The Human Rights Warrior

"There is some good in this world…and it's worth fighting for."


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Back to School

I haven’t been able to do much blogging this summer.  This photo may help explain why:

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Today is the first day of school for my kids.  We had a great summer, but – clearly –  it is time for them to go back to to school!  Hopefully it also means that I will have a little more time to myself to think and write and post to The Human Rights Warrior.

In the meantime, here is a repost on The Importance of Educating Girls that I originally wrote for World Moms Blog in 2012.  The first day of school always makes me so thankful that my children, especially my daughter, are able to access their right to education.

The Importance of Educating Girls

Fifth grade class in Chuchoquesera, Peru

When I visited the classroom pictured above in the Peruvian highlands back in 2004, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community.  He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, but this is fifth grade.  In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away.  Most of the girls won’t go.  It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go.  Besides, most of them will be married soon.” Unfortunately, this is a situation that is repeated throughout the world

In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.

Since then, I have visited classrooms and asked questions about girls’ access to education in countries on several continents.  This is a photo I took at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

Kindergarten class, Buduburam Refugee Settlement, Ghana

Boys far outnumbered girls in this classroom, illustrating one of the problems for girls in accessing education.  When resources are scarce, parents will often choose to spend the money on school fees for their sons rather than their daughters.

Boys also outnumbered girls at this school that I visited outside of Yaounde, Cameroon.

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Attendance Board in primary grade class in a school outside of Yaounde, Cameroon

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

Ensuring equal access to education for all girls by 2015 is part of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, making this issue a major focus of work by the United Nations (for more info, check out the UN Girls’ Education Initiative site), the World Bank and many international non-governmental organizations.   October 11 has been designated as the International Day of the Girl Child to draw attention to the topic.
 
 
Fourth grade student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School wearing Newari traditional dress
 
On a much smaller scale, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal is doing its part to encourage gender parity in education and  increase literacy rates.  The school works in partnership with The Advocates for Human Rights (the non-profit where I work) to prevent child labor and improve the lives and well-being of the neediest children in this community in the Kathmandu Valley. I travelled there in January for our annual monitoring visit.
 
Pre-K student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, Nepal

This year, the school has successfully met goals for gender parity among students in both the primary and lower secondary grades. For the 2011-2012 school year, 147 of the 283 students in pre-school through eighth grade are girls. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, 15 of the 31 students in ninth and tenth grade are young women.
 
9th Grade students at SPCS
 
Most of the students’ families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Many of them are from disadvantaged groups such as the Tamang and Newari.  Indigenous group with their own cultures and languages, the indigenous students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate.
 
How has the teaching staff managed this success at keeping girls in school?  Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married or enter domestic work. It took more than 10 years, but their efforts have paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in most of the grades at SPCS.
 
The impact of the school both on the individual students and on the community over the past 12 years has been profound.  When I was there in March of 2011, we interviewed approximately 60% of the parents of SPCS students.  It was clear to me that parents value the education that their children are receiving and, seeing the value, have ensured that the younger siblings are also enrolled in school rather than put to work.  Twelve years ago, there were many students in the area out of school but now most are attending school. I could also see the physical benefits that the students derived from attending school when they stood next to their parents.  Even the 5th grade girls towered over their parents, illustrating the simple cause-and-effect of adequate nutrition, wellness checkups, and not having to work in the fields from a very young age.
 
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  In particular, the effect that these girls have on their community, their country and – hopefully, the world – will be thrilling to watch.
 
I’ll be heading back to Nepal to visit the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in just a few weeks. Stay tuned!
 
Yaounde, Cameroon

Pre-K classroom at a school near Yaounde, Cameroon

 


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Passing By Washington Square Park

The Washington Arch, Washington Square Park New York City

The Washington Arch, Washington Square Park New York City

When I travel to other countries, I find that I am almost always on hyper-alert lookout for the interesting, the beautiful, the unique, the historical. Sadly, it is not always so in my own country.  I can walk past a masterpiece a dozen times without truly seeing it.  Take, for example, Washington Square Park.  I’ve been to Washington Square Park dozens of times, but it wasn’t until this very week that I stopped and looked and truly saw the beauty in the Washington Arch.

It was a beautiful summer evening this past Wednesday, the city just beginning to breathe easy again after  long hot spell.  The park, green and shady under the towering old elms and sycamores, seemed especially cool and refreshing as I hurried past along Washington Square North.  There’s a fountain at the heart of the park, and its dancing water was catching the rays of the setting sun.  The cheerful sound of splashing water mingled with joyful shouts of children in the nearby play area.

Maybe it was those co-mingled sounds, filtering down through all the other sounds of traffic and people and city, that caught my attention as I hurried from West Village to East.  Whatever it was, something made me stop and turn just past Fifth Avenue.  Looking back, I pulled out my phone and caught the above view of the Washington Arch.  For which, I am eternally grateful.

With no people in the photo, the Washington Arch seems almost timeless.  It made me think of all the millions of humans who have spent time on this small patch of island – and curious to learn its history.   It turns out that, as with so many places in our world, the history of Washington Square Park contains a human rights narrative.  Native Americans lived here in the early 17th century before the Dutch attacked them and drove them out.  The Dutch farmed the land, on both sides of the brook called Minetta that once ran through area. Later, the Dutch gave the land to freed slaves to create a kind of human buffer zone between the Native Americans and the white colonial settlements.  The area that is now Washington Square Park was in possession of African-Americans from 1643-1664; at the time, it was called “The Land of the Blacks”.  (See the New-York Historical Society of Manhattan for more history of slavery in New York.)

It remained farmland until 1797, when the Common Council of New York purchased some of the farmland (which was still outside city limits) for a new potter’s field to bury unknown or indigent persons.  Most of those who died from yellow fever during New York’s epidemics of the early 19th century were also buried here.  The public cemetery was closed in 1825 and the City bought the rest of the land shortly after, turning the area into a military parade grounds. To this day, the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square Park. 

By the time the City reworked the parade grounds into a park in 1849-1850, the streets around the park had already become one of New York’s most desirable residential areas.   The park underwent several improvements, including the addition of the first fountain in 1852. To celebrate the centennial of George Washington‘s inauguration as president of the United States in 1889, a large plaster and wood Memorial Arch was erected over Fifth Avenue just north of the park.  It proved so popular that a permanent arch, designed by architect Stanford White, was commissioned.  Made of Tuckahoe marble and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, this is the Washington Arch that I know today.  It was dedicated 1895. In 1918,  two statues of George Washington were added. You see one of them – George Washington At War – in my photo.

Washington Square Park has also been the site of countless protests, testaments to the right of freedom of assembly and expression.  The first labor march in New York took place there in 1834 when stonecutters protested New York University’s decision to use cheap prison labor from Sing Sing instead of professional stonecutters to build a university building along the park. In 1912, approximately 20,000 workers (including 5,000 women) marched to the park to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had killed 146 workers the year before. By some reports, more than 25,000 people marched on the park demanding women’s suffrage in 1915.  Beginning around the end of World War II, the park became a gathering area for the Beat generation, folk, and Hippie movements.  On April 9, 1961, about 500 folk musicians and supporters gathered in the park and sang songs without a permit, then held a procession from the park beginning at the Washington Arch.  The New York Police Department Riot Squad, sent in response to this “Beatnik Riot”, attacked civilians with billy clubs and arrested ten people.

And yes, even the tireless human rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt has a connection to the area.  Around the time that she was helping to draft the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, she was a resident of Washington Square Park West.

Like so many others, I was just passing by Washington Square Park on a recent evening past.  But I’m glad I took the time to stop and look. And to learn.

The inscription on the Washington Arch reads:

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God. — Washington

For more information about Washington Square Park:

City of New York Parks & Recreation

Washington Square Park Blog

Washington Square Association

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece.  See more entries here.


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Love Is The Law: The DOMA Decision and Binational Same-Sex Marriage

20130626-152500.jpgLike so many, I was excited to hear of the decision by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act this morning. This decision in United States v. Windsor, along with the end result of the Prop 8 decision, was what I had definitely hoped for, mostly expected but slightly feared would not happen. Historical and far-reaching as these decisions are, however, the first thing I thought of was the tremendous impact it will have on the lives of tens of thousands of LGBT Americans who are married to non-US citizens. Today’s ruling that Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited the federal government from conferring benefits to married same-sex couples, is unconstitutional sets the stage for a major change in family-based immigration – the cornerstone of US immigration policy. Today, the Supreme Court opened the door for US citizens to be able for the first time to apply for permanent resident visas for their same-sex spouses.

When I heard the decision this morning, what flashed through my head were the faces of all of the LGBT persons in binational same-sex relationships who have consulted with me over the years about their legal options – for staying together and avoiding separation by deportation. When I first started practicing back in 1996, I had to tell them that their options were limited. I remember helping “George” seek and obtain asylum based on his LGBT status. “George” had fled his country in Central Africa. He met blond-haired, blue-eyed “Larry” when they were both doing volunteer work at a community center. Larry encouraged George to seek legal assistance. Asylum was the only  option, but I knew they deserved more.  Larry came to every interview with George, holding his hand as George talked about the persecution that he had experienced in his home country due to his refusal to hide his sexuality. Tears in his own eyes as he listened silently to George’s account of violence and stigmatization, Larry would hand George tissues, make him take calming deep breaths or take a drink of water. Help him go on with saying what had to be told. George was granted asylum, allowing him to stay permanently in the US. By that time, he had a job and he and Larry had moved in together. It has been more than 10 years since I last saw George and Larry, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they had tied the knot.

But same-sex marriage wasn’t an option in the US back in 1996. Or 2001, for that matter, when “Hans” and his husband “Rick” asked for advice. Hans was Dutch and Rick was from the Caribbean (Jamaica, I think). They met while working in the US and married in Amsterdam after the Dutch government legalized same-sex marriage. But Rick’s US work authorization ended and he could no longer stay legally with Hans in the US, even though they were legally married and Hans still had authorization to be here . In the end, Hans chose to transfer to a job back to The Netherlands so that Rick could legally immigrate and they could be together.

When Massachusetts and other US states started legalizing same-sex marriage, I heard from others frustrated by the lack of equality between the way same-sex and traditional marriages are treated in US immigration policy. “Dan” told me that he and his partner “Ernesto”, a professor and a Mexican national, had been commuting between Mexico City and Minneapolis for years but now hoped that they could marry and live together permanently. Unfortunately, I had to tell them that the federal government would not recognize their marriage for immigration purposes.”We love each other, we are committed to each other, we want to get married. Why won’t my country allow us to be together?” Dan fumed.

In practice, the Obama administration has for the past two years refrained from carrying out deportations of immigrants in same-sex marriages, but without providing a legal status that is comparable to the permanent resident (“green card”) status that US citizens in traditional marriages are eligible to apply for for their spouses.

The Supreme Court’s decision today changes everything for people like Dan and Ernesto, Hans and Rick, George and Larry, and all of the other LGBTQ Americans who love nationals of other countries.  I truly, truly rejoice for them and for our country. While some procedural changes will have to take place before the implementation in practice of today’s decision, June 26 should be a day remembered and celebrated by all of us who believes in the right of EVERY family to be together.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.” ~ Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

For more information about the process for applying for permanent resident status for same-sex spouses, see Immigration Equality’s FAQ and The Doma Project’s FAQ.

UPDATED:  On July 29, 2013 – just two days after the US Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA –  gay couple in Florida received the first approval of a same-sex marriage-based permanent resident petition.  Wow, that was fast!  Congratulations to Julian Marsh and Traian Popov! And kudos to the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement Service for implementing the  decision so quickly.


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A Change Is Gonna Come

Sunset after a storm in the Sandwich Ridge mountains, New Hampshire

Sunset after a storm in the Sandwich Ridge Mountains, New Hampshire

I took this photo last year during a family vacation in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire.  A thunderstorm raged all afternoon, but just as we were finishing dinner the storm suddenly ended.  Three generations of extended family went out into the still-damp field to watch the sunset reflected on the lifting storm clouds.  As often happens in the mountains, it was a dramatic change.  At the time, and ever since, the play of setting sun on passing thunderheads makes me think of Sam Cooke and “A Change is Gonna Come“.  Recorded in January 1964, the song became one of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement.

A Change is Gonna Come

I was born by the river in a little tent.
Ohh and just like the river,
I’ve been running ev’r since.
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
I go to the movie and I go downtown.
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around.
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please.
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, ohh
There have been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.
A singer who blurred the lines between gospel, R&B and pop, Cooke was reportedly inspired to write “A Change is Gonna Come” by Bob Dylan and “Blowin’ In The Wind”.  While on tour in October 1963, Cooke and his band were turned away from a “whites only” motel in Shreveport, Louisiana where they had a reservation. When they protested,  they were arrested and thrown in jail for disturbing the peace.   Not long after, Sam Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come”
“Sam as a writer saw himself almost as a reporter,” said biographer Peter Guralnick said in one interview.  “He took all of those experiences[of racism],” Guralnick says, “but he enlarged upon them and he broadened them to the point that the song… becomes a statement of what a generation had had to endure.”
The song was only a modest commercial success and Sam Cooke only performed it live once.   Yet “A Change Is Gonna Come” has become an iconic symbol of triumph over adversity.  It has been called Sam Cooke’s legacy and “heralded as his magnus opum”.  In 2005, it was voted number 12 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  It has also been selected National Public Radio (NPR) as one of the 300 most important songs.  In 2007, it was added by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry.  Bettye LaVette performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi, at the Lincoln Memorial during the first inaugural concert for President Obama, introducing a new generation to Sam Cooke.   (Watch the video here .)
Sam Cooke died on December 11, 1964 in a shooting at a Los Angeles motel. He was 33 years old.
***
Today is a gray and cold day where I live – a day on the tipping point between winter and spring.   To fight the doldrums, I took my two youngest children swimming at the our local YMCA pool.  As I looked at all the kids laughing and playing in the pool, the splashing water sparkling on skin that was black and white and every shade in between, I realized that this was a scene that wasn’t even possible in most of the United States when Sam Cooke wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964.  And while we still have a ways to go, Sam Cooke was correct.  The storm clouds will pass and the sun will come out.
“But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”
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This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Change.  You can see more responses here.


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Celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th on Avenue Rosa Parks in Yaounde, Cameroon

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This morning, I had a meeting at the US Embassy in Yaounde to discuss human rights in Cameroon.  The US Embassy, it turns out, is located on Avenue Rosa Parks.  Past security, in the lobby where visitors wait for their escort, the walls were hung with photos and text documenting the life of Rosa Parks, a true American hero.

I realized later in the day that today is Rosa Parks birthday.  If she were alive, she would be 100 years old today.  Could she have imagined the impact – wide and deep – that her actions would have, not only in her country but around the world?  Or that one day there would be streets named after her in places like Yaounde?

I met Rosa Parks once, on the Ellis Island ferry.  I wrote about it last February and am reposting it here in celebration of her 100th birthday.

Me and Rosa Parks on the Ellis Island Ferry

(Image source)

My oldest son is studying the life of Rosa Parks in his 6th grade history class.  “I actually met Ms. Rosa Parks once,” I say.  He’s already halfway up the stairs, heading back to the sanctuary of his room. “Did I ever tell you about that?”  On the cusp of his teens, he has no interest in being trapped by a pontificating mother.  “Yes,” he replies.  He pauses, half-turned towards me, left leg on a higher step, poised for flight.  I see my opening and I take it.

***

In 1986, my grandfather Orville Prestholdt was recognized with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his contributions as a “Norwegian activist”.  I was a sophomore in college and I took a Metro North train down to New York to meet my grandparents the night before for the gala event.   The honorees were staying at a fancy hotel, one those midtown landmarks that is long on history but short on space in the guestrooms.  As I entered the lobby, I walked straight into the sonic boom of Lee Iaccoca (chair of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, honorary medal recipient).  If I remember correctly, I next walked straight into the back of Donald Trump (Scottish-German).  Fortunately, “The Donald” was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Iacocca and didn’t notice my faux pas.

Established in 1986 by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor “pay tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic”.   Walter Cronkite (Dutch), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (French-Irish), Joe DiMaggio (Italian) – the Ellis Island medalists were a veritable Who’s Who of American immigration.  Of course, this was back in the Reagan era when Americans still celebrated the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.   The 80 inaugural Ellis Island Award winners had been selected from more than 15,000 nominations following the controversy over the Medals of Liberty. Announced in the spring of 1986, the Medals of Liberty had honored 12 naturalized citizens, including  Bob Hope (English), I.M. Pei (Chinese), Irving Berlin (Russian) and Elie Wiesel (Romanian).   Numerous ethnic groups had objected that they were not represented among the winners of the Medals of Liberty, however, and had threatened protests during the “Liberty Weekend” (July 4, 1986) award festivities.  So the Ellis Island Medals were created more or less as a compromise.

That’s when they went looking for the lesser-knowns with more obscure national origins.  People  like my grandfather, who had changed his name from Olaf to Orville when he immigrated from Norway in order to “be more American”.  My grandfather had charted a successful political career in the Sons of Norway, from lodge president to International Board of Directors.  He got his Ellis Island Medal for his “contributions in preserving  Norwegian- American culture”.  Too late for “Liberty Weekend”, the Ellis Island awards were to be presented on the actual 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in late October of 1986.  That date fell on a Monday, but I figured it was worth skipping one day of classes to be a small part of history.

Having finally located my grandparents among the honorees at the reception, we headed to the elevator to go up to their room to drop off my bag and change for dinner.  Muhammad Ali (African) was in the elevator with some family members; they held the elevator door for us.  Mr. Ali tapped me on the shoulder and, when I turned, began performing a magic trick with a polka-dot silk scarf.  At the time, I didn’t know that he had Parkinson’s.  Or maybe I had heard he had Parkinson’s, but I didn’t really know what that meant.  In any event, I watched in horror as the man – who had been such an icon in the 70s when I was a kid – struggled, with trembling hands, to slowly stuff the scarf into a fake plastic thumb.  That’s how I found out how they do that disappearing scarf trick.  No kidding – Muhammad Ali!  The fake plastic thumb was several shades different from the color of his skin and looked dangerously close to falling off his real thumb, but he was focused like a laser on making that scarf disappear.  I remembered playing chase at recess on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.  The one who was  “it” would yell,  “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I am the mighty Muhammed Ali!”  As “The Greatest” slowly performed his magic trick for me, I watched the single, crystalline drop of drool that hung suspended from the corner of his mouth.   I thought for sure I was going to cry.

My grandfather handled the whole thing much better than I did.  Maybe he was just feeling pretty good after a couple of highballs and a chat with Victor Borge (Danish), but he clapped his hands when the scarf finally disappeared and chortled with glee. “Woo-hee-hoo-hoo!!!”  He may have danced a little jig in that elevator, too – he was that kind of guy. But I can’t be sure because I had gotten really good at ignoring him when he did that kind of thing in public.  At 19, I saw only the weaknesses, the frailties, the embarrassments of my elders in that elevator.  Now I see that I missed the courage, the determination, the encouragement, the shared joy in the accomplishment of a difficult task.

That night, as I lay in my narrow rollaway bed listening to my grandparents snore a few feet away from me, I thought about who I might meet the next day.  I hoped to see  John Denver (German) and Cesar Chavez (Mexican).  Maybe also Gregory Peck (English) and Andy Williams (Welsh).  Bob Hope was going to be there, too, as his wife Dolores (Irish-Italian) was receiving an award.  But the person I most wanted to meet was Ms. Rosa Parks (African-American).

Rosa Parks had been a larger than life figure for me growing up in the post-Jim Crow South.  The East Baton Rouge Parish school system underwent court-ordered desegregation when I was in high school, so I had some sense of the courage it must have taken her to do what she did.  I thought she was an American hero.

(Image source)

The awards ceremony was to take place on Ellis Island, so in the morning we were all bussed down to Battery Park and the chartered ferry.  Most people stayed up on deck for the short ferry ride, cameras at the ready to take photos of the Statue of Liberty.  About halfway through the ride, I went inside to look around.  And there she was!  A tiny, birdlike woman with large glasses sitting alone on a bench by the window.  In my mind’s eye, she is wearing a hat, coat and gloves but I can’t be sure I haven’t borrowed that memory from other images.  She sat prim and erect, her hands folded on her purse in her lap, looking straight ahead. It is exactly how I always pictured her on the bus. I walked over and asked, “Can I sit here?”  She looked up at me and nodded briefly and I sat down.  Then my courage failed me.  I can’t think of what to say next.  As we approached the Statue of Liberty, she turned for a better view out the window so, of course, I did, too.  “She’s smaller than she looks in pictures,” remarked Rosa Parks to me. Or maybe just to herself, but I smiled and nodded anyway.  Then we approached Ellis Island and her family came to collect her.  I went back up on deck to look for my grandparents.

***

“Maybe a famous person like Rosa Parks didn’t really want to talk to you.  You were a stranger,” my son speculates.

“Maybe,” I say.  “But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just sitting there, trying to think of what to say to her and how I was wasting my one chance to talk to her.  It was like I was frozen.  I never did say anything else to her, other than ‘Can I sit here’?”

“So what would you have wanted to ask her on the ferry?”  my son wonders.

“Well, I guess I would have asked what it was like to ride that bus.”

Twenty-five years later, I realize that Rosa Parks was probably asked some variation of that question nearly every day of her long and beautiful life.  She was probably asked it more times than she could count.  Asked and answered; you can google it.

“I don’t recall that I felt anything great about it,” Ms. Parks remembered in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. “It didn’t feel like a victory, actually. There still had to be a great deal to do.”

This conversation with my son made me realize that I didn’t need to ask her anything that one time I met her.  I didn’t waste my one chance to talk to Ms. Rosa Parks.  It was enough to be able  to sit quietly in her presence for a few minutes. An African-American and a Norwegian-American, sitting side by side on the ferry and gazing together at the Statue of Liberty.

***


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Weekly Photo Challenge: Illumination

It’s been pretty quiet over here on The Human Rights Warrior.  I’ve got a long trip coming up soon, so haven’t had much time to devote to non-essentials (sadly, that includes blogging).  I felt I just had to respond, however, to the Weekly Photo Challenge with some of the images and words that mean “Illumination” to me.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about how future generations of Americans should celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Le respect, c’est accepter quelqu’un même si on ne l’aime pas. Respect is accepting someone even if you don’t like him. (Discovered this on the wall of a school in the Pâquis neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland)

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It’s been a long, a long time coming.

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

- Sam Cooke

Sun after storm in the Sandwich Ridge mountains, New Hampshire

The sun comes out after a storm in the Sandwich Range, New Hampshire


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Weekly Photo Challenge: A Parable of Renewal

I practiced asylum law for the first seven years of my career, representing refugees who were fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in their home countries and seeking safety in the U.S.  These are people who are not easy to forget and whose stories shouldn’t be forgotten.  Many of their stories – the details of their lives, their losses, their dreams – have stayed with me over the years.  The remarkable thing about the refugees I have known is not only their ability to survive incomprehensible losses, but also the strength and hope and determination they have to remake their lives in an entirely new country.  To learn new skills, speak new languages, adapt to new cultures.  To me, the refugee experience symbolizes this week’s Photo Challenge theme:  Renewal

 The picture above was taken in Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana, which I visited three times between 2007 and 2010. Buduburam was home for 20 years to more than 30,000 Liberians who fled the bloody conflict in their West African country.  Officially closed this year, Buduburam was a small, bustling Liberian city in the countryside outside of Accra.  Life was hard on the camp, where refugees even had to pay for water to drink and for access to the latrines. To improve their opportunities, many of the refugees at Buduburam enrolled in skills training courses; the photo shows some of classes offered by the New Liberian Women Organization (macrame being one of them, as you can also tell by the colorful plant hangers).  Even in a time of limbo, the refugees at Buduburam were striving for renewal. Those refugees who could afford it sent their children to school as education offers a chance for a new life.

I still hold many former asylum clients in my heart. I’d like to share the story of one refugee family I represented.  For me, it is a parable of renewal.

 James and Julia (not their real names) had been politically active in their native Kenya. Julia, in particular, had been very active in speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a young son, who I’ll call William, who had huge, solemn eyes.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog bit William on the head. You could still see the jagged scar on his scalp more than a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

 In police custody, Julia had been brutally beaten.  She was also repeatedly raped in custody, including with objects such as the muzzle of a rifle and a Coke bottle.  This testimony was critical to the success of their asylum case, so we had worked with Julia to prepare her to tell her full story, with as much accuracy as possible and as many details as she could remember.  “Just tell the truth about as much as you can remember of those weeks,” I urged. We all knew it would be painful.

 Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears. Asylum officers are specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview.  During my time practicing asylum law, I rarely saw an asylum officer actually cry during an asylum interview. 

 I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Not touching her, not looking at her, but supporting her as she spoke. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.  I had to look away. Even in my role as their attorney, a role which requires a special intimacy, I felt the need to give their family some small space of privacy as they recalled those terrible days.

 Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them. In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school. William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had another child, too – a daughter born here in America. She was wearing a pink tutu.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  They had experienced many challenges and frustrations with adapting to life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination and a bit of creativity, slowly but steadily they moved forward, finding healing for themselves and building a new life for their family.   It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had managed to make something new out of nothing. 

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