Category Archives: atlanta

dear nepal

In 2010, when Yemen was for the first time flashing across the backdrop of the nightly news, when Americans were for the first time considering this small country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, I had recently relocated to Atlanta and, for the first time in four years, was not surrounded by a community of Yemeni women.

I am not Yemeni, and I suppose it’s rare that a non Arabic-speaking American woman would find herself immersed in Yemeni culture. But at the community center where I taught, we teachers were downright pampered by these surrogate grandmothers and considered friends by the young mothers and teenagers. We shared three hours a day, some for many years, and through the magic of the language classroom, in which few words are exchanged but everything is said, we became family.

When the bombs fell on Yemen, I sent letters from Atlanta to Chicago, written in my clearest handwriting, sentences more simple, more direct than I would feel comfortable with an American: I heard news of war in Yemen. I pray that your family is safe. I called former co-workers to relieve the sense of isolation I felt following this sad story so far from my community. Yemen, I sighed. Yemen, they replied. Enough said.

Then again, in 2012, when the civil war began in Syria.

That summer, I visited Chicago for a conference, and spent my free time wandering around my old neighborhood, visiting a few friends and spending time in a few of my favorite coffee shops. While boarding the bus heading west at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway, I glanced up, and met the eyes of Abdul. Abdul, who at age fifty-something had to flee Syria for the second time, after his work as a professor of political philosophy earned him the label “enemy of the state.” Abdul left behind his wife and his four daughters, all within my age range. He told me many stories about them, his hopes for their future together in America. He missed his family dearly during the year that he was in my English class, and told me that having a young teacher like me helped him feel connected to his daughters.

And here he was, on the #81 bus, smiling from ear to ear. His daughters were safe – not only safe – here with him now. Will you come to our house for lunch? Will you meet my wife and daughters? And just like that, I shared a meal, prepared for me by the women of his stories from home, who had joined their father just months before the Syria of their childhoods crumpled and fell. Syria.

This time, it’s Nepal. Listening to the news on my way home from work, I heard a story about Nepal “beyond the events of the last few days.” And listening, it struck me as odd that I find myself with such a heartfelt connection to this tiny (“the size of Arkansas”), landlocked country that rarely makes the news unless wealthy international dare-devils die attempting to break records on Mount Everest.

But when the ground shook in Kathmandu, it reverberated in Clarkston, Georgia. We are home to the Bhutanese diaspora: of the approximately 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry who were driven out of Bhutan around 1990 yet continue to be denied access to jobs or a path to citizenship by Nepal, more than 50,000 have been resettled in the US by the UNHCR. Of those, more than 9,000 live in the Atlanta area.  The school where I teach has roughly 300 Bhutanese families, but, born in the refugee camps along Nepal’s southeastern border and raised speaking Nepali with their families, these teens call themselves Nepali.

All weekend, the families of Clarkston made phone calls, located loved ones, checked on old friends, and mourned the loss of lives, homes, and legacies. All weekend we teachers combed the internet, unable to turn away from the horrors of collapsed buildings, decimated monuments, the ever-rising death toll.  I searched for some indication of if – or how badly – the refugee camps had been affected, but found nothing. It wasn’t until midday Sunday that I had heard, through former students, that the refugee camps and their residents had been unharmed in the disaster.

I am reminded that to a country, to a government, to a nation, refugee camps are but anthills, full of complex life but contained within allotted bounds, a nuisance – that is, if you bother to notice it. Had the earthquake struck just 300 miles east, maybe it would have opened the world’s eyes to the seven twenty-five year old but officially “impermanent” bamboo and thatch cities within Nepal’s borders but outside of its view.

One of my students earlier this year used to loudly and jokingly recite, I pledge allegiance to flag, of the United States of NEPAL…. One day I caught his eye as he recited his morning wisecrack and accused him: Why do you say that? Nepal didn’t let your family in… Nepal doesn’t offer you healthcare, or schooling, or opportunity… He got quiet, his joke spoiled. I know, ma’am, he said. I know. But he is Nepali, by virtue of his ancestry, his birth, and his declaration. And his homeland, so poor that 30% of the gross domestic product is earned in the form of remittances from families abroad, now faces a national catastrophe.  More than 5,000 people are dead, thousands more still unaccounted for. Already strained hospitals are bursting at the seams, an entire city sleeping under tarps and tents.

Nepal, like Syria and Yemen, isn’t mine. But the arms of my community stretch wide enough to hear its cries, and to respond in some small way, as a caregiver, as a listener, as a community builder.

Nepal, like Syria and Yemen, isn’t mine. But the arms of my community stretch wide enough to hear its cries, and to respond in some small way, as a caregiver, as a listener, as a community builder.


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Angry at the trees, unable to see the forest: Where do you stand, Atlanta?

Somewhere in my parents’ attic, there is a cardboard, moth-eaten box full of sharply angled crayon drawings and flecks of glitter. In that box, sticky with time and crumpled with the weight of preschool memories, is a pile of certificates – Jewish National Fund (JNF) donations in the amount of $18 each, commemorating trees planted in honor of a birthday, a newborn baby, a loved one recently lost. At three and four and five years old we counted pennies, and with our change clanking in those blue and white tin boxes, we bought trees. A desert, they told us – land deserted – that was up to us, to our pennies, to save, to make beautiful. And our tzedakah boxes filled and our small hearts overflowed with the knowledge that we were helping make the world a better place.

I was 20 years old before I saw a cactus in bloom, before I understood that the desert is as beautiful as it is sharp. I remembered the neat rows of saplings pictured on the JNF videos we saw as children, the narrator commenting on the advanced irrigation system, the arrival of life.

I began to wonder about the consequences of planting a forest in a desert.

The JNF forests are not the sprawling, fruiting cactus of a desert.  They are not the short and stubbily desert grass that flowers white blooms sharp as a cactus’s spike. The JNF forests are not olive groves, do not offer hope of an income to future generations of desert families.

JNF forests are made up of invasive, rapidly growing tree species. These forests are planted soon after homes are destroyed, ostensibly covering the tracks of bulldozers and the evidence that here, a community once grew. The JNF, although generally known as an environmental organization, is destructive to the natural ecosystem it purports to enhance.

But the biggest misconception of all is the belief that the JNF is a non-profit organization – that making charitable donations is philanthropy – when in fact, the JNF has been formally a part of the Israeli government since 1961. As such, the JNF is the official landowner of all Palestinian land acquired by the state of Israel. The organization is charged with transferring these blocks of land from private (Palestinian) ownership to collective ownership of the (Jewish) citizens of the state of Israel, and thus creating parcels of land throughout the country that are effectively a combination national park, socialist illusion, and segregation-era country club.

The once satisfying rattle of that blue and white pushke echoes in my ears, the sound of ignorance, denial, myth: “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

The JNF, as collaborator with the Israeli government and in the interests of the United States, has created a refugee crisis that has lasted more than 60 years. Yet public criticism of the JNF continues to be met with glares, accusations, and anger.

That is, until a few weeks ago.

In March, the JNF’s Atlanta office announced this year’s recipient of its “Tree of Life” award. The winner? The well-known, sometimes infamous Southern Baptist minister known for broadcasting his sermons on TV, homophobia, and blindly evangelical support for the state of Israel – Charles Stanley.

After decades of playing an active role in the displacement of 1,500,000 Palestinian refugees to 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza, Atlanta’s progressive Jews are finally expressing collective outrage at the JNF’s behavior: How dare the JNF honor this virulently homophobic pastor???

To those who are upset and hurt, I ask: Why do you expect this organization, which has destroyed so many homes, livelihoods, and human lives, to make an ethical selection in its choice of honoree?

Moreover, to those who have spoken out on social media, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and via formal complaint to the JNF, How can we live this experience of hurt and disappointment and use it to further develop our empathy for all people who have been harmed by the JNF’s practices?

Last week, Jewish communities observed the holiday of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust remembrance day. Across the world, there were vigils, prayers, and memorials for the victims of Hitler’s terrible regime, as well as shared stories of the strength of survivors and the resilience of our tradition, pushed further into diaspora but not into disappearance.

As a child, I was taught that we remember the Holocaust so that we will never again fall victim to its horrors. Yet my work as a teacher of refugees and my habit of listening to the NPR news remind me that holocausts happen again and again, in every corner of the world. We are a people who have a holy day dedicated to the remembrance and prevention of genocide, but we refuse to acknowledge that those coins, rattling around in the blue and white tin box, have been used as weapons against another ethnic minority.

It doesn’t matter if the JNF rescinds its honor of Charles Stanley or if – as is most likely – it proceeds with its awards ceremony this week as planned. What matters is that the rest of the world know where we, progressive Jews, stand on issues of human rights. What matters is that we, progressive Jews, hold the JNF as accountable for contributing to the destruction of Israel’s Palestinian communities as we are for this casually lobbed insult to Atlanta’s liberals.

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Last week, one of my co-workers got caught in a riptide and carried out into the Atlantic. “I managed to keep my head above water,” he said. “I was thinking, I’m not going out like this, not with my daughters standing on the beach watching, no sir.” As he spoke this morning, still shaken, a son, a mother, a husband, a friend stood up in a courtroom across town, pleading against a current. Scandal, suspicion, slander, sentenced. And all our sadness and our rage are swept out to sea along with their good names. This is not justice for the #APS12. And this is not justice for the kids whose self-worth is affected by a system that was designed to exclude them.

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