Saturday, December 5, 2015

Gently, slowly, change will happen

"Bend it slowly, gently, give the tree time to curve, let the fibers change shape. Slowly, gently". The women followed the instructions of Diane Maytwayashing and her partner, Girard as we guided the saplings to form the skeleton of the sweat lodge. This was to be the dwelling for the sweat ceremony on the second evening of the Grassy Narrows Women's gathering held at Slant Lake blockade site on Septemeber 25-28, 2015. 

The women were  using ancient building techniques to create a small room. Twenty tall birch saplings had been cut and tobacco offered as an offering to give thanks to Creator and  to the trees. Girard dug twelve small holes equidistant around a circle where the poles were pushed down deep. He guided us to begin bending each pole, two at a time to meet in the middle. Then the women tied strings of twine around both of the poles, creating an arch. Dianne and Girard kept reminding us," slowly, gently".

 I was pleased to be invited to join in the creating, the birthing of this lodge. It was amazing to see how a tall tree could be encouraged  with firm pressure to bend without breaking. I lifted my hand to help a woman with the last arch. I thought that I was being gentle and slow but shortly after I touched the tree there was a crack. The last pole was ruined.  I did not receive a reprimand but maybe there was a bit of a silent sigh. The women would need to go out again to find another tree of the same size, use an axe to strip off the branches and then try again to finish the whole sweat lodge before supper.

(Photo by  Torrii Cress)

We quickly found more saplings of the desired height and diameter and sawed  them down. The intersections were all tied and we could see the shape of the star formed by the arches coming together. The final step was to drape the dark brown canvas tarps over the frame. These would hold in the heat given off by red hot rocks, known as grandmothers.

The invitation for the Women's Gathering had stated,"All nations are welcome at the gathering. ". It happened that a CPT delegation had been planned for that exact weekend so we joined approximately 40 other people at Slant Lake, ten minutes from the community of Grassy Narrows. The women spent several hours of the day inside a very large wigwam that had been built with somewhat the same building techniques as the sweat lodge. The men stayed outside, chopping firewood and vegetables and minding the little ones as they wandered in and out of the meeting space.

At the first sharing circle our good friend Judy da Silva stated the guidelines of child care for the weekend. "This is a safe place for our little ones. So we will only stop them if they are in danger of hurting themselves or others. Everyone watch out for them."

It was thrilling to watch the children have control of the activities they wanted to do. The older ones had a turn at chopping wood and building fires. The little ones slept when they were tired and were laid down on a blanket within the circle, to wake up when they were ready. One little girl took the smudging medicines around and offered everyone another chance for cleansing. She imitated the drummers by taking the drum close to the fire to warm it. Her Kookum (grandmother) stood behind her and verbally helped her to be safe. "If you are feeling warm, so is the drum. It is time to move back a little so the drum does not get too hot."  There was no yelling or spanking or harsh reprimands, just guidance. It seemed the rule was "gently, slowly, give the little ones time to grow , to change, to learn". 

Before the delegation joined the gathering I had told them that the activities of the weekend were really a mystery to me. We talked about sitting and watching and listening and learning. If we had questions about what was appropriate for us we could talk to our partners who are very well acquainted with CPT delegates. We were given an equal place in the the sharing circle. Our turn to speak was listened to intently by all the women. We heard what all the women had to say: the very difficult in-depth stories of hardship and grief, and  the joyful stories of gratefulness for healing

On the last day, at the last circle, our leader gave words of wisdom to many in the circle. As she looked at the four of us who had come via CPT she told of her gratitude for us. She also gave the reminder  to  us to speak up and to act when we observe oppression. "Take your learning home with you but also learn your own faith well".  Over the three days we too were gently, slowly transformed. Gently, slowly, gradually curved, gradually changed.. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Political leaders stepping down graciously (and not).

On Monday my country, Canada, had an election. Most of the people I know, with some exceptions, welcomed this event. We were very tired of a leader who had created a Canada that we did not recognize anymore, one that removed protection from our rivers and lakes, who ignored the indigenous peoples, made the process of immigrating to this country more onerous and oppressive etc etc. We were hopeful that a new prime minister and cabinet would be better even if they were not perfect.

In Canada, a prime minister can run and be re-elected as many times as the people say yes. Steven Harper could have continued to be the leader until he died if the voters had chosen him to continue. However, the voters had had enough and turned out in numbers that had not been seen in 22 years. We heard of some polling stations that ran out of ballots because so many people came to express their dissatisfaction and desire for change.

Yesterday, two days after the election.  I was reading articles coming from Iraqi Kurdistan where I spend the other half of my life working with Christian Peacemaker Teams. In this region Massoud Barzani is the president.  Iraqi Kurdistan has the rule that a president can only stay in power for two terms or eight years.  He was first elected as president in 2005. He was re-elected in 2009 with nearly 70% of the vote. Then in August 2013 the Kurdish parliament extended the term for another two years, bringing the end date to August 2015.

At this point the opposition spoke loudly and clearly. It was time for Barzani to be gone. It was  time for change. The law also speaks to that in an succinct way. " The term of the president that expires on August 20, 2013 will be extended until August 19, 2015 and cannot be extended for a second time."
However, the KDP, Barzani's party is using the war with ISIS and difficulties in holding an election as reasons for keeping him in the office. with the full powers of the presidency.

The people are speaking. They have taken to the streets across the region,  protesting  and saying that Barzani must go. They also are asking for salaries that have not been paid in over three months.  However, the government has responded only with security forces and guns, killing 5 young men and injuring dozens of others. Then, on top of this they have beaten and restrained  journalists, trying to keep the news from reaching outside of the  region. And, they locked the opposition MPs  out from entering parliament, not even allowing them to enter the capital city, Hawler/Erbil.

"Peaceful Demonstration is our Only Way to awake you. 
Do you hear or see?" (October 20, Sulaimani)

The government workers (teachers, medical workers etc) have been
 demonstrating since 3 October. They have not received salaries in
 3 months. They have received their salaries very sporadically for two years.

As I grieve for the chaos that politicians have brought once again to the region and the Kurdish people that I love, I wonder what would have  happened here if Harper had refused to step down. What would my country do? What plans are in place to send an old prime minister on their way if they are standing their ground?  And  I am again made aware of my privilege to live in Canada where Harper publicly  said that it is time to leave and stepped down  to allow the new prime minister to take the leadership.

Gilbert Agabo , a permanent resident of Canada, originally from Rwanda,  reminded me and all readers of Metro Daily Newspaper of this yesterday  in his opinion article.  Read the whole article here.

"...what I was longing for was to participate in a democratic process that is peaceful, in every sense of the word.

As I mingled in a crowd of Liberal ....supporters, my mind couldn't stop rambling about what elections mean in other parts of the world.  Take Kenya, 2007. Following the highly contested residential elections, a dispute over the results erupted. People started attacking each other, and thousands lost their lives in the mayhem....

All along I was not expecting NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to come out and start accusing incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau of stealing their votes.  I knew Stephen Harper wasn't going to call in military forces in an attempt to cling to power.

But watching them deliver concession speeches, all smiles, almost brought me to tears..... It's still unreal for me to hear an incumbent leader admit that the people are never wrong, notwithstanding that they just turfed him out......

And I felt sad that, as  permanent resident, I couldn't cast a ballot that was peaceful-- in every sense of the word."

Right now, in Iraqi Kurdistan, my team mates are watching what is happening. They are standing with the people on the streets and telling the social media world what is happening.

Please consider joining CPT Iraqi Kurdistan in our work. One way you can do this is to provide resources for us to continue our work.Click here to donate to CPT on behalf of Iraqi Kurdistan team
**[ Note for Canadians. Unfortunately, because CPT's work is too political for the Canadian government we are not able to provide a tax receipt. Maybe this will change with the new government. We can only pray and hope.]

My team created this video telling about the current situation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Glimpses of Iraqi Kurdistan in summer 2015

I have now been back in North America since 6 August. I have moved through the re-entry staying in my house time, and began to move out more. Part of the way that I work through the sadness and mourning the loss of being in Iraqi Kurdistan is to look at my photos. I can remember the people I have sat with and laughed with and  spoken with for brief and longer times. This will be a selection of photos so you can meet some the people that I met and see some of things I saw on this stint- 19 May to 6 August, 2015. (Click on the first photo to see them in a larger format.)

The sun shone the whole time I was in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some people cover their vehicles to prevent sun damage and to try to keep them a little cooler. This cover reminded me of a 60's Volkswagen van. But when I got closer I saw....

 .......where the fabric came from. They must have bought the Ikea store out of the pattern!

 Our team visited the lovely village of Gulan, These little people peered out at me from behind their house gate. It is a good way to keep them out the rocky trail that can have cows and geese and goats travelling them an various times during the day.
There are wonderful fruit trees in Gulan. Here we were picking a small sour fruit that was a cross between a plum and a cherry.

People in the bazaar

Ice is very important to keep the  drinking water cold, cold  in the hot, hot summer heat. It is  bought in huge chunks and then broken into smaller pieces that fit into old freezers or small containers  that hold the 250 ml bottles of water.

 There are a few small shops that sell rugs and carpets made in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of them were created at least a decade before but they are still so beautiful and colourful.
 Most people who shine shoes to make a living are men but this young girl had set up her stand on the side of a laneway. She granted me a photo. The rubber sandals are ready to cover the feet of someone who might give her their shoes to shine.

 "Please take my photo", this young boy asked me. He sells larger plastic bags for 250 Iraqi dinars (20 cents) to try to make a living for him and his family.
 The people who live in nearby villages bring seasonal  produce, either picked in the wild or grown in their gardens, to the bazaar. They sit on the sidewalk with small scales and sell it to the city folk.

Around the main square are many booksellers. This man was utilizing some spare time
to peruse his merchandise.

Iftar (breaking the fast) on one evening during Ramadan

 The men take off their shoes before entering the mosque.
 I think they must be very secure  in where they place their footwear, in order to
quickly find them.

 Vendors selling their food and tea on the street
 Musicians gatherered around the instrument seller's blanket

 This girl was selling candy floss for a sugar boost.
I marvel at the security of a cloth placed over merchandise and how things do not get  stolen.

Cooling down in 45-50 C summer weather

The team went for a wonderful picnic by this river. This Kurdish couple seemed to enjoy
 fishing together in the cool water.

 Mohamed and Rezyar showed us how to wash the floors in the Kurdish way. First, you bring in the hose and flood the floor with water (or you could use a bucket of water).
Second, you use a large squeegee to push the water (and the dirt) out the door.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Quilt making in Iraqi Kurdistan

I began work with CPT in Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2011. Lukasz Firla came on team just a couple of weeks before me. We both entered Sulaimani in the midst of anti corruption demonstrations. As we could not leave the CPT house alone Lukasz and I bonded over nargila/hookah/waterpipe smoking and walking around the main square of Sulaimani speaking to the Kurds who came out in the thousands to demonstrate and to ask their government to change.

We spent many hours talking and getting to know each other. Thus we became close team mates and friends. When he and Carolina Rodriguez announced their engagement I knew I would need to create something to celebrate their marriage. I had plenty of opportunity to get finished.

First they were married in the civic office in Washington, DC (where Carolina had been attending university).

 Then, in summer 2014, they had a wedding in Czech Republic where Lukasz's family lives and where he spent most of the years of his life before coming to Iraqi Kurdistan. Fourteen year old  Jaco is also part of the new family.

Then in March 2015 during the Kurdish .New Year Festival, (Nawroz) they had a Kurdish celebration in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Latif who is a friend of the team and a lawyer presided .

Then finally,( I think), in the summer of 2015 they had a celebration in Colombia where Carolina's family lives and where she spent most of her life. Many of the team  members of CPT Colombia were able to join the party.

I was not able to join any of the weddings, but this summer I was again on team with Lukasz (just before the Colombia celebration). I decided to buy a simple sewing machine and to work on a small quilt for them. But all the new fabric on sale in the bazaar is not suitable for making quilts. So I had to work hard on how to find the resources for it.

I had bought  a duvet cover that seemed to be created with European quilting cotton. I thought that could be the base fabric for the quilt. But I needed other colours to co-ordinate with the pattern. So I spent one of my Friday days off to head to the second hand section of the bazaar. These stalls are full of textiles from Europe and  I thought it was possible to find more cotton. I dug deep in the two piles outside of this stall. and I was amazed to find the fabric that would work.

I did not have all my fancy tools for creating a quilt, so I used the old technique of tearing!! Then I had a cardboard template to try to make all the strips the correct length.  I decided to make it only two layers, without a batting in the middle. This would make it a cooler blanket that can be used in the spring and well as the winter. Also, I imagined that the family will not be staying in Iraqi Kurdistan forever, so it would be lighter to carry in suitcase.

I gave the quilt to them at the team party just before Lukasz left for a few weeks  in Europe. Even though  he had seen the quilt in the spare bedroom, I don't think that he knew it was for them.

Recently a new member joined the family. Mexica was a teeny, tiny kitten, far too young to leave her mother. However, the mom was gone. So this tiny critter came to live with Lukasz, Carolina and Jaco. I took this photo because she was in the middle of capturing a cockroach. Fortunately she does not have any mice to catch , but  she is an expert at catching and playing with the large bugs.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Not ever since World War II; so many people looking for HOME.

I sit in sunny Manitoba where the heat that people complain about is only 30 C. The trees and grass are green. Unlimited water pours  from every tap in my house. When I sweat I can decrease the thermostat on the kitchen wall  and the central air conditioner takes care of that problem.
  I have been home three weeks and  am now able to re-enter Winnpeg society. I no longer have to cocoon in my house unable to face the huge grocery stores and my friends who ask me how I am.  .Already I can go hours without even thinking of  the people I sat with in Iraqi Kurdistan. I am forgetting the heat and the sweat and the burning hot wind. I am forgetting the tears and pain of mothers sitting on the sidewalk begging with their eyes, families  in unfinished houses asking for a refrigerator so their water can be cool enough to drink  and people living in  flappy  tents that can fall down  in the blustery winds.  I am forgetting the father looking at his 21 year old son who is thinking of paying the money to a smuggler to try to get to a life worth living. I am forgetting the words, "what else can he do?"
I am really  trying to get be aware of  the injustice that is all around me here in sunny Manitoba. I am trying to read the face book posts about  mercury in water, oil pipelines being pushed through by politicians and a thousand and a half missing and murdered indigenous women . I am trying to see that there are so many people and so much  work here in my own land. 
But there are still the hours when I remember. When I read news of 70 people dying in a smuggler's truck because no one would open the doors. When I hear from my colleagues working on the island of Lesvos of ordinary people risking life and the breath of their children to get onto inflated boats trying to find a society who will embrace them and say welcome. I remember young men  with whom I  have sat at a table with a beer and discussed life and the universe and sometimes just silliness. These ones who have set off on the journey to Germany for $10,000. This was not a trip with a backpack poking around to discover the quaintness of  Europe. It was one where passport and computers were left behind and that held the question of whether it was safe to let loved ones know by a text or a Facebook post that they had reached another safe place along the way.
I cry, knowing that my offering to the people I sat with was so little. That many are living in tents with not enough water for basic needs , but that they know that soon  the winter rains and the thick mud will come.  They will still be in the tents because there is no place to go. Unless they say, "what else can we do?" and they will somehow raise the $10,000 per person  for the good smuggler and they will try to cross the razor wire and  the dogs and the men with guns and the  broad sea water to get to somewhere else. Where maybe they will find a dwelling that is  warm and dry  in winter and cool in summer.. Maybe they will find a tiny piece of land to plant tomatoes and  where  the children can play. 
A friend of mine posted this poem today. I could not read it all at once because the tears began to flow. Not since World War II has there been so many people fleeing, trying desperately to find a good  place to call home
 by Somali poet Warsan Shire:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won't let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What is our sin? What have we done?: the Yezidis remember.

Nine years ago this week the Spirit moved in my soul and will and I began the early steps of the journey toward working in Iraqi Kurdistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams. That afternoon I sat on a hillside in England with 15,000 people at the Greenbelt Christian Arts festival. During the Sunday service we remembered many who have been placed into slavery to meet the evil desires of people who considered themselves superior. We sang a protest song from the days of Apartheid in South Africa.   The words of  " Senzeni na? are translated "what have we done?;our sin is that we are black?; Our sin is the truth; They are killing us". At that moment  I recognized my privilege in having a life where I was able to live in peace and security.  In that moment my fear of the unknown was removed.  I knew I needed to step out of my comfort and privilege  to walk alongside to the best of my ability. .

 Three weeks ago I heard those words again. They continue to  ring in my head even now that I am back in my air conditioned home in quiet suburban Winnipeg. 

On August 3, my team mate and I attended the commemoration of one year  since the Yezidi genocide in Iraq. Our friend Sheik Shamu, a leader of the Yezidi community that lives in Arbat internally displaced persons camp, invited us to join the gathering at 11 am on that day. We entered the camp, greeting the guards who allowed us to pass.

We immediately saw the hand lettered signs attached to the tents in the area where the Yezidis live. Then we were met by three little girls, all wearing screen printed T-shirts. When Juliane asked if she could take a photo, one lifted a photograph up and held it sideways. The scene was one that little girls should know nothing about, but we knew that they had witnessed things that their little minds will never forget.

Photo: Juliane Assmann

 The event was held in the huge brick building that serves as a school during the year. Today it held all sorts of ages of the Yezidi community, as well as visitors from NGOs and politicians. Sheik Shamu noticed us very quickly and assured that we had seats alongside the mayor and other dignitaries. We received the bottles of water offered to everyone gratefully. There was no chance of a breeze entering the building and sweat was pouring in the 45 C heat.

 Sheik Shamu was one of the first speakers, presumably setting the stage for what was to follow. The Yezidis speak a different dialect of Kurdish than the one I was learning. I heard many recognizable words, but not enough to follow the speech.

Photo: Juliane Assmann

The program continued for over two hours. Young men and women came to the microphone to read poems and sing songs. The word, Shingal, came over and over again, and the tears flowed. It was not difficult to see that here was a people still in the centre of the trauma. They all seemed to be back in the middle of the days in Shingal when they were abandoned by the military who told them they had nothing to fear- just hours before ISIS/Da'ash entered the region and began the slaughter. They all seemed to be able to feel the burning sun and waterless days on Sinjar Mountain where they fled for their lives. And they all know someone, or many someones, who are still in slavery to the invading army. 

The most shattering point was when the invasion and genocide was re-enacted in a drama. I could not see past the journalists and TV photographers who surged forward to document it. But I heard the men dressed in ragged wigs and fake beards yelling, "Allah Akbahr" and the screaming of the children and women. And I could see the man sitting next to me desperately trying to cover his eyes with his notebook while plugging both of his ears. I was so glad when it was quiet again. The man then silently slipped away.

Just after noon Sheik Shamu's daughter went up to the microphone to read a poem. She was strong and eloquent as she told her story. Her voice broke as her composure was lost for a minute and the crowd gently clapped when she recovered and continued.

Photo- Juliane Assmann

 After she was done she came to the side of the room where I was sitting. I watched her  face as it crumpled and she began to sob, holding her scarf over her mouth. I ignored the activity on the stage as I wondered whether it was appropriate for me to go to stand beside her. Finally I decided that she needed someone so I got up, walked over and put my arm around her shoulders as she cried. I think that was OK as she later gave me a hug. 

 Usually we try hard to avoid the meal times as we know that food is scarce and it is a sacrifice to feed us. However, when the event was over we knew that we must accept the invitation to eat lunch with the family. We sat in the small room that houses Sheik Shamu, his wife and 5 children. The little ones warmed to our presence and began to have fun playing tickle games. 

The adults spoke again about the situation for their people. They told  of one family in the camp that has lost 36 members. They despaired for their daughter who needs to leave the country for treatment of a complex arm injury, but who can not find any place that will agree to give a medical visa.

 Sheik Shamu described one early morning when he followed their 2 1/2 year old's leading out into the camp. She insistently  told him to come to see where Da'ash had killed her friend. He was mystified until she took him to the wall of the International Red Cross Building that had been painted red.

 And they spoke of the next oldest who loves to draw, but who continually pencils monster looking drawings that she identifies as  Da'ash. 

 They told of their longing for a peaceful place to live, to be able to go back to life as it was just over a year ago in Shingal. But they know that this is an almost impossible dream, just as is the one to leave this country for Europe or Canada. 

It was then that I heard the question again, "what is our sin? What have we done? I could not speak out anything, although I knew what my answer would be. No, there is no sin. But I too question God as to why.