Exodus 2015

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A Turkish gendarmerie carries the body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015
A Turkish gendarmerie carries the body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015

It was the program on the Mideast immigrant crisis at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren Tuesday evening that got me thinking about the Jabooris.

This family had three children. They belonged to the ethnic group known as the Kurds. For centuries, Kurds mostly lived in northern Iraq and throughout that region. But in the 1970s Saddam Hussein drove them into Iran. The Kurds soon scattered to other parts of the world.

Somehow, the Jaboori family found their way to Fort Wayne. Another Brethren Church I attended then adopted the family. Somehow, that family adopted my family. Or we adopted them.

The father managed to get a position as a physician’s assistant, though I’m sure he was overqualified. As the kids grew up, I believe all went off to medical school and became doctors.

It’s that part of the immigrant story you don’t often hear.

Obviously, the recent movement of thousands of people fleeing persecution and civil war in Syria and northern Africa has left behind countless tragedies – drownings, starvation and murder.

Some European countries closed borders. Others, notably Germany, opened theirs, at least to provide temporary housing. Slides the three advocates showed at Beacon Heights Tuesday told a confusing, jumbled and heartbreaking story.

There they were, moving in mass, crowded into buses and train cars, the elderly, mothers carrying infants, men and women in their 20s and 30s. They walked for miles on dusty roads. Faces turned down, others looking up, many sad, others it seemed hopeful.

This week Time magazine devoted its full issue to the immigrant crisis. But one story noted that European countries receiving these strangers likely will be enriched. Like my immigrant friends, many bring much needed skills and a willingness to work hard.

I found Time’s photos haunting and somehow personal. You wonder “How would I handle this?” Amid a civil war such as the one that’s engulfed Syria would I readily pick up a few belongings, pack a child on my back and set foot to another, unknown country?

In that new land, I probably wouldn’t speak the language. What skills would I offer for a job? At age 77 now, I can’t imagine the challenge. I’m not sure I would have been up to the challenge in my 40s or 50s.

For most of us, the challenge simply is to get informed. Read the news stories, pay attention to the images on the TV news and give money to those reputable agencies that provide food, clothing and shelter to these thousands of new migrants no matter where they’ve landed.

On journeys they hadn’t planned on, they sure can use some new friends.

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Cuba for Christmas

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Old_Havana_CubaKen was pretty upset when he discovered that somebody had broken into our van and stolen, among other items, the leather satchel that he had bought in Cuba.

Ken Brown was the longtime head of the Peace Studies program at Manchester College and a good friend. Over the winter break at the college he often took a few of his students on a foreign trip. I’m imagine when he got a group to Cuba it was through Mexico.

I’m sure if he were living today, he’d celebrate President Obama’s move to restore relations with the island nation, just 90 miles off our shore.

The year of the theft I had joined Ken and Manchester students to attend a huge peace conference at Riverside Church, whose minister then was the noted peace advocate, William Sloan Coffin, model for Rev. Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip minister.

That year the issue at the New York conference was nuclear disarmament. What calls this to mind now was that years earlier, Soviet Chairman Kruschev attempted to introduce nuclear missiles to Cuba. I was in graduate school in Cincinnati at that time. I clearly recall President Kennedy breaking into the regular TV program to announce a “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from entering Cuban waters and delivering the nuclear missiles.

I believe it was that same week I drove to a suburban school after class to receive my polio vaccine. Of course, the Cuban missile crisis dominated the news. Another thing that sticks in my mind was the news coverage of U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson displaying aerial photographs of prepared missile sites in Cuba.

Stevenson then declared to the Soviet ambassador that he’d “wait until hell freezes over” for an explanation of the presence of those missile sites in Cuba. I’ve rarely seen such drama in all the years tuning into U.N. proceedings.

Americans, of course, had egg on their face too. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in planning under President Eisenhower, turned into a rout by Cuban forces. After the Kennedy assassination, pundits speculated that Castro had taken revenge. That was yet another way Cuba has broken into our consciousness. Never mind that the conspiracy buffs have always been unable to show proof.

Our many years of the trade embargo has helped devastate the Cuban economy, although central planning has played a major role in the island’s economic problems. And this, after Cuban Americans have been sending billions of dollars to families still in Cuba. I read that it was $3.5 billion last year.

I suppose American politicians’ reluctance to restore normal relations with Cuba has a lot to do with Florida politics. Thousands of Cuban refugees and their children live in Florida. Many are politically active. The older generation remains fervently anti-Castro. They vote accordingly in this crucial swing state.

But that generation is dying out. I understand a majority of younger Cuban-Americans have welcomed President Obama’s overture to Cuba. Meantime, throughout the hemisphere, Latin American countries, including the once anti-American Venezuela, have been celebrating the president’s move.

I still haven’t found my copy of Old_Havana_Cuba‘s Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952. When I taught English, I often assigned the novel. The Pulitzer committee cited the novel awarding Hemingway the prize in 1953 and, shortly later, the Nobel Prize. To me, the novel, set off the coast of Cuba, seems strangely relevant to me now.

In this brief yet remarkable story, we read of an old fisherman being pulled by a marlin he hooked for hours after days of failing to catch any fish. But old Santiago finally got his big catch to shore, the marlin destroyed by shark on the way in.

As Hemingway put it, “Defeated but not destroyed.” Which now could be said of the American-Cuban relationship. Obama’s opening is a good thing for both countries.

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Ebola panic another disease

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Biohazard (international icon)
Biohazard (international icon)

It was Billy Rider who contracted polio. This was back in the 1950s, so long ago it seems. I knew his sister. She was in my class in Defiance, Ohio. I had known Billy a bit but I heard he would spend his life in an iron lung, the only treatment for a victim of polio then.

At this time, the panic seemed justified. Officials closed swimming pools. I don’t recall getting any days off from school. Years later, as a journalist in Fort Wayne, Ind., I got to shadow Dr. Joel Salin on his hospital rounds. As a young man, Dr. Salin had contracted polio and walked with the aid of a brace on his arm.

As disabling as polio turned out for its victims, only 10 percent of patients died. Still, it was a scary disease that could afflict a person, seemingly out of the blue and would leave its mark on the person for life. By the time I was in graduate school in Cincinnati, in the 1960s, the Salk and Sabin vaccines had been developed. I recall lining up at a suburban elementary school to get my oral dose of the vaccine.

All this came back as I’ve found myself following the news about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, principally Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea. Judging from the stories I’ve read, it looks like about half of them are devoted to correcting the misinformation and myths.

Sadly, the man from Liberia diagnosed with Ebola died. He was being treated at a hospital in Dallas. A nurse who was treating him also contracted Ebola. She and another nurse were the only persons so far who’ve caught the virus in the United States. Both are improving.

By late October, several thousand Ebola patients in those West African countries have died. World Health Organization experts predict this epidemic is far from over. Meantime in this country, even the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has admitted that the U.S. response has been slow and disappointing.

But such candor and the CDC’s reputation as probably our most competent federal agency hasn’t kept Republican and a few Democratic critics from pouncing on the CDC’s shortcomings. Of course, the members of Congress bear some of the blame. Draconian budget cuts have hampered the work of our public health officials.

Even worse, prominent leaders such as Sen. Rand Paul and Gen.Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have put out opinions about the risk to Americans of contracting Ebola – opinions that are just flat out wrong. There’s more.

I’ve read accounts of talk radio hosts and television evangelists reciting such nonsense that it only fosters unwarranted fears and makes it hard to get reliable information about Ebola into the public forum.

And what can one say about how quickly Republican and a few Democrats have jumped on the president for naming Ron Klain his Ebola czar? No, his name isn’t a household word. He’s not an expert on infectious diseases. He’s not a physician. But he’s been a top aide in two Democratic administrations. He’s trusted. Sounds to me like he’s got the skills to bring all the American players together. That’s precisely what we need as this country helps West Africa deal with this epidemic.

Ebola surely is a tragic story in a distant part of the world. But it could become a tragic story in this country if people listen to the fear-mongers.

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The sorrows of Gaza

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The Gaza strip. It’s been in the news.

I’ve been there.

It was late March in 1982. I had joined a group of other journalists for a tour of Israel, southern Lebanon and desert territory south of Israel proper. That included Gaza, a tiny strip of land bordering the Mediterranean.

I should state here that with about 2 million people crowded on arid land 25 miles long and up to seven miles wide, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world.
It is also one of the poorest places on earth, with one of the lowest average income rates and highest unemployment.

From the tour bus, I mainly saw idle men and children sitting next to tiny, cinder block buildings. I also caught a glimpse of a few women hanging out wash. And lots of teenage boys.
And you wonder why such a desolate place spawns terrorists.

Here I am, many years later, after Israel had withdrawn, after a peace treaty with Egypt, after so many flare-ups between the Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

There is no peace.

As I write, Hamas, which tentatively rules Gaza, has rejected a cease-fire that Egypt has tried to broker. Hamas rockets now reach deep into Israel, mostly to be knocked down by Israeli missiles. Of course, the Israeli bombs and rockets have not only reached their targets in Gaza. They have killed more than 200 people. That includes dozens of children. Now Israeli troops have moved into Gaza.

For years, I wrote editorials for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and often proposed peace plans for Israel and the Palestinians. But now, long after my retirement, I follow the current news not with hope but with a sense of despair.

Here’s a part of the world that has so much rich, even inspiring history, especially for three major religions. Yet nobody seems to forget the bad stuff.

My group of journalists stayed at the King Solomon hotel in Jerusalem most days. It was a short walk to the Old City with its endless storefronts where Palestinian merchants would haggle with you over jewelry or beautifully embroidered women’s gowns. One merchant wanted to be sure I knew about the Israeli Irgun gang, led by Menachem Begin, that killed so many innocent Arabs. I only knew Begin as an Israeli prime minister.

Indeed on such a visit, you were constantly reminded of the edgy peace. On the rooftops in the Old City armed Israeli troops stationed themselves overseeing the parade of tourists ambling down the narrow streets. The region’s history bulges with memories of violence.

Palestinian merchants in the Old City wanted to tell me about how the Israeli troops drove out long-time Arab inhabitants of homes and lands Israelis claimed had been appropriated years before during earlier wars. I’m sure the merchants are still telling the same stories.

WesternWallHDRA visit to the surviving wall of Herod’s temple in Old Jerusalem darkened my mood. It’s not called the wailing wall for nothing. There, you’ll see religious Jews reciting prayers. And others insert messages between the cracks. If a tourist attempts to photograph the men, they quickly scatter, not wanting their image captured.

On the Temple Mount, two mosques invite an endless parade of visitors. At the one, you can see the mark left on the rock that tradition says is the footprint Mohammad left as he ascended to heaven.

Whether I was visiting with Israelis or Palestinians, they were determined to share their version of the history. For two hours at the Knesset, I listened to the legendary Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin take these American journalists on a tour of 20th Century Mideast. Of course, the wars were main features.

On the tour bus in Gaza, Palestinian youths gave us their version of the history. They threw rocks at our bus. No one was hurt. But we got the message: an angry people.

We visited museums, one of the Jewish diaspora. one of the Holocaust. After each visit, I felt overwhelmed by the endless recounting of sorrows. I didn’t have to guess about the rationale for the armed guards at various checkpoints throughout the country.

At the kibbutz we toured, more history. And an armed guard. At a sidewalk cafe in Tel Aviv,
more armed Israeli soldiers. At the Old Goliath bar, where I sang a few old standards, my last night in Israel, more soldiers on leave from duty at the Golan Heights.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read about the Peace Now movement among Israelis. I hope the group didn’t give up. To my knowledge, the Palestinians never had a major peace activist group. They had Arafat and the PLO.

No doubt, this current round of fighting between the Israelis and the Hamas Palestinians in Gaza will end in a cease-fire. I hope soon. But I can’t imagine a permanent peace between these two peoples. They’ve got too much hurt. Too many guns. Too many rockets. Too much history.

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