Friday, July 25, 2008

Wide eyes in the Big City

For those of you who have been clamoring (Mom) for a post about my week in New York City, I apologize for the delay. Life has not really slowed down long enough for me to gather my thoughts.

One of the first things I did was go to the World Trade Center site and the tribute center across from where the twin towers once stood.

I have wanted to do this for a long time. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there are still days when I say to myself, "Did that actually happen?" Sometimes it just seems too incredible to be real. New Yorkers and of course the families and friends of the victims have been living with the reality of what happened that day for the past seven years, and some people may even be tired of hearing about it, but I never saw the World Trade Center in person, so I probably never really confronted the event head-on.

The experience of being there overwhelmed me.

There is this giant empty place in the middle of downtown Manhattan surrounded by a covered fence so that people can't see inside. Tourists crowded around the site in the weeks and months following the attack, making it difficult for people to work and to mourn. The City is building the Freedom Tower and memorial, but it won't be completed until 2010.

I thought about that day and how it must have devastated so many people, not just because of the trauma of watching so many people die, but because of the loss of a sense of security. And it completely blows my mind to think about everything that has happened since that day, and the countless lives in America, Afghanistan and Iraq that have been affected in the aftermath.

The Tribute WTC Visitor Center was very powerful.

Visitors are led through a gallery of chronological images and sounds from 9/11 into a giant two-sided wall full of photographs, one each of the deceased. I was overcome with emotion and spent a lot of time in front of the wall, looking at all the faces.


On to other topics:

You can take the girl out of Montana, but you can't take the (Red Lodge) Montana out of the girl. My friend and fellow UM alumna Kim found time in her impossible investment banker schedule (notice above how exasperating life can be for someone working 24/7) for burgers (I had turkey) and beers (I had margaritas: 3) at the Boat Basin, this little shindig on the Hudson River. I almost, almost thought I was in Missoula.

I guess you really can find it all in New York.

Of course I had to check out Central Park on the hottest day EVER. I seriously almost melted right there. I don't know how the sunbathers in this field were not dying in the sweltering mid-day humidifier, but I walked as fast as I could to...

...the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Quite possibly the most enjoyable museum visit I've ever had--and not just because of the air-conditioning. This place has the most impressive collection of Impressionists I have ever seen. And hardly anybody there.

Times Square: tourists in one direction...

...cabs in the other. That's all I have to say about that.

On a whim, I went to the top of the Empire State Building one evening. And I am glad I did.

A tourist looks south, to the tip of Manhattan Island.

The northern view, with lights.

Thanks for putting me up in your place, Amy! You are the best.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Iraqi refugees in Cairo

I recently started working on a documentary project: Iraqi refugees displaced since 2003.

I am interested in this story for many reasons, but one of the strongest is the outrage I feel that the United States government has granted asylum to a pitiful few Iraqis. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United States resettled 300 Iraqis in 2003, 70 in 2004, 200 in 2005 and 200 in 2006. According to Refugees International, only around 2,000 Iraqis were slated for resettlement in the U.S. in 2007.

Roughly 2.5 million Iraqis are internally displaced persons (IDPs), that is, they were forced to leave their homes but are still living in Iraq, and another 2.5 million have fled Iraq since 2003. That's 5 million. (Duh.)

I wish my government would get with the frickin' program already!

The Iraqi family I have spent the most time with so far is the subject of this post. For now I am just going to refer to them by the first initials of their names, even though they said I could use their full first names.

A little background: H was living with his wife S and son K in his parents' home in a predominately Shiite area of Baghdad. K was born in 2002 and his parents soon discovered that his eyesight was very poor. He had eye surgery at the age of six months.

A few months later, the war began. K's surgeon fled the area, and he didn't see a doctor for the next two years. His eyesight continued to deteriorate.

The security situation in H's neighborhood, and throughout Baghdad, worsened dramatically as 2004 came to a close. H's brother was kidnapped. His car was blown up during a suicide car bomb attack. A friend was gunned down in the street. Al Qaeda left death threats on the doorstep of his parents' home. K, just 4 years old, witnessed two murders, traumatic experiences that continue to haunt him.

One day gunmen showed up at H's CD and cassette store. They kidnapped a co-worker and friend and looted the store. Blood was splattered everywhere, which H perceived as a death threat. H and K fled to Egypt in May 2005; S and a new baby, A, arrived one year later.

Egypt is not a good place to be a refugee. There are at least 500,000 Sudanese here, and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis, as well as Eritreans, Palestinians, Somalis and Congolese. Refugees often have trouble finding work, they receive little or no assistance from the government and their children are not allowed to attend public schools. Refugees are not integrated into Egyptian society. Egypt doesn't want refugees--the government has enough problems feeding and employing its own citizens.

H has been unable to find steady employment in Cairo. Adding to the family's isolation, H and S can't afford the 1900 Egyptian pounds (roughly $325) per semester for private school tuition. They can't even afford badly needed new glasses for K. And After visits with a dozen eye specialists, H and S have blown through their savings and are no closer to a cure for K. The numerous doctors have given different diagnoses and either can't or won't treat him.

In addition to K's eye problems, the family is suffering emotionally. Their sudden poverty, uncertain future, separation from family and lack of outside support have overwhelmed S, who says she sometimes feels hopeless. She and H also worry about K, who has frequent nightmares about what he saw in Iraq.

The family's attempts to seek asylum in the United States have stalled, and lately H has talked about returning to Iraq. He's running out of options.

H gently rouses K from sleep in the early afternoon. K is troubled by memories of violence he witnessed in Iraq and sometimes doesn't fall asleep until 3 or 4 in the morning. He saw two murders in Baghdad and is haunted by frequent nightmares.

K squints to see a picture drawn by an Iraqi family friend. K's eyesight is gradually worsening. The last eye doctor he visited said he needed stronger lenses in his glasses, his fifth new prescription.

When S has a quiet moment to herself, her emotions overwhelm her and she breaks down.

H tells K not to play soccer inside the apartment. K enjoys playing soccer with his dad, but sometimes can't see the ball. K said other children make fun of him. "I don't have one single friend," K said.

H entertains K by drawing him a marker moustache. The family spends most days alone inside the apartment.

S fixes lunch in the sparse kitchen, which she decorated with newspaper curtains to cover the plumbing. S and H lived a middle-class lifestyle at home in Baghdad. After three years in Cairo with very little work, their financial situation grows more desperate every day.

S rubs her face while H takes a call from Baghdad. "I am tired," S said. "It's not that I mind hard work. I work hard cleaning the house and taking care of the children everyday. But my mind is never still. I am always thinking about things and I am so very tired."

It is a nightly battle to prepare K for sleep. H and S try to calm his fears, comfort him, and make him feel safe. Recently H has talked about returning to Iraq, an idea that terrifies K.

S presses on K's chest, which tightens when he is afraid.

K got out of bed early in the morning to sleep next to H.

Back in the Mining City

Oh yeah, baby. I went home to Butte for five days.

It's kinda nice to go where people know you--where, for instance, the baggage handler greets you as you're getting off the plane. Also people stop at stoplights. That's kinda nice. My mom fixed all my favorite meals. My dad made sure he didn't have to travel for work that week. I also got to see my brother, aunt, grandma, and several very good friends.

I managed to fit the visit into my pre-fellowship travels. The Arthur F. Burns Fellowship starts July 22 with an orientation in Washington D.C. I also wanted to go to New York City to scope out some business-related stuff. Thus, while I was home, I actually worked a lot on my stinkin' portfolio in preparation for New York and D.C.

When I wasn't working though, I went to the National Folk Festival, which came to Butte for the first time. It was a weekend of great music and people came in from all over the West to attend. It was totally fun.

Nice boots.

Sigh. Dancing couples on the grass, guys dipping their partners.

For the uninitiated, that metal structure is a head frame. Beneath it is, or was, an underground mine. This head frame marks the Original Mine. Also the main stage for the Folk Festival.

Patrons at a nearby bar came out to see what all the fuss was about.

Dancers at the Silver Dollar Saloon, one of uptown Butte's many drinking establishments.

My brother Matt dances like crazy at the 'Dollar.

Look at these cool Ukrainian eggs! I found out how they make them at the Folk Festival. It's just like batik: they use wax to cover the places they don't want to dye. Purdy.

Me and Ms. Namrata Patel, taking in folk music and sunshine. She drove five hours from Spokane just to see little ole me! (She's not really a Spokanite. She's from Boston. Just fyi. ;) )

Who has prettier feet?

Nam makes fun of me and my hair-blowing-in-the-desert-wind picture.

My cousin Nate makes fun of himself.

My grandma, 92, tells me one of her stories. Isn't she sweet? My Aunt Mary drove her over from Bozeman just so they could see me. Thanks Aunt Mary.

My mom proofreads my portfolio. Thanks, Mom! Now everyone knows where I got my freckles...