in the Anglican church, and had a placement in a diverse neighborhood that was mostly Sikh and Muslim. He told me once how taken he was with the Sikh traditions and tenets of community and service, and how in his opinion, when he needs to be reminded of how he feels the Christian church ought to be, there are times when he looks beyond it to find the answer.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I’m responding to this event, and I am sure that I will continue to reflect on last night’s vigil and all that was said there. Based on my experience last summer in Oslo, I feel something similar now – this conviction that there simply must have to be a better way than this. There has to be more dialogue, more discussion – more listening, more intentional community. We have to come together, to come closer. The alternative is far too costly.

Further information:

A man fixes the microphone for Washington senator Maria Cantwell.

A man fixes the microphone for Washington senator Maria Cantwell as she speaks.

Lungar after the vigil.

Lungar after the vigil.

A boy pins a note of remembrance to the wall.

A boy pins a note of remembrance to the wall.

Oslo: A Year Later

I’ve tried to write this post countless times. However much I think I can, part of me still freezes up. Part of me still tears up. In reviewing pictures to include on this post, I admit I shed a few tears again. However, as it’s the anniversary of an event that changed my perspective and has remained such a part of me, even in ways I’m not yet sure of, I grit my teeth and continue. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.

Utoya & Oslove.

Summer of 2011 I was in Oslo, Norway for the University of Oslo International Summer School. It was an amazing experience – some 500+ students from 95 different countries. There were a number of undergraduate courses and a handful of graduate courses; I was taking one of the latter: Peace Studies. I was excited to pursue this particular course – well, the name of this blog should make that obvious! :) But as I’d studied Scandinavian politics some, I was particularly pleased to have the chance to pursue such a course in a country that seems to take a concerted effort to both encourage study in pursuit of peace, as well as attempt to enact it in their foreign policy. My dad’s side of the family being of Norwegian descent, and his having studied in Oslo in 1984 was an added bonus – I was excited to be in Norway!

July 22, 2011 started off like any other day. It was a Friday; I’d had my class for the morning and after lunch, met with my class to rehearse our skit we’d put together for the international cultural evening performance at the end of the summer school. There were still a couple weeks to go, so we needed to smooth things out. When we exited the practice room at the dorm, the hallway was abuzz with agitation and worry – I caught only a few confused strains of what had happened – something about a bomb? I went to my room and signed online to try and figure it out, and my sister popped up on Facebook chat to see if I was okay – there had been a bombing in downtown Oslo. I skimmed a few headlines, but grabbed my camera and headed for the train. Everyone else was coming to the dorm and I was heading away from it – hadn’t I heard what had happened? Yeah, that’s what some of us photographers do…

Oslo streets after the blast.

I quickly arrived at the station nearest to Oslo’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, which was eerily quiet, despite some people wandering around, as though dazed. I began to see windows broken, and followed the streets I could – following the path of glass shards as the damage increased the closer I got. A few blocks’ radius was blocked off at the scene – a government building in downtown Oslo. Onlookers and police alike were at the scene – a quiet sense of bewilderment and wonder – what had happened, who had done it – and why? I began to walk a path around the streets that weren’t blocked off, perhaps a good ten blocks’ radius, and by the time I reached the pedestrian street again, the entire area was blocked off. I eventually made my way back to the dorm, thinking that was it.

If only.

Dazed, confused, and with great grief I learned the news that the rest of the country and the rest of the world soon heard – perhaps an hour away from the city on the island of Utoya, a summer camp experienced a bloody day in its history – a gunman wreaked havoc for perhaps an hour or so, killing some 69 and wounding many, the majority of them younger than my own (at the time) 23 years. This was the biggest act of violence in Norway since Nazi occupation in World War II. While the immediate reaction was that perhaps it was the work of an Islamic extremist group, it turned out to be a Norwegian citizen – white male, identifying as a Christian, who felt compelled to act in defense of Norway – and Europe – which he felt to be under threat from multiculturalism and Islam specifically.

Broken glass near the bomb site.

The weekend after that I was out of the city, a well-needed break – but Monday saw me back in Oslo, back in class – we spent some time talking about it, but I don’t remember any of what was said. I only feel a dull ache inside when I think about that weekend. Monday night, my friend Biljana and I had agreed to go to an event in the city center – someone had started a Facebook event for a vigil in Oslo, calling on people to bring a rose in remembrance of those who had been killed. By the time the weekend finished, it had turned into a full-fledged event, with even the prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and crown prince Haakon slated to speak. Biljana and I headed into town a few hours early, which was good – we managed to snag a spot not too far from the stage, but by the time the event began, as far as I could see was a crowd of people and flowers.

My Norwegian language is minimal – a few months’ worth of classes before I got bored and went back to Turkish, and hearing it spoken sporadically through my childhood – my dad would once in a while read me fairy tales in Norwegian. I wouldn’t understand much of anything, but I loved hearing him speak it. The only sentence I understood from any of the speakers was from the crown prince: “I kveld er gatene fylt av kjaerlighet.”  - “Tonight the streets are full of love.” Later I heard from a friend who had spoken with a Somali woman who lived in Oslo: she had immigrated to Norway some 12 years before, learned Norwegian, become a citizen, even learned to ski, she’d said laughingly – but she never felt so Norwegian as she did that night, in that crowd.

Roses fill the streets.

The man who committed these atrocities recently finished up his trial; in August the verdict will come out. He defended his ideologies, even had a 1,200+ page manifesto explaining his thoughts and views. What struck me is that the Norwegian media did not demonize him. His right to a fair trial was not questioned. People felt his actions were inhumane; but I didn’t see hardly anything that made him out to be beyond human himself. In the days that followed, I asked myself many questions, one of them striking a chord with me: how would my own country and society react? Quite differently, I felt. But I realized something that summer – why do I do what I do? Why do I care so passionately about peace? It’s not always hopefulness or optimism, though I feel most of my friends would probably label me as an optimist. No, there are some dark days when it’s simply this – I’ve seen the alternatives to peace, and I just can’t justify doing anything, passively or actively, to let those kinds of days happen again.

I’m not always comfortable with the idea of listening or reaching out to the other – that other person who seems so much the opposite of something I believe. I mess up more times than I like to admit. But anytime I think of that day in Oslo, the lives lost at Utoya, or the lives lost daily in Syria these days – the injustices in my own community and country; poverty, homelessness, discrimination… there are too man who have gone before us, died before us, fought before us – to not keep walking forward, one step at a time….one grieving step, one hopeful step at a time.

Silent solidarity from a statue bearing flowers.

“Mommy, why do we need guns?”

This question came from my 3 year old nephew not too long ago. I wasn’t in the vicinity when he asked it, so I didn’t hear it, though I can hear his voice. As I first began to write this post, I was an hour away in Seattle, sitting in a coffeeshop and trying not to cry as I thought things over. What exactly should make me so proud of this country in which a 3-year-old even has to ask this question? Then again, this is the United States – the right to bear arms is a national right – albeit one that seems to be challenged in some states depending on the color of your skin and the context in which you bear said arm, even if you have all the legalities of ownership in order.

I had originally intended to write this article about child soldiers to some degree, or a post-Trayvon Martin reflection on gun violence. I’ll likely get around to that eventually. But unfortunately, there has come a turn of events which has altered my interest on this particular topic.

Map of recent gun violence in Seattle

Map of recent gun violence in Seattle

Recently in Seattle — my hometown, the city in which I’ve grown up; the place I will always love coming back to –whatever peace and security in which most (many, but not all, as a friend so succinctly stated) were living, has been shattered by bullets. There had been a number of events which unsettled people, but then came a day with multiple shootings which truly made us all take notice:

5 people were shot in one day.

I know, I know – this isn’t Camden, New Jersey (highest murder rate in the country); nor is it enough to warrant the bat of an eye in Syria these days – but this is Seattle. Though some commentators stated that for a city Seattle’s size, our homicide rate is remarkably low, this is a drastic shift from the way things have been up until now.

From Komo News in Seattle:

Wednesday’s shootings were the latest incidents in a string of violence that has plagued the Seattle and led some city leaders to openly question whether police are doing enough. Twenty people have been killed in Seattle so far this year with only seven arrests made, not counting two cases that were cleared.

Last year, the city saw 20 homicide cases. In 2010, there were 19 cases.

That is to say, this year – barely halfway through it – we have seen as many homicide cases as there were for the entire year for not just last year, but the year before.

No, I’m not going to open up the Pandora’s box of arguments on no guns at all – I’m an optimist, sure; but I’m not naive. However, I am concerned that a man who in retrospect some say, it was clear that he was mentally unstable, was able to legally acquire a gun. I’m also concerned that, as was eloquently pointed out by a social worker in a post on The Slog, blog of Seattle’s popular weekly newspaper:

The big picture here is that our society does not care about the mentally ill or the people who dedicate their whole lives to working to help stabilize them. The only time we even talk about mental illness is when horrible things like this happen. And that’s a huge problem. Because more social workers and bigger budgets alone won’t solve this. We have to change the way our society thinks of and treats people with mental illness, and make effective, humane treatment a real priority.

I don’t really have a solution to give for this. The big thing I take away from this tragedy is that it’s a prime example of how the issues which plague our society, our communities, are usually more than just as they may appear on the surface. If we choose to ignore that and steamroller ahead with addressing the immediate issues (granted, which need to be addressed) but at the expense of not examining the further issues, then I fear that we are simply setting ourselves up for other such events down the line – maybe not this particular kind of one (I certainly hope not), but given the way history seems to flow, I cannot say that I would be surprised at all.

That said, I feel that we — in the world, but also as Americans — find ourselves in a unique position these days. May we honor the memories of those who have died by pledging to work for a better future.

Links specifically pertaining to incidents of recent gun violence in Seattle

Further links on Seattle & gun violence

Other articles on gun violence in the United States:

I’m an Immigrant; Not Your Enemy

ICE Detention Ctr in Tacoma

I must begin this by saying that while I felt I was more informed about immigration than perhaps many people, I still had room to grow, and grow I did yesterday in my experience of visiting the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, a facility under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, specifically Immigration & Customs Enforcement. It is a facility in my own backyard, so to speak, that was built in 2004 to hold up to 700 people, and was doubled in 2007 and can hold up to 1,500 people. It is one of some 350 detention centers across the US, and all but eight are run by for-profit prison corporations. The NW Detention Center in Tacoma serves the west coast of the United States, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

The first factoid that made my hackles raise, I’ll admit, was realizing that while the facility is the property of the Department of Homeland Security, it is administered by a for-profit private prison corporation, GEO Group – which also runs the Migrant Operations Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is the second largest for-profit prison operator in the country, and operates 50 facilities in 16 states.

Immigration factoids.

According to the fact sheet I received (put together by the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service and the Washington New Sanctuary Movement), here are some informative factoids regarding the issues around immigration and detention:

  • Immigration detention refers to the institutional housing of non-citizens by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Despite the civil nature of immigration detention, DHS uses a combinations of its own facilities, federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, and privatized prisons to detain non-citizens. DHS also rents bed from…local and county jails where detainees are mixed with the local prison’s inmate population. Following the prison model, [within DHS facilities] movement is restricted and detainees are often required to wear prison uniforms.
  • Any non-citizen who arrives at the border seeking asylum or violates civil immigration regulations may be held in detention while the immigration courts review their cases.
  • The current detention system wrongly presumes that all non-citizens subject to detention pose a threat to national security and public safety. In fact, the vast majority of people in detention pose no security threat.
  • Under human rights law, detention should only be used when necessary – and it is only necessary when a) the government demonstrates that the individual poses either a threat to security or a risk of fleeing, and b) there is no alternative means to manage the risk(s).

Immigration facts

One in five American families is of ‘mixed’ status, with US citizens, legal permanent residents and undocumented family members in one household. Many undocumented individuals pay their taxes, are law-abiding citizens, and give back to their communities. That said, how does one fall into detention? I must admit, none of the stories I heard the other day made me all that inclined to believe that the system we currently have really works all that well. A church on Vashon Island, WA recounted how many of its members are friends with a young lady currently in detention, a Swedish national, who was in the US on a student visa. She overstayed it as she was in hiding from her American citizen boyfriend, who had become violent against her. He found out her location, called INS, and she was found and has been detained ever since.

Cesar speaks to the crowd outside the detention center in which he was held.

I had the chance to talk at some length with a young man named Cesar, who came from Mexico around 4 or 5 years of age, and has been since living in western Washington. He is 19 now, Dream Act eligible, and recently received a parking ticket. The address on his license was different than where he lived – as someone who has recently moved, I had the same situation with my ID card for quite a while – and didn’t receive the necessary information about his court date in time. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest, and police arrested him at his home in front of his family. Upon asking why he was being arrested, they told him “I don’t know; you can find out today in court.” He was detained for three days before a court date was available, and upon completion of his appearance at court, he was informed that Immigration & Customs Enforcement had a hold for him, due to his status as an undocumented immigrant. He was detained for two and a half months at the facility in Tacoma, having to deal with miles of bureaucracy and red tape any time he sought more information about his pending court date regarding his status – he would ask the guards at the facility (again, run by GEO), who would tell him that they had nothing to do with it; he had to ask ICE. He would go through the protocol in seeking information from ICE – paperwork which was often misplaced, had to be filed again, endless waiting – and often received a similar response from ICE, and that he should ask the staff at the detention center.

Cesar said that the youngest person he met while in detention was 16, and the oldest he recalled meeting was 78. Furthermore, while many people may think that the face of undocumented immigrants in America is a Latino one, Cesar negated this, saying that there were people of all nationalities. As a Spanish-speaker, though, he sought to try and help those for whom English was a struggle. While he said that some guards were nice, there were some that seemed to have little patience – upon dealing with a man who didn’t speak any English, Cesar translated for the other person, saying that the man didn’t speak any English. The guard’s response? “Well that’s not my problem.”

Immigration facts

As in prison, official movements – from even just one cell to the neighboring – involved the process of shackling hands (behind the back) and feet, with guards on either side. To contact anyone outside of the facility is a process which involves buying a phone card from the facility, and one has to have money added to the card to make any calls.

Cesar was able to contact his family and friends outside, who worked tirelessly to gather information from his school, church, and employers to testify and share letters of recommendation to show his character, and illustrate his willingness to continue being a productive, law-abiding member of society. Finally Cesar received a court date and was able to bond himself out of detention – days shy of his 19th birthday this February of 2012. He was one of the lucky ones, in detention for just shy of three months, though there are others who have been in detention for years. Detention, aside from the red tape and bureaucracy mentioned earlier, also entails further work if it appears that the individual will be deported. Deportation is an involved process which depends on the relationship the United States has with the country, if that country will accept such individuals, and innumerable other complications. I heard a story of another young man who was originally from Cuba, but escaped with his family at a young age. In detention, he asked why on earth he would go back to a country in which he had no family and no further connections – and deportation was further complicated by the fact that the United States does not currently have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Immigration factoids

I admit, there is still much I have to learn, and not ever story is the same – but my main concern with the system as it is, is simply that the workings of the system seem completely disinterested with the stories of the individuals which it attempts to treat as profits and statistics – detention and deportation are serious issues, and it bothers me that too many people view someone in detention as less of a person than someone who can take their American citizenship for granted. Simply because someone is undocumented does not make them a criminal, more liable to become one, nor does it denigrate the quality of life they deserve or the work they can perform. It does not mean that they deserve less pay than a citizen or legal resident, or that there is anything innately wrong about them.

If you are interested in further information, here are some links which might be of interest: KUOW’s special: Between Worlds, Behind BarsNational Network for Immigrant & Refugee RightsNorthwest Immigrant Rights Project

Cornel West & Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley & Cornel West applaud the crowd before their lecture.

Or I could have easily titled this blog as “the most amazing lecture I’ve ever heard in my life.” I’m biased, sure, but hearing Cornel West speak in person is easily something I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I had heard that Professor West and Mr. Smiley would be speaking in Seattle, and that included in ticket price was a copy of their newest book, The Rich & the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, but I’d been watching my budget and was waffling on if I would buy a ticket – I ended up caving, thanks to some pressure from some friends – and I can only say that I am so glad I did.

The content of their lecture, as well as their book, was phenomenal. It beats the partisan politics off of the issue and thrusts the facts of poverty in the United States, raw and naked, right in your face. (Admittedly, part of the reason this blog post has taken a while to get out is that every time I look at the book for a couple facts to throw in with the post, I keep getting distracted reading the book!) Both West and Smiley are heavily inspired by the life of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with Mr. Smiley calling MLK “the greatest American this country ever produced,” and despite his faults, I would have to agree. The things that make MLK an amazing individual, in my opinion, are the things that can make any American great – and if I may be so bold, can save this country from this slippery slope on which we find ourselves.

In 2011 Dr. West and Mr. Smiley embarked on an 18-city journey across the United States, The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience, shedding light on and bringing awareness to the state of poverty in America:

Nearly 50 million Americans now live in poverty. If that doesn’t bother you, then let this be a call to your conscience indeed.

Aside from the PBS special linked above, Smiley and West’s book is the information and call to action from their experiences in 2011, with the book’s content ranging on a variety of related issues tied into poverty in America – that it’s not simply a poverty defined by lack of money, but also:

  • Poverty of Opportunity
  • Poverty of Affirmation
  • Poverty of Courage
  • Poverty of Compassion
  • Poverty of Imagination

Perhaps the best quote I have since come across in the book that defines the issues is this:

“The level of inequality in this country has gotten so far out of hand, the quantity of compassion so thoroughly diminished, that the very future of American democracy is at stake.”

Tavis Smiley posited that poverty in America is a threat to American security, and I would have to agree. The day that we as a society actively disengage from compassion and action to protect the least amongst us, is the day that we begin actively participating in hurting our own society as a whole. Well, ‘as a whole’ in the sense of those who make less than the richest 1% of Americans, or less than $380,000 a year.

I know, some of you might be going ‘now hang on a minute, Nina, don’t go off on us now about the 99% or the 1% or all that jazz.” I won’t – not yet. Nor do I think that any discussion about economic issues and using those labels (99-percenters, 1-percenters, etc) is necessarily obligated to make judgment calls or descriptions of personal character – I have no use for demonizing or labeling someone’s character. Montanan though I may be, I find mud-slinging and name-calling about as useful as gun-slinging – that is, antiquated, unnecessary, and dangerous.

Dr. Cornel West at the book signing.

What I feel West and Smiley calling us to as a society is indeed a call to conscience. The faces of the poor are no longer relegated to solely the impoverished minorities that many amongst the well-to-do in society cannot relate to -or that even some minorities in America who may be well off themselves cannot find themselves relating to. The poor in America today are not relics from the Great Depression, or merely miscreants and addicts. In today’s economy, there are a growing number of people – individuals and families – who are one paycheck away from being homeless.

In fear of becoming a post that goes on for too long, I will instead share some quotes from the part of West and Smiley’s book I have read thus far. I hope it inspires you, angers you, pisses you off, or at least moves you in some way.

“Can we still claim ‘the greatest’ status when one out of two Americans is living in poverty or near the poverty line? Should our reputation as a global leader legitimately come into question when, every quarter, millions more of our citizens face the haunting specter that they, too, may soon join the ranks of America’s poor? How patriotic is a nation where veterans are more likely than non-veterans to be homeless?

“… What are the real choices and chances available in our democracy for average citizens when the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. citizens controls nearly 42 percent of the wealth, or when the top 400 citizens have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million citizens? Is this still the land of opportunity when nearly 14 million Americans are ‘officially’ unemployed, and millions more are underemployed, to say nothing of the countless millions who have completely given up looking for work? The myth of American exceptionalism, of being the best of the best, overshadows an inconvenient truth. We are a nation where poverty of opportunity is dangerously close to becoming a permanent reality.” (pgs 44-45)

“…How can America be ‘first’ if the least among us are our last collective concern? What does it say about the priorities of a nation that allows 53% of its children–the most vulnerable and valuable — to live in or near poverty?” (pg 55)


For further information on Cornel West & Tavis Smiley, you can view this video clip of them on Democracy Now, as well as read this article about them on the Huffington Post. They have a weekly radio show, Smiley & West, on Sunday afternoons. This author would highly recommend their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto to every American.

Coming soon – Cornel West / Tavis Smiley

I had what I consider the chance of a lifetime – simply because I consider Cornel West to be one of the people one simply has to try and hear in this lifetime if they can – to hear both Dr. West and Tavis Smiley speak Tuesday night in Seattle, and I have a blog in the works – need to just pull myself away from their book long enough to finish! :)

A Note from El Salvador

No, neither Anita nor I is there, but my sister is! Sorry for another re-post — Anita is preparing to go back to Bosnia for a while, and I have been busy with organizing things regarding my year in Brazil as the details come in – original The Peace Blog post to come next week – but this was too good not to share!

My sister Elizabeth works on the Global Partnerships team with The Episcopal Church, and was recently in El Salvador – when she shared her experiences with me, it was too good to not pass up, so I asked if I could share the blog post she and her colleagues worked on. Enjoy!

~ Nina

A Bishop for All People

“Ningún cristiano puede llamarse cristiano si no siente el dolor de su hermano.”

(No Christian can call himself Christian if he does not feel the pain of his brother)

Monsignor Óscar Romero

Bishop Martin Barahona, Bishop of the Diocese of El Salvador

    The above quote from Monsignor Óscar Romero struck me as a particularly appropriate description of the ministry of Bishop Martín Barahona, the Bishop of the Anglican Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador. He is, in the tradition of Monsignor Romero, a pastor of the people. Just spend even a little bit of time with him and you’ll see this is the case. Thanks to Bishop Barahona, we had a unique opportunity to meet with some of the leaders of the Histórico Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Historic Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) during our brief visit to El Salvador. The Historic FMLN is an organization of former guerilla fighters who fought against the Salvadoran government in El Salvador’s civil war which began in 1980. In 1992, Peace Accords signed between the government and the Historic FMLN ended the long and bloody war. During the 12 years of fighting, at least 70,000 people were killed and an unknown number of people disappeared. (To read a brief overview of the Salvadoran civil war, click here.)

For the last 3 months, members of the Historic FMLN have been occupying the (Catholic) Catedral Metropolitana in central San Salvador to force the government to hear their demands for social change. Their demands are simple and straight forward, and though they seek support for veterans of the civil war and their parents and/or children, they reflect a larger struggle that transcends the current situation. Their demands are:

  • To include the 3,400 parents of guerilla fighters killed in the civil war in the country’s pension program;
  • To reincorporate veterans of the Historic FMLN into the police force (many were expelled in 2000);
  • To augment the monthly pension of wounded war veterans (currently $94/month)
  • To provide scholarships for university education for children of war veterans; and
  • To reduce the persecution of the union movement.

Bishop Martin Barahona with members of the Historic FMLN leadership

According to one of the men we met, occupying the cathedral is a “shout of desperation…the circumstances that caused the civil war still exist…we are concerned that we could have a civil war again.” He continued, “We lament the fact that the government has taken an inhumane view of those who fought to bring about a new country…we went to war for social justice and the people who led us are now in power. They are just as unjust as the wartime government. Just because the government is different doesn’t mean that the situation is different. For those who fought the war, it’s the same. ”

Another veteran commented that he is “worried about the continued setbacks in the peace process and the remilitarization of the government apparatus.” He feels that occupying the cathedral provides an opportunity to put their concerns before the world. When asked why the Historic FMLN chose to occupy the cathedral and not another location like a government office building, he replied, “Because we don’t want violence. This is a house of God. God is just, divine, omnipotent, and wise. God’s wisdom is used for justice.”

As we sat and listened to the leadership of the Historic FMLN tell their story, I was particularly struck by how adamant they were that a return to violence and war is not something in which any of them are interested. They repeated that over and over again. One of the most striking comments made was the following:

“We don’t want war because we made an historic and moral commitment to the people of El Salvador when we signed the Peace Accords…those who were in the field of battle under indiscriminate bombings and machine gun fire know the enormous personal and social cost of war…to talk of war is to talk of death.”

When I asked Bishop Barahona why he met with the Historic FMLN in the first place, he told me that the Episcopal Anglican Church of El Salvador has traditionally supported the poor and marginalized people of El Salvador and that, “these men are both of those things.” When the leadership of the Historic FMLN called Bishop Barahona to find out if he would talk with them, he didn’t hesitate. In his own words, “This is the mandate of the church…it’s my work…I’m on call for everyone, not just Episcopalians. We are an inclusive church and everyone is accepted.”

The Anglican Episcopal Church in El Salvador is numerically quite small, with just over 2,000 active members and 5,000 members on the books, but reaches many more through its social ministries. The visit to the Historic FMLN veterans is just one example of how the church reaches beyond its official membership and across a wide spectrum of Salvadoran society to embrace the whole Body of Christ. Bishop Barahona said, “I defend human rights. Everyone has human rights.” His position, actions, and support are clearly appreciated by the men occupying the cathedral. One of them commented, “The spirit of Monsignor Romero and Bishop Martín strengthens us…with Bishop Martín, wolves (former guerilla fighters) become sheep.”

Our visit to El Salvador gave us a great deal to think about and reflect on. We’ll be posting more stories from our time with Erika Almquist, our Young Adult Service Corps volunteer who serves in El Salvador; Fundación Cristosal; and the Diocese of El Salvador, so please stay tuned.

Also, if you haven’t seen the film Romero starring Raul Julia, we’d highly recommend it!


This blog post originally appeared on the blog of the Global Partnerships team of the Episcopal Church.